Maryland, United States

My journey to become a Transverse Myelitis researcher started during medical school. While studying in Colombia, I had the opportunity to understand the many needs of patients with neurological problems.  It became my passion to try to understand neurological diseases and help people find the answers they needed about management and prognosis. I was in my last year of school when I met my first patient with transverse myelitis. He was a young man who started experiencing numbness and tingling that quickly progressed to complete paralysis from his waist down; within minutes he was unable to stand.

Nobody in the hospital was very versed in TM. Most people in the field of neurology are fascinated with the brain, but few talk about the spinal cord despite it being an incredibly complex structure. In the hospital, he was initially mislabeled as Guillain-Barré syndrome, but his symptoms didn’t quite fit. Later, we sent for an MRI that showed us where the problem truly was, the patient had a lesion in the spinal cord consistent with Transverse myelitis. We treated him with steroids but unfortunately he didn’t recover. I learned later that he traveled to the Johns Hopkins TM center for a second opinion and was then correctly diagnosed as having had a stroke of the spinal cord. I will always remember this patient because it was shocking to see someone so young and healthy with such fast progression of the disease and knowing that at the time we didn’t even think of a stroke in the spinal cord.  This motivated me to get involved in research.

I was very lucky to join the team at The Johns Hopkins Transverse Myelitis Center. There, as a research fellow, I started to learn the stories of many other patients who experienced the same and were initially misdiagnosed. At the same time, I learned the role of both clinical studies and basic science in answering questions relevant to patients.  I started to study the natural history and risk factors of transverse myelitis to address the challenges faced by physicians when making the diagnosis. I have learned a lot in my time here and hope to keep working to make this knowledge available to the TM community.

My hope is to be able to understand the disease better and to contribute in developing effective diagnostic tests and treatment approaches to minimize disability after the initial event. Above all I hope to continue to learn from this inspiring patient population.

Paula Barreras Cortes, MD
Johns Hopkins Transverse Myelitis Center, Baltimore, MD