When my mom was a nursing student, she took care of a 17 year old girl who was recovering from guillain-barré syndrome.
Guillain-barré is a rare condition in which the body attacks the myelin sheath around the nerves, rendering those nerves unresponsive and useless. It usually starts it’s attack in the feet, giving the person a pins-and-needles sensation, like when you sit on your legs for too long and they ‘go to sleep’. Except no amount of stomping around makes the tingling stop. In fact, the tingling continues to travel up the body. After awhile, the person feels weak. So weak, that they can’t walk anymore. That’s because when the nerves stop firing, the muscles don’t know that the brain is trying to get them to move. In short: guillain-barré temporarily paralyzes it’s victims.
It’s extremely rare, estimated to occur in 6 to 40 people per 1 million, so it often goes misdiagnosed. It also usually presents itself in older men for whatever reason. It can be life threatening if not caught in time, because if the nerves in the chest are attacked…your lungs and heart stop working along with your legs and arms.
There is no cure; there is a medication that can be administered to stop it from progressing, and another medication to help with the pain during recovery. But once the damage is done, it’s done. The patients have to wait for their bodies to heal on their own. The myelin sheath takes a long time and a lot of energy to rebuild. This process is extremely painful too.
But out of all the patients that my mom could have been assigned that day in nursing school, she got the super rare case, made even stranger by the fact that the patient was not the middle aged male that is typically seen with this syndrome, but rather, a teenage girl.
Fast forward 5 years.
We decided on Saturday night that we were going to go to church in the morning. We had been in a phase of skipping church, but all decided that we should try to get back into the routine of going again. But we wake up late the next morning, sending us all into the rushing frenzy that is trying to get a woman and 2 teenage girls ready without being late. Everything went wrong that morning. Skirts couldn’t be found; legs needed to be shaved; mirror space was fought over; there was no time to eat breakfast. We were all in horrible moods; no one really wanted to go anymore.
But we went anyways. We were late, of course. My sister and I headed over to the high school ministry, where we were uninspired by the message. We should have just stayed home, I thought. My mom was similarly disappointed with her church experience. It was a guest speaker, which is never her cup of tea, and he just shared his testimony, which was good, but just wasn’t really hitting any cords with her. However, the speaker’s story did spark her interest when he spoke about having guillain-barré as a child. Wow, guillain-barré; I haven’t heard about that since nursing school, she had thought to herself.
The following Tuesday, I woke up with my feet tingling. I must have slept funny, I thought to myself as I began to stomp around the apartment to get the blood flowing again. Unlike the many times before when a limb fell asleep however, the sensation didn’t stop after a few minutes. In fact, as I was eating breakfast, I noticed that the bottom half of my legs were also tingling. I continued getting ready for school, but by the time we were walking to the car, my whole legs were tingling and I was feeling weak. I finally said something to my mom, who promptly kept me home from school. She took me back to our apartment to see if it would get better.
But of course, it didn’t get better, but worse. At that point, she knew what was happening to me: I had developed guillain-barré.
She had to help me to the car because my legs felt like lead weights at this point. On the 35 minute drive to the hospital, I asked her if she knew what was happening to me, because I could see that she did. Figuring it was better to tell me straight out than let me continue to freak out in the not knowing, she told me. I was still frightened, but felt a strange peace descend upon me because I knew that she was going to get me the help I needed.
By the time we got to the hospital, I couldn’t move my legs and the tingling was going up my back and into my arms.
My mom got a wheelchair and told the triage nurse my symptoms and that she highly suspected that it was guillain-barré.
“It can’t be guillain-barré; that’s only seen in older men”, the triage nurse responded.
My mom had to fight with that woman for far too long before she finally got sick of my mother’s nagging and got us back. But by the time that happened, I was slouched in the wheelchair because I couldn’t hold myself up anymore and my arms were dead to me. Once I was seen by a neurologist, my care got fast tracked because duh, it was guillain-barré. They immediately started a bottle of a medicine called IVIG to stop it progressing. A medicine that I ended up needing 10 IV bottles of, at $21,000 a pop (thank God for insurance).
As fast as my mom acted and as fast as the doctors acted once they finally saw me, I was still temporarily paralyzed in both legs, both arms, in my stomach, and in my back from my butt to my bra line. Basically, everywhere except my chest. So by the grace of God (literally, because there is no other explanation), I did not have to be put on a ventilator like so many other guillain-barré patients before me.
Here’s the point in me telling you all of this: if my mom had been assigned a different patient that day in her nursing school rotation, she likely would have only read about this rare thing with a foreign name and then promptly forgotten about it after regurgitating the facts of it on a test, because she ended up specializing in pediatric oncology, where she would never see a case of guillain-barré.
If we had skipped church that Sunday like we all wanted to, guillain-barré would not have been fresh in her mind, but rather, forgotten in the dusty corner of her mind behind 5 years of other patients. It would not have been the first diagnosis that her brain jumped to when these bizarre symptoms came out of nowhere in her perfectly healthy 15 year old girl. She would not have taken me to the hospital straight away. Once she finally would have taken me to the ER, she would have taken me to the smaller hospital that was 5 minutes away instead of the more specialized one that was a longer drive, which was vital to my care, because back then, there were a lot of doctors who didn’t even know what guillain-barré is because it’s that rare. She would not have fought so hard with that stubborn triage nurse to get me seen by a doctor as fast as possible. At the rate my guillain-barré had been progressing, I have no doubt that it would have gotten into my chest, and I would have ended up on a ventilator.
My mom didn’t know it at the time, but God was preparing her in advance for what was going to happen to her daughter when she was assigned to that 17 year old’s case. He was reminding her about it that Sunday in church. So that way when my life came crashing down around me on an otherwise typical Tuesday, she would be ready to act.
That 17 year old girl saved me from having to be put on a ventilator. She was absolutely instrumental in helping me during one of the worst parts of my life.
But she’ll never even know it.
My mom reached out to the pastor who had spoken that Sunday after I got diagnosed, and he saw me through my recovery. He was instrumental in helping me draw close to God during that time, when I had previously been wandering away from God. That pastor got me going back to church and reading the Bible every day. He’s incredibly important to me, because he helped change my life for the better. Later on, he got to marry my husband and I, which was so special to both of us.
My pastor got to see how God was using him in my story. But that girl whose name I don’t even know, will never know the vital role she played in my tale. She won’t ever know that her pain and hardship and sorrow was so much bigger than her. She’ll never feel the contentment that comes with knowing that at least one’s suffering was not completely in vain.
Friends, do you see how big this is?
How many times have you played a vital role in someone else’s story and didn’t even realize it? How has God used one of your struggles to help someone through theirs, someone whom you will never meet? And guess what–you’ll never know. You will never know about the strangers whose lives you played an instrumental role in, just as that girl will never know about her part in mine.
Our lives are so much bigger than us.
Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t it just incredible how intricate and perfectly timed God’s plans are? Aren’t you relived to know that your suffering and your seemingly insignificant life is not in vain?
I know I am.