Paula Umaña, 47 years old, was attacked by a disease that left her with paraplegia. Contradicting all forecasts, she walked again and, after an intense struggle, she launched a book of testimonies with which she seeks to comfort people who are going through illness and suffering.
Paula Umaña Hidalgo’s optimism does not sound rational. 7 years ago, her life changed in a cruel and painful way, as she found herself prostrate in bed without explanation. Her arms and legs were losing strength and, from one moment to the next, she was immobile, terrified.
Paula just gave birth to Charles, the fifth child from her marriage to Serge Sautre. While the doctors were looking for an explanation for her quadriplegia, at her house, hers, her newborn, was waiting for her, as well as her daughters Marie, Clara, Felicitée and Ana Cecilia. Decades ago, she had been one of the best tennis players in Costa Rica, but in 2014 and in subsequent years the agile woman lost her physical abilities every day.
It was a lot of pain, especially emotional, that this Costa Rican living in Atlanta, United States went through. Currently, thanks to some devices and after believing that there was nothing else to do, Paula can walk, even with her atrophied hands she manages to drive an adapted vehicle. Her mind, will and desire to help others of hers do not allow him to complain about her: she feels capable of achieving everything she sets out to do.
Today she wants to share hope and encouragement with sick people and their families. She does so by speaking of her testimony and that of 26 other people from around the world in her book “40 Gifts of Hope”, an issue that describes how to go through pain and that, especially, is aimed at those who currently suffer from it.
Why this? Because Paula knows what it is like to be motionless in bed and receive words of encouragement, but then see the same people telling her to leave when she could not get up. Everything was born there. Paula does not complain at any time. Her voice shares enthusiasm and love for life.
In short, Paula Umaña found in an extreme test the strength and the courage to motivate others. This is the story of how she defeated what seemed invincible.
Nothing can beat a true winner
More than 2 decades ago, Paula Umaña Hidalgo accumulated, year after year, the title of the best tennis player in Costa Rica and Central America. She repeatedly was number 1, and when she was not her name was in the top 5 of the most prominent.
It was through a project related to her profession that she met Serge, a Frenchman with whom she married and raised a family in Atlanta, Georgia, United States. Moving to another country was not difficult knowing that her sister Glenda Umaña, the internationally known Costa Rican journalist, lived in the same state.
In the United States, the 5 children of Paula and Charles were born: Marie (18 years old), Clara (17), Felicitée (12), Ana Cecilia (11) and Charles Sautre (6).
It was during her last pregnancy that everything began to change for Paula, a woman who prays before this conversation so that her words, rather her testimony, impact the lives of those in need. For seven years, with the test, the mission also came.
“It all started in 2014, when I was pregnant with Charles. I started to feel numbness in my hands; I thought it was part of the pregnancy, because of the whole circulation issue. The first symptoms appeared during a picnic: I went to the car to get a bottle of wine and I dropped it, I could not hold it”, she recalls.
Before continuing to talk about the strange disease that afflicted her, Paula travels to the past so that it is possible to understand the present. “Before I got married I played professional tennis. I was number 1 in Costa Rica and Central America for more than nine years. I was always super competitive, super active. She was never still, nor did she stop playing sports. I ran a lot. I was the best player in Costa Rica to date. I reached the best international ranking with the 281st position in the world in doubles. I loved to dance. I lived off my legs”, she recalls.
After they got married, Paula started her own tennis company in Atlanta. She had a lot of work and always kept doing activities with her children. When she got pregnant with her last child, she had a tennis program with more than 80 boys and girls, everything was normal. Symptoms that seemed unrelated to her previous pregnancies didn’t bother her too much.
The moment of delivery came. She, Paula, wanted everything to be natural if possible, because when she had caesarean sections, her recovery had been complicated. The tireless woman wanted to recover soon to return to her usual happy and busy life.
“In the end I ended up in a cesarean section. I think my illness had been activated since pregnancy. When the baby was born I began to feel super weak, I wondered why it was so difficult for me to walk, I started with numbness in my legs, I did not feel them.
