SUFFERING with blurred vision and a headache, Annabelle Moult put it down to overdoing it at a party the night before.
When she started feeling pins and needles in her legs, she just thought she needed a good night’s sleep, but when she woke in the middle of the night, she collapsed onto the floor and couldn’t move.
Her husband Danny, 38 head of operations at a fashion company, carried Annabelle, now 39, from Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire, out to his car, and drove her to hospital where she underwent tests.
Within three days, Annabelle had lost her sight and was paralysed from the waist down.
She had Neuromyelitis Optica, a rare condition where the immune system damages the spinal cord and the nerves of the eyes – but it took two years to get a diagnosis.
“I was out with my friends on a Friday night in September 2007, having fun and living life.
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“I had a headache the next day, and this persisted into Sunday. My vision had started to blur too,” Annabelle explained.
“Then the tingling in my legs started. I went to bed and woke in the night for the loo, but my legs gave way and I screamed for Danny to help and we went to hospital,” Annabelle said.
“I rapidly went downhill, and couldn’t move my legs; I was paralysed. I then lost my eyesight.
“A brain scan showed swelling, and a doctor told me I’d never see again. But they couldn’t explain it. I was petrified.
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“I’d gone from being a hockey-playing, gym-loving, independent 25-year-old who didn’t have to rely on anyone, to being severely visually impaired and paralysed, not being able to leave my house alone. My whole world changed.”
At Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, Annabelle was given steroid medication to reduce the swelling in her brain.
She also threw herself into physiotherapy and began learning to use a wheelchair.
She was discharged in February 2008, to live in a converted room in her parents' garage with Danny.
Before being discharged, her eyesight gradually improved, going from blackness to grey, then a blurry outline.
Her weight ballooned from 10st to 18st due to the steroids – and she told Danny she would understand if he no longer loved her.
"I told him if he didn't want to stay with me, I wouldn't hold it against him. But he gave me a smile and said, 'I'm staying'.
“I went back to work part time. I refused to let my wheelchair become some sad, lonely prison.
“Instead, Danny and I went on our planned holiday to Jamaica.
“Danny had to carry me to the pool every five minutes, but he didn't complain once.”
LIVING LIFE TO THE MAX
Back at home, Annabelle had to learn how to do “all the basics” again, such as getting dressed, going to the toilet, and washing herself.
She said although worried about her, her family and friends were incredibly supportive, and vowed to help her live her life to the fullest – taking her on days out and on holidays.
For the next year, Annabelle underwent further tests including two lumbar punctures, a plasma exchange where they take all of the white blood cells and replace them with new ones, MRIs and a blood test nearly every day for six months.
She described herself as a “pincushion” but there was still no diagnosis.
It wasn't until 2009 that doctors explained that Annabelle had the rare autoimmune condition called neuromyelitis optica.
However, she was told it wasn't clear what had caused it, or if she would ever get better.
By the time Annabelle had her diagnosis, she’d already been out of hospital for 18 months – learning to live life as normally as possible. She was also still taking steroid medication.
“The diagnosis didn’t make too much of a difference as I’d already been out of hospital and learning to adapt with my new life.
“But it was almost a relief as it meant I could get further information, help and support without being an unknown entity.
“The weight was piling on from the steroids and I was just trying to cope with this new life of living visually impaired and in a wheelchair.”
Annabelle said she felt as though she couldn’t move forward until she came off the steroids, due to the side effects.
In 2011, she was told she could stop taking them and felt “instantly better”.
“I just had to get my head down and move forward. Of course there are still darker days and more difficult days.
“A transfer from my wheelchair can be more difficult or I might have a fall because I'm not concentrating on what I should be.”
'FAT TO FIT'
Keen to get back into fitness and feel as healthy as possible, Annabelle started meditation as well as cooking, listening to audiobooks and journaling, which she found helped her mental health.
Prior to her illness, she was very active playing hockey, horse riding and regularly going to the gym, so getting back into fitness was top of her list.
She’s since found adaptive workout videos and online classes that have helped make her journey easier.
She has gone from “fat to fit in a wheelchair”, thanks to practising Qigong, yoga, pushing laps, HIIT classes, and body strengthening and has lost 8st since stopping medication.
She said: “There were a few hurdles along the way; getting a routine and the motivation was hard due to my increased weight gain at first, but once I had built it as a healthy habit and daily routine, it became easier.
“I tried to exercise a few times a week at first and now I exercise daily.
“My weight loss has been an ongoing thing. I’m still not at goal weight as it’s so much harder to lose the weight in a chair. But it’s an everyday practice!
“Discovering exercise and holistic alternatives has helped my recovery tremendously.
“It has made me a lot more connected to my body. But it has also given me a stronger mindset too.
“I don't take anything for pain relief anymore and I’ve been dealing with it by using my alternative therapies instead of medicine.
“I was willing to try anything and everything to help and it’s just been a case of trial and error and finding out what works best for me.
She said: “I’m still in pain every day from my bra line downwards, and sometimes it extends to my whole body.
“There’s numbness and it's sort of like pins and needles and a constant prickly pain. Some days can be worse than others.”
The key is to have a positive mind and a strong mindset to keep moving
Annabelle was also adamant her condition wouldn’t stop her from living life and travelling, visiting everywhere from Hong Kong and Sydney, to South Africa and Japan.
“I was determined to still travel and refused to let my new condition stop me. It was different as all of a sudden I had to rely on other people for everything.
“For example, being able to transfer in and out of the aircraft, getting into the seat on the plane and then being sat in one position for eight hours.
“And some hotels say they’re accessible, but that’s not always the case.
“In Jamaica, I had to be lifted into the shower each day and there wasn't any kind of pool assistance, so I had to be lifted in and out.”
“But I was determined and it’s just about learning to adapt with my changes and we’ve now travelled all over the world!”
Keen to help others, Annabelle is an ambassador for NMO UK – a charity supporting individuals with Neuromyelitis Optica – and has helped to mentor others in similar situations.
In January 2020, she left her job in operations and started mentoring, helping others to cope with life changes and empowering them to transform their lives.
She also shares her journey online on Instagram belleswheels_bewell and Facebook Belles Wheels.
Annabelle said: “This is a horrid illness and despite it being quite unknown, there are so many people suffering worldwide.
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“I want people to believe in themselves and understand that while there will be dark days, learn from them and grow, to become the best version of yourself.
“The key is to have a positive mind and a strong mindset to keep moving. I won’t let my wheelchair stop me, so you shouldn’t either!”
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