// words by Paul Thomas
// photos by Jacob Gibbins
On Thursday 14th February 2013, after a night of rock climbing (standard way to spend Valentines day for me) I felt a tingling in my finger, as if I’d trapped a nerve, or done some odd injury climbing. By the weekend, the tingling had spread up to my wrists and also into my feet and thighs. At the weekend I went riding as per usual, and the Saturday went ok, although I had a couple of odd crashes. I went again the following day but the riding felt really hard going. My legs were like lead. And I still had this odd tingling that didn’t seem to be getting any better.
“By this point I needed crutches to walk”
I went to the doctors on Tuesday. Concerned, he got me into hospital on the Wednesday for a “couple of days of tests”. I packed 3 pairs of pants, socks and t-shirts, you know – one spare set just in case it was longer. By this point I needed crutches to walk and things seemed to be going downhill. On the Thursday, a week after the first tingling, I fell over on the way back from the toilet. I wasn’t able to stand up again for 3 months and didn’t leave Frenchay Hospital for 4 months. I definitely hadn’t packed enough pants!
It transpired that I had something called Guillain Barre Syndrome (GBS). This is where your immune system begins to attack your nervous system. My nerves were getting the coating striped from them and in some cases getting damaged. It can follow any sort of virus, and I’d just recovered from a flu-like cough and cold.
“I couldn’t breath properly I couldn’t clear any infection from my lungs by coughing”
GBS causes ascending paralysis. This means it starts at your extremities and works it’s way inwards towards your trunk. I could no longer move my arms or legs and then my breathing muscles started getting affected, then my throat (I soon couldn’t swallow or eat) and then my eyes, which I couldn’t properly close and I had double vision most of the time.
As I couldn’t breath properly I couldn’t clear any infection from my lungs by coughing. This led to me getting pneumonia as well, which can be fairly serious, particularly when you nearly can’t breath anyway. On admission my lung capacity was around 5 litres… Which is to be expected for a 30-something athletic male. By now it was down to 0.6 litres and with the pneumonia things were starting to look a bit serious.
I was put on intravenous antibiotics for the pneumonia, something called immunoglobulin to try and fight the GBS, an oxygen mask (which was up to 100% O2 at some points) a drip for hydration and a feeding tube. I could no longer make the necessary movements, nor did I have the necessary control, to allow me to urinate properly, and so a catheter was fitted also. My heart rate was continuously at around 120bpm (around normal jogging level) and I was running a very high temperature. I was fully plumbed in and monitored up.
“There was a very real likelihood that I might stop breathing.”
At 3.15am the following Wednesday I was taken into intensive care. I was struggling to support myself, I needed more attention, more oxygen and help on hand should I need it. There was a very real likelihood that I might stop breathing. And in that case they would ‘put me under’, cut open my throat, insert a tube, and breath for me (a tracheostomy).
Intensive care was a nasty place to be. It doesn’t stop. And no one is in there for any ‘good’ reason, everyone is seriously ill. I stayed awake for 3 days solid, fighting for every breath; by this stage that took a full body heave to get enough air in. I was too fearful that if I nodded off I wouldn’t be able to wake up again or that my breathing would get so shallow that they would have to operate. Somehow I managed to fight through and after 6 days in intensive care things began to improve just enough that they would let me out and put me into a high dependency unit instead.
By that point the lowest point in my life had been reached and my only thought was on the next step and ultimately on recovery.
I’ll make no pretense about being scared. I was petrified. Everyone was reassuring that me that my previous athleticism and age would all go in my favour. However, no one could say for sure that I would recover, or to what extent, or indeed how long any recovery would take. What if I couldn’t walk again, or use my arms, or type? What if I couldn’t ride my bike!? It’s all this uncertainty that made the whole ordeal close to unbearable. I cried openly and often.
“My main priority was of course to just be able to walk, feed myself, and perform basic bodily functions. But my target was the bike. “
The bike was a focus for me. My main priority was of course to just be able to walk, feed myself, and perform basic bodily functions. But my target was the bike. I didn’t care if I couldn’t go big, or if I wasn’t the fastest. I didn’t care about that before I was ill. I just wanted to be able to ride my bike again, and to enjoy it. Have fun. Simple. Only I couldn’t walk yet. Or feed myself, dress myself, urinate, hold anything, type or really see very well. There was a little way to go.
First things first – breathing. Kind of a biggie. Breathing physios were doing all they could to aid my breathing. They have this machine called The Bird. It inflates your lungs to about 40 PSI (about the same as a very hard mountain bike tyre) and then sucks them at the same pressure. This causes a ‘cough’ with the idea of shifting some of the mucus. You’ve never seen such a vile green as the stuff coming from my lungs.
