Paralyzed and praying: 21-year-old with lupus staying strong

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By Taylor Riley

Savannah Mertz turned 21 years old in early May, but unlike many young women her age, she didn’t go out on the town with her best friends.


Once an esteemed softball player, Mertz loved to workout and planned to return to college to play her favorite game, but those plans changed in December of last year when she can down with a mysterious illness.

It began with joint pain in Mertz’ hands, and then, in January, it progressed to nausea and intense migraines. After taking four flu tests – all negative – she and the doctors believed it was a virus that would “take its course.” For a few months, the virus persisted and so did the migraines.

After over-the-counter medications and treatments didn’t work, she went to the hospital in March. While Baptist Health in La Grange treated her migraine with Benadryl, doctors noticed that Mertz’ white and red blood cell counts were low.She also couldn’t use the restroom, so they knew something was severely wrong. Mertz received a catheter and 2-liters were taken out of her. 

After she was released, she continued using the device but was also complaining of lower back pain. A few days later on the way to the chiropractor’s office for her back, Mertz slipped on an ice patch and injured her back further. After using home remedies such as a heating pad and ibuprofen, her family decided to go back to the hospital.

Then it happened.

She was lying in the hospital bed when she felt her leg fall asleep. She thought she might have just needed blood flow, because she walked easily into the ER, but it wasn’t the case. She couldn’t feel her legs.

Everyone panicked, including the doctors, who sent her to University of Louisville hospital. She was freezing cold and couldn’t stop shaking. She had a 103.5-degree fever.

With IVs sticking in her arms and steroids running through her young body, the doctors thought she might have had meningitis.

“I didn’t know how to feel … or what to think … I couldn’t feel anything,” she said as she recalled the blur of people in and out of room 733.

She couldn’t sleep and was exhausted. Days turned into nights, and nights into days, and a week later, approximately 15 doctors from different departments visited her room. After a spinal tap, they had a diagnosis: lupus myelitis.

Lupus is a systemic autoimmune disease that occurs when a body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs, according to the Mayo Clinic. Lupus myelitis, specifically, is the inflammation of the spine, which causes paralysis. Because lupus is not hereditary, Mertz is the only person in her family that has suffered any major health issues. Doctors do not know the origins of her disease.

“We feel for her and hope she gets better,” Steve Mertz, her father, said. “It’s so odd for something to happen so fast. You can understand if there’s an accident … it’s just odd.”

Savannah Mertz has taken one round of chemotherapy treatments and will need to continue every 30 days. She will take physical and occupational therapy to get herself first acclimated to her wheelchair, and then hopefully, out of her chair.

“Getting ready in the morning is a process,” she said, adding that her parents have been a huge help. “I don’t want to be a hassle.”

Mertz is human, she gets anxious, but her positivity is what truly shines.

“Lupus can affect your body in ways you can’t imagine,” Mertz said. “(But) it gets easier every day.”

Mertz doesn’t want to seem “weak” but the once-active, independent young woman gets the most upset when she can’t throw a softball with her friends from her chair.

“I don’t care what people think of me,” she said, saying she believes the paralysis is temporary. “I’m still in denial. But if it does last forever, I’m prepared.”

Mertz’ alma mater, Henry County High School is hosting an alumni softball game to give money for her medical bills. The game is scheduled for 7 p.m. on June 15. A donation of $10 is required for entry.