When Melanie West of Hickory rolled into Methodist Rehabilitation Center on St. Patrick’s Day, the 27-year-old was hardly feeling the luck of the Irish.
She hadn’t been able to care for her 7-month-old daughter, Freya, since a strange illness began paralyzing her body on March 2. But she felt more hopeful once she met the two therapists who’d be guiding her recovery.
Occupational therapist Leslie Garrett had a baby due in June, while physical therapist Kaitlin Snyder was a new mom, too. And both deeply identified with West’s desire to quickly recover and reunite with her baby.
“I’ve got a little girl, and she’s got a little girl—she could have been me,” Snyder said. “I wanted to help her get better and get back home. I love getting home to my baby at the end of the day.”
Keeping West from her firstborn was Guillain Barré Syndrome, a neurological disease so rare that it sent her to the Internet for answers. “I didn’t realize how serious it could be until I got to the hospital,” she said.
GBS strikes one or two people per 100,000. About half the cases are triggered by some type of viral or bacterial infection, and West did have a head cold at the end of February.
The disease is characterized by a creeping paralysis that begins in the extremities. At its most severe, it can paralyze the very muscles that move air in and out of the lungs. West escaped that fate, but the disease quickly took a toll on her independence.
Her symptoms began on March 2 with achiness in her arms and legs. Within a day, the accountant lost her ability to write in the midst of tax season. “It freaked me out,” she said. “It was the worst possible time.”
Next, her arms and legs refused to work. “I could feel touch, but I couldn’t move,” she said. “I’d have to use my hands to push my legs from side to side in the bed. I was a dead weight. While at St. Dominic, I needed 24/7 care. Thankfully, my husband, John, was there every day to assist me when I needed him.”
She was also in a lot of pain, but had to refuse pain medication because she wanted to be able to pump breast milk for her baby—never mind she could no longer do it without John’s help.
“It was exhausting for both of us,” she said. “’But if I couldn’t physically be with her, I could at least have breast milk for her.” And she was grateful that MRC patient rooms are equipped with refrigerators, so she didn’t have to worry about a place to store the milk.
West spent almost two weeks at St. Dominic Hospital before her physical therapist there recommended she continue her recovery at Methodist Rehab. “I headed straight there,” she said. “I’d heard really good things from a bunch of people. And I didn’t want any setbacks.”
MRC’s long history of treating GBS patients meant West had a seasoned set of caregivers. And she immediately bonded with Snyder and Garrett.
“I love my PT and OT,” she said. “I told them we were nervous about coming. But with Leslie being pregnant with her first baby and Kaitlin and I in the same stage of life, we talked about things that made therapy go by so smoothly.”
In occupational therapy, West mainly focused on improving her arm and grip strength. Both were so weak she couldn’t even tie her hair back. So Garrett got her started on strengthening exercises, often using a baby doll so West could mimic mom duties.
West’s legs and feet also didn’t function properly. She could point her feet down, but not up. And her legs were so weak, it took two people and a walker to hold her up while at St. Dominic.
Snyder’s solution was to provide supportive lower leg braces for West and have her practice walking with the aid of MRC’s overhead harness system.
She didn’t need to be pushed. “She was motivated to get back to her baby and husband and be able to type again,” Garrett said. “She made steady progress every day.”
“She had such a good attitude, she said: ‘I’ll try anything,’” Snyder said. “And I’ve had her do really challenging things. I can’t tell you the last time I had someone walking on a balance beam. She’s made a miraculous amount of recovery.”
Now, she can walk without assistance and do all of her self-care.
West still has a ways to go before she can carry her daughter, who weighs 19 pounds. But as she readied to leave Methodist Rehab on March 31, she was happy with just the thought of being in her baby’s presence. She’d only seen her in person twice in a month’s time.
“We Face-timed every night,” she said. “When she would see me, she’d light up, start squealing and reach for the phone. That melts my heart. I know I can’t pick her up yet. But I want to be there.”