“My doctor sent me to the neurologist and said that I probably had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a disorder in which a person’s own immune system damages their neurons and causes muscle weakness and can lead to paralysis) that I was sure to remain with disabilities. He did not believe it. I got worse”, she recalls.
So Paula began treatment for her alleged condition and after four days there was no improvement. She was weaker. Her baby was born in December 2014, and by February 2015 the woman could not even climb the stairs. She felt that she had a monster in her body.
“I had a movable toilet next to it. One day I fell to the ground and did not feel my legs. They were like spaghetti. I couldn’t get up. They took me back to the hospital. They made me plasmapheresis; they cleaned my blood and put it back to see if my immune system would stop attacking me”.
Some alternatives; no solution
Terror that Paula lived was proportional to that experienced by her family. Her sister, Glenda, began to tell her about the Shepherd Center, a hospital specializing in caring for people who, after different events -mainly accidents- are paralyzed. There each patient receives preparation to return to life with a disability.
Paula managed to enter the place and there her roommates were a young woman who fell from a fourth floor, a teenager who crashed on a motorcycle and a lawyer who was left with his legs paralyzed after falling from a horse; then, she had no explanation for her paralysis.
“My diagnosis was confusing. At home my children were without a mother. That was when Glenda left CNN. She adopted my children that time, she took care of them. She also helped a lot in the fundraising part. She could never take care of me. She did not know what else to do to help me. She was very good at taking care of my children. She was taking the baby to her house”, she says.
While Paula Umaña was hospitalized, she got worse. Her body was unresponsive, but her champion mind fought with all of her might. “I never said I cannot take it anymore. That caused confusion for the doctors. I spent hours trying to move. “Her children visited her and in the midst of her devastation, she organized everything so that they felt that this meeting was like a walk, like a party. She remembers those years with regret, however, her children do not see it that way, she says.
Paula left the medical center without improvement. She was emotionally drained. Upon arriving at her home she faced the shock of seeing ramps everywhere and the main floor of her home turned into an adapted room. “I saw a ‘welcome mom’ sign and all she wanted was for my friend to throw it all away. They were happy, but for me it was traumatizing. Paula could not be the mother she wanted. She could not even feel herself.
Even in the midst of so much bewilderment and despair, she highlights all the blessings that came to her life and that of her family. All of her daughters then entered a prestigious school that they had always dreamed of. Recently, her oldest daughter entered college and in the letter in which she was applying she talked about her childhood with her sick mother, about the parties at the hospital and how her mother taught her to achieve whatever it takes at school life. Those are some of the thousand precious situations that Paula highlights above the “100 misfortunes”.
Back at her house, Paula decided that she would keep fighting. She went back to the neurologist and he told her that she was worse. She had been fighting for six months. She said goodbye and told him that she would do therapy and was going to pray. Shortly after, she became a quadriplegic.
“The doctor believed that she had terminal nerve cancer. What happened to me was not normal. At first he told me that there was something else called Chronic Demyelinating Inflammatory Polyneuropathy. I had a whole month of exams and finally that was the diagnosis. The treatment was immunoglobulins, every 3 weeks, and I had 8 months of not doing it. But we tried.
“It was nice because this started before August 2nd, 2015 (Our Lady of the Angels day). There was a huge pilgrimage in Costa Rica for me. Everyone was praying desperately. We start with immunoglobulins. Each bottle cost US$ 10,000 and I used 9 every 3 weeks. For my insurance it cost me much less. If it was US$ 100,000, they charged me US$ 1,000 ″,she recalls.
Paula’s story reached her neighbors and many Costa Ricans. Donations even came in from people she “disliked.” She promised never to speak of anyone again, she says between low-key laughs. In the middle of the process, she received Madrea Andrea, a Costa Rican nun whom she describes as a “very cool” person. She, that day, gave everything to God.
