Chris Gambell's encounter

Presented at the AGM at Christchurch in May 2008

I contacted Guillain–Barré syndrome in August 2006. This syndrome was something I had never heard of before. It started about 2 weeks after a bout of flu, which left me with a high pitched cough. I woke up feeling tired with pins and needles in my legs that continued all day. The following day my legs were the same and my hands had also developed pins and needles. I had difficulty holding things. My days work plans changed as I would have been driving out of town. I wisely decided to go to the doctor instead.

The result of this visit was that I had a normal temperature and pulse, but no body reflexes.

Damian Johnson was not my usual GP but was working in the practise for a year. He had a few suspicions of what could have been wrong. He phoned home later saying he had been reading about a possible illness, Guillain–Barré syndrome and if I felt any worse to ring the emergency doctor. Saturday came and I could barely walk or get dressed. I was feeling helpless and worried. My daughter Rochelle and wife Leanne wasted no time in getting me to Nelson Hospital.

My doctor in A & E ran tests including five unsuccessful spinal taps but concluded that I had GBS. I wasn’t going home today! My deterioration continued to be rapid and on Sunday I could not feed myself or walk, and my oxygen intake was diminishing. Dr Fry stared me on Immunoglobulin intravenously. He decided that it would be a good idea for me to be moved into ICU. As it turned out it was necessary and I was put on a ventilator that night. My memory after this is very sketchy as I was kept under sedation for the next seven days. In this time I developed pneumonia and my right lung collapsed. My course of IVIG was stopped on Wednesday. With no improvement it was decided to take us across to Wellington Intensive Care on Thursday, where a more equipped unit could take over. Staff told Leanne to expect a long stay in Wellington, anything up to six weeks in ICU for Chris. Apparently the transfer by the Life Flight plane went very smoothly, with me being hooked up to all the “bells and whistles” attached.

Treatments were discussed in Wellington and because of my inability to move physiotherapy had been started from the very first days in Nelson and was to be continued daily. Also plasma exchange was the other treatment that was started on Saturday. It seemed that my body movements started to improve after the first treatment. The following day a tracheotomy tube was fitted. Apparently my movements were returning. My feet and hands were moving and I was trying to communicate using hand and mouth movements. Leanne helped with hand and foot massage for many hours. This was all very positive and my six weeks in ICU turned out to be seven days in Wgtn ICU and a total of four treatments of plasma exchange.

I wasn’t very happy about having the last plasma exchange as it made me feel very hot and nauseous. But I agreed after the doctor’s recommendation. I spent only four more days in Wellington in the neurological ward. In this time I learnt how to stand and walk with the hoist and walking aids, brush my teeth again, and once the tracheotomy was removed, to talk and eat proper food again.

From what I can remember over my sedated stage, the nursing staff were tremendous. They were constantly positive, reassuring, and funny when humour was needed. One thing I will admit is that pain did not feature in a big way. I was always asked if I was in pain because a lot of GBS people suffer this.

I had a very positive partner through my illness. I also feel I owe a lot of gratitude to Damian Johnson’s early detection. This probably had a lot to do with my quick recovery. Also I tried to keep a positive attitude as I wanted nothing more than to get back on my feet! I set myself small goals and was able to return to full time work in new weeks.