Broken — that’s how Gena Norris, wife of American action hero and martial arts expert Chuck Norris, describes herself now.
The 54-year-old suffers from burning nerve pain and kidney problems and at one stage, four years ago, feared she would die.
Today, the couple are convinced her problems are down to an injection she was given before a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to check for rheumatoid arthritis.
Fighting: Actor Chuck Norris, 77, and his wife Gena, 54, have battled her poor health for years
The injection in question is what’s known as a contrast agent — basically a dye used to improve the clarity of the scan —highlighting specific organs, blood vessels, or tissues to make them easier for the radiologist to determine the extent of disease or injury.
Crucially, in Gena’s case, this dye contained a heavy metal called gadolinium, which has magnetic properties. Used with MRI scans, this chemical accumulates in abnormal tissue providing a greater image contrast.
Yet far from helping her, Gena maintains the injections have wrecked her health and fears many others like her have suffered the terrible side-effects of these injections.
Chuck, who is campaigning with his wife to highlight the dangers, has devoted himself to caring for Gena. He told Good Health: ‘I’ve given up my film career to concentrate on Gena, my whole life right now is about keeping her alive. I believe this issue is so important.’
Gadolinium contrast agents are estimated to be used with around a third of the 60 million MRI scans performed worldwide annually. And while Gena had her injections in the U.S., similar injections containing gadolinium are also used in the UK.
The NHS carried out three million MRI scans last year — hundreds of thousands of them with a gadolinium contrast agent, according to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
Gadolinium has been used in contrast agents since the Eighties and was thought to pass out through urine within hours. But recent research suggests it can be deposited in areas of the body, including the brain, and there are serious concerns about one specific group of gadolinium injections, called linear agents.
Family ties: Chuck and Gena pictured with their children Dakota Alan (R) and Danilee Kelly
Because of the way the heavy metal is bound with other ingredients in these jabs, they are thought to be more likely to release gadolinium in the body. Other types, called macrocyclic agents, are believed to be safer as they wrap the metal in a cage-like structure more tightly so it is less likely to be deposited in the body.
Linear agents — the type of injection Gena had — are used in the UK, according to the MHRA. They are, it says, particularly useful when it comes to liver scans.
However, earlier this year, the European Medicines Agency recommended restricting the use of some linear gadolinium agents used in MRI scans and suspending the use of others — though the decision has not yet been ratified.
The agency said although there is currently ‘no evidence that gadolinium deposition in the brain has caused any harm to patients’, it was recommending restrictions to prevent any risks that could potentially be associated with it.
According to the MHRA, the jabs recommended for suspension account for around 5 per cent of gadolinium injections in the UK.
It’s known that linear agents are unsuitable for patients with chronic kidney disease, as they can cause serious side-effects such as scarring and thickening of the skin, joints and internal organs.
However, a growing body of research suggests gadolinium can accumulate in the tissues, brain, bones and kidneys of healthy people, too.
Cause? The couple are convinced her problems are down to an injection she was given before a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to check for rheumatoid arthritis
For example, a 2014 study at the University of Teikyo in Japan found gadolinium deposits in the brains of patients given the same injections that Gena had.
It was in spring 2013 that she became desperately ill after three gadolinium injections in eight days during investigations for rheumatoid arthritis. She had tested positive for rheumatoid factor, sometimes a marker for the condition, and doctors were checking for signs of inflammation.
‘Within hours after the first jab I felt like my whole body was on fire — as if acid had been passed through it,’ says Gena, who lives on a Texas ranch with Chuck, 77, and twins Dakota and Danilee, 16.
‘The burning was isolated at first, but it just kept spreading.’
In the space of a few weeks she was rushed to hospital six times with excruciating rib pain, breathing difficulties, full-body tremors, muscle weakness, and joint pain — but doctors were baffled.
‘Before this, I was a vibrant person,’ says Gena. ‘In fact, I’d say my health and fitness levels would have put me in the top 10 per cent of people in the world back then.’
While desperately trying to find an explanation for her symptoms on the internet, Gena came across cases of gadolinium poisoning.
The symptoms — nerve pain, brain fog and musculoskeletal problems such as muscle weakness — were worryingly familiar, and she became convinced there was a link. ‘I asked about the injections at the time, but was told they were perfectly safe and I just had to drink water and the contrast agent would be out of my system in a few hours,’ she says.
But on arriving in hospital for the sixth time and telling doctors her fears, they said it was impossible she had gadolinium toxicity.
