Virus left me paralysed... but I never gave up

Ahead of the Cork Jazz Ball in aid of Spinal Injuries Ireland, CHRIS DUNNE talks to a young Passage woman who sought out support from the organisation after a virus left her paralysed
Virus left me paralysed... but I never gave up
Ruth Shaw, in Douglas. Picture: Larry Cummins

INSTEAD of planning her 40th birthday party five years ago, Ruth Shaw had another, more daunting project to face. She had to learn to walk again. A viral infection, Transverse Myelitis, had rendered her limbs helpless.

“June 26, 2013, is a date forever etched in my mind,” says Ruth, from Passage West, who works in retail.

“I was back home from a shopping trip to the Kildare Village outlet centre,” says Ruth, who is a follower and a fan of fashion, working part-time in the Douglas boutique, ‘itsome’.

“I went to bed around 11pm or 12am,” says Ruth. “My legs started to shake and I had severe back pain which was unusual.”

What was a minor thing turned into a catastrophe.

Transverse Myelitis is extremely rare, published incidences are one to five in a million.

“I had no power through my right leg and that feeling spread to my left leg,” says Ruth.

“I thought it was bizarre, but I didn’t think that it was anything serious.”

Aware her mother might worry if she alerted her, Ruth rang her brother, John, at 6am.

“He has taken every step with me,” says Ruth. “John took me to CUH where I had to use a wheelchair. I had numerous blood tests done and an MRI.”

What was going through her head then?

“I imagined had tumours or maybe MS,” says Ruth. “Either way, I knew I was in trouble.”

Ruth Shaw, who is living in Passage.Picture; Larry Cummins
Ruth Shaw, who is living in Passage.Picture; Larry Cummins

Ruth had contracted the neurological disorder, Transverse Myelitis, a viral infection causing inflammation to the spine and interrupted messages to the brain.

She was in big trouble.

“From T10, the vertebrae at the base of the spine, I was paralysed,” she says.

“My bowel and bladder shut down. It was a 50/50 chance if I’d make it or not. The more sudden the onset of the virus, the worse the recovery process.”

What was the next process for Ruth, who was in a daze from the unexplained paralysis that had struck her body?

“I was given an intravenous drip with steroids to reduce the inflammation,” she says.

She was reduced to a helpless infant again.

“I was like a baby, the damage to my legs was immense,” recalls Ruth. “I had to have intensive physiotherapy for two hours every morning.

“I had a colostomy bag and I had to wear pads. I should have been planning my 40th birthday bash.”

Instead, Ruth had a major battle ahead of her.

“No-one knew how to react,” says Ruth. “I didn’t know how to react. The neurologist said my recovery was 95% mental and 5% physical.”

Ruth got battle-ready.

“I went from using a wheeled gutter frame to two crutches to two walking sticks, then to one walking-stick unaided.”

It was an uphill battle, requiring steely determination and a can-do attitude. Ruth had both in spades.

“I didn’t want to go to the NRH (National Rehabilitation Hospital),” says Ruth. “My physiotherapist advised that I should. It was the right decision. I got the tools there that I needed to try and recover.”

But the journey back to health and mobility seemed never-ending.

“There were some very dark days,” admits Ruth. “The rehabilitation I had to go through was very tough and it was very daunting. It tested me to the limits. The panic was often unbearable, it was horrendous.

“Some days I felt like screaming with the pain. I learned to cope with the coping mechanisms I learned. I knew that I was one of the lucky ones.”

She had people cheering her towards the finish line.

“My brothers and my sister were really supportive,” says Ruth.

“I knew if they fell apart, then I’d fall apart. My mum, who is 84, never cried. She is from a tough generation!”

And the determined, tough family trait saw Mrs Shaw’s daughter rally slowly, but surely.

“Every day was a physical challenge,” says Ruth.

She rose to that challenge.

“I was used to getting up every day, putting on my make-up and going to work,” says Ruth.

“In the NRH, I wondered why the psychologist didn’t come near me when she saw everyone else. One day I asked her and she said, ‘But you get up every morning and get ready for the day! That is a very good thing’. They were the first steps on the road to recovery.

“I found a strength of character I never knew I had,” says Ruth. “I never gave up. My life had turned upside down just out of the blue. A nurse had to wash me, I was so weak. But I picked myself up again and again.”

Ruth Shaw is grateful for the support she receives from Spinal Injuries Ireland.Picture; Larry Cummins
Ruth Shaw is grateful for the support she receives from Spinal Injuries Ireland.Picture; Larry Cummins

And she kept her game face on.

“When the neurologist woke me up every morning to go through the gruelling exercise regimes, I was always smiling,” says Ruth.

“I had a complete mask fronting the feeling that deep-down, I was falling apart. It was a roller-coaster of emotions.”

She dug down deep into reserves she never knew she had.

“You realise what you can and cannot do,” says Ruth, who today has driven herself from her home to meet me, and who looks a million dollars.

“You learn to live a different way.”

This remarkable lady certainly has learned to live a different way, with some help from her friends.

“My first contact with Spinal Injuries Ireland was when I was a patient in the NRH,” says Ruth.

“At home, I was put in contact with Outreach officer, Phillipa, who has been a great help to me. She sorted out my disability as

well as benefits and grants.

“In particular, she got me a HSF grant for 10 physiotherapy sessions. Mostly, Phillipa is a friend and she understands my needs. Just even to meet for a cup of tea and a chat is great,” says Ruth.

“Knowing she’s there when days are tough is so important to me.”

Ruth still puts a brave face on things. “My boss, Vicky, told me to try and come back to work and see how I get on,” she says.

“I was a bit anxious and nervous meeting people, now that I have a bad limp. Sometimes I’m a bit wobbly, and I imagine people may think I am drunk!

“I went to work five hours one week, then little by little, I increased my hours to 10 hours, and then to 20 hours. It is tiring, but I love working in the boutique. It is a lifeline. It is me.”

Ruth discovered a lot about herself getting back on her feet.

“I decided to fight this,” says Ruth.

“Five years on, this is as good as I’ll get. People still say to me; how did you do it? I went back driving an automatic car. I used to love power-walking. John brought me here to the pool at Rochestown Hotel, and I loved it. I use the stationary bike most days. And I do stretching exercises every morning. They are very important for balance.”

Is she in pain?

“Yes, the constant pain is something I have to learn to live with,” says Ruth. “Pain management is a big thing.”

She has learned to live her life a different way.

“I know I won’t go back to where I was,” says Ruth.

“But I am very lucky to get to where I am now in comparison to others who suffered a spinal injury. I was unlucky but lucky. The paralysis could have spread to my lungs. I take the negatives out of the positives.”

And she shall go to the Ball.

“It is a fantastic event held in Cork by SII,” says Ruth. “My confidence is coming back, little by little. I think I’ll be ready to go to the Ball next year.”


The Cork Jazz Ball in aid of Spinal Injuries Ireland takes place in the Clayton Springs Hotel on Saturday, October 27. Prosecco reception, four-course meal with wine. Prizes, music by Thank Funk and dancing.


SII helps 221 people and their families in Cork and 1,800 nationwide.

SII provides a range of services to people living with spinal cord injuries, (SCIs), including its Community Connect service whereby a Community Outreach Officer visits clients in their homes to offer active support and goal setting along with providing up-to-date information on applying for grants.

SII provides a Peer Mentoring service which links volunteer peer support mentors with people living with spinal cord injuries in their local area.

SII also provides a Family Support service which provides support to family members directly. This is a separate service that SII provide in addition to offering support to the person with a spinal injury.

For more see

More in this section

Sponsored Content