While everything was happening, she remembers herself under the patient gaze of her husband who gave her peace of mind. He always made her believe that everything was going to be okay. He was trying all of her with her. The treatment started to take effect and the next day she was able to sit up. She every month she saw improvements. She felt it was miraculous.
But after 2 years of treatment, her body stopped reacting. “To date, my hands have been a bit stunted but functional. From the knee down I am completely paralyzed. I cannot move my fingers or ankles. I could not walk without a walker. Every step was too difficult, so it was being in a wheelchair. I could not have the independence of carrying dishes to the sink or walking hand in hand with my son.
“All of that stayed that way. I went to a muscle center of excellence in Tennessee and they said they had nothing for me. I stayed there and months, years began to pass. I did not walk for 3 years (as of 2018). He used a type of plastic on his legs and the walker. He could not stand or hold anything”.
“I was sure I was not going to improve”
Paula Umaña was convinced that nothing was going to change anymore. She appreciated people’s prayers and love, but her conscience told her that there was not much to do. One day, accustomed to her new life, she asked her husband to stop at a supermarket. At that time her eldest daughter was in Spain and she prayed for her mother before the Virgin of Fatima.
In the supermarket Paula found hope. She was on her feet thanks to a walker and rigid plastic that supported her inert legs. While the woman tried to ignore a comment from a young man with a cognitive disability, that she asked what had happened to him, at the other extreme was a girl who with every word made her feel faith in the “impossible”. “She told me: ‘you see that I was like you. Now I use these devices’. She did not walk for 12 years. She has no feet. She sat down and took everything off and showed me the devices that she uses. She got lost in winter for three days and had to have her feet cut off”, she recalls.
The girl from the supermarket had found a young man on Instagram who devised special devices, which serve the function of the legs. She recommended that Paula contact that person.
“It is a device that you put on and take off. I arrived at the house to research; we began to see what it was. You had to apply and send videos to see if the case qualified. One of those days, I saw the email from the clinic and it said that she was a candidate for these devices. Months before I had been told that she would never be able to walk. So imagine the illusion at that moment. I was able to cry for the first time. Before, she did not cry because why would she cry if she was not going to be able to walk. When I opened that email it was moans that came from my heart. The feeling that there was something that was going to help me came from deep within”, she recalls.
In September 2018, she traveled to Seattle. She had been unable to walk for 3 years. She describes Ryan, the young creator, as a genius. He adapted the devices so that Paula could walk again. And he could. For 3 years she has been walking thanks to these devices.
Her life now
In the midst of the most difficult moments of her illness, Paula became a motivator and speaker. She did not speak precisely of pain, but of “the beautiful things” that happened to her in times of suffering. She has been on the big stage and wants to continue to do so.
“It is a privilege to use ugly and bad things that happened to me for good things. I like to bring hope, tell my story, and inspire others. (…) This is beautiful. I am super happy”, she says.
Paula lives a full life, different from before. She now spends her days with paraplegia but she walks thanks to the devices. She does it freely. “I have a fairly normal life within disability. My hands are a bit stunted, my eyes and legs too. But I have learned to live a fairly normal life with disability. I did not drive a car for six years. Now I drive after two years of training. I drive only with my hands, the car has a control. I wear telescope glasses. My car also has a crane where I put a scooter, which I take when I go to give tennis lessons and with it I can drive around the campus. I can walk but not very long distances or hills”.
Paula regained her gait and her work as well. She has a tennis school and teaches different programs in 5 educational centers. She feels fulfilled.
With her book “40 Gifts of Hope”–available both in Spanish and English–, Paula wants to give her fellow men a support, one that she did not have within her reach in her worst days. “When I was in the hospital, completely paralyzed, visitors, counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists began to come to my room, but when they left they walked out and I was paralyzed in a bed. There I remember the day when I was inspired and said that I wanted the paraplegic to speak to me, the one who suffers and the one who is ill. I needed them to speak to my heart and tell me what to do with all this pain, frustration, suffering, how one does communicate with the relatives of the one who suffers, and how it is done in a difficulty”.