Inspirational Emma: “I feel very lucky to be alive”
- Credit: Denise Bradley
Emma Martins was a television producer, working on documentaries around the world – until a virus attacked her brain, ending her career and almost ending her life.
After months in hospital and rehabilitation clinics, first fighting the virus and then relearning everything from how to walk to how to make a cup of tea, she was left with sight-loss, memory loss, severe dyslexia and overwhelming fatigue. But the illness could not rob her of her gregarious, joyful, personality or love of life.
“I feel very lucky to be alive,” said Emma. “I should have died. I was given a 20 per cent chance of survival. But I’m back in Norwich. It’s lovely. I’ve got friends around me and I’ve got a boyfriend.
“I’m very lucky to be alive and I’ve got to just embrace it. Life takes you on its own journey and you have got to go with it and make the best of it.”
Now Emma is launching a podcast series with the charity Headway Norfolk and Waveney, celebrating the extraordinary resilience of local people who have survived head and brain injuries.
Emma fell ill while on holiday in Vietnam and arrived back in Britain so poorly that her friends took her straight from the airport to hospital – where she was diagnosed with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.
It attacks the brain and her first symptoms were feeling groggy and disorientated. “I just couldn’t remember anything,” she said. “Bizarrely, although we were in Vietnam, we bumped into a doctor I knew from London and he looked in my eyes and said, ‘I think you should head straight home and straight to the Royal London Hospital.’
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“I managed to get on the flight home before I started losing my eyesight.
“I’m a pretty chilled out person, so it was just, ‘Oh I can’t really see.’ I didn’t really freak out, I just thought something wasn’t quite right.
She spent two months in hospital before being moved to a specialist neurological rehabilitation clinic.
“That’s where I felt I lost the plot!” said Emma. “I realised I had lost the ability to make a cup of tea. Not that tea was that important to me but all of a sudden it was, ‘Oh, I can’t even make a cup of tea.’ That was the scariest point. I totally freaked out.
“I managed to re-learn that, and how to walk, and how to swim. It takes a while. You just try over and over.
“I can’t see from my right eye because the left side of my brain was attacked. My memory has been very badly affected. That is quite annoying. And I get exhausted and overwhelmed.
“The only way I managed to get through it was in hospital they taught me about using mindfulness because my brain gets overwhelmed. It really, really helps me. I do 15 minutes twice a day.
“I’m not able to drive and that will never come back, but I have a white cane which means I always get a seat on the bus!”
Emma, now 43, grew up in Bawburgh, near Norwich. The former Wymondham College pupil got a job with Anglia Television and became an assistant producer on the Trisha Show. She then worked in America on Animal Cops; Houston and spent the next seven years based in London and travelling the world, producing programmes and developing ideas for Discovery. “I loved it. I was having a great life,” said Emma. “That year I had spent a month in China, I’d been to America twice. Then I got a virus. Who knows where I picked it up. We still don’t know.”
As she recovered she did some work-experience with podcast company Acast as part of her rehabilitation. “I decided I still wanted to work in media but I couldn’t see, so knew television wouldn’t work,” said Emma. After a few months she was asked to try making her own podcasts and agreed to have a go, hoping a series focusing on people who had been through life-changing events might help others too.
Her career in television meant she had contacts with celebrities and her first interviewee was Trisha, who she had worked with in Norwich. The series, The Longest Battle, also included former model Heather Mills, who had to have her leg amputated below the knee, and Paul ‘Mad Dog’ McGuinness of the Pogues. “He was in hospital with a brain injury pretty much the same time as me,” said Emma.
Eight years on from her devastating illness, and after years and rehabilitation and a huge amount of support from family and friends, Emma is living independently in Norwich and well enough to take on some paid work. Two mornings a week she runs peer support groups for Headway Norfolk and Waveney – as well as creating podcasts for the charity. However, ask her how old she is and she struggles to answer because the virus attacked the part of her brain which deals with numbers.
“I really love helping other people who have had brain injuries and are going through similar things,” she said. “It isn’t that different to what I was doing as a television producer; meeting people, talking to people, I’m good at dealing with people.
“But now it’s in front of people instead of behind the scenes. I do talks and its petrifying! I’d never wanted to be in front of the camera. But it’s good to show people that they are not on their own and things can get better.
“I’m still getting better. The fatigue is getting easier, I can work a bit longer, but it’s still hard. I want to help people realise how tricky things are for people with brain injuries. My brain injury is hidden. People can’t see all the processes in my brain which don’t work.”
Emma is helped by a support worker because of her dyslexia and partial vision but said: “I’ve got lots of friends and people say that my personality hasn’t changed.”
Her new podcasts, Headpods, have been launched to coincide with Action for Brain Injury Week (May 16-22.) The series, highlighting inspirational head injury survivors from East Anglia, is produced and presented by Emma and available on the Headway Norfolk and Waveney website.
One episode features 63-year-old Stacey who fell down stairs at home, broke her hip and suffered a brain injury. She joined a Headway support group and now volunteers for the charity.
“They give people a voice to tell their story, said Emma. “I enjoy doing them. Working with Headway has been brilliant for me.”
Headway Norfolk and Waveney CEO, Michael Kitching, said: “Emma’s podcast is inspirational, not just for her achievements following her brain injury but as a platform to raise awareness of invisible illness and disability.”
Headway Norfolk and Waveney supports people affected by brain injury and stroke and raises awareness of the conditions. It runs programmes in Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft and Kings Lynn and provides information and support, with a team of occupational therapists and support workers to help people adjust to life after brain injury. Find Headpods at headway-nw.org.uk and The Longest Battle at play.acast.com