Pensioner defies shock illness and paralysis to earn degree

Derek Wileman degree
Derek Wileman degree

AN INSPIRATIONAL pensioner has completed a prestigious degree course — after battling a crippling condition he feared would leave him permanently in a wheelchair.

Derek Wileman (pictured) also proved that age is no barrier to chasing academic dreams by becoming a Master of Arts (MA) in English local history at 71.

Derek, of Dawn Close, picked up the qualification with a distinction from Leicester University after a three-year struggle.

For part of the way through his course, he was struck down by a condition that left him paralysed from the waist down.

“A lot of folk tend to give up, but you have to keep positive,” he told the Dispatch.

“I do feel it’s quite an achievement, especially at my age.”

The retired teacher decided to turn back to studying three-and-a-half years ago after working as a volunteer history researcher at Southwell Workhouse. He became a part-time student at the university but fell ill suddenly in 2009.

“It was four o’clock in the morning and my leg became numb in bed,” he recalled. “I went along to the GP the next day who examined me and immediately called an ambulance.

“By the end of that afternoon I couldn’t do anything. I was paralysed from the waist down, it was quite frightening.”

He was taken to the Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham, where doctors discovered he was suffering from transverse myelitis, a rare inflammation of nerves in the spine. His treatment was uncomplicated but daunting.

“It was basically physiotherapy — and I had to learn to walk again,” he said. “I would sit in a chair and they would tell me to stand without using the arms.

“You take a lot of things for granted when you are fit and walking.”

Only 300 people a year develop the condition in the UK. There is no cure and rehabilitation through physiotherapy is often the main treatment.

Derek also underwent three weeks of intensive treatment at Nottingham City Hospital. Once he began to build up his strength, he was determined to return to his studies.

“I’d be walking gingerly at first,” said the bachelor. “I’d aim for a mile, then a mile and a quarter, and so on.”

He returned to his research for the MA, based around how government ‘poor laws’ affected villages near Southwell from 1601 to 1834, after a five-month break.

He explained: “I still have to be careful that I don’t do too much. When I started doing the research again, even just sitting at the computer typing, my legs would just seize up.”

His strength increased and he was able to walk 40 miles over six days in the Lake District last summer.

He finally picked up his MA at a ceremony at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester, last week.

“A lot of people say the only reason I’ve got through it is because I’m so determined,” he adds. “You have to give a lot yourself, you can’t rely on medicine to do it all.”