Sheryl Lee rose to fame playing murder victim Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s cult series Twin Peaks. But seven years ago the American actress, now 47, fell victim to a mysterious sickness — neutropenia — that was to plague her for years and make it impossible for her to work.
She had always been very healthy and had a strong immune system, so it was strange that she got a cold and couldn’t easily get rid of it. Then when she did get rid of it something else would come right back. She kept getting sick for about six months. She couldn’t figure out what was going on. Her doctor suggested doing some blood tests and immediately discovered that her white blood cell count was low. So then she went through many more tests including bone marrow biopsies until they figured out that she had neutropenia.
After six months of unexplained illness Sheryl, who has an impressive string of film, TV and theatre credits to her name, was diagnosed with neutropenia, a rare blood disorder which makes her much more susceptible to bacterial infections. As a result of her illness Sheryl says she is still struggling with her health and finances. From the age of 40, she went through illness for four and a half years. She tried to keep working through it as much as she could but she was physically not able to do as much and if you look sick it’s hard to get a job.
Neutropenia occurs when the bone marrow fails to make enough of a specific type of white blood cells called neutrophils. They are an important part of the body’s immune system and attack bugs that enter the body, particularly bacteria. It usually appears later in life as the result of another condition such as leukaemia, auto-immune disorder lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or infections such as HIV and hepatitis.
It can also result from chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant or certain medications such as those for an overactive thyroid gland. However it can also sometimes be genetic. In Sheryl’s case, the cause is something of a mystery. “Nobody knows how I got it. No one in my family that we know of has it,” she explains. Sheryl, who was treated in a hospital in Los Angeles, had to learn how to give herself injections to stimulate her bone marrow to increase production of neutrophils. If she developed an infection such as pneumonia she would have to go into hospital and have her medication administered via an intravenous drip. “But being in a hospital is not ideal for someone with a really low immune system so fortunately I was able to get my treatment during the day and then go home and sleep at night. “But there’s a huge list of side effects, the biggest being intense bone pain. It also causes weakness, nausea and sensitivity to everything – taste, smell, light and sound. “For years the mental, physical and emotional exhaustion were relentless,” she says. “You face the big questions when you go through that kind of illness. There were definitely times when I didn’t know if I was going to get better. There were a lot of nights spent on my knees in prayer.”
Sheryl, who has a son Elijah, 14, from her brief marriage to Neil Diamond’s eldest son Jesse, searched for her own solutions to her illness, changing everything from where she was living to her diet and cosmetics. She also tried alternative therapies such as acupuncture. She now lives in a tiny Californian guest house and is taking acting work when she can, recently appearing with Katherine Heigl in Your Right Mind about a country singer fighting for custody of her daughter, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August.
“I have to be very aware of how I manage my health. I still have relapses if I push myself too hard and my immune system can’t handle it.”