Peter Wilkerson ’13 was a healthy, active assistant basketball coach at Covenant College who was feeling under the weather. Days after being told he most likely had mono, Peter’s mobility started to erode. He called a friend to take him to the hospital, but fell to the ground while attempting to walk to her car. Peter was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, lost the ability to walk and eat, and found himself in the intensive care unit (ICU) at his local hospital. After leaving the ICU, he began a difficult journey toward recovery at Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation. It was at Siskin that Peter found an unexpected friend in fellow alumnus and physical therapist Matt Annessi ’08.
“Peter had lost something. He had no idea if he would ever get it back. And in the middle of a situation like that, the church needs to be asking, ‘How can we endure together as brothers and sisters in Christ?’”
Guillain-Barré is a rare auto-immune syndrome that affects 1-2 in every 100,000 people. When a person is suffering from Guillain-Barré, their immune system malfunctions and attacks the myelin sheath that covers their peripheral nerves. According to the Mayo Clinic, this malfunction stops the nerves from communicating with the rest of the body and disrupts the body’s ability to send sensory messages back to the brain. The brain subsequently cannot send motor messages to the patient’s muscles. A person suffering from the first phase of Guillain-Barré syndrome will experience a rapid-onset paralysis. Although the exact cause of the syndrome is unknown, most people become affected by Guillain-Barré just after fighting off a respiratory virus. While recovering from the flu or mono, people like Peter are hit with a mysterious illness that advances rapidly.
Peter’s stay in the nearby ICU served to stop the syndrome from getting worse. Once the progress of Guillain-Barré is arrested, the body has an incredible ability to begin to rebuild the myelin sheath that covers and protects our peripheral nerves. This healing takes time and requires patients like Peter to re-learn how to walk, swallow, and breathe normally. Peter was moved to Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation to begin physical therapy and his road to recovery.
A Friendship Begins
Little did Peter know that he had a friend waiting for him at Siskin Hospital. A fellow Covenant alumnus told Matt Annessi ’08, a physical therapist at Siskin, about Peter’s case while Peter was still in the ICU. Matt knew there was a good chance Peter would be heading to Siskin at some point for physical therapy, so he kept his eye out for Peter’s name.
“It was so encouraging to have Matt there—not just as a fellow Covenant alum, but as a Christian.”
“Whenever I see someone come into Siskin who has a relationship with Covenant I try to stop by their room and make a connection with them, even if I’m not personally assigned to their case,” says Matt. “I feel like if I can bring some sense of familiarity and comfort and peace into the process, that’s a worthwhile thing to do.”
The day Peter arrived at Siskin, Matt came by to meet him. At that point, Peter’s vocal and facial muscles still weren’t working well, but Matt was able to greet him and Sam—Peter’s fiancé—and offered to pray for Peter and his family as they started their stay at Siskin.
“I remember he came in and let us know he had gone to Covenant too,” says Peter. “I remember he said, ‘I’m not your physical therapist, but I’m here for you and I’m here to pray for you.’”
Matt sees his vocation as an opportunity to enter into a moment of difficulty and suffering with people.
“Part of what I see God has me at Siskin for is to be with people who have lost something,” says Matt. “Peter had lost something. He had no idea if he would ever get it back. And in the middle of a situation like that, the church needs to be asking, ‘How can we endure together as brothers and sisters in Christ?’ And in thinking about these things, I went in to meet Peter and Sam, knowing I wanted to hold them up in the middle of what they were going through. Enduring together with Peter and Sam affirms God’s faithfulness and reminds all of us that He is still on the throne.”
For patients recovering from Guillain-Barré, the main job of physical therapists is to prevent secondary complications of the syndrome including muscle atrophy and cardio and respiratory deconditioning. This prevention takes several forms—including providing patients with supportive wheelchairs and stretching out the muscles of patients.
