is also known as Landry’s ascending paralysis but is most commonly referred to as Guillain-Barre (Ghee-yun Bah-ray) Syndrome, GBS. GBS is a disorder than inflames the peripheral nerves
, the ones not in the brain or spinal cord.
”I was waiting in line to get the flu vaccine at Lackland. It was, as always, a shitty time. So, they stick me with the needle and I feel normal, ya know? A bunch of guys are fainting because of the needles, some people go into minor convulsions. I guess that was normal.”
The characteristic symptoms of GBS are paralysis in the arms, legs, face and breathing muscles. It typically begins with weakness and/or abnormal sensations in the arms and legs. The term “abnormal sensations,” in many cases, means agonizing pain. Muscles in the eyes, face and chest can also be affected. Though many cases are mild, some patients are virtually paralyzed. Sometimes muscles in the chest are so weakened that many patients need a machine to breathe for them.
The onset of the disease is rapid, pain and paralysis affecting both sides of the body similarly. The symptoms are usually quite sufficient to indicate a diagnosis. To confirm the diagnosis, a lumbar puncture is usually done to test for elevated fluid protein.
”I started to complain of odd pains and numbness. The Group physician explained that pain was okay, in this case, he wasn’t concerned about that. It was the numbness. After about a day I was unable to move my fingers or toes and was hospitalized. My mom was out in Texas in two days and after a week I couldn’t move my arms or legs. I had a really fucking terrible time moving my eyes and they shook like I was on ecstasy. It wasn’t until after about three weeks that it got really bad.
“My body began to fade into feeling again, but it wasn’t like anything I had known. Pain wracked my body, beneath me my back screamed from holding my weight. When they would pull the thin sheets off of me if was like they were stripping my flesh from my muscles. The breeze from the open window caused my face to burn. It was unbelievable. I could not complain because I could not move.
“And then the pain stopped and I faded. I became comfortably numb. I felt my lungs slow down, I understood that breathing would be my job now. I struggled with the rhythm at first, feeling ridiculous fear whenever it fell away. Sleep was strange because it came, even though I continued to consciously control my breathing. Images would fade in and out of people and places and I knew a new sort of sympathy. I understood what it was like to be trapped financially, I understood what the kids at school that I made fun of felt like. I knew what it was like to be trapped in your own body, in your own life.”
Although most people make a full recovery, some must be in an intensive care unit for months. Some must fight the disease indefinitely, alternately confined to wheelchairs and hospital beds. It is terribly difficult to treat because the disease in its early stages is very unpredictable. Newly diagnosed patients are hospitalized immediately and placed in an ICU to monitor breathing and other body functions.
The only real active means to treat the disease is a plasma exchange and high dose intravenous blood globulins. Once the patient is medically stable and the nervous system begins to function properly again
”When they had me begin to walk again it was difficult. In addition to recovery being difficult, I had to deal with all the rigg-a-maroll of doctors being a higher rank than me. It was another two weeks before I could begin training again, so I had been at Lackland for four months without ever even learning the Air Force Song.
“It wasn’t a good time at all. . . even a little bit. But I learned a lot, for whatever that’s worth.”
No one is really sure what causes Guillain-Barre but perhaps 50% of cases happen after some type of microbial infection, and many people suspect that modern influenza vaccinations are the cause. The only real thing we know about the cause is that something convinces the body’s immune system to go a bit crazy and begin attacking the myelin sheathes that protect the nervous system, sending chemical and electrical information in patterns in a disordered and painful manner.