Covid-19 temporarily paralyses Northern Cape doctor, a very rare symptom globally

Dr Waltie Vermeulen. (Netwerk24)
Dr Waltie Vermeulen. (Netwerk24)
  • According to neurologists who examined Dr Waltie Vermeulen, there are only a handful of cases where temporary spinal cord paralysis developed.
  • The general practitioner says he has already recovered well, but he can't walk without help yet.
  • Vermeulen is being treated by a neurologist, infection control specialist and internist in Bloemfontein.

Initially, Covid-19 had not made him that ill. On one day, he struggled with a nasal drip, a sore throat on another day, lost his sense of smell for three days and then experienced a loss of taste for two days.

But when he suddenly, within 30 seconds, could no longer walk, he realised something was seriously wrong, Dr Waltie Vermeulen, 63, a general practitioner in Hopetown in the Northern Cape, told Netwerk24.

According to neurologists who examined him, this is probably the second recorded case in the world where temporary spinal cord paralysis developed as a complication of Covid-19, he said.

News24 found that at least three other cases have been recorded for the rare symptom, one published in the academic Journal of Neurology.

A 60-year-old German man suffered from acute transverse myelitis after being admitted to hospital for Covid-19 pneumonia, the journal article says. It also affected his bladder. He was able to walk again independently after 13 days and his bladder function returned to normal.

A 66-year-old patient in China also had acute myelitis, according to this case report, and a 28-year-old in the USA, according to this case report.

Inflammation fluid

Vermeulen was initially not worried when he developed flu-like symptoms as he had tested negative five days prior.

When the second test, however, showed that he was positive, he was stunned.

In a telephone interview from Mediclinic Bloemfontein on Monday, Vermeulen said he was doing much better.

"I am now being transferred from the Covid High Care Unit to a Covid ward."

He also keeps his patients in Hopetown continually informed of his progress via WhatsApp.

Vermeulen said he is now isolated with other patients and no visitors are allowed.

His son, and namesake, is also a doctor, and has been living in Canada for three and a half years.

Waltie Jnr previously played lock for the Cheetahs in the Super Rugby series.

Vermeulen said after he tested positive the second time, he became ill and partially paralysed.

Within 30 seconds, he could no longer walk.

"I realised a serious thing was happening to me now."

His wife, Anne, took him to Lenmed Hospital in Kimberley on Thursday afternoon, where an MRI scan was done. He was diagnosed with transverse myelitis.

"It means inflammation fluid formed in the spinal canal, which tightens the spinal cord and causes the symptoms of paralysis."

He was transferred to the Mediclinic Bloemfontein on Friday night.


Vermeulen said he's already started to recover well, but he can't yet walk without help.

"It's because of the complications in the spinal cord."

Vermeulen said he had no idea where he could have gotten infected.

"My contacts were traced and they were also tested," he said.

"There was one patient who came to my consulting room that was later tested positive, but he could not have infected me, or me him. I was already sick when he arrived and I was already clinically healthy, with no fever or loss of taste anymore."

At that stage, Vermeulen no longer showed any typical symptoms of Covid-19.

READ | So you're coughing, what next? It could be for a number of reasons

He will now be going for physiotherapy to help him walk.

His Hopetown consulting room is being disinfected before the Northern Cape health department can issue a certificate that it is safe to visit.

His staff has already been tested for Covid-19 and are being retested for a second time.

His business partner, Dr Ben van Rensburg, 74, will now stop working, but while Vermeulen is still ill, he will help their new colleague, Dr Christoph Lombaard, with night work. 

Meanwhile, Vermeulen is being taken care of by a neurologist, infection control specialist and internist in Bloemfontein.

- Translated by Tammy Petersen. Case research by Health24. Read the original story in Afrikaans on Netwerk24 here.

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