Gold-medal winning Paralympian Natasha Baker has said the “inspirational atmosphere” at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) helped her achieve sporting success.
The 26-year-old suffers from transverse myelitis, a condition that, at only 14 months, left her with permanent nerve damage and severe weakness in her legs.
In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, the former GOSH patient, said her treatment when she was a child and hearing “inspirational stories of past patients” from her doctors had helped her to go on to achieve her “dream” of Paralympic dressage gold.
She has also urged readers to support the IoS’s Give to GOSH appeal, which has raised more than £2.7m with three weeks to go.
Natasha was a patient at GOSH throughout her childhood and describes it as the place she “grew up” and gained the “confidence” to be herself. “I have huge happy memories of my time at GOSH and meeting other children who had a similar disability as mine is so rare, especially in children.”
Transverse myelitis is an extremely rare neurological disorder. It involves the inflammation of the spinal cord and in Natasha’s case occurred after a viral infection, when her body’s immune system become mis-programmed.
She was treated at GOSH throughout her childhood, but is unable to use her legs while riding and instead instructs her horses entirely through verbal commands and a series of precise movements in the saddle.
While watching the 2000 Sydney Games she decided she wanted to compete and win gold; she was backed by the encouragement of doctors at GOSH.
Meet the patients and doctors of GOSH
Meet the patients and doctors of GOSH
1/9 Elliott Livingstone
Two-year-old Elliott is a “cheeky” little boy who has a Thomas the Tank Engine sticker on his Berlin heart machine, which has kept him alive since his own heart failed eight months ago. Elliott has two tubes pumping blood around his tiny body. It keeps him alive but the machine has left him confined to the wards of Great Ormond Street Hospital until a new heart is found
2/9 Melissa Strickland
As the ward sister on Koala Ward, Melissa Strickland leads a nursing team with the challenging job of looking after children with craniofacial and neurological conditions. “You have to have all the skills and knowledge to do this job but personally for me you cannot do it unless you have passion but also compassion,” she said. “You don’t get used to the sad side of things but you do learn to manage it.”
3/9 Amy Willis
Amy Willis carries a discreet black medical bag everywhere she goes. It contains the cutting-edge HeartWare device that is keeping her alive. A smaller, more advanced version of the Berlin artificial heart, it was fitted in April after she was emergency airlifted to GOSH from Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool. The device means that 14-year-old Amy can be home in Flintshire this Christmas while remaining on the heart transplant waiting list. She is doing well but 15 per cent of patients with a HeartWare device or Berlin heart die while waiting for a new heart, so money raised by the appeal will also go to help researchers identify ways to keep children alive while they await transplant
4/9 Myra Bluebond-Langner
Professor Myra Bluebond-Langner represents the vital work of the Louis Dundas Centre for Children’s Palliative Care, GOSH’s world-class centre dedicated to research and care for children with life-limiting illnesses. The LDC is named in honour of Louis Dundas, a four-year-old boy who died in “unspeakable pain” after suffering a brain tumour in April 2008. Its aim is to ensure that no child suffers unnecessarily in their final days. Money raised from The Independent’s Give to GOSH appeal will go to fund the team’s work to manage pain, and also fund vital research into palliative care in children across the whole of the UK. Professor Bluebond-Langner, who heads the research, said: “Paediatric palliative care is a relatively new field where practice has outstripped research. We look to change that.”
5/9 Finella Craig
Together with with Professor Myra Bluebond-Langner, Dr Finella Craig represents the vital work of the Louis Dundas Centre for Children’s Palliative Care, GOSH’s world-class centre dedicated to research and care for children with life-limiting illnesses. The LDC is named in honour of Louis Dundas, a four-year-old boy who died in “unspeakable pain” after suffering a brain tumour in April 2008. Its aim is to ensure that no child suffers unnecessarily in their final days. “One of the worst experiences for a family is to witness their child in pain and discomfort, and for them to feel totally powerless to do anything about it,” said Dr Craig, a consultant in paediatric palliative medicine at GOSH since 2002. Money raised from The Independent’s Give to GOSH appeal will go to fund the team’s work to manage pain, and also fund vital research into palliative care in children across the whole of the UK.
