‘Medical mystery’ Alanis refuses to give up

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Alanis Fisher had a great vantage point from which to watch last year’s fireworks.

It turns out you can see a lot of the night sky from the children’s ward at Queen Alexandra Hospital.

But nothing could beat the excitement she felt at celebrating bonfire night at home this year – even if the view over Gosport wasn’t as great.

Twelve months ago Alanis was desperately ill in hospital after a viral infection left her sick and unable to walk.

Today she’s still suffering from the after-effects, but she’s back on her feet again, has returned to school and is looking forward to the future.

‘She’s been so brave throughout the whole thing,’ says mum, Mel Fisher.

‘She’s amazed everyone.’

Alanis had just started her first year at Brune Park Community College when she began feeling unwell.

The youngster was just starting to experience her first taste of independence and was enjoying going out more with her friends.

When she was hit by what felt like a heavy cold, Mel wasn’t particularly worried. But as Alanis, 12, began to complain about balance problems, alarm bells started to ring.

‘She kept saying she was walking to the left,’ remembers Mel. ‘She felt as if she was off balance and she kept tripping up.

‘We went to the doctor and he said he thought it was possibly an ear infection and to go back in a week if it hadn’t improved. It didn’t improve and her school became a bit concerned as well.

‘When we went back to the doctor they didn’t know what it was. There was no sign of an ear infection so they sent us to the hospital. They did lots of tests, including a lumbar puncture and an MRI scan.

‘She felt quite poorly but she was really brave and didn’t complain.’

The scan revealed a misty patch on her cerebellum – the section of the brain responsible for controlling movement and co-ordination. Alanis had picked up a viral infection and the swelling it caused was called cerebellitis.

Once doctors had discovered what was wrong, they began to treat her symptoms. Alanis was sent home but over the next few days she continued to get worse.

‘By now she could hardly walk at all and her balance was even worse,’ says Mel. ‘The following week she started being sick. It was continuous, she couldn’t even lift her head up. We rushed back to hospital and that’s where she stayed for the whole of November.

‘Her signs were really bad, she couldn’t walk or talk for about nine days. They put her on a drip and by this time we were all really concerned.

‘The hospital had never seen a case like it and we were all worried because she was semi-unconscious. She looked so frail lying there. Everyone was worried but she didn’t really know we were there.

‘They got in touch with the neurologist at Southampton because they were concerned about her being sick.

‘All they could do was treat her symptoms.’

The family’s normal routine came to an abrupt and sudden standstill. With Alanis in hospital and Mel at her side, younger sister Laila, 11, went to stay with her gran, Sue Forehead.

Attached to a drip, Alanis was given anti-sickness medicine as doctors tried to stabilise her. She was eventually allowed to leave hospital in December but needed to be in a wheelchair because her balance was still so poor.

‘We questioned if she would ever make a full recovery,’ recalls Mel. ‘When we were in hospital they contacted Great Ormond Street to see if they’d heard of a similar case and the nurses called her their medical mystery.

‘She’s continued to have physiotherapy but she’s still been left with balance and co-ordination problems. She didn’t go back to school until February.

‘We’d never heard of anything like this and it just seemed to come from a cold, it was so out of the blue.

‘The worst point was in November when she was so poorly. We all thought we were going to lose her. Everybody was so frightened. No-one knew where it had come from.’

Brave Alanis can’t remember most of the time she spent in hospital but says: ‘I was a bit frustrated and then I got used to it. I was a bit fed up.’

While she was in hospital, Alanis had physiotherapy every day but had to learn how to walk again. At times just lifting her head up proved to be too difficult.

‘It was awful,’ adds Mel. ‘I felt bad for Laila but she’s a star. My mum would come and bring her into hospital.

‘When Alanis was really bad it was hard for Laila to see her like that. We all questioned whether she was going to get better.’

Alanis now gets lots of help and support from her school. She still sees a consultant at QA every six months but for now it’s just a case of wait and see. She’ll soon have a weekly physiotherapy session at school and has a home programme of exercises to follow.

‘At first they were all very much saying that she’d make a full recovery,’ adds Mel. ‘As time went by it’s what she’s been left with as a result of the virus. The infection has gone. It’s left some damage on her cerebellum but the brain is still young and developing.

‘Now it’s just a case of keeping going with the physio and hoping it makes a difference. Any improvement will be a bonus. ‘Most of the time she’s quite happy she copes pretty well. She’s a fighter. She’s supposed to use a frame to help her walking but she doesn’t want to use it. She doesn’t give up. She always picks herself up.

‘She had to learn how to walk again. Her speech has been affected, it’s almost like it has damaged her brain. The cerebellum controls all of the brain’s balance and co-ordination. She’s made amazing progress in a year but it’s left her with some problems and that has affected her confidence.’

Part of the family’s struggle has been a lack of information about Alanis’s condition. There’s no support group for those who have been through a similar thing and the Fishers are desperate to find others who know what it’s like.

At the beginning, Mel scoured the internet for information but because cerebellitis is so rare, she couldn’t find anything.

‘It would be nice to find a support network, to just speak to another parent or for Alanis to have someone her own age who has been through it because there really isn’t anyone to talk to,’ explains Mel. ‘We might be able to help other people who are going through it.’

In time, Alanis hopes she can make a full recovery. There are still some things she can’t do but going back to school has been a great help.

‘I like being at school,’ she says. ‘They help me when I need help. Just being in school makes me happy.

‘I missed everything, especially PE and dancing.’

Mel adds: ‘I just can’t believe what’s happened. They thought it was an ear infection, then you’re thinking meningitis.

‘Even now I can’t believe what’s happened. We’d never heard of anything like it. She’s done amazing. She’s come such a long way.

‘Last Halloween we were pushing her around in a wheelchair. This year she got dressed up and had a great time.’