“Will I Ever Walk Again?”
THAT Monday morning in September of 1983 I went to pick up my attaché case as usual. I tried to take hold of the handle. ‘That’s rather odd,’ I thought—it just slipped right through my fingers! There was no strength in my hand. At first I thought that maybe I had slept on my hand during the night and that shortly it would be normal again. But that wasn’t the case. The rest of the day the problem just grew worse and worse.
By the next morning, I had lost the strength in both my legs. The only way I could get out of bed was with my wife Barbara’s help. By this time, I knew I had to see a doctor.
We arrived at a small local hospital at Botwood, Newfoundland, where three doctors examined me. After consultation, they told me they thought I had polyneuritis, a paralytic disease also known as Guillain-Barré Syndrome, or GBS. To make sure, they made arrangements for me to go to another hospital in the larger town of Grand Falls, Newfoundland. There a neurologist examined me. Using simple tests, he confirmed the earlier diagnosis—polyneuritis! (See the accompanying box, “What Is GBS?”) He told me to expect that I would grow weaker and weaker. That wasn’t hard to believe! Already I was having to struggle for over ten minutes just to put on my socks!
For treatment I agreed to go to a hospital in St. John’s, the largest city in Newfoundland. Barbara drove us the 300 miles (480 km) there. I remember that at one point on the trip she asked me to change the station on the car radio, but I didn’t even have the strength to do that! By this time I wasn’t able to walk. The questions that haunted me were, ‘Will I ever walk again? Will my wife be burdened with the responsibility of looking after me for the rest of my life?’
When we arrived at the hospital, I was a deadweight. It was frustrating—and a little frightening at times. Here, too, the chief neurologist said: “It’s definite. You have polyneuritis, or GBS.”
That night I was determined to feed myself. But you should have seen me! Food on top of my head, even behind my ears! I simply couldn’t coordinate my hands or my arms. I could still speak, but by the next morning I was completely paralyzed. I was in no real pain at that time, but I did feel a pins-and-needles sensation.
The paralysis now spread to my abdomen, and my breathing was affected. Every two hours my breathing was monitored. Then the pain started—excruciating pain. My knees and shoulders throbbed like a giant toothache. I found this the hardest period to endure. It lasted for several weeks. Since I couldn’t ring a bell for any needed attention, I had to yell for the nurses to come and move me. The nurses would apply hot compresses, which would relieve the pain for about 20 minutes. The doctors encouraged me by explaining that while it wasn’t easy to endure the pain, it was a good sign that the nerves were beginning to recover.
“Is He Depressed Yet?”
The best help of all was when Barbara came in every day and kept me built up spiritually by reading to me from the Bible and Bible publications. She also fed me and gave me some of the physiotherapy treatment that I required.
At times the nurses called Barbara over and quietly asked, “Is he depressed yet?” They knew that with this disease there is a terrible emotional strain. And, true, there were moments when I did get discouraged, even frightened, wondering: ‘Maybe my illness will affect my career, and I will have to give up the traveling ministry, which I enjoy so much.’ But with the encouragement I received from Barbara and from the visits by members of the local congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I continually fought to think positively.
Another thing that helped me to endure was a warm bath. They used to place me in a special chair, wheel me down to the bathing room, and then hoist me into a pool of lovely warm water! This was very helpful in relieving the pain in my joints. You see, I could feel the warm sensation on my skin even though I had no reflexes. As far as physical comfort was concerned, this was the highlight of my day!
It helped me, too, to keep in mind what the doctors had said to us, namely, that while it might take a number of months or even a year or so, there were good chances of complete recovery in my case. That’s one thing that kept me going.
After a few weeks, as part of the therapy, I was placed in a chair and required to sit up. The pain was agonizing! A few minutes was all I could bear at first. Another victim of this disease hit the nail on the head when she said: “The pain is similar to what you feel when you bang your funny bone—only it doesn’t let up.”
As the days went by, I tried to sit up for longer periods of time. Also, my wife took me around the hospital in a wheelchair so I could visit the other two patients who were afflicted with GBS. Though I’ve heard that it usually affects only about one person in half a million, surprisingly, the two others stricken with GBS had been admitted after I was.
“Now, How Far Can You Go on Your Own?”
After about three weeks of total paralysis, what a joy it was to wake up one morning and find that I could move my thumb slightly! This added to the doctors’ prior encouragement that there could be early recovery. Slowly, movement came to the rest of my fingers.
