Blogger paralysed after stroking a STRAY CAT on holiday

Blogger, 24, is left paralysed with a nerve-crippling illness after stroking a STRAY CAT on holiday in Portugal

  • Gemma Birch stroked the stray on an all-inclusive to Albufeira in July 2014
  • Started vomiting uncontrollably and became faint on the flight home
  • Stool tests found infection with bacteria campylobacter – often in raw chicken
  • Picked up infection from the cat after the animal rummaged through the bins
  • Later became paralysed from the hips down and unable to walk for a year  
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A social media blogger was left paralysed by a nerve-crippling illness that doctors fear she caught from a cat.

Gemma Birch, 24, of Southport, grew fond of a stray animal she named Catarina while on an all-inclusive holiday to Portugal in July 2014.

However, on the final day of her week-long getaway to Albufeira, Miss Birch started vomiting uncontrollably and became faint on the flight home. 

Miss Birch was rushed to Southport Hospital as soon as she landed. Tests of her stools revealed she was carrying the bacteria campylobacter – commonly found in raw chicken. 

After spending a week in hospital recovering from severe food poisoning, Miss Birch – who is a pescatarian – admitted to stroking the stray cat, which likely picked up the bacteria while rummaging through her hotel’s bins.

Thinking the ordeal was over, Miss Birch woke in the night days after returning home, unable to feel her legs. After being rushed back to hospital by her father, she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Left paralysed from the hips down, Miss Birch spent months in rehab while she relearned how to walk and was only back to her old self 14 months on from the incident.  

Gemma Birch, 24, was paralysed by a nerve-crippling illness doctors fear she caught from a stray cat while on holiday (right, before she became unwell) in Portugal in July 2014. The condition left her partially paralysed and unable to walk for a year. After months of rehab, she was only herself again 14 months later. She is pictured left in a wheelchair with her twin Jessica

Pictured earlier this month with a friend’s kitten, the cat lover admits she would let the cat into her apartment ‘as she followed us everywhere’, with Miss Birch stroking and feeding the stray

‘In July 2014 I went on holiday to Portugal and I fell in love with this stray cat who we named Catarina,’ Miss Birch said.

‘We let her into our apartment as she followed us everywhere. I stroked her and fed her milk.’

But by the final day of the holiday Miss Birch was unable to keep anything down and landed back in the UK so bloated she claims it looked like she was nine months pregnant.  

As soon as she got through passport control, Miss Birch rushed herself to hospital, where doctors claimed she had likely caught food poisoning from undercooked chicken.

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‘They found campylobacter in my stool but as I am a pescatarian and don’t eat chicken, they asked me if I had come into contact with animals, so I said yes,’ she said.  

Miss Birch’s food poisoning left her so severely dehydrated she was forced to spend a week in hospital hooked up to a drip before finally being allowed to go home.

‘It was a severe food poisoning reaction but I was infected from the cat,’ she said. ‘It’s assumed the cat rummaged through the bins and I picked up the infection that way.

‘I was getting weaker but the doctors just said it’s because I had a serious reaction to the illness, plenty of bed rest would make me better.’

Thinking she was on the road to recovery, Miss Birch’s health took a dramatic turn for the worse when she became unable to maintain her balance.

She visited her GP twice, who insisted she was just recovering from food poisoning. 

Miss Birch is pictured during the last few days of her holiday. It was on the final night she started vomiting uncontrollably. On the flight home, Miss Birch became faint and claims she looked nine months pregnant by the time she landed. She was immediately rushed to hospital

Once transferred to a neurology hospital, doctors realised the extent of the nerve damage in Miss Birch’s legs, which was spreading to her bowels and bladder. She is pictured in a wheelchair with her sister behind her. It is unclear who the child is sitting on her lap 

‘In the middle of the night I fell out of bed because I couldn’t feel my legs slide off,’ she said. ‘I just remember feeling like I was being dragged out of bed because I couldn’t feel anything.

‘When I sat up, I realised I couldn’t feel the carpet beneath my legs. I started scratching them and felt nothing. One of the scratches made my leg bleed and I didn’t feel anything.’

Miss Birch screamed for her father, who carried her to the car and rushed his daughter back to Southport Hospital. 

‘While in the waiting area, I Googled “food poisoning, numbness, weakness” and GBS came up,’ she said. ‘I showed my dad and we knew it was that. The doctors in the hospital agreed, and tests proved I had it.


Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its nervous system.

It affects around one in 100,000 people in the UK and US.  

Symptoms usually start with a tingling sensation in the leg, which may spread to the arms and upper body.

In severe cases, the person can become paralysed.

The condition can be life-threatening if it affects a person’s breathing, blood pressure or heart rate.

GBS’ cause is unknown, but it usually occurs after a viral infection. The NHS states campylobacter infections have been known to trigger GBS. 

There is no cure.

Treatment focuses on restoring the nervous system. 

Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke 

‘The next day, I was paralysed from my hips down. I couldn’t do anything independently. 

‘I had to rely on nurses to take me to the loo and wash me. I lost control of my bowels and bladder and I couldn’t use my arms or hands because they were so weak.

Miss Birch was given immunoglobin therapy – antibodies into the blood to fight infection – for two weeks to stop her GBS getting worse.

She was then transferred to the neurology hospital Walton Centre, where she stayed for three months.  

While at Walton, doctors discovered GBS had damaged the nerves in Miss Birch’s legs and was spreading throughout her body. 

‘GBS is when your body doesn’t know what to do with the infection, so it kills off everything it can, leg and arm tissue and muscle,’ she said.

‘If you don’t receive treatment quick it will affect other muscles like your bladder and bowel, which happened to me.’

Miss Birch was again transferred to St Helen’s Rehabilitation Hospital, where she spent four months relearning how to walk and use her arms.     

A year on, Miss Birch was able to walk independently and after 14 months she was finally back to her old self. However, she still feels the effects of her illness.

‘Whenever I have an infection or injury, it affects my nerves and tingling sensations, numbness and weakness occur,’ she said. 

Pictured before the ordeal, Miss Birch went from being a fun-loving young woman to ‘relying on nurses to take her to the loo and wash her’ while she could not move her limbs

Miss Birch (pictured stroking a friend’s cat before she went on holiday) says she will never pet a stray again but will not let the ordeal put her off cuddling up to the domestic animal 

And the ordeal has put her off befriending stray cats for life. 

‘As much as I love them, I couldn’t touch a stray cat now,’ Miss Birch said. ‘I love pet cats and would stroke them as I would [and] hope they haven’t rummaged around hotel bins.’

Although her university tutors suggested she defer a year, Miss Birch was determined to complete her psychology degree as planned and graduated alongside her twin Jessica.    

‘When I managed to get my head around what was happening, I was able to watch my lectures through PowerPoint and do my own research,’ she said. ‘I was also talking to my tutor a lot through email.’

Miss Birch is speaking out to inspire people to enjoy every day.

‘I don’t want people to wait until they have a negative life experience to appreciate life and live in the present,’ she said. ‘I hope my story inspires people to appreciate everything they have.’ 

Pictured while in a wheelchair, Miss Birch managed to raise a smile throughout the ordeal and is speaking out to encourage others to appreciate their lives. It is unclear who else is pictured

Pictured on crutches surrounded by friends, it took Miss Birch a year before she could walk unaided. Although recovered, she still feels weak and ‘tingly’ if she gets run down

Miss Birch (pictured on holiday) was enjoying the getaway before it took a turn for the worse

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