It Started as a Headache in Ballet Class — Now She Can't Move Her Left Hand: 'My Whole Life Had Changed' (Exclusive)

Sarah Todd Hammer, 22, recalls being diagnosed with a neurological disorder when she was a little girl after telling her mom "my arms and hands aren't working"

<p>Sarah Todd Hammer</p> Sarah Todd Hammer in the hospital in 2010, and at home in Atlanta in 2023.

Sarah Todd Hammer

Sarah Todd Hammer in the hospital in 2010, and at home in Atlanta in 2023.

Sarah Todd Hammer was 8 years old taking ballet class in 2010 when she started to experience strong pains in her head and neck. By the time class was over, her arms and hands were no longer functioning as they should.

"I was immediately scared," Hammer tells PEOPLE exclusively. "I said, 'Mom, my arms and hands aren't working' and was very freaked out through that whole ordeal. We went to urgent care which was 10 minutes away from the studio. By the time I got there I couldn't walk."

Hammer was living in Atlanta at the time and was flown by helicopter to a nearby hospital where she stayed in the emergency room for six hours. "I didn't get any treatment except Motrin for my head and neck pain," says Hammer, now 22. "That night I kept trying to sit up. I'd already lost the ability to sit up by myself at that point."

"I kept trying to do it, and I was just very determined to make it happen," she continues. "I just kept trying over and over and it wasn't working, and I was discouraged. So definitely at that point, I knew something was wrong, but I obviously hadn't grasped that this was life-changing."

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Hammer was eventually discharged and sent home. But the next morning, Hammer, now a student at Davidson College in North Carolina, woke up completely paralyzed from the neck down.

This time she was in for a long hospital stay.

"I went back to the hospital and was there for two months, including 12 days in the ICU," Hammer says. "When I left the hospital in June 2010, I had been diagnosed with transverse myelitis, leaving partial paralysis in my arms and hands." Transverse myelitis is caused by a viral attack on the spinal cord, according to John Hopkins Medicine.

While in the ICU, Hammer says she had a plasmapheresis treatment, which the Cleveland Clinic describes as a process to obtain plasma from blood. Through this treatment Hammer was able to gain movement back in her legs.

Hammer went through five weeks of inpatient rehab. "I did a lot of physical and occupational therapy there, and I was literally pushing my manual wheelchair with my legs," she says. Then she participated in a program where she received daily physical and occupational therapy.

<p>Sarah Todd Hammer</p> Sarah Todd Hammer in the ICU in April 2010

Sarah Todd Hammer

Sarah Todd Hammer in the ICU in April 2010

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After her diagnosis, Hammer attended a summer camp from 2012 to 2014 with other kids who had transverse myelitis. But she noticed they didn't share the same physical limitations."Most of those kids with transverse myelitis were wheelchair users and had no sensation, whereas I had recovered the ability to walk and had sensation," she says.

"I also had spotty, partial paralysis, whereas most of the kids with transverse myelitis were paralyzed chest- or waist-down," she adds.

The experience at camp led Hammer to question whether she had been accurately diagnosed. In 2018, she decide to get another opinion on her condition. This time, doctors diagnosed her with acute flaccid myelitis (AFM,) which the CDC says is a serious neurological condition that causes the muscles and reflexes in the body to become weak.

According to the CDC, cases of AFM increased in 2014, 2016, and 2018 in the U.S. Most cases – more than 90% — have been in young children.

<p>Sarah Todd Hammer</p> Sarah Todd Hammer has published 3 books about her disability.

Sarah Todd Hammer

Sarah Todd Hammer has published 3 books about her disability.

These days, Hammer continues to struggle. "I can’t move my left hand at all, my right hand is very weak, and I can’t move certain areas of my arms & shoulders," she says. Her muscles get tired and tight from overuse so she often gets a neck and shoulder massage from her physical or occupational therapist.

As she continued to learn more about her disability, Hammer decided to get involved in disability advocacy. She has published three books — and each one shares different parts of her personal story.

Her latest project, she says, is spreading awareness on social media, including TikTok, where she has 90,000 followers.

"As I got older I learned more about disability through meeting other people on Instagram, and now by being in college and getting to take disability studies classes," she says.

"In addition to sharing my story, I've also started educating people on disability topics. I want to share the message that I have a great life, and not despite my disability. My disability essentially has made so many great things happen for me," she explains.

She adds: "It definitely took a while for me to accept my disability because my whole life had changed, but kids are just really resilient. I think my age helped a lot with that. My disability is an integral part of myself, and I wouldn't want to change it because my life would not be the same."

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