Almost a year ago, a Fort Pierre man was stricken with a rare autoimmune disease called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. The disease attacks the nerves and nervous system.
Chris Maxwell first felt the effects of GBS in his fingertips and toes, like anyone else who becomes afflicted with it does. Then the GBS spread through the extremities into the core of his nervous system. It attacked Maxwell’s ability to breathe, eat and even blink, he said.
At one point in therapy, he had to have his eyes taped shut at night, and regularly hydrated by nurses or by his wife and parents who were staying by his side, because he was unable to blink.
Maxwell and his wife, Molly Weisgram, have three sons and a daughter, ages 9 to 1.
As the owner of Maxwell Strategies, Maxwell has been a leader in Fort Pierre and Pierre civic and business activities and the community rose up to help him and his family.
“He is a dynamite guy,” Fort Pierre Mayor Gloria Hanson told the Capital Journal via email. “He went from playing basketball with a city league and full workdays to being so paralyzed he couldn’t blink or breathe, within a matter of days.”
Maxwell, after he was stabilized at Avera McKinnon Hospital in Sioux Falls, was transferred to Madonna Rehab in Lincoln, Nebraska, then to another clinic in Omaha to further his rehabilitation.
Maxwell had to learn to do everything he had done before, all over again. After being bed ridden, on a breathing machine and with feeding tubes, his muscles had wasted away as well. Compacted by new sheets of myelin grown over to replace the damaged ones means there are new pathways, as far as the body is concerned.
“I lost 60 pounds in the process,” Maxwell told the Capital Journal.
What it means is the body has not sent messages to the brain from those nerve ending before. It has, but like when you reset you modem, it has to look for that pathway again to establish itself.
Maxwell was the same way. He had to concentrate and tell his body what to do, to re-establish those pathways.
“You have to retrain the mind-body connection,” Maxwell said. “You have to remind the nerve, not that you don’t remember how to do it, it’s that you have to re-teach the lines. You gotta keep showing it enough times so it knows it’s supposed to do that automatically.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 3,000 to 6,000 people a year develop GBS. The Mayo Clinic says there is no known cure for GBS, but the damage can be mitigated, and most often people can come back from being sick.
Maxwell describes the therapists at Madonna as well balanced with equal patience and persistence at the same time. He describes it like placing one foot on the accelerator pedal of your vehicle while simultaneously placing the other foot on the brake, as hard as you can. You may only go 5 mph forward, but it is a hard-fought forward.
“Holding on to be patient,” Maxwell said. “Don’t over-expect. You are also ‘I gotta get after this as much as I can.’ There’s stuff I can’t control, but I can control how much I show up.”
Maxwell knew he wouldn’t have been able to do this on his own. Not only is he thankful for Avera saving his life, but Madona gave his life back to him, along with the other clinic in Omaha, where he learned to do normal life stuff again, like cook, drive and tie his shoes. Also, he thanks his family and community, the way they rallied in support of him.
“You don’t know what you’ve got until it just rises up and floats you through things that should be harder than they are,” Maxwell said. “From Fort Pierre, from Pierre, the Rotary Club, St. Joe’s School, my clients being so amazing and supportive along the way. The realness of knowing people are out there praying for you and thinking about you and supporting every move that you make, it makes it possible to get up and be positive and work hard every day.
It was not just the community, but his family, he felt, that helped him toward recovery. Maxwell describes the journey as feeling lonely at times, but he always knew someone was near. Maxwell says his wife was the hero of this journey.
“You can tell and feel and sense that love you have around you,” Maxwell said. “I was blessed with family that was there all the time. You should do be doing an article about my wife. Congratulations, Molly Weisgram, you’re a hero. You carried your family though this.”
They are though the worst, now, but the journey is not complete, yet. Maxwell still has a little bit of a limp. You might have to look to see it, but it’s there. The feeling in his extremities has not completely returned, yet.
“My fingers still feel like they are warming up from being cold outside,” Maxwell said.
Next on Maxwell’s list of getting better is playing hoops with his kids. His sons want to play some football with him too, and while he can be the permanent quarterback, he’d rather be able to throw down a couple hug tackles every now and again. While he has a ways to go, and none of it will be downhill, the slope is much more manageable, now.
“I couldn’t be more thankful. You just don’t know until it happens for you, and it knocks you over.