Walking independently around Madonna’s Lincoln Campus is a milestone Sheila Gaul was uncertain she would get to in late fall of 2020. As she takes steps down the long hallway, she’s reminded of the hard work it took to regain her strength, and of the support and prayers from family and friends that lifted her up in this most recent season of her life.
A nurse for more than 35 years, Sheila was working at a clinic in her hometown of Troy, Kansas in late fall of 2020 when she contracted COVID-19. Her symptoms were mild, and after a few days she was ready to return to work. The night before she returned to work, she noticed all of her fingertips felt numb. When she took her shoes off after work the next day she noticed her toes were numb.
“I thought, there’s something going on,” Sheila said. “I developed a tight band around my chest and I ended up being admitted to Mosaic LifeCare in St. Joseph, Missouri. They did a spinal tap and discovered it was Guillain-Barre Syndrome and things just progressed from there.”
Guillain-Barre Syndrome, or GBS, is a rare neurological disorder where the body’s immune system attacks the nerves. The cause is not known, but most cases start following a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection. The National Institutes of Health has published a study indicating there may be a link between COVID-19 and GBS, but more data is needed.
Sheila ended up in the ICU and was in the hospital for nearly a month. She had to be intubated a total of three times. Every time her care team tried to take her off the ventilator, they would have to intubate her again because she couldn’t breathe independently.
“I remember laying in the hospital and I wanted to cry so badly,” Sheila said. “I would get a tear that would run down my face and I would be like, ‘Don’t cry. You don’t have the energy to cry. Every bit of your energy is needed for you to breathe.’ And I could just make myself stop crying.”
Miraculously, Sheila survived, but not without serious ailments. She was unable to move most of her body, was extremely weak and had a tracheostomy tube to help her breathe. Ready to leave the hospital but not ready to go home, Sheila and her husband, Brad, chose Madonna’s Lincoln Campus for rehabilitation. Sheila recalled the first day she arrived at Madonna on December 16, 2020 – the day before her 57th birthday.
“I came here by ambulance and my upper body strength was getting better but I had no lower body strength,” she said. “I couldn’t transfer, I couldn’t do really much of anything.”
With the goal of walking out of Madonna independently, Sheila got to work in therapy. Reintroducing basic skills like washing her hair and putting on makeup took great energy at first, but focusing on small improvements each day helped Sheila inch towards her goal.
She started noticing greater gains when her physical therapist introduced her to the Lokomat by Hocoma, a robot-assisted gait training system. The repetition of taking steps helped strengthen and reawaken her leg muscles.
“I felt like I could have run a marathon I was so excited to be moving like I was walking!” Sheila said.
That momentum propelled Sheila forward in her month-long recovery at Madonna. She graduated from the Lokomat, to walking with a walker to walking independently in less than two weeks.
Sheila relied on support from her community and from her Madonna care team to propel her forward in therapies. Between the countless cards from family, friends and old acquaintances and the constant reassurance from her doctors, nurses and therapists, she said she felt consistently lifted up in praise and prayer.
“I have not once felt sad that I have to be here,” Sheila said. “I feel totally confident now to go home.”
Now home, Sheila is using her experience to educate others on the importance of wearing masks and receiving the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. While the incidence of GBS after COVID-19 is unclear, Sheila said she was a healthy person who didn’t fall into a high-risk category that would have indicated she would experience such complications as a result of the virus.
“I come from a community where I hear all the time, ‘I’m not going to take that COVID-19 vaccine. Nobody’s going to make me wear a mask,’” Sheila said. “I just hope that my experience changes some people’s minds and that a lot of people learn from what happened to me, get their vaccine and wear their mask.”