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

Turner eyed her mostly white colleagues mischievously and said, "What happened to the grits? Black people eat grits."

"They kind of laughed, you know, and the next time they did have grits," Lindsey says, chuckling. "That's Glenda Turner."

Humor was harder to come by as the woman began having mysterious spasms. Baffled students huddled around their teacher and kneaded and chopped her body till the trauma passed. For an independent person like Turner, constantly being at the center of a chilling spectacle and requiring the help of so many people was awful. "I have terrible guilt feelings with people having to baby-sit for me," she says.

Worse yet, no one could explain what was wrong with her. "What do you do with an illness where someone hugging you or a phone ringing could cause you to lock up?" she asks plaintively.

Doctors speculated that the attacks were related to diabetic neuropathy, a nerve disorder characterized by numbness and sometimes pain in the hands, feet and legs. Turner, who started to experience stiffness and spasms as early as 1989, believed the assessment was logical because the attacks often originated in her feet and legs.

Turner's gastroenterologist, Ben Echols, witnessed a few attacks in his office. "It's bizarre, isn't it?" he says. "She's the only person I've ever seen it with." He referred Turner to a neurologist who, Turner says, misdiagnosed her as having suffered a stroke.

With so many unanswered questions about her condition, people invariably began to speculate whether she was making the whole thing up, says longtime friend Patricia Douglas, a retired Ben Taub Hospital nurse.

"A lot of people did think she was just doing it for attention, because they couldn't fix it," she says. "Anything medical science can't put a diagnosis on within 24 or 48 hours, they want to send you to a psychiatrist for."

Nothing in her 23-year nursing career prepared Douglas for the many seizures she witnessed Turner having at church. She viewed the phenomenon in religious terms and encouraged Turner to keep coming to services, even if her episodes were disruptive.

"I felt like the word of God was going forth, and Satan just didn't want her to hear that because she would be delivered from whatever this ailment was," she says, punching certain words with a preacherlike cadence. "So my desire for her, and of course her desire, was to come to church and stay in there anyway even through a spell, because the word of God is the word of God. The word of God, it will heal, it will change you, it will save you, it will bless you."

Stallworth says it is obvious that Turner suffers from genuine afflictions.

"There is no doubt. It was painfully obvious that she was in a great deal of physical pain," Stallworth says. "To see firefighters who are bench-pressing 200, 300 pounds pound on her like she's a punching bag, unfold her and keep her from locking into a fetal position … it's a lot to watch." She marvels that Turner has never suffered a bruise.

Simmons, the fire department medic, says she was skeptical until she actually treated Turner. "Some people think she's faking, but I don't. That stuff you have to do to her is too hard. We had quite a few men trying to pull her apart," she says.

There is still so much to be learned about Stiff Person Syndrome that even experts parse their words on whether it is more physical or mental. Floeter, of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, says that it is an organic disease and not a psychological condition. But, she adds, it often creates secondary psychological problems like panic attacks.

"It gets into a cycle, and it is very hard to separate out whether in fact anxiety is truly a biological component, or whether any reasonable person would be anxious if they had that sort of situation," she says.

Turner says she first heard the term Stiff Person Syndrome in the summer of 1997 when she was admitted to a Houston hospital for treatment for her diabetes. While doctors ran tests, Turner had several stiffening episodes. She says one doctor told her it might be Stiff Person Syndrome, which can develop from diabetes.

In August 1997 she took a consulting job in Dallas. Her health woes followed her. After a series of attacks, her company sent her to a specialist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Having observed the spasms, Wilson W. Bryan, an assistant professor of neurology, wrote, "In the past, she has received the diagnosis of stiff-man syndrome."

In February 1998 Turner was admitted to an emergency room of the Dallas County Hospital District. The examining doctor put as a diagnosis in his physician report "Stiff Man Syndrome."

Since then other doctors, including Echols, have concurred with that opinion. Echols signed the medic alert that appears in firehouses across Houston, which says that Turner is a diabetic "diagnosed with a rare Neuromuscular Disorder -- Stiffman's Syndrome."

Turner's friends believed that with a name for the condition, Turner could begin healing.

"The name of God is greater than any name on this earth," Douglas says. "Every name comes under his. So it has to come under subjection."

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