SHEILA ROSSALL – THE WOMAN WHO WAS ALLERGIC TO THE 20TH CENTURY
Posted August 26, 2014on:
I remember reading about the case of a singer who was allergic to EVERYTHING many years ago, when her story often appeared in the Sunday papers. I was curious to know what had happened to her all these years on. If you do a Google search for her one of the first pieces to come up describes her bluntly as “the infamous sick girl of the 70s”.
Sheila Rossall was a singer with a band called New Pickettywitch, who, as far as I can gather, seemed to be a sort of tribute band to a 70s folk group called Pickettywitch. In 1980 Sheila was diagnosed with Total Allergy Syndrome, and she cut a tragic, frail figure as a young woman who lived her life in a sealed bubble, afraid to come into contact with any aspect of the 20th century. Newspapers were filled with photographs of a frail young woman with an oxygen mask strapped to her face, or being carried about on stretchers. She was allergic to such basic everyday things as toothpaste, paint, nylon, telephone receivers and carpets. Her weight shrank to 4st at one point, as a result of her being unable to take solid foods, and she had to subsist on two special chemical drinks a day.
Her singing career came to an end when she collapsed in a recording-studio. Sympathetic fans raised £65,000 in a Save Sheila fund to have her transported to the United States for specialist treatment.
In California she was given an adapted apartment, which included a special plastic telephone, whereby she could communicate with the outside world. Any visitors had to wear vinegar-soaked nightgowns when they came to call on her. Even as early as 1982 though there was some criticism of the funds spent on Sheila. When she had exhausted the funds friends had raised she applied to be repatriated back to the UK. The problem was that the NHS didn’t recognise Sheila’s extreme allergy. A meeting of experts in London concluded that it simply didn’t exist. Nonetheless Sheila put out an impassioned plea to be brought home, on the grounds that she was dying and wanted to die “surrounded by my own culture”. The Foreign Office gave $40,000 to bring her home from America in an air-ambulance, a move which raised some considerable criticism from sceptics of Sheila’s condition.
On arriving back in the UK, Sheila was taken to a specially-adapted flat outside Bristol, which had been converted to her needs using funds raised by a local MP. Sympathies for Sheila’s plight were strained further when a close friend basically said that the flat wasn’t good enough, and Sheila should be living in a detached house in the country.
Then in the early 1990s it was announced that Sheila was cured of her extreme allergy, a move which was treated with some scepticism by doctors and other extreme allergy sufferers. Sheila announced that she may be cured of her allergy-ridden life, but she was suffering from depression. Whatever the truth of the matter she seemed to continue to live as a fairly sad figure. In November 2006 it was announced that she had died in a Blackpool nursing-home, at the age of 57.
I’ve seen contrasting messages posted Online as to whether Sheila was genuine or not. A former flat-mate dismissed her as attention-seeking, whereas the daughter of one of Sheila’s fundraisers said the allergies were very real, but that Sheila had turned on them and their support. These days there seems to be more concern about extreme allergies generally, which might lead some to take a more sympathetic view of Sheila’s plight.
Someone posted a message on an Internet chat-forum that they recalled seeing Sheila in a TV interview several years ago, in which she spoke forlornly to the camera saying “only death is left now”. Whether she was genuine, faking, or suffering from hysteria, it’s a pretty sad case indeed.
It must be pointed out that Sheila shouldn’t be confused with Polly Brown, who was lead singer of the original Pickettywitch, and who must get pretty fed up with people asking if she was the allergy girl.
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