“Never judge a book by its cover” is something we hear often growing up, and it couldn’t be truer. Looking at 24-year-old Shahaf, you’d see a successful new mom, married to the love of her life. Look a little harder, though, and you’ll see a woman whose life was torn apart when she started feeling numbness while she was pregnant. Look even more closely, and you’ll see a woman who had everything taken away from her, and who’s had to scratch and claw all the way to get it back.
A happy life thrown into turmoil
Shahaf Gershon is a 24-year-old new mom from Israel. She seems to have the perfect life – meeting the love of her life at just 18, having a beautiful baby boy, and running a fashion design firm that’s all her own.
Rewinding back to the beginning, however, she started small. Literally. The youngest daughter of older parents, she was drawn to fashion for as long as she could remember. Back then, she never could’ve imagined all the good that awaited her. Or the bad. And there’d be a lot of both.
Making her first steps in fashion design
Since she always loved fashion, and would adorn her mother’s clothes with crystals even as a kid, Shahaf planned on studying fashion. Unfortunately, something got in the way – success.
At 18, she borrowed a dress from a friend, but it didn’t fit het so she went about creating her own. When she put pictures of it online, word got around, and soon she was swamped with requests from other girls to design something for them. Before long, it dawned on her that she could actually make a living out it.
Meeting the man of her dreams
A lot clicked for her when she was 18. That was also the age she met her future husband, Nir. He was her first boyfriend, and they met by pure chance.
One day Shahaf wanted a Coke, so she popped over to the corner store located under her dad’s business. That store was owned by Nir’s parents, and he just happened to be there. They got to talking, and hit it off. When she was 21, he popped the question at the Eiffel Tower. A year later they were married.
A first unpleasant surprise
Up to now, it might seem like Shahaf’s life had went about as well as it could have. It was just one incredibly happy coincidence after another.
When she got back from a fashion photoshoot in South Africa, life threw her the first of what would be many curveballs – she discovered she was pregnant. It was unplanned, and actually an unpleasant surprise. “If I have a kid now,” she thought, “it would just bring my business to a screeching halt.” In retrospect, however, that baby may have saved her life.
Starting to feel unwell
Initially, the pregnancy came along fine. Normal morning sickness aside, Shahaf went back to work, worked out, and was happy as a clam. Then, during the eighth month of pregnancy, her life was thrown for a loop.
She was standing in line in a store and suddenly felt like she was “standing on air.” She called her husband in a panic and asked him to come get her. He did, and took her home. She refused to go to a hospital, and everyone assured her it was probably nothing.
Eventually, when the feeling of numbness in her legs wasn’t going away, she gave in and went to the doctor, an orthopaedic specialist. He asked her to wiggle her toes, and she couldn’t.
He then asked her to lift her leg, and she couldn’t do that either. Finally, he asked her to push her leg forward like she’s stepping on a gas pedal – and she couldn’t. Somehow, at the end of the checkup, the doctor told her she was fine. He believed it was just swelling related to the pregnancy.
A traumatic birth
The numbness stayed with her all the way to her water breaking. Childbirth was extremely difficult – she was injected with epidural but since she was already numb, it only made her feel completely paralyzed.
She couldn’t even push during birth. For hours on end, nothing was happening, and while the baby started crowning, he seemed to be stuck. Eventually, by pushing down on her stomach, the baby finally emerged. Shahaf was so exhausted by the end of it that she didn’t even want to hold her new son – just sleep.
Not strong enough to be a mother
Hoping that maybe her baby was pressing down on some nerve, she thought she would find relief after giving birth; she didn’t. Shahaf suffered from terrible back pain and still couldn’t move her legs.
Doctors told her it was because the epidural was still circulating around her body, but it wasn’t getting any better. Since she couldn’t care for the baby, the entire family moved to her mother’s house. She found herself unable to function, and so her husband and mom took charge of caring for the newborn.
Doctors can’t help
Three months later, Shahaf was still feeling awful. She had no choice but to start seeing doctors again, and went to a neurologist who sent her to do an EMG, which checks muscles by stimulating them with electric pulses.
She couldn’t even feel the pulses, but somehow the test came back clean. Six months after giving birth, she’d had enough and went to the ER. “I wanted to be tested thoroughly and properly for once, so I could know what was wrong,” she said. The tests all came back clean.
A fateful meeting
Since no one could figure out what was wrong with her, eventually Shahaf and her family went back to their normal lives. Fate, however, once again came calling.
A client came into her studio one day, and noticed her self-described “duck waddle.” She asked about it, and Shahaf replied it was epidural in her legs. The client said it couldn’t be that. It just so happened that she worked at a medical imaging institute, and made an appointment for her to come in and have some tests done.
