Kevin Wilson knew exactly what Guillain Barré syndrome was when he received the diagnosis, or at least as much as anyone does.
That’s because Wilson, a clinical psychologist based in Winston-Salem, for decades has seen the rare condition before in patients.
Guillain Barré is a disorder in which the immune system attacks the nerves and only occurs in about one person per 100,000. In many instances the early weakness and abnormal sensations the patient feels spreads to the arms and upper body. And symptoms can increase in intensity until certain muscles cannot be used at all and in some cases can lead to death, according to the National Institutes of Health. Often it starts not long after a patient has had an upper respiratory condition, which Wilson said was the case for him. The exact cause is unknown.
“Within 24 hours both my arms and legs were partially paralyzed and within two days it was affecting my diaphragm and breathing so I had to go on the ventilator for eight days,” Wilson said recently at a rehab patient reunion on the campus of Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center. Wilson said he spent about two weeks at the hospital’s ICU in July before being moved, while he was still unable to stand, over to the Novant Health Rehabilitation Center in the hospital.
Wilson had much more familiarity with the rehab process at Forsyth Medical Center than most any patients because he worked on the rehab unit in the 1980s.
And Wilson also had a familiar and friendly face there to check up on him. His rehab physician, Dr. James McLean, had worked alongside him back in the 1990s at a rehab outpatient center.
“While it was sad when you saw what he was going through,” McLean said, “to see how much better he’s gotten is just awesome.”
Wilson, who came to the reunion along with his wife Ellen, greeted other attendees, standing on his own and using a cane only occasionally.
“When I first got to rehab I wasn’t walking at all,” Wilson said. “In fact, I was totally dependent. I had to get around in a wheelchair.
“What I liked was the therapists were very aggressive in terms of getting me up and moving, which I was in favor of. My first day of therapy I was using a sliding board to get up from the bed to the wheelchair. The therapists attempted to stand me up in a frame that day, too.
“Their skills and my motivation to become independent again was a very good combination for making excellent progress.”
Wilson said he had no idea he would be able recover so quickly thanks to his therapy. He has seen some patients with Guillain Barré require a year or longer to regain full function. But Wilson, who was discharged from inpatient rehab in August, is already back to work teaching classes at the fall semester at Carolinas Pain Institute in Winston-Salem as of mid-September and has recently begun seeing patients again.
He said he’s staying on top of rehab now as an outpatient and is doing some of his own exercises, including water therapy at a local fitness center.
“He’s made a remarkable recovery,” McLean said of his old friend and now patient. “We only see a few cases of Guillian Barré every year and he had a pretty severe case, but he’s back to work now. Back to the grind.”
(Photo: Kevin Wilson pictured with wife Ellen (right) and rehab unit receptionist Jameilia Wright.)