6/9 Rowan Pethard
Like most little boys, Rowan Pethard loves playing football. At the start of 2015 the seven-year-old Spurs fan baffled his doctors in Hemel Hempstead with a string of coughs, colds, tummy bugs, aches, pains and rashes. It wasn’t until quite late on that doctors discovered he had leukaemia. He spent two days in intensive care while he had emergency chemo. He has two years of follow-up treatment ahead. “He’s amazing, a little superhero,” his mum said. “It makes it easier for his father and I and his brother to cope.”
7/9 Martin Elliott
Paediatric heart and lung surgeon Martin Elliott, 64, is one of the longest serving doctors at GOSH, leading groundbreaking research and treating thousands of patients over the past 30 years. His work has bridged the gap between surgery and research with skills ranging from heart-bypass surgery to correcting congenital lung disorders.
8/9 Ralph Frost
For Ralph the hardest thing about having to live at GOSH while he waits for a new kidney isn’t missing his toys. He has plenty of those and can terrorise the nurses by pushing his little red motorbike down the corridors of Eagle Ward. The hardest thing for the six-year-old is battling not to cry out during his nightly dialysis sessions. “It really hurts,” he said. “But the other kids are sleeping and I don’t want to wake them up.” Ralph suffers from nephrotic syndrome and is currently waiting for a kidney from his father, Nick. He’s called the kidney “Chase” and his parents, who have been trained to operate his dialysis machine, hope to be home by Christmas
9/9 Lynsey Steele
The strongest praise for Lynsey Steele, 33, comes from the parents of the children she helps. “The children here wouldn’t get by without Lynsey,” said Ralph’s mother Amie Frost. “If she wasn’t here then we’d have cracked up.” Lynsey’s role, which is funded by the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity and will be supported by The Independent’s Give to GOSH appeal, is to help children play and relax, but also to have the difficult conversations explaining their treatment
“I never met a single person at GOSH who told me I couldn’t do something. They were all so supportive and I grew up hearing stories of past patients who went through the hospital and went on to do amazing things.”
At London 2012, Natasha claimed Britain’s first equestrian gold medal at a Paralympic Games, achieving a Paralympic dressage record. She won gold again two days later in the freestyle event and was one of 25 British Paralympians to be awarded the MBE by the Queen.
Since setting records in the Grade II individual equestrian and freestyle dressage events in London, Natasha, who took up riding when she was nine, has gone on to claim treble gold at the 2013 European Championships, and team gold and individual silver at the World’s Equestrian Games in 2014.
She is now determined to qualify for the Rio 2016 Games, and will find out in July if she has made the team.
“With horses you never know, and the selection is very late, just before the Games. So I have everything crossed.”
Her career really took off in 2009, when she discovered her mount, Cabral. She calls him JP when she’s not competing: “Choosing a horse is like choosing a boyfriend or a girlfriend. There needs to be a sparkle.”
Today Natasha is just as confident on or off her horse, but as a child she says she was “nervous” and it was the atmosphere at GOSH that brought her out of her shell: “My time in GOSH was a massive inspiration for me, because it showed that although things are thrown in your way, you can overcome them and there are people who want to help you.”
GOSH is able to treat patients such as Natasha, who have very rare conditions, because it has the largest number of paediatric specialties and subspecialties of any children’s hospital in the country.
For Natasha’s parents, Lorraine and Philip, this meant they could meet other mothers and fathers in a similar situation. “The initial diagnosis was terrifying, but the medical staff at GOSH were wonderful, and so positive,” said her mother, who runs the stables on the family farm in Uxbridge, west of London. Natasha has just moved into a flat of her own nearby.
Natasha now wants to turn that positive experience at GOSH into an example for other disabled children and to help dispel misconceptions about disability.
“Great Ormond Street is at the forefront of breaking down misconceptions about disability by letting its patients know they are special and special people can do anything they want, but perceptions still need to change.”
She agreed that attitudes towards disability have “improved” since the 2012 London Games, but there is still work to do: “Disabled children and ill children face so much adversity, but if they are given a chance and get the help from the team at Great Ormond Street, then wonderful things can happen.”
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