Gold Coast fitness model and entrepreneur Tammy Hembrow spent the holiday season in and out of hospital with her youngest child, one-year-old Saskia.
After three visits to the hospital and doctors telling her it was, at first a stomach bug, and then the heat, Saskia was finally diagnosed with acute cerebellar ataxia, which is caused by inflammation in part of the brain.
Luckily, the damage is not long-term and Tammy’s daughter is home and slowly recovering.
However, after being inundated with questions from her 7.6 million Instagram followers, the 23-year-old mother-of-two has shared a YouTube video about Saskia’s symptoms with the resounding message: if you know something is wrong, keep persisting.
“When Saskia woke up from a nap I went to change her nappy and as soon as I put her down she started screaming, as if she was in pain or something. She’d never done that before,” Tammy told her viewers.
“I put her down to see if she would stand up and she couldn’t stand. She couldn’t even try to stand.”
Tammy called her partner, Reece, and examined Saskia’s body for any sign of injury or abrasion – some clue as to what was making her baby scream in a way she’d “never heard before”.
She found nothing obvious and took Saskia to the doctor. Here, as the doctor was examining Saskia and pushing on her stomach, the one-year-old projectile vomited all over them. It was a stomach bug, the doctor suggested.
Tammy took Saskia home and spent the day feeding her clear fluids. There was some improvement, but not for long.
“The next morning she was super sick again, throwing up straight away when she woke up,” Tammy said. “I took her back to the hospital and I was telling them how she still couldn’t walk and they explained how when you have a stomach bug, your body hurts. But I thought it was weird. I felt like something else was wrong.”
Eventually, Saskia was admitted to the hospital to stay the night, the doctors administered a drip still thinking it was a stomach bug.
“In the morning she was holding down food. She seemed a lot better and I thought ‘let’s go home’,” Tammy said. “We went home, she had a nap, and as soon as she woke up her eyes were literally rolling around everywhere. They were going cross-eyed. I almost had a heart attack, thinking ‘what is going on?'”
Again, to the doctor they went, but Saskia’s eyes had stopped rolling by the time she was seen.
“The doctor said she was fine, and you trust a doctor. I was telling him about the eye thing and he said maybe she was hot or tired.”
LISTEN: What the mother of a very sick child wants you to know. Post continues below.
Still, she was admitted again for observation overnight and that’s when her condition deteriorated rapidly.
“That night was the most terrifying night for me,” Tammy said. “She kept vomiting and her eyes started getting worse and worse. Basically it became constant. They wouldn’t focus on anything. They’d roll up and then flicker back down, then roll up and go cross eyed.”
“It was really hard for me to watch. I got the nurses in to see what was happening and I filmed it on my phone in case it stopped.”
The nurses checked Saskia’s vitals and observed she was stable – she didn’t have a fever and everything else was normal. The pair waited through the night for the doctor to arrive in the morning.
The main symptoms, Tammy said, were: “Eye rolling; off balance; shaking when I’d try to get her to sit up; she couldn’t walk; and she was vomiting. It was almost like she had vertigo.”
When the doctor saw them the next morning, Tammy was “so happy to see him” and he organised a transfer to another hospital for an MRI and a spinal tap. Thankfully, both tests came back clear.
“We were in hospital for a week, they started her on antibiotics and anti-viral medication, just in case,” Tammy said. “She started getting so much better, sitting up and standing and finally walking again.”
The diagnosis, when it arrived, was acute cerebellar ataxia. According to Healthline.com, it’s a form of cerebellitis – or when the cerebellum in the brain, responsible for movement, becomes inflamed or damaged.
Information from the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne states the condition is most commonly seen in children aged two to seven years.
It’s a post-infection autoimmune process and can occur after illnesses such as chickenpox or Epstein-Barr and Coxsackie infections. It can also be seen after vaccinations or due to poisoning from mercury, lead, or other toxins.
The symptoms of ataxia include incoordination of muscle movements, lack of balance, staggering gait, difficulty sitting, and clumsiness. A full recovery is normal, with no lasting damage. And 90 per cent of patients recover in under two months. It should take between 10 and 21 days.
“Anything to do with the brain is really scary, but they said there are no long-term effects,” Tammy said. “We brought her home after a week and she’s been up and down. But in all, she’s okay and doing well.”