Paralysis has had a huge impact on my life

Emma Laws

Last year I unexpectedly lost the use of my left arm following anaesthesia for a minor medical procedure. The diagnosis was brachial plexus neuritis, a rare autoimmune disease that as a neurologist – ironically – is the sort of condition I am used to seeing in dogs. 

It was a complete shock and had a huge impact on my life. Obviously, being unable to use my left arm meant I could no longer perform surgery. Additionally, the neuropathic pain was a very limiting factor in allowing me to do my job. 

At the time, I had been with Linnaeus-owned North Downs Specialist Referrals (NDSR) for two years. I was really enjoying my role as a neurology specialist, particularly performing complex brain and spinal surgeries.  

NDSR is a multidisciplinary referral hospital in Bletchingley, Surrey, and a fantastic place to work. Our team feels like a family.

'Mentally and physically life has been difficult...but there is much to look forward to'

I had joined the practice straight after completing my neurology and neurosurgery residency. I took my specialist exams in 2018 and became an RCVS and European neurology specialist.

After the diagnosis, I was told the condition could take two years to improve. This was heartbreaking news and even though my colleagues were supportive of my predicament, I felt my future was very uncertain. 

Getting support just when you really need it

I reached out to Bart Johnson, the CEO of Linnaeus, who I had met at a conference, for some advice. Amazingly, he called me straight away offering help and saying that Linnaeus would support me. His words were a huge relief. 

As a result, I have temporarily stepped away from a clinical role to join the company’s central office where I am the medical services and project lead. 

My new responsibilities involve projects that support our practice teams – from education to research – and it’s been a steep learning curve. I lead several exciting strategic and blue sky thinking projects, gathering and sharing information and knowledge with specialists across the group. Speaking to people from all parts of the business, I’ve heard many different viewpoints, which are important to a progressive and forward-thinking company. 

Mental and physical challenges

Mentally, the past year has been very challenging. For a while, I didn’t know what the future held for me. This uncertainty, alongside the sometimes excruciating pain, made life difficult. My dachshunds, Osho and Olby, have been by my side throughout and keeping me smiling with their mischief! 


Emma's dachshunds, Osho and Olby, have helped keep her spirits up

Physically, life has been difficult too. Initially, my partner Ben had to do everything, from dressing me to doing the housework. He essentially became my full-time carer. When someone has helped you get dressed every day, cooked for you, washed your clothes and held your hand while you cried yourself to sleep, you know they’re a keeper!

Ben is a pilot and was furloughed at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown; this added an extra financial strain and layer of worry to our lives. In addition, our wedding has had to be postponed twice due to the pandemic. Despite everything there is much to look forward to. Happily, we’ve rescheduled the wedding for August this year. We’re planning to spend our honeymoon in Indonesia, seeing orangutans and Komodo dragons in the wild. 

'I have challenged myself to do a triathlon as soon as I can '

Recently, I’m delighted to report, there has been some improvement in my arm, as well as a reduction in pain. I am still on medication for nerve pain and have to do hourly physio exercises. The prognosis for a full recovery is now fairly good, but rehabilitation is still a long road ahead for me.

Before the paralysis I enjoyed doing lots of sport – tennis, skiing, wakeboarding and netball – and I hope to be able to get back to doing them soon. After my diagnosis, I set myself a challenge, that I would do a triathlon as soon as I was recovered enough. It may be a bit optimistic, but I have booked a place for the end of the summer, although I know it may be unachievable. In the meantime, I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

Emma's CV

  • 2013: Qualified from Bristol vet school
  • 2013–2014: Small animal vet working in a primary care veterinary hospital in Chippenham, Wiltshire 
  • 2014: Rotating internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Bristol vet school
  • 2015: Residency in small animal neurology and neurosurgery at Bristol
  • 2018: Joined North Downs Specialist Referrals in Bletchingley, Surrey. Qualified as an RCVS specialist in neurology and neurosurgery and a European Board of Veterinary Specialisation specialist in veterinary neurology

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