When army medic Katrina Brown returned from a three-month tour in Basra, Iraq, in 2003 she was relieved to get home safe and sound.. but four years later she began to feel ill.
Katrina, 32, ended up battling for her life after being diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disease, systemic sclerosis – a form of scleroderma that was slowly killing her.
Pioneering stem cell treatment which she needed was not available in the UK on the NHS and for three years after her diagnosis she believed little could be done – until she discovered trials being done in the US. But it came at a huge cost – more than £110,000.
Now, 10 months after she successfully underwent the procedure and returned home, autologous stem cell treatment is finally being offered to patients in the UK with auto-immune conditions including multiple sclerosis.
At first she was diagnosed with Raynaud’s disease, which affects blood flow. Her hands were so badly affected she struggled to use the equipment. One day a surgeon suggested she could be suffering from something worse. Tests confirmed systemic sclerosis. For several years she and soldier husband Martin, 46, coped as best they could but soon she had to give up work.
But she wasn’t prepared to give up and it was while she was surfing the internet that she found a patient who had been given an autologous stem cell transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
Dr Richard Burt’s experimental treatment involved a course of chemotherapy to destroy the patient’s immunity and stem cells, then harvesting and re-injecting new cells to restart the immunity. Katrina returned to the UK in June and even though her immunity is still only the same as a newborn baby, she is campaigning to raise awareness of the condition and the stem cell treatment now available in the UK.
She says: “I’m here thanks to the army of people who have fought so hard to save my life. Raising awareness for others is the least I can do.”
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