After I had been in the hospital for about a month, the nurses put me in a wheelchair, gave it a little shove, and said: “Now, how far can you go on your own?” I still wasn’t that strong, but I tried to roll the wheels with the palms of my hands. I had to pause to rest frequently, yet with great effort—and with perspiration running down my face—I was able to move the full length of the hallway! I felt such a sense of accomplishment.
My first attempt to stand up was truly frightening! The pain was so intense that it is beyond description. For a moment I thought that my legs would go right through my body. But each day I tried to do a bit more than the day before. As I progressed, I was finally supplied with a walker, so that more and more I was on my own. I learned to be patient.
Shortly thereafter I was allowed a trial run of life at home again, spending the weekend with some friends. Barbara was able to look after me quite well there. Of course, I didn’t like being totally dependent on other people, but there was nothing I could do about it. So I learned the lesson of humbly accepting the loving care of others when needed.
As I recuperated and saw how my body was mending itself, I often thought of the scripture that says, “In a fear-inspiring way I am wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14) I learned through adversity to appreciate the human body. How exciting it was now to wake up each morning and think: ‘What will I be able to do today that I wasn’t able to do yesterday?’
‘You Have Connections With a Higher Power!’
My doctors were very impressed with my relatively speedy recovery. Most people take much longer to get back on their feet again. One nurse said to me: “I think that what contributes to your quick recovery is the fine, loving support of your congregation.” That taught me a valuable lesson: the need to visit and give encouragement to those who are not well or are undergoing suffering of some kind. My wife kept a record of our visitors. Why, we had over 300 come to see us while I was recuperating!
The end of the fifth week of my hospitalization came, and I was anxiously awaiting my doctor’s report. Finally, he came in to see me and said that I could go home. I was to return at certain times for physiotherapy and examination. Ten days after my discharge, I took the walker back to the hospital, explaining that I was determined to walk on my own again. I thanked the doctor for his care, but he said, “Don’t thank me. You have connections with a power higher than ours!”
As I continued recuperating at home, I still had only a little strength in my hands. In fact, it wasn’t until February that I was able to resume, in a limited way, my normal activities as a traveling minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses in eastern Canada. It had been five months since that Monday in September when the attaché case slipped through my fingers. I had been paralyzed—but now I could walk again!—As told by Winston Peacock.
[Box on page 16]
What Is GBS?
The Guillain-Barré Syndrome (named after the French neurologists who first discovered it) is a mystery to scientists. The exact cause is still unknown, though it seems to follow some minor viral infections. Usually victims recover somewhat spontaneously. Yet, death may result if the paralysis extends to the respiratory system. Thus, the Journal of Neurosurgical Nursing says that “the only hope these patients have is complete and exact nursing care.”
In GBS, the body, after an infection, is thought to produce antibodies that attack the coating—the myelin sheath—of the nerves. These exposed nerves cannot now conduct the electrons that control muscle action. This, in turn, causes weakness and paralysis. Recovery begins as the nerves recoat themselves. This may take as long as 18 months, and in less than one third of the cases, there is significant pain.
Laura Barry, writing in The Canadian Nurse, observed the stages that most patients suffering GBS go through: “You keep denying the fact that you are suffering from this disease but all the while you are getting weaker and weaker. . . . Anger takes over: ‘Why me!?’ . . . The point at which the patient realizes she cannot control her disease . . . frequently leads to depression which, in the case of the patient with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, can be overwhelming.”
Nurse Barry concludes that, to ensure recovery, the help of nurses and supportive family members and friends is needed. With their help the patient may progress to acceptance, and “hopefully, by this time the disease will have reached its zenith and ceased to progress further.”
[Box on page 19]
Remember the Patient!
Suggestions for Visiting Hospitalized Friends
• Stay for short periods, so as to avoid tiring the patient
• If visiting with a group, try to limit visitors in the room to two at a time; larger numbers can be tiring
• Speak in a low tone; loud talk can be disturbing to other patients
• Keep any talking positive and upbuilding
• Try to discern the needs of the patient. Offer to run errands for family members so they are freed to visit the patient as much as possible
• Make yourself available for supplying needed transportation
• If patient is asleep or receiving treatment when you arrive, leave a brief note or card to indicate that you called
• A mild handshake or a touch on the hand can be reassuring to the patient
[Picture on page 17]
I was paralyzed, but now I can walk again—and hold my attaché case!