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BODY TALK: Airline accident robbed me of a future A metal smoke hood crashed on me; A CABIN INCIDENT AFTER TAKE-OFF LED TO YEARS OF SUFFERING FOR HIGH-FLYING BIANCA BY HILARY FREEMAN.

Byline: HILARY FREEMAN

LIFE could hardly have been better for air stewardess and model Bianca Embley. But a freak accident ended with the 28-year-old from Leamington Spa, Warwicks, sick, unable to work and fighting a court case.

AT 21, my life was great. I'd been modelling since I was 14 and after studying drama decided to become an air stewardess for Virgin.

I loved the job: I spent two years flying to long-haul destinations, including New York, Hong Kong and South Africa, seeing the world and partying with the crew.

I helped Virgin with promotions, too, modelling their clothing range and attending corporate dinners. I loved every minute of being a stewardess. And I never felt tired even after a 14-hour shift spent mostly on my feet.

But on January 31, 1998, my world fell apart. I was on a homebound flight from New York, strapped into my seat for take-off.

As the plane tilted upwards, a heavy metal smoke hood - a piece of emergency equipment stored above my head - came crashing down on me, hitting my head and smashing into my neck and left shoulder.

For a second I blacked out, then came round feeling dizzy, sick and in absolute agony. Imagine if a microwave oven fell on you - that was the weight of the smoke hood.

I had intense bruising and took a week off work. When I returned I was far from recovered. I was in constant agony and felt exhausted and tearful.

From the moment that smoke hood fell on me until now, there hasn't been a single moment when I haven't been in pain.

It's miserable - a deep, burning pain all over my body that can get particularly intense in my arm or leg for hours at a time.

For the next nine months I felt worse and worse. Sometimes I couldn't even carry my case on to the flight. I stopped going out with the crew (I was usually in bed by 8pm), and then one day I collapsed on a flight and was grounded. Not being able to fly was devastating. After a month my condition had become so bad that I was forced to leave London and move back in with my parents. Virgin had put me on unpaid leave, so I didn't even receive sick pay. And three months later I reluctantly handed in my notice.

I had MRI and CAT scans but nothing showed up. Finally, in February 2000, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic condition of pain and fatigue. I'd never heard of it.

Finding out there was no cure was upsetting, but I did research on the internet and learnt about treatments, discovered who the best specialists were and where to find pain clinics. I tried physiotherapy, acupuncture and osteopathy, but none of them helped. By the end of 2002 I could only walk on crutches and had to use a wheelchair.

The doctors said it had developed as a result of my in-flight accident and I realised I could pursue an accident claim against Virgin. The smoke hood that hit me should have been held securely on a bracket.

I found a solicitor and began a three-year battle.

During the trial I was cross-examined for three long days - a harrowing experience. My modelling pictures were handed around in an attempt to belittle me. Virgin had employed undercover agents to sit outside my house and video me for over a year, to make sure I wasn't lying about my disability. All they showed was how ill I was.

In May 2004 Virgin agreed to give me pounds 350,000 to make up for lost earnings and my pension, plus costs.

Last summer I spent pounds 25,000 seeing a top US specialist. I had injections in my neck and shoulder, physiotherapy and painkillers.

It has eased the overall pain and I'm now able to get off my crutches, but it's not a cure and I'm still in pain every day.

I've started a support line for the Fibromyalgia Association so I can help others with the condition. Thousands have it but there's very little awareness.

My career has been snatched away, I can't work and I'm housebound most the time.

I want children, but I wouldn't even be able to hold a baby now.

WHAT IS FIBROMYALGIA? It is a chronic condition of widespread pain and profound fatigue. Fibromyalgia is known as a syndrome because it is a collection of symptoms rather than a specific disease process. Besides pain and fatigue, FMS symptoms often include unrefreshing sleep, headaches and irritable bowel.

The government has recognised fibromyalgia only since 2003. Before that many sufferers were told it was "all in the mind". There is no known cure.

WHO SUFFERS? It affects up to one in 20 of us and more than 90 per cent of sufferers are women. It tends to affect people over 40 but young people, including children, can also develop the syndrome.

Some people only have it mildly - the pain is bearable, it doesn't occur all the time and they can still work.

WHAT CAUSES IT? No one knows, but it can be triggered by an accident or an extremely stressful life event. Or sometimes it just develops of its own accord.

FOR more information about fibromyalgia, contact the Fibromyalgia Association at www.fibromyalgia-associationuk.org A helpline, 0870 220 1232, is open Mon-Fri from 10am to 4pm.

CAPTION(S):

WALKING ON AIR: Bianca in her modelling days for Virgin; GROUNDED: Bianca is still in pain from a chronic condition
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 27, 2005
Words:924
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