Kitty went to school feeling unwell – by lunchtime she'd lost the use of her legs: TV host Lucy Alexander tells how a rare disease left her young daughter confined to a wheelchair
13:39 GMT, 5 August 2012
When Lucy Alexander’s daughter Kitty said she felt ill one morning, her mother assumed it wasn’t anything serious. After satisfying herself there was nothing amiss, Lucy dropped her seven-year-old off at school as normal and made a mental note to call at lunchtime to check on her.
But within an hour, staff had frantically tracked down the BBC1 Homes Under The Hammer presenter to tell her Kitty had collapsed. It turned out that she had developed transverse myelitis, a rare disease of the central nervous system.
The condition, which affects about 300 Britons a year, is the result of the immune system attacking healthy tissue. In Kitty’s case, her spinal cord was affected – and now she is wheelchair-bound.
Tenacious: Kitty with her parents and brother Leo. For any child, a diagnosis of paralysis is devastating but it was especially cruel for Kitty because of her natural sporting prowess
Some experts believe that it could be triggered by a simple viral infection, but the cause is unknown. If the spinal cord becomes inflamed, nerve signals from the brain to the body can be interrupted.
In some cases, symptoms of transverse myelitis appear slowly over several weeks, but in more severe cases the onset is sudden. Kitty remembers the initial phase as ‘like an anchor being dropped on my back’.
Lucy, 41, says: ‘When I arrived at the school, Kitty’s face was an almost unrecognisable grey mask – she looked as though she’d suffered a stroke.’
Although the presenter was understandably alarmed, at this point no one realised the severity of Kitty’s condition. She was taken to the A&E department at Kingston Hospital in South-West London, where doctors carried out a knee-jerk test, which shows whether the nervous system is functioning. They got no response from Kitty’s legs. ‘You could suddenly see the panic in their faces,’ recalls Lucy.
Kitty was taken by ambulance to King’s College Hospital in South London. After a series of MRI scans and further tests, the family received a diagnosis, although they felt reassured by doctors who told them that a third of children with the condition made a full recovery.
She was then transferred to nearby St Thomas’ Hospital, where she was given steroids to reduce the inflammation of the spinal cord, and put on immunoglobulin treatment, which can deactivate antibodies that cause the immune reaction.
Lucy Alexander on Homes Under The Hammer. The presenter was forced to take time off after Kitty fell ill
Lucy and her husband, former Wimbledon footballer Stewart Castledine, 39, barely left their daughter’s side for weeks, so Lucy’s parents looked after the couple’s son Leo, then four.
‘Homes Under The Hammer were utterly supportive and said there was no rush to come back,’ recalls Lucy. ‘My co-presenter Martin Roberts has two young children himself and I think it really hit home to him as a parent.’
Kitty’s condition later took a turn for the worse as the cold virus that may have triggered the condition progressed and she succumbed to pneumonia, spending a week on a ventilator in intensive care. ‘It was at this point that I thought she could die,’ admits Lucy.
Thankfully, Kitty pulled through, but as the steroids began to reduce the inflammation, the recovery everyone had been hoping for failed to materialise. The only movements in Kitty’s legs were spasms – it meant the messages from the spinal cord to the brain were confused.
In April 2010, two months after the onset of her illness, Kitty was deemed to be out of medical danger and was transferred to the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, North-West London, for rehabilitation. After eight weeks, the family decided the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire was more suited to her needs.
'She was incredibly athletic. It was her thing'
Kitty’s treatment there included intense physiotherapy and help with relearning day-to-day skills such as how to dress herself.
Dr Ming Lim, consultant paediatric neurologist at Evelina Children’s Hospital (part of St Thomas’), says: ‘Kitty was one of our more severe cases of transverse myelitis but we have seen some functional improvement and she’s been able to carry out some weight-bearing walking on splints. This isn’t common – it’s a reflection of Kitty’s guts and her parents’ motivation. She’s one of the most inspirational children we’ve seen.’
Kitty returned to the family home in Thames Ditton, Surrey, that summer to a surprise party attended by hundreds of family and friends. Neighbours also raised enough to pay for two standing wheelchairs, costing 2,500 each, and to send her to America for treatment.
For any child, a diagnosis of paralysis is devastating but it seems especially cruel for Kitty because of her natural sporting prowess.
‘She was incredibly athletic. It was her thing,’ says Stewart. Determined to find a new passion for Kitty, Lucy enrolled her at a drama group, and now she wants to act.
There is no known cure for transverse myelitis and Dr Lim offers a mixed picture for the future.
‘The traditional school of thinking says that if you’ve not recovered in six months to a year, you’re unlikely to recover at all,’ he says. ‘However, we’ve discovered that the nervous system can regenerate after more than a year has passed, and research has shown that physiotherapy can stimulate this. We’ll never cure it but we might repair it.’
Despite extensive tests, the cause was never determined in Kitty’s case, but Lucy says: ‘We don’t feel bitter, just very sad. There’s nothing we could have done to prevent it.’