The Allspice Café at Fort Sanders Regional may seem like an unusual place for a family gathering, but for Larry and Lisa Beeler, it’s a “second home.”
It’s where they came that St. Patrick’s Day 2010 when Larry was stricken with Miller Fisher Syndrome, a rare variant of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) that left him paralyzed, on a ventilator and in an induced coma. It’s where a worried Lisa, “not knowing whether he would be the ‘Larry’ he was when he came in or if he would ever be again,” waited in the lounge of the Critical Care Unit for weeks on end.
But it’s also where Larry and Lisa found so much hope, healing and caring that they now serve as volunteers for others who find themselves in similar situations. It’s also why the Beelers – complete with the four children, in-laws, grandkids and parents – have returned every St. Patrick’s Day for the past five years to remember.
“Our family meets here every year on March 17 because we’re so thankful,” said Lisa. “We can look back and see where we were and where we got back to. People say, ‘Could you not find a better place to go celebrate?’ We ate here three times a day for three months!”
“We’ll eat and walk around a little bit,” said Larry. “Sometimes, we’ll all go upstairs on the terrace because I loved to be wheeled out-side. We reflect on what happened and thank God that we’re not here. Sometimes, we go up to Patricia Neal (Rehabilitation Center) and a nurse will say, ‘Can I help you?’ and I’ll say, ‘No, I was a Guillain-Barre patient here five years ago and I was in this room, and I am just here reflecting on what happened. They’ll ask me a lot of questions. A lot of times, I will tell them my story of what I went through.”
What Larry “went through” began March 16, 2010, on his drive home from work when he noticed his vision wasn’t quite right but brushed it off, thinking it was a side effect of the antibiotics he was taking for a sore throat.
“Within 24 hours, he went from being as healthy as could be to being on life support,” Lisa recalled. “He couldn’t move his arms, his legs, he couldn’t open his eyes. He was paralyzed from head to toe.”
Fort Sanders neurologist Dr. Darrell Thomas determined that Larry had been stricken with Miller Fisher Syndrome, a variant of GBS that is characterized by abnormal muscle coordination, paralysis of the eye muscles and absence of the tendon reflexes.
“We didn’t know what Guillain-Barre was, never heard of it,” said Larry. “We didn’t know if I was going to be paralyzed for the rest of my life. We didn’t know what the next step was. We didn’t know whether I would be a vegetable for the rest of my life. I could tell a little bit of what was going on around me if people talked to me. I could wiggle my toes a little bit for ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I lost 30-something pounds. I was skin and bone.”
After being in ICU for four weeks, Larry spent four weeks in Patricia Neal where therapists and Dr. Sharon Glass were finally able to send him home in a wheelchair and walker. Another six or seven months of outpatient therapy followed before Larry was able to return his job as a buyer at a hard-ware wholesaler.
“I’m living proof and a testament to a lot of people that you CAN beat this if you work hard at it,” says Larry. “Because of this hospital – the doctors and the nurses and nutritionists and therapists and the spirit of God and my belief – they got me to walk again, to talk again, got me to eat again and they helped me pull through it.”
Now, Larry and Lisa are “giving back” as Fort Sanders volunteers. Lisa serves once a week in the same ICU lounge where she spent so many weeks during Larry’s ill-ness. “Waiting in the ICU lounge was bad – it’s not an easy seat to sit in – but the people they had working in the ICU lounge helped me get through it,” said Lisa.
“That’s why I wanted to give back. I always say I come to volunteer hoping to be a blessing to somebody else, but usually I am the one who leaves with all the blessings. I always do. I love it.”
While Lisa helps with all types of patients in ICU, Larry serves on an as-needed basis whenever there is a family dealing with Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
“What we’re trying to do is give a little bit of hope and inspiration to people,” he said. “We just try to meet with families and people in the hospital who have that and try to help them through it. We don’t diagnose them by any means or tell them what’s going to happen. We just try to give them a little bit of hope and say, ‘You are not alone.’ If I can show that I am there and I am strong and – I hate to use the words ‘beat it’ – but if we have a positive mental attitude about it then maybe I can give them some inspiration that might change the way they look at things. When we walk out of the room, we hope that we have left something with them. They are lying there in bed, they can’t walk but maybe they will say, “He was completely paralyzed but he was able to walk in and walk out and maybe I can do that too – if not for myself then for my family.”