Things continued to improve. The feeding tube was taken out and I was able to eat. At first just mushy food, but eventually I could have actual meals. I could drink fluids. Although tea from a plastic beaker through a straw just isn’t quite right.
Physios began to visit me. They would stretch me, and try and get my muscles working again. I started being able to move my arms slightly and then parts of my legs. I was able to be hoisted into a wheelchair for short periods of time. This meant one thing – freedom!
“This is where the real recovery would start to take place.”
My parents would take me out in the wheelchair for a ‘walk’ around the hospital grounds and the surrounding area. It was so nice to be able to get out of the ward, some fresh air, see the ‘real world’. But, also ultimately quite frustrating. I got really annoyed at what I couldn’t do and hated getting back to the ward. I had to do better than this. All of my energy was being put into getting better. My parents would help with physio during visiting times and I did what I could when no one was around.
After 8 weeks of being in hospital (6 weeks after intensive care) with a routine of eating, visitors, physio and drinking tea from a beaker through a straw I was finally transferred to a brain injury rehab unit (my symptoms essentially being very similar to those of someone having been in a massive car crash). This is where the real recovery would start to take place.
At the rehab unit I met people who had been in car crashes, motorbike accidents and suffered brain tumours. I met people who had literally been hit by a bus (and a lorry come to that), survived and walked out of that place smiling. That gave me a great determination to keep fighting on.
“I hadn’t masturbated for 8 weeks!”
Here I also got my own room and every man’s favourite pastime was finally in reach once-again! I hadn’t (and couldn’t even if I’d wanted to) masturbated for 8 weeks! But ‘down there’ was working again, albeit somewhat painfully to start with. You’ve no idea how good it felt to see that everything was working as it should again! I tested and tested and tested. You know, just to be sure…
With that in hand I created a ‘to do’ list of what I wanted to achieve on a whiteboard and put it up in my room. My goals were pretty basic – being able to stand up unaided for 30 seconds, walk a few meters, dress myself, go to the loo unaided. Really basic human operation. But having the list up in front of me gave me targets to reach and goals to smash. And smash them I did. Within a few weeks I’d crossed nearly all of them off and began writing another one. I was improving so quickly now that the second one barely lasted a week.
Walking again was a hard process. I had to learn again just like a child would. It is genuinely a very scary experience having you’re head at 6 foot high when you’ve been lying down for 10 weeks and not really sure how your legs work. At first this was with the support of machines, then I progressed onto using the support of the physios, and then finally being able to take a few steps completely unaided. I could walk again!
Of course, they knew I was into my bikes. Talk of seeing if I could ride again started to emerge. I was keen, very keen. But also realistic. I knew I’d have to get stronger before they’d let me give it a go. After a few weeks of learning and practicing walking the day finally came. There was me, a bike, and three physiotherapists. I was going to sit on the bike, they were going to hold me upright while I pedalled. It worked! I was riding a bike! Now I had to give it a go on my own… success! I could ride a bike! It was easier than walking! It still is to this day!
“I began a regime of riding my bike, just on the road at first, but eventually back to off road again”
I’d done it. I was discharged from hospital a week later, a full 4 months after the tingling first started in my finger. I could walk, eat, ride a bike and just about perform all normal tasks. It was the 21st June and a summer of getting back to health lay ahead of me. I began a regime of riding my bike, just on the road at first, but eventually back to off road again. I went to the gym three times a week. Eventually I was able to rock climb again and then I was able to ride DH again, rather than ‘just’ trail.
My normal summer would have been spent out in Morzine running Riders Retreat and riding my bike. I wasn’t well enough to do that this year, but had somehow managed to keep the business running and bookings coming in from hospital, thanks largely to my Dad patiently at my bedside taking my instructions on what to do. Although I’d missed my summer of mountain biking I did manage to get a week away in the sun this October riding downhill in Malaga with RoostDH. To me, this proved that I had recovered properly. I was riding my Saracen Myst down dusty, rocky full on DH tracks abroad. Finally!
“I’ve got a cold and I’m crapping myself that it might happen again. “
I’m writing this 2 years later; I’ve just come back from a week riding bikes in Madeira with Freeride Madeira, a week snowboarding in France and I’ve got a rock climbing competition this Wednesday – things are pretty much back to normal. Every time I get a cold I start crapping myself that it might happen again. Apparently the chances of that are infinitesimally small, but still, it plays on my mind. I get pins and needles in my fingers somewhat continuously, and my feet feel slightly numb from the nerve damage. But it doesn’t stop me doing anything, and it’s just kind of the way things feel now rather than anything particularly annoying.
Thanks to all my friends and family for the support over the hardest and lowest 4 months of my life. I have no idea how I would have done it without you. And also those instrumental in keeping Riders Retreat running for me when I couldn’t be there (notably my Dad, William Elliott and all those on the ground in Morzine who I called favours upon).