For Whakatāne woman Penny Gatenby craft is her passion. She has a craft room in her home and her hands are key tools. But earlier this year her life was turned upside down when out of the blue she lost feeling in both arms and that soon spread to her legs.

“I’m a member of the Whakatane Twilight Marching Girls team. We were having coffee and suddenly I felt a painful electric shock sensation in my arms. My hands started to swell, turn red and itch.”

Three hours later Penny lost feeling in her arms and a leg. “I thought I was having a stroke. My husband took me to hospital.”

It emerged that Penny had developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), an inflammatory disorder of the peripheral nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. This causes rapid onset of numbness, weakness, and often paralysis of the legs, arms, breathing muscles, and face.

Whakatāne Hospital Occupational Therapist (OT) Kim Parnell says the condition affects between 40-80 New Zealanders each year. It can occur at any age; however it is slightly more common in older age and in men.

“Most people recover but just how long that recovery period takes is uncertain,” says Kim. “It can take several weeks to months. The prognosis for most is complete recovery; however 20-30% of people will be left with some degree of weakness or discomfort.”

Nine weeks on, Penny remains in hospital but is slowly starting to get feeling back in her body. Her love of craft and the support of her family and OT at Whakatāne Hospital have been key to her progress.

“Flicking through a magazine in the hospital my husband spotted an advertisement for a knitting loom band and thought that would be something that would help get my fingers working again.”

Penny spends several hours each week day working with OT at the hospital trying to regain her functional abilities. “At first I found it difficult to hold the knitting loom. I could only manage to knit a couple of rows at a time.”

Now with feeling back in her hands and arms, Penny says she’s in mass production, making a hat a day on the knitting loom.

“So far I’ve made 18 of these hats, hospital staff are now putting in orders and supplying me with colour requests and sometimes wool. It’s been an overwhelming accomplishment.

“Getting that knitting loom was a turning point for me. I’ve had some really low times. Going from being an independent active person to being in a wheelchair having to rely on others with everything, has been very difficult to get my head around.”

Penny says at her lowest she refused to drink as the loss of dignity was overbearing. “Kim really helped me to find a way through, not only physically but mentally as well.”

Penny says she just wants people to know if they’re ever in the same situation, there is hope. Recovery is gradual but you will get there.

Occupational Therapy Week runs from 23-27 October the theme of this year’s celebration is social change and occupational justice.

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