Before moving into the recovery phase of Guillain-Barré, Matt explains that patients enter into a phase where they don’t get better but they also don’t get worse. The body then has a chance to transition into recovery. For patients like Peter, physical therapists will look for the ability to move their bodies against gravity. Until that point, the body needs to work to rebuild itself. If a therapist pushes a patient forward too early, they could trigger a relapse of the patient’s earlier symptoms.
About 2-3 weeks into Peter’s stay at Siskin, his physical therapists began to think he was starting to enter the recovery phase, but his recovery was not progressing quickly.
“That whole time was really rough,” says Peter. “It was so encouraging to have Matt there—not just as a fellow Covenant alum, but as a Christian.”
The Functional Electrical Stimulation Cycle
Matt spoke to Peter’s personal physical therapist about the possibility of using one of the hospital’s new pieces of equipment in Peter’s treatment. Four months earlier, the hospital had obtained a Functional Electrical Stimulation Cycle (FES Cycle) and, at the time, Matt was the only physical therapist in his department who was trained to use the machine.
The FES Cycle stimulates muscles through electrical currents, exercising muscles that the patient may not have control over neurologically. There is some evidence that the FES Cycle stimulates muscles and can help patients maintain muscle mass. Therapists will often employ the FES Cycle in the rehabilitation of patients who have had a stroke, a brain injury, or who suffer from diseases like Parkinson’s or MS. Matt had never used the FES Cycle on a patient with Guillain-Barré.
“There is nothing published about using the Cycle with patients with Guillain-Barré,” says Matt. “But I read a few unpublished case studies about the potential benefits it could have for a patient like Peter. I explained to Peter that exercising his muscles with the Cycle wouldn’t all of a sudden make him able to walk. The first time we used the Cycle, we cycled Peter for five minutes and at the end he was completely exhausted.”
Peter and Matt used the FES Cycle five times. The last two times they cycled for fifteen minutes. Not long after, Peter started to walk with a walker, with some assistance. Two-to-three weeks later, he was able to walk with a walker on his own.
“I still believe it’s one of the things that helped me recover quickly,” says Peter. “Once we started using the Cycle I turned a big corner. When I started walking on my own, my muscles had already been exercising and building up strength through those exercises.”
Matt explains that the literature only suggests that the FES Cycle may have helped Peter maintain his muscle mass, but he can understand that from Peter’s perspective, the Cycle acted as a jumpstart to his recovery.
“I’m thankful for the part it played in the process,” says Matt.
Matt exercises Peter’s muscles with the Functional Electrical Stimulation Cycle, using electrical currents to move muscles that Peter did not have full neurological control over.
Enduring Together in Christ
As happy as he was to use the hospital’s new piece of equipment to aid in Peter’s recovery process, Matt is equally concerned with how he as a Christian and the church in general enters into difficult situations with people who are suffering.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about how we as the body of Christ can endure together and be present together in the midst of suffering,” says Matt. “How do we endure together during times like these? I see this situation as an opportunity to form friendships and lament together. Perhaps it is one of the ways God holds us up in our faith and declares His truths.”
Matt recognizes that not every person who suffers from a disease—or even from Guillain-Barré in particular—will experience healing and restoration in their lifetime. It’s in those moments and days and years of suffering, just as much as in celebratory times of healing, that we are called to walk with and alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Covenant men’s basketball team visited Coach Wilkerson and celebrated their 2016 USA South tournament championship win. It was the first conference title on record for the Scots since 1964.
- Guillain-Barré syndrome was first codified by Georges Guillain, Jean Alexandre Barré, and André Strohl in 1916.
- Guillain-Barré syndrome is not contagious and the research has not yet discovered what triggers the syndrome in some people and not others.
- According to the National Institute of Health, Guillain-Barré is often preceded by a viral or bacterial infection.
- The most common type of Guillain-Barré attacks the myelin sheath (protective covering) of the peripheral nerves—the motor and sensory nerves connected to the spinal cord.
- The National Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke estimates that 30 percent of people affected by Guillain-Barré will experience “residual weakness” three years after their initial recovery. A smaller number—around three percent—will experience some kind of relapse even many years after recovering.