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I may be in a wheelchair but I can still be glam; real lives Janet Tansley talks to the air hostess who wants to stay fashionable while she battles back to health.

Byline: Janet Tansley

FASHIONABLE flight rattendant Gemma Flanagan is determined to rebuild her life and health after an illness which has left her in a wheelchair.

She just needed a little help....

"I'm a typical Scouse girl. I love partying, I love shopping, and I love getting glammed up for big nights out," she smiles.

"But I am struggling to find practical clothes that look good in my chair and I don't want to let that stop me."


Gemma, 28, from Vauxhall, is currently in the Walton Neuro Rehabilitation Unit on the Aintree Hospital site after being struck down by Guillain Barre Syndrome in October last year.

A cabin crew member for British Airways, she was literally flying high, travelling the world and embracing life before becoming ill.

"I had just come back from a trip to Vegas," says Gemma. "I BEFORE: What usually wears felt odd, like I was jet-lagged. My legs were heavy and I had pins and needles, then I couldn't bend my arms." There were a number of different symptoms before Gemma just collapsed in the street.

She was taken to a walk-in centre before going to her local A&E where she was admitted and, after a barrage of tests, diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome.

GBS is a serious disorder when the body's immune system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system, leading to nerve inflammation and muscle weakness. What triggers it is unknown, but Guillain Barre often follows a minor infection, signs of which have often disappeared before those of GBS emerge.

There is no cure but many treatments are available to reduce symptoms or treat complications. They include plasmapheresis used to remove anti-bodies from the blood; and immunoglobulin therapy which Gemma had, where immunoglobulins are added to the blood in large quantities, blocking the antibodies that cause the inflammation.

As Gemma has discovered, recovery can take weeks, months or years and, while most people survive and recover completely, others can have weakness after three years and some, forever. She is determined she will be one of those who recovers completely - but it isn't easy.

"GBS is a progressive illness which gets worse before it gets better," says Gemma. "Hopefully I have gone through the worst.

There was one point when I couldn't speak or eat - I was tube-fed and my whole face was paralysed, and I was in pain. It's like being stabbed with needles.

"It's terrifying. I didn't like looking at myself because I didn't look like me - it was December before I could look at myself in a mirror. It wasn't about being vain but, if I didn't see myself, I could convince myself it wasn't happening.

Gemma "It's like you are in a bubble and your life is on pause."

Gemma transferred from London, where she was living, to home to be near friends and family, in particular, her parents, without whom she says she could not have got through this.

Thanks to daily punishing physiotherapy sessions she is re-learning to walk and strengthen her muscles: "It's fight or flight. I did get to a point before Christmas where I felt very low and I have down days still, but you can either sit down and feel sorry for yourself, or be positive." Gemma opted for the latter.

She is getting stronger by the day, aiming to be bridesmaid at a friend's wedding in Cyprus in May and take her usual place at Aintree for Ladies Day - without a wheelchair or crutches.

But she still finds it hard: "People look at you differently when you are in a wheelchair.

"But I want to still be me. I want to dress as I did before and be trendy. But it's not that easy. I wore some hot pants the other day before realising no-one could see them, so there are things you can't wear.

"I am struggling to find practical clothes that look good in a wheelchair but I want to prove that you don't have to be fit to be fashionable." Real enlisted the help of Clare Jones, fashion advisor at John Lewis, who chose two outfits for Gemma ? Floral maxi dress, pounds 229; bag, pounds 69 and leather jacket, pounds 349, all from Ted Baker; Shoes from Carvela, pounds 100.

Clare says: "This is perfect for a glamorous day out and practical because it hides the long support stockings Gemma has to wear, while negating the need for tights. Just because you are in a wheelchair you can still wear what you want and be fashionable. The only thing to avoid is short skirts which might reveal a little too much."

Gemma says: "I loved the long Ted Baker dress with the jacket and heels. It made me feel really glamorous and was so comfortable in my chair - I'm going to put that on my birthday list!"? French Connection sequined dress, pounds 250, shoes, pounds 59, also Carvela.

Clare says: "Again, very comfortable if you are sitting in a chair and thick black tights hide the stockings, but it still looks fashionable and elegant."

Gemma says: "The sequined French Connection dress was very comfortable and I loved the vintage style of it. Definitely a party dress." ? Gemma hopes to organise events to raise money for Walton's Neuro Rehabilitation Unit which gives people like her their lives back through months of treatment.

Equipment or home-from-home comforts, or funds for social activities are vitally needed.

She is hoping to take part in fun runs later this year and hold charity nights and would love to hear from anyone who can help with venues, prizes or sponsorship.

Meanwhile another patient has organised a charity evening at Liverpool Naval Club in Broadgreen, on April 5. Tickets are pounds 5. Contact 0151-280 5051 or


PARTY TIME: The French Connection dress fit the bill BIRTHDAY WISH: Gemma loved this Ted Baker dress BEFORE: What Gemma usually wears
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Feb 1, 2012
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