Erb’s Palsy is a weakness or paralysis of the arm, caused by an injury or stress to the group of nerves in the shoulder (‘brachial plexus’). It is an injury that can happen during childbirth, and may lead to a permanent disability. Some children may fully recover with intense treatment, while some are impaired by the condition for the rest of their life. Erb’s Palsy is known as a disability, but there are plenty of inspiring stories which prove it should be no barrier to ambition, and if anything can be used as a motivation to defy expectations.
The brachial plexus is a large network of nerves running from the neck to the arm, which provides movement and feeling to the arm and hand. Injury to the brachial plexus can affect muscle movement, limit feeling in the arm and lead to the arm wasting or growing smaller.
Erb’s palsy doesn’t have to a be barrier to living life to the full, here are a few examples:
Joe Hughes is a British boxing champion from Bath. He boxes professionally despite impaired movement in his right arm, caused by his arm being dislocated during childbirth. Joe’s right arm is three inches shorter than his left, and he underwent physiotherapy from birth, but essentially his parents were told he would never have a manual job and he should prepare for a working life sat behind a desk. But Joe took up Taekwondo aged five and won a schoolboy boxing title aged 14. Even then his doctor said he would never turn professional, but in 2010, aged 20, he made his professional debut after 70 amateur fights. Joe was European Super Lightweight Champion between 2018 and 2019 and is still fighting today, continuing to prove those wrong who questioned his ability.
Similarly, Traci Brooks excelled in the most physically demanding of arenas. Traci was a Canadian professional wrestler between 2000 and 2015, and revealed in 2008 that she suffered from Erb’s Palsy. She experienced damaged nerves and impaired movement of her right arm, but credits her mother with her future career after she persisted with dedicated exercise every day until Traci was two years old. In an interview, multi-award-winning wrestler Traci claimed that she was in a “highly cosmetic industry, where I am judged on my looks and physicality”, and she also admitted that the condition affected her “physically and mentally” in the ring, and yet she had triumphed.
Legendary US actor Martin Sheen had his arm crushed by forceps in childbirth, and also has one arm shorter than the other, and his left arm movement is impaired. This didn’t stop him winning multiple Emmys and Golden Globes for TV series such as The West Wing, and films such as Apocalypse Now, Gandhi and Wall Street.
Another huge US actor with a very rare strain of Erb’s Palsy is Sylvester Stallone, he too was damaged by the use of forceps in childbirth which put pressure on the seventh cranial nerve and led to a facial paralysis. One side of Stallone’s face is partly-paralysed, leading to difficulties with his speech. Stallone is famous for the epic Rambo and Rocky movies where he came to embody physical excellence, while he claims the bullying he received in childhood over his condition led to him taking up body-building and excelling as a physical film actor, indeed, his distinctive speech is perhaps what he is most famous and celebrated for.
Perhaps a lesser-known fashion designer but one with a particularly inspiring story of defiance in the face of Erb’s Palsy is Qaysean Williams.
Qaysean is an upcoming fashion designer from New Jersey in the United States, and is permanently paralysed in his left arm, but is now known as the “one-handed sewing man” after overcoming his disability to learn how to cut and sew himself. Qaysean vowed to turn his life around in the face of childhood bullying and “embrace my unique talents”. He has turned his disability into a “super ability” and now designs garments for the entertainment world and recently held an exhibition at the New York Fashion Week.
These are all inspiring stories showcasing what is achievable with Erb’s Palsy, and they also highlight why it is important that we raise awareness so that people born with the condition are able to be educated, and can be connected to the help which will minimise the effects of their condition and help them to excel in life.