Meet Jessica

It’s hard to imagine a Westporter more active, engaged and upbeat than Jessica Branson.

The 1996 Staples High School graduate — a former soccer and volleyball player — worked in Australia after Colgate University. Moving back here, she spent over 2 decades in advertising and marketing. She helped build a variety of brands, including Coke, Jeep and Trojan.

Always healthy, she didn’t think much of some stomach problems in the winter of 2021.

But after a couple of months she lost motor functions. She dropped cups, fell often, then could not even walk.

No one could figure out what was happening

Finally, on Jessica’s second visit to Norwalk Hospital, a neurologist said, “I’m 99% certain you have Guillain-Barré Syndrome.”

Jessica had never heard of the rare autoimmune disorder. It affects 1 to 2 people out of every 100,000.

But it was clear: Her body was fighting its own nervous system.

Despite intense pain, Jessica Branson managed a smile.

She began intravenous immunoglobulin therapy. Healthy antibodies quieted her angry ones.

But she was paralyzed from shoulders down. The disease deprived her of her mobility, yet her nerves continued to fire signals. They tingled, all over her body. 

The pain was “excruciating,” she says. Her body felt like it was constantly vibrating.

Though the disease is related to ALS and multiple sclerosis, it attacks the peripheral — not the central — nervous system.

The good news is, 85% of Guillain-Barré patients respond to treatment.

The bad news: It takes a long time. GBS, it is said, stands for “Get Better Slowly.”

After 2 weeks in Norwalk Hospital, Jessica was transferred to Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford for rehabilitation.

She had to learn how to pick up a pencil, take a shower — and walk — again.

Fortunately, the GBS had not affected her mouth. Some patients can’t swallow or breathe, and need speech therapy.

“I was 41 years old. I laughed at the doctor when he said it would take 1 to 2 years” to recover, she said.

Three years later, she’s not yet fully healed.

After 4 months at Gaylord, Jessica returned to her Newtown Turnpike home. She spent the first year in a wheelchair.

Thankfully, she says, her home has just one floor. She and her husband had never considered mobility issues when they bought it.

It was mid-summer, 2021. COVID was still rampant. No one could visit.

Her friends did what they could. She is grateful for the community outpouring of support.

At Christmastime, they decorated her ramp so it looked beautiful — “just like Terrain.”

Still, it took well over a year before she could drive again. Her feet could not feel the pedals.

Throughout her ordeal, Jessica’s spirit never wavered.

Now, as she re-emerges into the world, she wants one thing: to give back.

She is guiding another woman — a 42-year-old Westport mom — through her own long journey with GBS.

The morning we spoke, Jessica had been at Gaylord Hospital, helping strategize a fundraising campaign.

She works with a national foundation. And she’s helping doctors at Yale and Massachusetts General with their clinical studies.

She’s back at work professionally, too.

Jessica created Branson Growth Consulting with a simple vision: to help businesses and individuals grow, by telling their stories.

“You never know when your story will become someone else’s survival guide,” she says, quoting author Brené Brown.

She works with local non-profits like Staples Tuition Grants, Homes with Hope and Positive Directions, to get their stories in front of the community.

And she is writing a book about “the view of the word from 3 feet” — a wheelchair — to educate readers about GBS, and champion solutions for the disabled community.

If you look at Jessica today, it’s hard to see anything wrong. “My motor side has recovered,” she says. “But my sensory side has not. I still feel disconnected from my feet. I’m a former athlete, and I’m re-learning the basics of how to balance myself, and how to walk.”

For someone who always felt so connected to her body, that disassociation is both “horrible, and humbling.”

It would have been easy to feel sorry for herself, or become depressed. But, Jessica says, “that wouldn’t have helped. I couldn’t do anything, so all I had were my thoughts. I decided to think about recovery.”

She recognizes the advantages she had — the resources to be in a hospital; a motorized wheelchair, and someone to push it — and says, “I have my voice. Now I’m looking for my stage.”

(Click here, to see a News12 story on Jessica Branson.)

May 16, 2024 — Sovic Creative

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