Working Stiff

Glenda Turner wrestles with ways to regain a normal life -- as others beat on her to break the grip of the bizarre syndrome racking her body

On this recent Sunday, Glenda Turner takes her place in a back pew at Holman Street Baptist Church and is soon swaying gently. She smiles serenely as Pastor Manson Johnson croons in a rich baritone that "the Lord is blessing me right now."

Turner's pleased. The woman in the gray pantsuit has made it through the introductions and the other preliminary rituals of the service with the kind of calm contentment befitting the surroundings. Fifteen minutes have passed. Then 30.

Far away at the altar, the blue-gowned men and women of the choir bellow, "Rejoice!" Almost without warning, Turner holds up a finger as if to say "wait." Her face begins to quiver. She lets out a muted cry and plants her left hand firmly on the back of her neck. Her body quakes.

Turner and her mother, Pearl, who helps her during the attacks.
Deron Neblett
Turner and her mother, Pearl, who helps her during the attacks.

With her other hand, she manages to clutch a small container of tablets. Turner extends it as she beckons a girl named Princess to administer her muscle relaxants. "All right, okay, put the first pill in my mouth," she groans. Princess does as she is told, while a man in a business suit tries to pry Turner's hand from her neck.

Her legs stiffen straight out in front of her, the tension in the feet twisting her silver pumps until they are pigeon-toed. Turner instructs Princess to sit on her legs to loosen them up. The girl obliges until she is replaced by a heavier, middle-aged woman in a navy blue dress.

People start to stare.

Another parishioner joins in trying to yank Turner's arms down. "You've got to push them down," Turner pleads. A third man arrives, bringing the hive of helpers to five. Grunts and grimaces and a fierce battle of wills escalate until the group finally decides to remove Turner from the pew.

Two men grab her head and shoulders; another lifts her feet. They execute a brisk exit through the open door and barrel down the hallway in a speedy waddle. Once out of the sanctuary, they ease the slipping woman to the floor. They soon manage to get a better grip. But Turner, her muscles violently locked in hard spasms, can only continue the struggle to come to grips with her baffling condition -- one that regularly brings on bizarre confrontations with startled friends and strangers.

Over the last decade, the technical writer and college instructor has had attacks as often as six times a day. For most of that time she had no clue why. It can happen anywhere and at any time -- even in a house of worship.

Glenda Turner is believed to suffer from Stiff Person Syndrome, a disorder so rare that many neurologists go through an entire career without seeing a single case.

Doctors initially figured her problems had something to do with her diabetes, or that it was all in her head. Several physicians think they now have the answer. First documented in 1956, Stiff Person Syndrome remains an enigma in the medical world.

The nonfatal condition is still commonly referred to by its earlier, politically incorrect term of Stiff Man Syndrome. The leading theory suggests it is an autoimmune disease that causes the creation of antibodies that mistakenly attack nerve cells responsible for muscle relaxation, says Dr. Mary Kay Floeter of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The nervous system acquires a hypersensitive startle reflex, making muscles throughout the body vulnerable to sudden stiffness and painful spasms similar to that of a severe, prolonged charley horse.

While the cause of the underlying immune response is not known, Floeter says, an episode can be triggered by something as mild as a camera flash or sounding beeper or gust of wind.

Turner says the attacks often begin with her feet. If those around her remain silent and she pops a muscle relaxant, an episode can pass in five minutes without taking hold. But that rarely happens. Once her body locks and shudders, it takes a difficult fight by several helpers to free her of its force. Turner has learned the hard way that if she is alone during an attack, up to seven hours are needed for her body to relax.

While Houstonians are largely unaware of the little-known disease, Turner's episodes have enlightened emergency personnel and more than a few bystanders to its presence. Some fire stations have posted alerts describing Turner's condition and how to deal with it.

Jacquelyn Simmons, an emergency medical technician, saw the notice about Turner in the lounge area of Fire Station 35. She'd already heard her colleagues' war stories about the woman with the strange neuromuscular problem.

Her first experience with Turner came during an emergency call in October. Simmons was part of a team that rushed to Scott Street, where 35-year-old Turner writhed in pain inside a crowded office that distributes food stamps. Turner's stout body was rigid, and her muscles convulsed violently. An anguished scowl twisted her caramel-colored face.

"We had to start beating on her, straightening her arms out, holding her real tight," Simmons recalls. "Someone actually called 911 and said firefighters are beating on a woman." Two harrowing hours after arriving, the crew restored Turner to normal.

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