'There can be a cure for anything': Student nurse who inspired fundraising is determined to live a normal life with MS

Melissa Gibbons. Picture by Andrew Roe
Melissa Gibbons. Picture by Andrew Roe

There were no early warning signs that Melissa Gibbons was about to develop multiple sclerosis - no history of illness, no string of hospital appointments as a child. Until, one Monday two years ago, the student nurse got out of the bath and realised that her entire back had gone completely numb.

"I couldn’t feel it at all, and it then went down my arms and legs," said Melissa, who was aged 23 at the time and nearing the end of her first year at Sheffield Hallam University.

"By the Saturday I knew there was something wrong because I couldn’t lift my legs. I thought I had a brain tumour, to be honest, or something like that."

As her fears grew, Melissa sought help from specialists and underwent an MRI scan that found lesions on her brain of the type found in patients with MS, the debilitating disease that attacks the central nervous system and can, at its worst, leave sufferers paralysed or blind.

"I looked on the internet and saw that it could be MS but just thought ‘surely not’."

Medics will diagnose the condition if a patient has another two relapses, Melissa said. "I had another two really quickly."

The first came the following July. While on holiday in Ibiza, she took a dip in a swimming pool and began experiencing odd spasms in her arms - then, on a further trip later in the summer, her 'whole body stopped working' after she ran into the sea.

Her fiancee, Sam, had to rescue Melissa by dragging her from the water.

"It was like the most horrific pins and needles you could ever have. That was the worst one."

Neurologists then made the diagnosis, and two years on Melissa, now 25, is still contemplating what the future may hold - not that she intends to let her illness hold her back.

"I don’t tell anyone. I just want to get on with my life. I want to get married, have children and everything."

She is backing the search to find better therapy and a possible cure for the disease, too. Today the fifth annual Gillyfest - a community music festival - is happening at the Sportsman pub at Lodge Moor, which, inspired by Melissa, has been held in support of the MS Society for the past two years.

Melissa, who lives near Hunters Bar, works part-time at the Sportsman, where the event was launched by bar worker Dave 'Gilly' Gilchrist. Her parents, Peter and Lisa Gibbons, both regulars at the pub, led the fundraising last year, collecting around £2,500.

For the time being, treatment involves a four-weekly infusion of a drug called Natalizumab, administered over 'a couple of hours' at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital. The medicine keeps the white blood cells of the immune system from entering the brain and spinal cord, thought to play a role in the damaging effects of MS.

"I’m just coming up to a year of being free from relapses," said Melissa. "I’ve no idea what the outlook is like. Hopefully it’s good, because the treatment is effective."

In September, she starts a job on the intensive care unit at Sheffield Children's Hospital, and in just over a year's time will marry Sam, also 25 and a recruitment consultant.

But despite remaining defiant, reminders of her illness crop up regularly.

"My arms are weaker than they used to be. I went on a hen do and there was a sporting activity and I just couldn’t do it. It was the wheelbarrow race and my arms weren’t strong enough."

Gillyfest starts at 1.30pm, with music throughout the day until 9.30pm. Real alpacas, Our Cow Molly ice cream and stalls are among the other attractions set to increase the charity total.

"It’s just money towards research that can hopefully find more treatments - or more successful treatments," said Melissa.

"There’s no cure, but you have to be optimistic - there can be a cure for anything."

How MS attacks nerves' protection

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune condition, which means the immune system mistakes part of the body for a foreign substance and attacks it, according to NHS experts.

In MS, it attacks the 'myelin sheath', a protective layer surrounding nerves in the brain or spinal cord, causing inflammation which can be seen on an MRI scan.

The inflamed patches can disrupt the messages carried by the nerves, causing a range of symptoms, including problems with eyesight, movement, sensation or balance.

A lifelong condition affecting more than 100,000 people in the UK, it can sometimes cause severe disability, and average life expectancy is slightly reduced among patients with the chronic disease.

MS is usually diagnosed in people in their 20s and 30s, and is more common among women - but it can develop at any age.