Even after contracting a life-altering syndrome from a feral cat she befriended on vacation, Gemma Birch still considers herself an animal lover.
The 25-year-old from Southport, England, was spending a week in Albufeira, Portugal, in June 2015 when she took in a “gorgeous” stray cat who would lounge on the patio of the rental apartment, Birch recalls to PEOPLE.
Immediately smitten, Birch began giving the animal milk from a bowl and letting her inside.
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“She obviously loved me, and she’d follow me everywhere,” says Birch, who runs a lifestyle blog and works in a gym. “I was fine all week. I was so sad to leave her.”
But on the last night, she started vomiting severely and suffering from diarrhea. On the plane ride home, on top of her existing symptoms, Birch started to feel faint.
By the time she landed, her stomach was so swollen she looked “nine months pregnant,” she says. “Like I was about to burst.”
She made it home, where her father immediately told her she needed to go to the hospital because she was so weak and pale, Birch recalls.
After spending a week in the ICU and undergoing many tests, doctors discovered Birch had been infected with campylobacter, a common cause of food poisoning.
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Doctors asked if she’d eaten any uncooked poultry. A staunch vegetarian, Birch said no. Then they asked if she had come into contact with any animals recently, and she remembered her feline friend.
Next came more tests, which helped the medical team discover that she had contracted the infection from a living animal.
“Once they found out, they weren’t worried. They said I’d get better at home with bedrest,” Birch recalls. “But I got worse. I couldn’t walk. I kept falling and losing my balance.”
Her symptoms, inconsistent food poisoning, led Birch to make repeated appointments with her general practitioner, who kept telling her to just get more rest.
“Eventually I stopped going because I felt like I was bugging them,” Birch says. “But you just know when it’s something else.”
Then, two weeks after leaving the hospital — three weeks after returning from Portugal — Birch woke up around 3 a.m. because she’d fallen out of bed.
“I couldn’t feel my legs on the sheets or my feet on the carpet,” she explains. “I started scratching my legs so hard that they bled, but I still couldn’t feel it. I screamed for my dad, and he took me to the hospital.”
In the emergency room, Birch says she googled her symptoms and the campylobacter bacteria, which turned up three words: Guillain-Barré syndrome…