Special to the Cherokee Tribune
Imagine having to relearn how to eat, how to walk, how to talk. Imagine how frustrating and devastating that would be.
That’s exactly what happened to Woodstock resident and Airman 1st Class Lori Cord, 436th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, when she contracted a rare illness in late October.
A few days before Cord went home on leave, she received the annual flu immunization in the form of the flu mist. When she got to her home in Woodstock, Cord began to notice symptoms, but initially brushed them off.
“I noticed my feet were becoming numb and felt like they were being stuck with pins and needles,” Cord said. “I was also starting to have a neck problem. Then my tongue started to go numb, and then my entire mouth, it was weird. Then my hands felt like pins and needles, and the next night, it got worse.”
A day before she was scheduled to return to Dover Air Force Base, Cord said she began to feel very weak. She tried to help her grandmother with some yard work, but she could barely pick up a 20-pound bag of mulch and said afterward, her calves felt like they were on fire.
The day of her flight, Nov. 2, both Cord and her parents knew something was wrong. The plan was for Cord to go straight to the emergency room once she got back to Delaware because they were afraid of her being stuck in Georgia.
When she arrived at the airport in Philadelphia, her friend, Senior Airman Nicholas Anderson, immediately noticed something was not right.
“Well, her flight arrives and I’m waiting in the terminal for what seemed like forever,” Anderson said. “Then I finally see her and she is holding on to the wall as she is shuffling towards me. I asked her what was going on and she said her feet hurt and the pain was moving up her legs. I told her we had to get to the ER now.”
Anderson and Cord spent seven and half hours at the emergency room, but the doctors were unable to determine what she had or what her symptoms meant. The doctors wanted her to see a neurologist on the following Monday.
Anderson said he and his roommate, Senior Airman Nicolaos Hofbauer, stayed with her over the weekend because they didn’t want to leave her alone.
“Over the weekend, it seemed like it had leveled out some,” Anderson said. “On Monday, things seemed to get worse, she had to walk with her leaning on us. When we got to work they said to get her to the emergency room.”
Cord said her condition started to deteriorate rapidly at the hospital.
“On Monday, I was a hot mess,” Cord said. “I couldn’t feel my back when I took a shower. When we got to the front desk they noticed I was walking weird and got me a wheelchair. When they saw that I couldn’t even fill out the paperwork or hold a pen, I think they could tell something was really wrong. When we got back to the family medical area, I was slouching more and more, and they let a doctor see me really quick.”
Cord’s condition continued to deteriorate at an alarming pace. Along with all of her other symptoms, her speech started slurring badly. They took Cord to the downtown emergency room by ambulance.
Once at the ER, a neurologist did a spinal tap and found an extreme amount of proteins in her spine. The next thing Cord knew, she was told she was being transferred to the intensive care unit. There she was told for the first time what she had — something that would change her life.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, Guillain Barre Syndrome (GBS) is a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system.
The first symptoms of this disorder include varying degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs. In many instances, it spreads to the arms and upper body.
These symptoms can increase in intensity until certain muscles cannot be used at all and, when severe, the person is almost totally paralyzed. In these cases the disorder is life threatening –— potentially interfering with breathing and, at times, with blood pressure or heart rate –— and is considered a medical emergency.
The syndrome is rare, afflicting about 1 in 100,000 annually. GBS occurs a few days or weeks after the patient has had symptoms of a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection. Occasionally, surgery will trigger the syndrome. In rare instances, vaccinations may increase the risk of GBS.
In the ICU, Cord was told her condition would get worse before it got better. She was completely paralyzed from head-to-toe, lost her ability to talk, the ability to do anything on her own.
Because GBS is a disorder where the diagnoses and recovery time can be extremely varied, it was unclear when symptoms were going to subside.
Cord was declared a critical patient. At that point, Master Sgt. Keith Eberhardt, 436th AMXS first sergeant, arranged for Cord’s father and mother to be flown up from Georgia.
