BROOKSVILLE, Fla. — The sensation was something Brittany Barrett had not felt in almost three years.
As her eyes began to open the morning of March 28, she felt tremendous pain in her feet. Barrett yelled at her boyfriend to move his legs before the magnitude of the moment struck her.
After almost three years of paralysis, Barrett suddenly had feeling down to her toes.
“I pulled the blankets off, and I moved my feet,” Barrett said. “I just started bawling like a little baby, I was so scared. . . . I’m still waiting for someone to pinch me and wake me up.”
Barrett, an 18-year-old high-school senior, became inexplicably paralyzed in 2007.
Her condition and apparent recovery have baffled friends, family, even doctors.
“I’ve never seen something like this,” said Russell Bain, Barrett’s pediatrician for seven years. “Every test was done in the world. She was completely paralyzed, and now she can walk.”
Barrett’s decline began June 17, 2007, after she fell in the shower. She lost consciousness three times over two days, then lost feeling from her neck to her toes.
Barrett spent two weeks in intensive care at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. She could not speak, see or hear, and her heart rate dropped substantially.
She regained feeling down to the middle of her thighs before she was discharged, but she left with no specific diagnosis.
“They weren’t sure if she had a seizure,” Bain said. “Subsequently, she could not walk. Her speech was affected. She kind of regressed into childhood with her behaviour.”
For more than a year, Barrett, who had been a sprinter and a cheerleader, went from one doctor to another searching for an explanation. She visited the renowned Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and Shands at the University of Florida, a hospital in Gainesville.
“After all my knowledge, two neurologists through the Mayo Clinic, there comes a point where there’s no other test to be done,” Bain said. “There are diseases with unknown ideology. Why do kids get lung cancer and they don’t smoke? How far do you go to figure out why?
“Some things just don’t have a diagnosis.”
Barrett accepted her new life, even finding success as a wheelchair tennis player. But she never abandoned hope she would walk again.
Her mother, Michelle Barrett, quit her job as a senior tax analyst in December 2007 to stay home with Brittany.
The family, including Brittany’s four siblings, moved into a one-story home, giving the teen more accessibility and mobility.
“Her mother gave up her life, quit her job, lost her house,” Bain said. “The kids sacrificed a lot. It was a real family effort.”
One day Brittany’s younger sister, Chelsea, was taking a group tennis lesson when Brittany was handed a racket by John Downey. His wife, Louise, coaches Brittany at Nature Coast Technical High School.
Brittany had never played the sport.
“She was terrified,” Louise Downey said.
“She wondered how she could play tennis and not walk. . . . Before we knew it, she was comfortable with it.”
Brittany became somewhat of a local celebrity, rocketing to the No. 2 ranking in U.S. Tennis Association Juniors, seventh by the International Tennis Federation.
Her success made her a top-recruiting target for the University of Arizona, which has a well-established wheelchair athletic program.
Wildcats coach Bryan Barten said he wouldn’t reconsider a possible scholarship offer just because of Brittany’s apparent recovery.
He said the ability to walk doesn’t mean she can play tennis without a wheelchair.
The decision, however, might be out of his hands.
Brittany is considering stepping away from wheelchair tennis for good.
“Wheelchair tennis represents someone I was,” she said. “I’m not that person anymore.”
Witnessing Barrett’s progress has been emotional for her boyfriend, David O’Quinn.
The couple dated in eighth grade before a typical middle-school breakup. Both attended Nature Coast but rarely saw each other because Barrett missed a good portion of her 10th- and 11th-grade years being homeschooled.
O’Quinn, 18, eventually learned of Barrett’s paralysis, but it didn’t deter him from rekindling the relationship.
“That shocked me,” Barrett said. “It took a lot to realize people still looked at me the same way even though I’m in a wheelchair. That’s a big deal.”
In recent weeks, Barrett’s condition appeared to be improving. On March 26, when a friend punched her in the leg, she felt it.
Barrett saw Bain, her doctor, that day. He tried to get her to stand, but she couldn’t. On March 28, the day she woke up with pain in her feet, she was crawling on the ground when O’Quinn picked her up, and suddenly she was standing.
She took her first steps at a friend’s house.
“I grabbed one leg, told her to lock this leg, release one, step forward,” O’Quinn said. “I wasn’t really touching her, I was guiding her. We did that for maybe 5 feet, turned around and went back. That’s how she first started walking. It’s pretty cool.”
Barrett skipped school the day after regaining her legs. She wanted to test herself at a mall without a wheelchair or walking aid.
By the end of the excursion, she was exhausted and sore, and still standing. “I was determined,” Barrett said. “I was walking the whole time. … I didn’t even buy anything. I just wanted to go into the fitting room and try on clothes.
“That’s all I did.”
Bain said physical therapy will help Brittany learn to walk properly again. Bain said Barrett is able to walk without tripping and has normal reflexes.
“I would say she’s on the road to recovery,” Bain said.
“Obviously, it could regress again because we don’t know what the cause is. At the moment, to me, she is on her way.
“It’s one of those miracles.”