MS sufferer confounds experts by leaving wheelchair behind to run marathons
Monday, 31 August 2009
Crippled by multiple sclerosis, Debee Steel was resigned to her fate — never to walk again.
Her dreams of becoming a ballerina had been cruelly shattered when she was struck down by the disease aged just 14.
Yet even from her wheelchair, she refused to let herself be beaten.
Newtownards-based Debee adapted the punishing fitness regime from her dancing days and transformed herself into one of Britain’s top wheelchair basketball players.
No doctor on earth, however, could have predicted that her healthy lifestyle would change her life again — and that now she can run 13 miles.
Medics had diagnosed Debee with the progressive form of the wasting disease MS and told her she would never walk again.
But in January, just after her 20th birthday, Debee stood up from the wheelchair that she had used her for the past five years.
“Feeling had slowly been coming back to my legs for a year, but when I finally stood up, no-one could understand it,” she said.
“It’s unbelievable. Basically, I’m a freak.”
Debee was at the Newtowna-rds home she shares with her fiance, Steve McAleese, 27, when it happened.
The pair started going out three years ago, when Debee was still in the wheelchair.
Now there is more joy for Debee as the couple are set to get married next December.
“Steve was amazed when it happened,” Debee said.
“By coincidence, his brother is in a wheelchair and plays wheelchair basketball, so Steve’s always understood me.”
Debee was back on her feet within months — and can now run a half marathon, confounding medical experts.
In 2003, Debee was a 14-year-old ballerina with a promising future. Soon, however, her life was thrown into turmoil.
She began to display classic symptoms of MS, and doctors had her on crutches at 14.
By the time she was 15, she was confined to a wheelchair.
“Being robbed of my legs was really one of the worst things that could have happened to me because I was always into sport and always had aspirations of becoming a ballerina,” Debee said.
“I just thought, ‘Crap — it’s all over’.”
The tragedy was not the first to hit her. She was left orphaned at the age of two when her parents Mary, 29, and Andrew, 31, died in a horrific car crash in England.
Her grandparents brought her up in southern England, and nursed her when she was hit by MS.
“I was getting a bit depressed when I was put in the wheelchair, especially thinking about my parents,” bubbly Debee admitted.
“But one day I saw wheelchair basketball on the TV and thought, ‘That looks fun’.”
She moved to Northern Ireland in her late teens for a course at Queen’s University in Belfast, where she joined the Knights wheelchair basketball club.
After a year of playing she was accepted on to the Great Britain team and qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Just before Debee packed her bags to chase glory against the world’s top paralympians, she began to feel bizarre sensations surging through her legs.
“It was so faint at first I didn’t want to believe it,” she said.
“Doctors had told me I had the chronic form of the disease and would never get better. But I was.”
Throughout 2008, with physiotherapy, she started to get stronger in stronger — until her miracle first steps.
Keith Coulter, the personal trainer who took her for her first workout, said: “She’s now fitter than most of the other people I know — it’s amazing.”
Debee now coaches the Great Britain women’s wheelchair basketball team. And last week she was in Buckinghamshire, cheering on the players in the European championships.
Ironically, she is now battling to get back in her wheelchair — to play in the next paralympics.
“Wheelchair basketball saved me, and I’d love to compete,” Debee said.
“But I need to be granted limited disability status to play. I just hope it goes through in time.”
There are fears Debee’s amazing recovery could be an extended remission from MS which some sufferers get.
But she said: “All signs of the disease are gone. I just have to think about walking now. I’m still not very good at changing trains and walking on cobbles feels a bit funny.”
MS different in each case
MS experts said yesterday that Debee’s amazing story was rare, but not unheard of.
Debee had been diagnosed with progressive MS, from which there is meant to be no remission.
Doctors had told Debee she was “chronic” and would never recover or walk again once she was in a wheelchair.
Chris Bentley from the MS Society of Britain said: “This is very rare, but not unheard of. Because Debee was diagnosed with the progressive form of MS, there should be no chance of remission.
“But she maintained a healthy lifestyle and positive outlook and it’s obviously paid off.
“MS affects everyone in different ways. Debee was obviously one of the lucky few.”
MS, which attacks the central nervous system, hits more than 85,000 people in the UK and is the most disabling neurological condition diagnosed in the under-40s.
Women are twice as likely to develop it as men.
The immune system attacks the central nervous system, disrupting signals between brain and body, prompting a range of unpredictable symptoms including nerve pain, severe fatigue, loss of movement and sight, depression, incontinence and sexual dysfunction.
However, MS never affects sufferers in the same way.
Life expectancy is near normal, but there is no cure, and research shows that about 65 per cent of those with relapsing remitting MS develop progressive MS within 15 years of diagnosis.