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Thrill-seeking teen abseils to thank hospital

Posted on Monday 10th October 2022
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A teenager who was left paralysed due to a rare condition has taken on a daring challenge to thank Evelina London Children’s Hospital after making a full recovery.

Alex Jeffery, 18, from Greenwich in south east London, abseiled 160 feet down St Thomas’ Hospital in London to raise money for Evelina London.

Alex was inspired to take on the charity challenge after receiving lifesaving treatment at Evelina London for acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM).

The condition affects the brain and spinal cord and caused Alex to lose movement in her lower body.

She was transferred to Evelina London in February 2018 from her local hospital after becoming seriously unwell.

Alex said: “When I was 13 I became ill very quickly with a severe headache, stabbing pains in my spine and extreme fatigue. I was struggling to walk so I went to A&E at my local hospital. At the time they thought I was suffering from severe dehydration so I was sent home to recover.

“The next day I couldn’t move my body and I was seeing double. I went back to A&E with my parents and the nurses recognised me from the day before and could see how much I deteriorated. I was admitted and luckily my symptoms were recognised by the registrar and I was quickly diagnosed with ADEM.”

The doctors at Alex’s local hospital called Evelina London for advice and she was transferred there for specialist treatment.

She said: “When I arrived at Evelina London I was taken to the high dependency unit. I became aware of how bad things were when I had a lumber puncture to confirm the diagnosis and I couldn’t feel the needle going into my spine. I was having problems with my breathing and the doctors were concerned that I might need to be ventilated and taken to intensive care. It was a very scary time and I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to walk again. 

"After a week at Evelina London I slowly started making progress and tests thankfully showed that there was no permanent damage to my body. I received lots of support from the physiotherapy team and had regular sessions on the ward to regain movement and strength in my lower body. At first I was only able to wiggle my toes but by the time I left Evelina London I was walking with crutches.”

Alex spent almost four weeks at Evelina London before being discharged back home to finish recovering. She has regained all movement in her lower body and is able to walk without crutches.

She said: “I’m so grateful to Evelina London. The hospital saved my life and if it wasn’t for them I may never have been able to walk again. Taking on the abseil challenge was my way of saying thank you. As soon as I was discharged I wanted to do something to raise money for Evelina London.”

Alex is captain of the Kent sailing team and recently won the National School Sailing Association President’s Award, which recognises exceptional contribution to youth sailing.

She said: “I started sailing with my dad when I was two years old. It’s a big hobby for me and it’s what I was most worried about not being able to do when it was unclear if I was ever going to walk again. I was back sailing a month after I was discharged from Evelina London and it was such an amazing feeling being out on the water again.”

“Doing the abseil was a perfect fit for me as it’s a bit similar to sailing as I sometimes go up the mast and I don’t mind heights. The abseil was amazing. I had so much fun and knowing I was raising money for an important cause made it even more special.”

Alex is currently on a gap year and is volunteering with the Riding for the Disabled Association.

Dr Ming Lim, a consultant neurologist at Evelina London, said: “Alex has made a remarkable recovery.

"We are very thankful for her fundraising and we are so pleased that she is doing well and is sailing again. ADEM is a very serious condition that can lead to life-changing complications and can even be fatal if it’s not treated in time. The condition can be triggered by viral and bacterial infections or result from an inherent problem with the immune system and usually affects children and young people. At Evelina London we have specialist teams who know how to treat rare conditions like this.”

The St Thomas’ Abseil took place on Friday 23 and Saturday 24 September.

Abseilers could choose to raise money for one of the following charities: Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity, Evelina London Children’s Charity or Guy’s Cancer Charity. The event raised more than £240,000 for so far.

Donate to Alex’s fundraising.