Man Recovering from Guillain-Barre Ditches the Wheelchair for Running Shoes

Imagine waking up one morning feeling pain shoot all over your body. It seems like it’s out of nowhere. When you try to move your neck, it will barely budge. Your body is stiff, your speech, slurred. As you shift between doctors, your body moves deeper into paralysis.

This is what happened to London’s Ben Coetzee in 2010. After two days of deterioration, he found himself in Life Beacon Bay’s intensive care unit. The answer came in the form of a CT scan: he had Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Guillain-Barre syndrome is an unpredictable condition– it can affect people at different points of their life, with different levels of severity and recovery. It causes the immune system to attack the peripheral nerves, ultimately leading to different levels of paralysis. If it interferes with respiratory and cardiac systems, it can be fatal. There are various treatments, but no cure. However, recovery is possible for many patients. It can take weeks, months, or years. To learn more about Guillain-Barre syndrome, click here.

It’s not exactly clear what triggers Guillain-Barre syndrome, but it often follows an illness. It’s one of complications associated with the Zika virus, although for Ben, it followed a stomach bug.

He stayed in the ICU for six weeks. He couldn’t walk, and nobody understood when he tried to speak. When he left, he entered Life Rehabilitation, where he faced an enormous task: relearning everything. He learned how to tie his shoes, use silverware, speak, walk, tie his shoes, but his clothes on. Guillain-Barre syndrome had wreaked havoc on all of the smaller muscles, and it was extremely difficult to chew or hold a pencil. He was in a wheelchair for a year.

Coetzee was tired of relying on other people. He couldn’t drive his car, so he had to wait around for someone else to drive him where he needed to go. This didn’t suit his personality, and the desire for independence fueled his sprint to recovery.

He started focusing on getting around on his feet. However, he didn’t stop at baseline walking recovery– he pushed through, and now lives an active life, full of fun runs and Spinathons. Coetzee, a man who was once unable to hold a form, has now won a silver medal in a national swimming contest.

He was joined by other patients from his rehabilitation center. Bruce Janssens, a manager at Life, has played a large part in this movement. He encourages patients and enters them in 4kms, whether they walk, run, or race by wheelchair.

The drive and ambition, that comes from both the patients themselves and the people who care for them, paves the way for an incredible recovery.

To read more about this story in the Daily Dispatch, click here.

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