Rich Toole is a positive kind of guy. He’s always embracing good thoughts and dropping negative ones.
That’s likely what helped him in his amazing recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves, causing paralysis.
On Oct. 18, 2018, the 69-year-old Grand Rapids, Michigan, resident developed shingles symptoms.
“I noticed it in the morning,” Rich said. “It developed overnight. I immediately called the doctor.”
He took medication, but less than a week later, more alarming symptoms arose—he lost strength in his legs.
He attempted to move from a living room chair to the couch, but he could achieve little without help from his wife, Tonya.
“I collapsed like Jell-O,” Rich said. “I couldn’t understand what the heck was happening. I crawled back to the couch with the help of Tonya. I said, ‘Something is really wrong. You have to call an ambulance.’”
An ambulance transported him to Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital on Oct. 26.
Diagnosis? Guillain-Barré syndrome, which affects only about 20,000 people in the U.S. each year.
It’s a serious diagnosis that can rob not just the body, but the mind.
The disease sapped his lungs. He relied on a ventilator to sustain his life.
He couldn’t move any of his muscles. He had to use a sip-and-puff call light, the kind used by people with quadriplegia, because he couldn’t use his voice to cry for help or use his fingers to push a call button.
After three hours of intense physical therapy each day, the man that his family and friends knew and loved slowly returned, one small movement at a time.
Linda Rusiecki, a physical therapist at the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center, said Rich made amazing progress in a short time.
During a mid-December therapy session at the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center, he made it from his room to the therapy center with the assistance of a walker.
“I love it, Rich,” Rusiecki said as Rich made his way down the hallway. “I was off for three days in a row and it’s amazing to see how much progress he has made.”
Once in the therapy room, Rusiecki put Rich through some balance tests.
“Cross your arms and stand up from the chair,” she instructed. “That’s great. You didn’t lose balance at all. And you walked down here without any balance issues. It’s worlds different than it was a week ago. You may even be cartwheeling by Christmas.”
Tonya smiled as she watched her husband go through his physical therapy paces—reaching down to pick up a pen, stepping up onto a wooden platform and placing one foot in front of the other on a line.
Little steps, but tremendous progress.
“He’s so, ‘I can do it,’” Tonya said. “It’s just unbelievable, where he came from and how he’s come so far, so fast. He literally was a quadriplegic. He couldn’t move at all.”
Although Rich has said he still feels tingling in his toes, he and Tonya feel blessed.
“This is so huge,” Tonya said. “He wanted to come home and walk through the door. This is the worst thing I’ve even gone through. I didn’t know anything about this disease.”
Following his therapy session, Rich returned to his room.
He said Guillain-Barré has taught him a new appreciation for life and for those challenged in movement.
“It’s amazing to think I’ve gone from totally paralyzed to walking in such a short time,” he said. “I’ve got a much stronger respect for people who are paralyzed. I’m just so fortunate to come out of it.”
It is indeed a process, Rusiecki said.
First, Rich worked from a resting position. Then he moved upright and took short steps with a walker. He’ll gradually increase his walking distance.
“Soon, his cane is just going to be collecting dust,” Rusiecki said. She turned to Rich and praised his hard work. “You’ve made incredible progress in just a short amount of time.”
Christa Rector, MD, a rehab doctor, entered the room, delivering news that brought shimmering smiles to Tonya and Rich.
“You’re like a medical miracle,” Dr. Rector said. The disease had become so advanced that Rich couldn’t breathe without a ventilator.
“The Guillain-Barré affected his nerves and he couldn’t feel the ground, which makes it hard to walk,” Dr. Rector said. “Things are coming back nicely.”
As Dr. Rector placed a stethoscope over her patient’s heart, Rich said simply: “Life is good.”
The doctor then tested the strength in his ankles. The results were encouraging.
“Those are pretty strong,” she said. “Really strong.”
The progress has been impressive.
“For Guillain-Barré, he had a really fast recovery for how weak he was,” Dr. Rector said. “His diaphragm was paralyzed—that’s what caused him to need the ventilator. Two days after they brought him in, he needed a ventilator.”
These days, Rich is home, regaining strength by the day with the support of Tonya and his three sons—Richard, 49, Greg, 47, and Bob, 45.
He also gets plenty of encouragement from his eight grandchildren.
“Probably the biggest thing is that Tonya has been with me every minute and has been a caregiver and the best support I could possibly ask for,” Rich said of his wife of just over a year. “We were going to travel together and this kind of set us back a bit, but eventually, that’s our goal—to continue to travel. Last year we went out to Nevada and hit 14 states in 6,000 miles.”
Toole said besides his family’s support, he owes his recovery to his positive mental attitude.
“My recovery has been amazing to say the least,” he said. “I now feel back to 99 percent normal. Yes, life is good.”