When I was a child, I despised gym class, and I was terrible at sports. I never liked doing any sort of physical activity at all. That feeling stayed with me well into my twenties; although I chased after weight loss by going to the odd fitness class from time to time. When I was pregnant at 26, I stayed active by going for walks and doing simple home workout videos. I wasn’t in the best physical shape, but I was fairly healthy.
That all changed in 2011, just three weeks after the birth of my daughter. One morning I was enjoying my newborn at home and felt great, and by that evening I was weak and having trouble walking. Less than 72 hours later, I was in the intensive care unit at the Grey Nuns hospital, breathing on a ventilator. I was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that attacks your nerves and paralyses your body. I was completely paralyzed from the neck down; I couldn’t move, talk, or hold my new daughter. I spent almost 3 months on life support in ICU before I could breathe on my own again, and before the paralysis started to fade.
One week I could move my fingers, and the next I could move my hand. Very slowly I grew stronger, and I started physiotherapy. With the help of an incredible team of physio and occupational therapists at the Grey Nuns and Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, I strengthened my muscles and learned to use my body again. I learned to feed myself, to brush my hair and teeth, and to take care of myself. I spent 12 weeks in a wheelchair, and then learned to use my legs - to walk with a walker, then with a cane, then walk on my own again. I came home after almost 5 months in the hospital, when my daughter was almost 6 months old.
Once home - although I was walking again – I still had a long way to go. I had lost almost 30 pounds of muscle in ICU and had only regained about 10 of it back by this point. My entire body was weak, and I still didn’t have the strength to run. I knew I needed to continue exercising if I wanted to get any stronger than I was. So I joined a yoga class for seniors. There were many moves I couldn’t do at first, but I still gave it my all. And as the weeks went on, I grew stronger, and could do more and more. After that, I decided to try running. My shins and ankles would ache in pain and I’d have to wait days before trying again, but over time, I could run a little bit longer and a little bit faster. Seeing my progress ignited a flame inside me to push myself even further. So, I decided to try the at home workout program, Insanity. Just like yoga and running, there were a lot of exercises that I couldn’t do at first, but I was determined to keep trying. And seeing myself getting stronger as the weeks went by, and seeing my abilities improve, was such a motivator for me to keep going. By the end of it, I was so much stronger.
For the first time in my life, I ENJOYED exercise. I looked forward to my workouts and even started to crave them. Exercise was not only strengthening my body, it was strengthening my mind. Seeing myself reach my goals made me feel unstoppable. I went on to complete two more at home workout programs.
Eventually, I decided to venture into a gym. I was very intimidated and felt out of place at first, but I quickly discovered that the gym was a very empowering experience, and I haven’t looked back since.
Lifting weights, not only as a woman, but as someone that’s been paralyzed and couldn’t even lift a fork at one point, has made me feel both physically and emotionally stronger than ever. The gym has taught me about goals, and it’s taught me about the discipline and determination it takes to reach those goals. Working out is a lifestyle for me now, and I’ve spent the last 3 years getting myself to the point where I am now stronger than I ever was before GBS - and in the best shape of my life.
Exercise for me is about so much more than just being physically fit and healthy. Exercise is a blessing. I feel so grateful to be able to do all that I can now. There was a time I would’ve given anything to be able to walk on a treadmill again, let alone run as fast as I can now. And I know there are people out there with disabilities, that wish they were able to go for a run, or go to the gym - which is a constant reminder to myself of how fortunate I am. While going through GBS was one of the hardest experiences of my life, I know that it happened for a reason, and it has made me the strong person that I am today.
To see Holly’s journey with Guillain – Barre Syndrome, check out her YouTube video on her website: www.hollygerlach.com
By Holly Gerlach