Aurora’s story demonstrates the need for more sensitive, simpler and cost-effective diagnostic tools to be developed and for more awareness about TB among healthcare professionals.
As a nurse, Aurora was used to caring for others. Then she became seriously ill with unexplained pains in her neck, back and stomach. After nearly two years of investigation – and unnecessary treatment for cancer – Aurora was finally diagnosed with spinal TB.
From the outset of her symptoms, Aurora repeatedly visited her General Practitioner (GP) to find out what was wrong, but she was told her condition could be due to her age, osteoporosis or previous surgery: “I asked to be x-rayed, but the GP didn’t think it would show anything.”
Elias Phiri, who heads UK Awareness Programmes for TB Alert, an organisation that supports TB projects around the world, explains that this is not uncommon: “TB Alert provides support and advice for people diagnosed with TB, and we regularly hear that their symptoms are dismissed or attributed to other causes.”
Aurora was admitted to hospital after test results showed that she had a dangerously low blood count. While there she began to experience disabling, shooting pains throughout her body so her doctor ordered a scan: “They told me that the scans had shown a large, white mass instead of my neck vertebrae, which looked like cancer.”
Aurora was immediately started on an intensive course of radiotherapy. Later biopsies finally revealed that she did not in fact have cancer – she had spinal TB, which was described as having ‘eaten’ a number of Aurora’s vertebrae. Aurora underwent emergency surgery to insert a metal column into her spine and awoke to find herself in a halo-traction.
“It felt like I was in a cage. I couldn’t move and I hated it when my surgeon returned to tighten the screws that were bolted to my forehead. I couldn’t wash my hair or body for months. Coming to terms with what’s happened over the past few years, and with the TB itself, has been extremely challenging. It’s been full of ups and downs, uncertainty, anxiety and worry – not only for me but for my whole family. I can’t drive, I can’t go on an aeroplane, I can’t plan holidays, I can’t visit my family who are all mostly based in the US and Philippines and I was unable to attend my father’s funeral”.
Aurora’s case demonstrates just how sever the impact of delayed diagnosis can be for someone who has TB. Aurora was cleared of TB six months after starting her antibiotic treatment. She underwent a final round of spinal surgery and can now finally rebuild her life. Aurora is thankful for her friends in the TB Action Group, a UK based network of people who are or have been affected by TB and who were there for her throughout her illness.