A former fitness instructor from Ramsgate who began painting after being diagnosed with a rare immune system related condition is exhibiting her work at the town’s York Street Gallery.
Mum-of-four Mandy Cairns was a fitness instructor until she became very ill some 12 years ago,
The illness began with swollen tonsils that antibiotics did not cure. A tonsillectomy followed but doctors then suspected the cause was cancer. This was discounted after a 10 day wait but over the next eight years there was no diagnosis despite Mandy suffering bouts of pain and undergoing several different surgery processes.
She said: “I was in excruciating pain, then one day my eye was hurting. I still didn’t know what was wrong but over the next couple of days my vision started to become blurred. I ended up with horrendous double vision this which happened twice over the next couple of years.
“ I was petrified, especially as I was caring for my children. Eventually I had a blood test and it showed something very wrong with my prolactin (a hormone made by the pituitary gland which is a small gland at the base of the brain).
“They thought I had a pituitary tumour so I had an MRI. They found something unusual on the pituitary gland and I ended up in London’s neurological hospital where I had a lot of tests and finally was diagnosed with a very rare illness IgG4 and several related conditions.
“Basically, at some point I got ill and my immune system repaired it but it did not know it was repaired so it keeps trying to do it and this creates fibrotic scarring.
“I was really ill, I would have brain fluid leaking out of my nose and was so sick I lost one stone in five days. At points I just wanted to end my life although I would never do that because I have kids but I did think if something was killing me I just wished it would be quick so my children did not have to watch me suffering.”
The condition means Mandy’s immune system will attack anything it considers foreign and also that the adrenal gland does not work. It can result in pain, swelling, fatigue, sickness and , if untreated, organ failure.
Mandy is unable to exert herself and has to take medication including steroids and hydrocortisone to aid the hormones that help regulate metabolism, the immune system, blood pressure, responses to stress and other essential functions.
The condition is so rare that Mandy was told only 34 cases have been recorded worl-wide with hers being the only case in the UK.
Diagnosis and medication have helped although with the condition only being recognised over the last 15 years, the future is still uncertain.
“Mandy said: “I am now on the right meds, I will never be who I once was but I really appreciate life and my sight now and never take it for granted.
“Most days I still get discomfort but I do have a normal life now just a very different one, I can’t exert myself or I became very poorly but my love of painting has grown and after bringing up 4 children and 3 of them with disabilities my life is a world away from what I knew.
“I now spend my time painting and with my dog, and appreciating my sight and the life. I feel lucky and blessed.”
Mandy took up painting some three years ago after deciding she probably would have some talent as dad Mick and sister Sally-Ann are also artists.
She said: “I started by making resin pictures. My dad and sister paint and my children with Asperger’s draw very well.
“I thought I would try painting and some were atrocious but I watched a lot of YouTube tutorials and kept going.
“I like to paint famous people like Twiggy and Elvis, I have done some painting of children and had some commissions to paint animals. I find it very hard to work because of the pain in my head but I have got a collection of paintings and am doing the exhibition with my dad and sister.
“I would really like to share my love for painting that I have discovered because of my illness and appreciate that I am alive and trying to be positive. I’d like people to see that if you really want to do something, there are no limits.”
Mandy, dad Mick and sister Sally-Ann Bullock and Sally-Ann’s mum-in-law Lesley have their work on display at York Street Gallery from today (August 31) until September 7.
The gallery is open Tuesday-Saturday, 10.30am to 4pm and Sunday 11am to 4pm.