Give to GOSH: Paralympian Natasha Baker on how she was encouraged to achieve her dream

The Paralympian suffers from transverse myelitis, a condition that left her with permanent nerve damage and severe weakness in her legs

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The Independent Online

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. 

“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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