'I felt like I'd been shot': First-time mum left paralysed by rare medical defect

A month on from giving birth, Samantha Bulmer's home is a hospital room. Photo: Jorge Branco
A month on from giving birth, Samantha Bulmer's home is a hospital room. Photo: Jorge Branco

A month on from giving birth, Samantha Bulmer's home is a hospital room.

Four white walls and a bathroom, medications, trinkets, a bag in the corner, that bed that goes up and down at the touch of some buttons, a beautiful baby girl and legs that don't work anymore.

Sometimes the muscles will cramp up, curling her body over, but she can't feel them or move them.

Her legs clad in sloth-covered pyjama pants, sometimes they make her angry but they don't do much else, for now at least.

The 32-year-old first-time mum's birth horror story started on June 7. Numbness spread down her right leg, along with a shooting pain through the stomach carrying little River Lily Harlen, her soon-to-be "miracle baby".

She didn't know it at the time but these were the first signs of a rare defect lying dormant in her system, brought on by a pregnancy she didn't think she would ever have.

Arteriovenous malformations are a tangle of abnormal blood vessels, which can cause major issues with blood flow through arteries and veins.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, about 18 out of 100,000 people have them.

Out of that small number, only four in every 100 suffer a haemorrhage, bringing with it a 15-20 per cent risk of stroke and 30 per cent chance of brain death, with 10 per cent proving fatal.

University of Queensland neurologist Dr Alex Lehn says the location in the body is critical for the impact of an arteriovenous malformation (AVM).

He says the problem can often go undetected for years and come and go with little or no consequence but can also be catastrophic.

"AVMs are still rare, and troublesome AVMs, the big ones, AVMs that rupture, are very rare," he says.

Sam's case is one of those.

As her womb grew larger, it began to pressure an artery, blocking blood flow and creating a pressure build up, which eventually burst, she says, remembering the series of violent incidents she felt in the lead-up to River's caesarean birth.

"I felt like I'd been shot and I completely collapsed on the floor," she says, describing the second of five attacks.

"I was screaming."

The British-born bar staffer, who's been in Australia for 10 years, was terrified something had happened to River and relieved "in the extreme" when she was given the all-clear.

She says it was the third such incident that left her paralysed, blood vessels bursting and causing swelling around her spine, robbing her of her ability to walk.

Samantha Bulmer is still in hospital because of her shock paralysis. Photo: Jorge Branco

Samantha Bulmer is still in hospital because of her shock paralysis. Photo: Jorge Branco

"It's started to go away but I'm not getting any feeling so it's most likely the damage is done," she says.

"When they spoke to me about the results from the MRI… he was telling me you're not likely to walk again but there's a chance you can.

"...If I can walk again, I promise I will walk again."

Sam thought she and partner Elliot Harlen would have moved into their new house by now.

Instead, she's still in the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, living for Saturdays when the 33-year-old logistics worker comes to visit.

"We bath River together and just do as much with her together as we can and then we just watch a movie. It's just like being at home," she says, her face lighting up.

"I forget sometimes that anything's going on. You're chatting with each other watching the tele and it's easy to forget the reality around you.

"I just go back to normal when Elliot's here."

Sam says it's a 40-minute drive each way from Browns Plains after a 12-hour workday for Elliot so a brief Wednesday evening and the extended Saturday are all they can manage.

Hair pulled back, lying back in a pink jumper, Sam is remarkably matter-of-fact, determined, when she talks about her physio, the battle to be able to walk again and care for River.

Samantha Bulmer and daughter River. Photo: Jorge Branco

Samantha Bulmer and daughter River. Photo: Jorge Branco

It's only when she thinks about what happens if the feeling and movement in her legs never come back that emotion overwhelms her briefly.

"I feel like I can face this and deal with it in my mind temporarily," she says, eyes shining with tears on the verge of spilling over.

"If it was like one year and you're going to get better, I feel like I can deal with it.

"But at the moment, I'm struggling with facing it, my whole life, that's the hardest thing."

The whole time her mum's talking, River plays quietly, cooing with the hospital volunteer who comes in most mornings to give mum a break.

"Today she's just been really fussy, wanting to have cuddles with me. She's perfect," Sam says.

From now, it's about recovery. Sam is hoping for a transfer to the Princess Alexandra Hospital's dedicated centre but acknowledges months of rehab awaits.

In the meantime, she's hoping to raise enough money through an online fundraiser to fly family over from England to help support her when she gets out.