BILLINGS – It’s a disease that has made headlines across Montana and the nation: a rare, polio-like illness that affects the nervous system.
Acute flaccid myelitis, (AFM) mostly affects young children, but in Montana, all three cases have been discovered in adults.
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April Martin of Billings went to the doctor in August with a runny nose and a sore throat. She was given antibiotics, but they did not help, and her condition continued to worsen.
Days later, her mom called 911 and had her admitted to the hospital. “They say God only gives you what you can handle… that’s for sure,” said Martin.
Martin, 32, had already been through a lot in her life. She was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 2, and she beat cancer at 27.
After a full night in the ER, Martin’s mom, Toni Spaulding, went home to get some rest. When she got back to the hospital the next morning, she was horrified.
“When I walked into the room it looked like she had had a stroke,” said Spaulding. “Her head was laying over to the side, she couldn’t open her eyes, and her speech was slurred.”
Doctors soon realized Martin was having a hard time breathing. Soon she was going in for a tracheotomy, was put on a ventilator, and had a feeding tube put in to help her regulate her diabetes.
Even after numerous tests, including lumbar punctures and MRIs, doctors were not sure what was happening to Martin.
“Why can’t they tell me what’s wrong?” said Spaulding. “Why can’t they have a diagnosis, what are they not looking at?”
Spaulding said it wasn’t until she saw a news story about a polio-like illness affecting dozens of Americans, that she knew what was wrong.
“I had not seen the news about this polio-like virus called acute flaccid myelitis,” said Spaulding. “Instantly when I watched that, I knew right then that’s what my daughter has. It’s AFM.”
AFM is a virus-fueled neurological condition that affects the spinal cord’s gray matter and can cause paralysis.
But, despite Spaulding’s conviction, it would be seven long months before that positive diagnosis could be made.
“I am trying to educate everybody as I am trying to learn everything too because I want the best help for her,” said Spaulding.
Doctors are still unsure what causes it. In the last year, there were just over 150 confirmed cases, and the chances of getting AFM is just about one-in-one million.
“It sucks,” said Martin. “You are trying to explain to them what it is and they’re like what? What is it? It’s hard.”
Martin was moved out of the hospital and into Advanced Care in mid-September. At the end of October, she was moved to Aspen Meadows nursing home, where she receives around the clock nursing care and both physical and occupational therapy.
“In the short two to three months that she’s been there, she has went from not being able to hardly hold her head up to sitting in a wheelchair holding her head up,” said Spaulding.
In the last month, with the help of nurses and a walker, Martin has been able to walk again.
Spaulding said there is still a long road ahead though. Martin’s insurance only covers the care at the nursing home for a short period, and in less than a month, they will have to either pay out of pocket or find another solution.
“She is making progress and now to keep that progress going is where my fight is,” said Spaulding.
Spaulding said the cost of nursing care and the physical therapy is so high, they will soon not be able to afford getting Martin the help she needs.
She created a GoFundMe to help cover some of the costs.
Right now, there is no cure for AFM.
-Samantha Sullivan reporting for MTN News