A highly-rated young dancer who collapsed at work will require a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
Natalie Rushton, who has competed internationally, was looking forward to her 21st birthday when she was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) in January.
Natalie, who has been dancing since she was two, was so shocked she could not speak about it for weeks.
She has described her tears, and said telling her dad was “the worst phone call I’ve ever had to make”.
MND is a rapidly progressing terminal illness, which stops signals from the brain reaching the muscles. It can cause someone to lose the ability to walk, talk, eat or breathe unaided.
In 2019, she had collapsed at work as an online business travel support consultant.
The cause of her collapse was a bad chest infection but during her time in hospital, medics noticed she had a weakness in her feet and legs. She had no feeling in them.
She was kept in hospital for 13 nights while doctors tried to get to the bottom of the problem before transferring her to a neurosurgeon. She got home on Christmas Eve but was told she would need more tests.
However, with the advent of Covid in 2020, everything was put on hold and she was only able to go back to the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow for more tests later in the year.
She was admitted for three-and-a-half weeks in September last year and then told to return in four months.
Natalie said: “I went back in for an EMG (an electromyography – a diagnostic procedure which evaluates the health condition of muscles and the nerve cells which control them) and the next day I was told I had MND.
“I thought it only affected old people. I am a young person.
”I genuinely got really scared. It was devastating for my mum and dad.
“My mum was being strong but I knew her heart was breaking. This was difficult for me to see.”
Her dad Paul Pirrie, 47, was also in shock. She said: “He lives in Aberdeen and because of Covid, I had to tell him over the phone. It was the worst phone call I’ve ever had to make.
“I felt awful for weeks. I was just very shocked. I just kept to myself.”
But she admitted: “Two or three weeks later I cried. I didn’t stop crying the full day. It just took a while to realise this was actually happening.”
She told only very close friends and family about her condition but she is now ready to share her story today – the 40th anniversary of MND Scotland.
Natalie said it was important to tell her story to alert people to the fact MND can strike at any age.
She will have surgery on an unrelated hip condition next week and after she comes off her painkillers, she will start on a clinical trial as part of the SMART Trials research at Edinburgh University.
She said: “I don’t know what drug I will be getting. I like to think of it as a lucky dip.”
Natalie has taken part in two 5k fundraisers in her wheelchair to raise funds to help continue research into the condition. She said: “Some people diagnosed have between 18 months and two years to live, so I’m one of the lucky ones. I live in the moment.”
Natalie still doesn’t have a stairlift in the East Kilbride home she shares with her mum, Gillian, 41, because she is keen to use her legs as long as she can.
She said: “Deterioration has been quite rapid in my legs. I use my crutches or a rollator – a type of zimmer – but if I am shopping or walking my dogs, I need a wheelchair.” Natalie admits she was fortunate to have her best friend in a bubble with her during lockdown so she had someone to offload to.
She said: “I want to be there to help any other younger people that get the same diagnosis as me and be able to share how I deal with my diagnosis.”
Iain McWhirter, MND Scotland’s interim chief executive, said: “I want to thank Natalie for bravely sharing her diagnosis. Raising awareness to help other young people going through this terrible diagnosis is a true testament to Natalie’s determination to fight back against MND.