Riva’s story as told by Marc Hinton and published in the Sunday Star Times 29/11/2020
Who’s heard of Guillain-Barré Syndrome? Top Kiwi basketballer Riva Walker-Pitman certainly hadn’t when it rendered her almost fully paralysed earlier this year. Marc Hinton tells her story of perseverance and determination
Riva Walker-Pitman’s mind was racing, even as the rest of her was grinding to a halt. Little by little, hour by hour, her energy, strength and faculties were literally draining away. It was as though her body was simply shutting down – and she had no idea why.
When you’re 18 and in the prime of life, it’s the last thing you’re expecting. Especially when your movement, your athleticism, your natural gifts are what you’ve leaned on for so many years now to become one of New Zealand’s premier basketballers of your generation.
Not so long ago Walker- Pitman was blazing her way to 43 points to lead her side to a spot in the final of the 2019 national schools tournament – now here she was unable to put one foot in front of the other.
What is happening to me? That was the simple thought that lodged in the mind of this Waikato hoops prodigy and freshly minted commit to Fordham University in New York City back in April, when her world suddenly got turned on its head.
Yes, April. That, of course, was when New Zealand went into its first national lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Walker-Pitman went into a shutdown of a different variety: she discovered she had a rare neurological disorder known as Guillain-Barr syndrome (pronounced ghee-yan bah-ray), in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own nerve cells, with symptoms including severe muscle weakness and paralysis. .
Walker-Pitman, like most in this country, had never heard of GBS when frantic doctors eventually informed her that’s what had caused her body to shut itself down to the point where she was almost fully paralysed, unable to eat, move, or even communicate. All while being stranded on an island of isolation, because shutdown rules forbade family being bedside.
First, let’s rewind a little. Walker-Pitman, a star of Hamilton Girls High’s national schools runner-up side in 2019, had found herself earlier this year in Covid lockdown in Whakatane with her partner, Chris, in his family bubble, following national health guidelines.
“It was pretty traumatic,” she tells the Sunday Star-Times now, part way down the road to recovery, but with ground still to traverse. “I had found myself getting weaker, but hadn’t been doing any training over lockdown and put it down to that. I was outside jogging and my legs started to give out. I tried dribbling [the basketball], and couldn’t do a simple crossover. I thought ‘what the heck is going on?’
“My legs were tingling. They felt really heavy and I was aching everywhere. I carried on until it got to the point where I couldn’t walk and needed assistance for everything. That’s when I decided, ‘I need to go to the hospital’.”
What followed was a blur for Walker-Pitman as she was rushed, first, to Whakatane hospital and soon after to the HDU/ ICU unit in Tauranga when the seriousness of her situation became apparent. A few days later she was transferred to Waikato as doctors searched for the diagnosis and treatment for her condition.
The youngster’s first thought was she had contracted Covid-19. “I was freaking out,” she recalls. “How did I get Covid? I hadn’t even been outside. I felt really bad because I might have given it to my partner’s family.”
It was not Covid. Much worse. “There were so many unknowns. I had never heard of it (GBS). No one in my family had. I got to know one of the other patients in the ward that had it. That helped, hearing their story, what they were going through. It didn’t feel like I was so alone with what I had.”
In Whakatane hospital she was able to walk to the bathroom with assistance, by the time she was moved to Tauranga that became an impossibility. “It was so scary. You can’t do anything. You just have to let yourself become paralysed, and you’re just lying there waiting for it.”
Doctors and nurses were providing reassurances. Specialists told her she would recover. She was incredibly young to have this disorder; her age, fitness and durability all played in her favour. But all this time Walker- Pitman was trudging through the uncertainty, the unknown, on her own. Her only contact with family for the first few weeks in Waikato Hospital was via the phone.
“I couldn’t move anything, or do anything without the nurses. I couldn’t feed myself, and they had to insert a tube through my nose because I couldn’t swallow and food was getting caught in my throat.”
It was during this time that Walker-Pitman, a devout Mormon, finally felt the tide turn. “As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints I was able to get a blessing at the hospital, and from that moment on, even though it was slow, things started to move forward. “I was in hospital two months before I could walk. The last month I showed the most improvement. I forced myself, thinking ‘I want to get out of here; I’ve got things to do’. I kept pushing myself to eat and drink more and keep doing my exercises.”
She was released from hospital on July 28. Since then it has been a gradual process of rehabilitation, of strengthening limbs, of regaining weight, of restoring confidence. She travelled to Christchurch in October as an assistant coach with Anthony Corban’s Waikato under-17 team who won the national championship.
“When I went to the hospital and saw her the first time, I was just distraught at how much weight she’d lost,” says Corban, one of many frequent visitors Walker-Pitman has had during her long road to recovery. “But she’s just had a positive outlook. For a teenager going through what she has, with the highs and lows, how she’s dealt with this has been so impressive.
“She’s an amazing kid, and the recovery she has made has shocked a lot of people. The real challenge is going to be getting that mass back on her, because she’s lost a lot of strength. But I don’t doubt she’ll get there.”
Waikato hoops legend Carolyn Grey has been another mentoring the youngster on her comeback trail. “She’s had the worst of it, but her age is on her side and her recovery has been phenomenal,” says Grey. “The hardest thing is that mental side – keeping herself focused, understanding it’s a long process and all the everyday things you do are part of your recovery.
“But she’s got a fantastic family with her aunties and siblings, and she’s got a lot of support behind her.”
Walker-Pitman, who was raised by her auntie Charmaine Walker-Eketone and uncle Shaun Eketone in a large blended family of 12, remains upbeat and is working towards a goal of playing basketball by next year and taking up that scholarship at Fordham by 2022 which “means the world to me”.
“I will get better,” she declares. “It’s just going to take time. I know it’s all going to strengthen me to get back to the same person, or even better.”