Lucky to live:
A rare virus left the life of globetrotting television producer Emma Martins hanging in the balance. Five years on she is inspiring others with her extraordinary determination
The story of a woman fighting back from horror virus
Emma Martins was living her dream life. Not only was she a successful television producer, she was fulfilling her passion for travel as her career took her around the globe.
But five years ago a holiday with friends in Vietnam turned her world upside down; a lifethreatening virus saw her battling to simply survive, followed by an even longer battle to learn how to live again.
Emma, who grew up in Norfolk, was in hospital for months and given only a 20% chance of survival. Miraculously she made it through, but the virus has left her with a serious brain injury, partial sight, cognitive fatigue and severe dyslexia.
Determined not to give up, she began to piece her life back together, gradually relearning basic skills and readjusting to the huge change in her life.
The virus she contracted in Vietnam, acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM), caused a sudden inflammation of the brain and spinal cord but, she says, initially there was little clue as to how serious it was.
“I just didn’t feel quite right and had a bit of an upset stomach. I don’t remember too much about it now – my brain obviously wanted to forget it. But I do remember being in a museum in Ho Chi Minh City and I couldn’t keep track of what I was reading on the information boards. I must have just ignored it and followed the others.
“But on the last day, by chance, we ran into a doctor I knew from London and he told me to immediately go to hospital when I landed. I managed to make it off the flight and to the Royal London Hospital and within a very short amount of time, I couldn’t see and was in a critical condition. I didn’t leave hospital for four months.”
Her recovery didn’t end with leaving hospital. From learning to walk again to basic life skills such as cooking and using money, running to swimming, she had to start afresh.
Incredibly, five years on, she has run a half marathon, embarked on volunteer work as a befriender, which led to an award from the Mayor of London for voluntary services, has her own podcast series, has produced a film for brain injury charity Headway and is helping others with sight loss through a series of videos for the RNIB.
“My life has totally changed and it is a long battle, but the brain is an extraordinary thing and I am seeing improvements all the time,” she says. “I am still a television maker at heart and I remember asking my friends why they didn’t film my journey.
“They were quite straight with me; they simply didn’t think I was going to make it. It was a harsh reminder that really I’m just very lucky to be alive.”
Emma, who lives in London, grew up in Bawburgh, where her parents still live and where she still spends a lot of time. She was a pupil at Thorpe House School and Wymondham College. After studying at university in Sheffield, she was determined to forge a career in television, behind the cameras, starting in Norwich on Anglia’s Trisha show. She moved to London to work on factual shows and her career blossomed, taking her from researcher to producer – leading to her job on the Discovery Channel pop science show How Do They Do It? which took her around the globe.
As she started to recover, Emma was keen to return to work – but realised her sight loss would mean a career change. She started with some voluntary work before a friend invited her to spend a day a week at podcast company acast.
“I learned so much and, after a year, they asked whether I would consider doing my own podcast, drawing on my own experience.”
Her podcast The Longest Battle features interviews with people who have overcome huge challenges in their lives. From rugby international Alex Corbisiero and British Judoka Josie Horton to comedian Tom Skelton, television presenter Trisha Goddard and Pogues and Popes guitarist Paul Maddog McGuinness, the result is a series of thoughtful, inspiring and insightful podcasts.
For Emma it was a big step, not only in her recovery, but also taking herself from behind the camera, to being the person whose voice was being heard.
“It seemed the perfect medium for me: chat is the thing I can still definitely do,” she laughs. “I always remained able to talk which I am so thankful for.
“Professionally it was hugely challenging as I had to do all the research and organisation and it was exhausting but I have loved it. Talking to these people makes you realise you are not alone.”
Through her blog, podcasts and voluntary work, Emma is keen to show others living with brain injuries that they don’t have to abandon their hopes and dreams.
Incredibly, she is already travelling again, something which is “in her bones”, although this has required a real mindset change.
She has already been to Europe, Australia and the Philippines, all of which have presented different challenges, from simple things like relearning how to use hotel keys to complex issues around travel and accommodation.
“When I was in the Philippines, at times it was very stressful because of getting on and off a lot of boats; when you are partially sighted it isn’t the easiest, but it has just felt fantastic to be travelling again. What I have learned most though, is that when you go somewhere it is OK to ask for help. My injuries are hidden so it is up to me to speak up. The response has always been very positive. Whether I am in another country, or a little lost and confused at home in London, people really are incredibly kind and it is very heartening.”
‘The chat is the thing I can still definitely do’
Emma in London after recieving a volunteer award at City Hall in 2016
ABOVE: Emma at home in Bawburgh
BELOW: Filming in China