Tahoe firefighter’s journey to recover from GBS
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Christmas Valley resident Kyle Van Mouwerik was working for the Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District one August morning in 2013 when he started feeling numbness in his toes.
The 22-year-old had been called out to a fire in Elko, Nev., shortly after returning from an absence caused by strep throat. But something still didn’t feel right.
His concerns were only compounded when he stopped after an 11-hour drive and realized he was suddenly having difficulty walking.
“Of course my first thought is, ‘Oh I was just sitting down for awhile. I’m going to be fine,’” he recalled on Friday. “But it didn’t. An hour later it was worse.”
Eventually reaching a point where he was unable to walk, Van Mouwerik was taken to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder that afflicts about one in 100,000 people and occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system.
“They told me right up front there’s a chance you can be completely paralyzed. There’s a chance you won’t get better. There’s a chance you’re going to need to be on life support,” he said. “But every step of the way, even though it always got worse, I never expected it to.”
Van Mouwerik was quickly flown to Reno, where the paralysis moved its way from his fingertips and toes toward his core, affecting his diaphragm and respiratory muscles so that he couldn’t breathe.
He was placed on life support, and spent the next month in an induced coma.
“Essentially the understanding is that there’s a good chance you’ll wake up,” he said. “But there’s a chance you won’t — that it’ll start to affect your heart muscles and there’s nothing they can do about that. So that was certainly a scary moment.”
Van Mouwerik did wake up, but he was almost completely paralyzed. He couldn’t talk. He couldn’t walk. But one of the few things he could do was barely move his head from side to side.
To call it a difficult situation is an understatement, but Van Mouwerik said he never gave up hope. He slowly began the road to recovery, undergoing weekly rehabilitation sessions and trying to walk a little further each day.
Then, just last month, the now 24-year-old made another breakthrough. Using an anti-gravity treadmill at Barton Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, he was able to run for the first time in nearly two years.
“I almost started crying,” he told Barton staff. “It was such a spiritual experience. I don’t see it as just a workout; it’s just beautiful.”
The treadmill, also called the AlterG, helps patients to run and walk without having to bear their full body weight. It accomplishes this by filling up an airtight “bubble” below the patient’s waist, lifting the user up slightly to reduce the impact on the body’s joints.
Alan Barichievich, director of Barton’s Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, has worked with Van Mouwerik and was there during his first day on the AlterG.
“In the 20 years of being in the rehabilitation business, this was one of the coolest moments I have ever experienced,” Baricheivich said in a Barton article. “He was the happiest person in the world and I just felt so lucky to be a part of his joy.”
With help from medical staff and the will to get better, Van Mouwerik continues to recover from GBS and is currently pursuing his longtime goal of becoming a paramedic firefighter.
He also continues to use the AlterG.
“For a long time I needed help to even eat and then help to walk and so on. And at that point I thought, ‘What is this? This is the worst thing that could happen to me. This is unfair’ — all the things you would associate with something like that,” he said. “But as time goes on — and I just put in the work and had the right people around me to get me through it and I got better — I honestly think it’s been a gift to have had an experience like that because it puts everything else into perspective.”