I was just 26 years old when I was diagnosed with a rare disease that I had never heard of before. Only three weeks before my diagnosis, I had given birth to my baby girl Casey, and was enjoying life as a new mom.
Motherhood was something I always knew I was destined for, and those first few weeks with Casey were the best weeks of my life. I was getting to know my daughter and I was really looking forward to spending the next 12 months together for my mat leave.
What started out as a strange sensation in my finger, progressed very quickly to weakness in my legs and severe pain in my neck. Less than a few hours later, I was struggling to walk. I went to the ER, where I was fairly quickly diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome – a rare auto immune disorder. I learned that my own immune system was attacking my body, quickly paralyzing me. I was told that they would need to monitor me to see how bad things got, and I was admitted to the hospital. Unfortunately, the paralysis continued to spread very fast, and within seventy-two hours I was completely paralyzed from the neck down. I could no longer breathe on my own, and I was put on life support on ICU.
I showed no signs of improvement for over six weeks. Although I was told that with GBS you will get better, I was convinced that I’d be in a vegetative state for the rest of my life. I wasn’t even sure that I was going to survive. I didn’t believe I was going to ever be a mother to my newborn baby, something I had wanted so badly - and I became very hopeless and depressed.
I spent almost three months in ICU paralyzed from the neck down. It was a very dark time - full of pain, tears, anxiety and depression. But when I slowly started moving again, and when I started to see that there was hope of me recovering, it ignited a flame in me to push myself to get back to my baby.
I spent the next ten weeks in physiotherapy where I learned how to use my body again – I learned how to type, write, how to hold cutlery, how to feed myself, how to do my makeup and brush my teeth, etc. I eventually learned how to walk again, and after a 126 days total in the hospital, I finally returned home.
After I was home and had completed my physiotherapy, I knew if I wanted to get any stronger than I was, I would need to put in a ton of work. My recovery was my responsibility; no one else’s. I was not going to get stronger if I sat around on my couch. I started going for walks every day, slowly strengthening my legs more and more over time. Then I moved on to a gentle yoga. Seeing myself improve as the weeks went by, once again showed me that I was capable of so much more than I initially thought I was. After that, I started running. Many times I would have to stop from the pain and take a break for a few days, but then I would try again. And over time, I got stronger and faster. Next, I decided to try the at home workout Insanity, which again, over time, I grew stronger and stronger. And that’s what I continued to do. Eventually I made my way into a gym and started weight training. Now, 7 years later, I am stronger than I ever was before GBS.
Shortly after I returned home, my outlook on life changed. I started to see my experience with GBS as a blessing. Going through a rare disease and completely losing my independence in my 20s, made me appreciate all the things that I could do again. It reminded me how quickly life could change and that I needed to live my life to the absolute fullest. I felt so grateful that I could be a mother to my daughter again. I was just grateful to be alive.
I started volunteering with the GBS Foundation of Canada, to bring awareness to this rare disease, and to help others going through it. I also wrote a book about my journey and made a YouTube video to inspire others not to give up. I know now, that I had GBS for a reason –to show others that with strength, determination and perseverance, you can get through anything.
What I have really learned from my whole experience though, is that life doesn’t usually go the way we plan it. No matter how hard we try to avoid them, we will face challenges and go through hard times that we may not think we can get through. But learning to accept that challenges are a part of life (and not something you can avoid); teaching yourself to stay positive, to see the blessings really does make all the difference in the world.
Life is not easy, but I assure you, it’s worth it.
More About Holly
Holly Gerlach was diagnosed with a rare disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome, just 3 weeks after giving birth to her daughter. She spent over 4 months paralyzed in the hospital – 2 and a 1/2 in the ICU breathing on a ventilator. After months of physical therapy, she miraculously recovered, and has since self-published her book, "Happily Ever After" to share what she went through; and to inspire others to never give up.