Desperate, Chuck contacted medical clinics but when they were unable to help, he turned instead to an integrative medicine clinic in Reno, Nevada, which recognised gadolinium toxicity.
Expensive: So far, the couple have spent more than $2million treating her condition
Hollywood star: Norris is seen above in The Expendables 2. He opened up about his wife’s health problems
‘By the time I reached the clinic — weeks after I had the injections — I had lost 15lb and was finding it hard to swallow — I had to be fed baby food,’ recalls Gena.
There, she was given an intravenous (IV) treatment called calcium EDTA, a chemical salt which separates heavy metals from dyes. It is used to treat lead poisoning and works by binding to metal ions and drawing them out.
‘I just lay in bed on an IV for five months and had to have round-the-clock nursing care,’ says Gena.
‘Chuck slept beside me on the couch and never left. I prayed that I would live to raise my children.’
Four years on, Gena is no longer bed-ridden but is still receiving other treatments such as stem cell therapy. And last week, the couple filed a lawsuit against a number of drugs companies that make linear contrast agents, alleging that Gena had been poisoned by gadolinium contrast agents and is suffering from gadolinium deposition disease.
I just lay in bed on an IV for five months and had to have round-the-clock nursing care. Chuck slept beside me on the couch and never left. I prayed that I would live to raise my children
Growing numbers of people in the U.S. and UK are reporting adverse side-effects from the injections, many of the 1,700 members exchanging stories through the MRI Gadolinium Toxicity Illnesses group on Facebook.
Catriona Walsh, 42, a former paediatrician from Belfast now retired on health grounds, is one patient who wishes she’d had the risks explained to her.
‘I had just one injection of a linear gadolinium agent for an MRI scan to look at my heart last November as I have the connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos and this can sometimes affect the heart, too,’ she says.
‘No one mentioned it contained a heavy metal. A few hours later, I developed a blinding headache — like someone had clubbed me over the head — and it lasted for weeks. I barely slept and had this muscle-burning sensation. It was so bad I couldn’t even lift my arms to wash my hair.’
Over a couple of weeks, it dawned on Catriona that her symptoms might be down to the injection. ‘It was then I came across the medical literature on gadolinium toxicity. It was all just too much of a coincidence,’ she says.
Despite her fears, Catriona’s consultant and radiologist said no tests were available to investigate the condition. ‘I couldn’t afford private care, so I started to treat myself,’ she says. ‘I’d read that gadolinium can damage the mitochondria “powerhouse” in cells, restricting the energy that enters cells, so I increased the amount of antioxidant foods I ate, eating lots of fresh vegetables. This was to counter the free radical damage.
‘I also took supplements such as co-enzyme Q10, which can improve energy release.’
A year on, Catriona’s symptoms have eased, but she still has muscle burning and memory loss. ‘I feel very let down by the industry,’ she says. ‘I suspect this will be a huge public health issue.’
Dr Richard Semelka, a radiologist in the U.S., is in no doubt that gadolinium deposition disease is a very real condition. In an article published in the American Journal of Roentgenology last year, he described the symptoms as including persistent headache, bone and joint pain and brain fog.
Pain is typically felt as a sharp pins and needles or a burning or cutting sensation. He has also warned the U.S. watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that ‘this disease is real. We have to figure out who these patients are and treat them’.
In May the FDA said it found no evidence that retained gadolinium was harmful.
A spokesman for the MHRA said no signs of harm have been identified from gadolinium deposited in the body but admitted ‘data on the long-term effects are limited’.
Professor Paul Matthews, head of the division of brain sciences at Imperial College London, adds: ‘There is no evidence yet that gadolinium accumulation causes harm to nerve cells, however we have little experience in following these patients up in the long term. ‘The short answer is we don’t know much about this and it is why the European Medicines Agency has reacted with such caution.’
He added: ‘The idea that there might be a gadolinium deposition disease is certainly possible, and it might be that some people may be genetically susceptible.’
Dr Giles Roditi, Glasgow-based radiologist and spokesman for the Royal College of Radiologists added that use of linear injections in the UK has now dropped to extremely low levels. ‘Gadolinium-based contrast agents are safe when used appropriately and the risks are very small, especially when compared with the risks of not having clear scan results,’ he says.
So far, Gena Norris has spent $2 million treating her ongoing symptoms — something she appreciates most people cannot afford, leaving them battling alone.
She said: ‘It’s infuriating and heartbreaking — it’s a vicious, ugly secret that has been kept hidden — something Chuck and I are determined to change.’