The crushing discovery
At the end of her rope, Shahaf came in for a test at the client’s institute the very next day. Two weeks later, the results came in. “The client told me I had a two-inch tumor in my back,” she revealed, “and it was bleeding.”
Shahaf was numb – only this time emotionally. She couldn’t even find the strength to call the place back, and had her mom do that instead. A biopsy of the tumor needed to be taken, and an appointment was set for two weeks’ time.
‘I thought I was dying’
Shahaf never made it those two weeks. A week after finding out what was wrong with her, she was at work in her studio. She was texting with clients when she suddenly caught herself.
Looking at her texts, they were just garbled, meaningless groups of letters. Her body started shaking. In an absolute panic, she called up her mom. “I’m going to die today,” she told her. “These are my final hours.” In an even bigger panic, her mom came in to the studio – and rushed her to the hospital.
The tumor’s effects
Knowing what they were looking for, doctors at the hospital had an easier time of pinpointing the problem.
The tumor, it turned out, was affecting not just the nerves in her spine, which led to the numbness in her legs, but also her brain, which explained why she was disoriented and the garbled texts. At the hospital, a nurse finally brought her a wheelchair. She recalled being thrilled to see it, thinking she’d waited for one for so long, but never dared ask.
Too big to remove
The time for tests was over. Shahaf was wheeled into emergency surgery, which took four hours. Speaking to her mom beforehand, the surgeon grimly told her he’d do his best.
When it was over, there were good news and bad news. The good news were the tumor was benign, made of fat tissue. The bad news? So much time had passed, and it’d gotten so big, that not all of it could be removed. And so, no one could say whether Shahaf would ever function normally – or even walk – again.
Close to giving up
Four days after surgery, Shahaf was taken to a recovery ward. It was, she said, the hardest day of her life. She couldn’t feel her limbs, and couldn’t do anything on her own – not eat, shower or go the bathroom.
Looking around the ward, she saw much older people. “I felt like I was in h***,” she said. She simply couldn’t understand what a 24-year-old woman with a six-month-old baby was doing at a place like that. “I wanted to die,” Shahaf said. “I didn’t want to fight anymore.”
Finding the strength to go on
Thanks to her family, Shahaf somehow found it in her to carry on. From the moment she was hospitalized, her mom quit her job and basically moved into the hospital to be with her girl 24/7.
Her sisters came in for moral support as well, not to mention her husband and her son’s frequent visits. Even her husband’s parents never stopped egging her on to get better. “My father-in-law would come in every day,” she said, “pick me up and ask me to walk a few steps with him.”
‘How can I walk if I can’t feel my legs?’
After six of the long weeks of her life, she was discharged from the hospital as soon as she managed to walk using crutches. “To this day, I haven’t gotten the feeling in my legs back,” she said.
As she was undergoing physical therapy, she pleaded with the therapists: “How can I walk if I can’t feel my legs?” But doing that is exactly what they taught her. She’d gotten some of her freedom back, but things were far from perfect. She still couldn’t pick up her baby, for instance.
Giving thanks to her Wonder
Shahaf decided to name her son Pele. No, she wasn’t paying homage to the Brazilian soccer legend – Pele means “wonder” in Hebrew.
His full name, in fact, is Pele Gabriel – his middle name a tribute to her father-in-law, who she admires. As for her son’s first name, he really was a wonder. “He’s proven himself to be one,” she beamed. “He’s an amazing baby who hardly ever cries at night, it’s as if he knows his mommy’s suffering.” Even her pregnancy, unplanned as we mentioned, hastened the tumor’s discovery.
Sharing her story
After concluding her physical therapy, Shahaf decided to document everything she was going through on a special, dedicated Instagram page, which she named “I am Shahaf Gershon.”
She’s been uploading photos and videos ever since she left surgery, adding some words that describe what she’s feeling. She wants to bring attention to what she says has been misdiagnosis of her condition. More than anything else, though, she wants someone going through the same thing to see her posts, and realize there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
Still no feeling in her legs
Ironically, the tunnel is far from filled with light for Shahaf herself. “I cry every night and can’t fall asleep,” she said sadly, explaining how hard it was carrying on with life when she knows the tumor’s still inside her, and may keep growing.
A doctor told her to not gain weight to keep it small. When she asked what would happen if she wanted to get pregnant again, he didn’t have an answer. She still can’t feel her legs, and visits a physical therapist three times a week.
Hope for a better future
At the moment, Shahaf is still reeling from her condition’s effects; not only the physical ones, but also the psychological. Still, she refuses to give up.
“I’d like to go back to running and doing sports in a year’s time,” she said. She also wants her and her mom to get matching tattoos, so she could look at it when she has trouble sleeping and feel like she’s there beside her. For someone who’s been through so much, and is still standing, we have no doubt she’ll achieve all that.