Eberhardt arranged lodging amongst other things. According to Cord’s father, Rick Cord, Eberhardt and others with the 436th AMXS took care of all the family’s peripheral needs, so Rick and his wife, Lisa, could take care of their daughter.
“I was so impressed by the squadron and the Air Force family,” said Rick, a retired 24-year police officer in Cobb County. “They took care of things so we could look after Lori. Every time I mentioned a need, they were there with help. They provided meals and everything. I was just blown away by the compassion people had for her. It was truly a humbling experience.”
According to Rick, the recovery process was long and hard. He said it was like raising her from infancy again. The steps in her recovery process included time in the ICU, being moved to a physical therapy facility in Milford, Del., back to Temporary Living Facility on base, to finally a home off-base in Dover, where she has been recovering since leaving the Milford facility, Dec. 8, 2012.
“She had to learn to talk again because her mouth was paralyzed,” Rick said. “We had to do absolutely everything for her. It was quite frightening for me. Daily I could see the recuperation was going very slowly. There were times I wondered if she would ever fully recover. But I knew with her determination that she would.”
It was this determination and commitment that would serve her well as she started the long road to recovery. One of the treatments required for GBS is mental health, because GBS can lead to depression as the patient experiences the painful process of trying to regain functions natural to them before GBS.
According to Rick and others, Cord’s positive attitude was not only a source of strength for herself, but was encouraging to family, friends, coworkers and even other patients.
“The nurses said she is the most encouraging and uplifting person,” Rick said. “She has an infectious enthusiasm. She had all the patients (in Milford) in a semi-circle around her all in wheelchairs doing exercises. She had everyone laughing and encouraged. The first time she got out of her wheelchair and onto a walker, the whole place, therapists and patients, erupted in applause.”
Another person who noticed her attitude was her commander, Lt. Col. Andrew Levien.
“I want to point out how excited I am to have a person like Airman 1st Class Cord in our squadron,” Levien said. “Her positive attitude in this difficult situation is something to be modeled. I have never seen such an upbeat person in the midst of a life-changing situation. She was always smiling, finding the positive in every challenge and regularly begging to come back to work. Her attitude is infectious.”
Cord has slowly been progressing along the road to recovery. She and her father set the goal of Cord being able to go to work on her own for a full week as the time when he would return home to Georgia.
That goal was met Feb. 1, and her father and mother drove back to Georgia on Feb. 3.
Kristoffer Surdukowski, Cord’s physical therapist, said it is hard to say how much longer she will continue to recover. She has made great progress thus far, but still has a long ways to go to be back to normal again.
“With GBS there are no set parameters for recovery,” Surdukowski said. “She has really progressed well. Her long-term outlook, in another two months she could be back close to 100 percent, that is looking normal. Her long-term prognosis is unknown, because a diagnosis is difficult to get to. This could come up again. There are a lot of question marks as to what will happen.”
Cord’s father had nothing but praise for the love and support his family and Lori received from the 436th AMXS.
“In my mind and how I was thinking, I had tunnel vision, nothing mattered to me but Lori’s recovery,” Rick said. “That’s where the squadron came in. The first sergeant, her supervisors, the NCOs, everyone came in and took care of so much for us. It was just one show of compassion after another.”
Capt. Suzanne House, 436th Aircraft Maintenance Unit officer-in-charge, said it was great having Cord back to work and that she didn’t expect to see her back so soon. She said it spoke of Cord’s commitment to the Air Force.
“I noticed how much of a family our unit truly is, everyone was genuinely glad to see her back to work, it was almost like a reception line,” House said. “She has been such a breath of positive energy since she has been back. It is great to see the progress she has made. I think it boosted morale for everyone to see her back. She is really inspiring.”
Eberhardt, said the Air Force needs more people like her.
“She has the best attitude of anyone I’ve ever known,” Eberhardt said. “We would be there to lift her spirits and she would end up lifting our spirits. She was so positive the whole time. Other people rallied around her. It was almost unbelievable to see. She was pushing her doctors and pushing her PTs for the opportunity to get back to work, that shows what kind of person she is. She just has a great attitude. In fact, we need more people with her attitude in the Air Force.”