Despite being diagnosed with the rare auto-immune disorder Guillain–Barré Syndrome (GBS) and being hospitalised for most of the academic year, SACS student, Andrew Tucker, overcame the odds to become one of the top performing matriculants of 2015. Andrew recently sat down with eHealthNews to tell his story and how his experience with GBS inspired him to pursue medicine at UCT.
GBS is an extremely rare condition that only affects one out of every 100,000 people per year and is often misunderstood and misdiagnosed. I was initially diagnosed with dehydration, but as my symptoms progressed over the following two days it became apparent that I was experiencing something much more serious.
After another visit to the GP and having an ECG and other tests to rule out any heart conditions, I was referred to a neurologist. After a clinical examination I was diagnosed with GBS based on my symptoms and placed straight into ICU to be monitored to ensure that the muscle weakness didn’t spread to my lungs or facial nerves, which would have been life threatening.
Once in hospital, a lumbar puncture was conducted to extract cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in order to confirm the clinical diagnosis. While the test came back inconclusive – this may be attributed to the fact that I was suffering from a mild form of GBS, it ruled out other neurological disorders.
From the first day I was admitted into ICU I had occupational therapy and physiotherapy on a daily basis to try retain as much muscle function as possible. This included tasks as simple as walking ten metres at a time to buttoning up a shirt which, at the time, was a challenge.
Had GBS affected my lungs I would have been given a form of polygam intravenously. However, since polygam can have an array of negative side effects the doctors were cautious to administer it, and since my case of GBS was on the milder side of the spectrum I wasn’t required to have the treatment.
Overcoming the odds
I’ve always been driven and have always set goals for myself. Having always finished at the top of my grade throughout my school career, I felt extremely disappointed and frustrated when I was diagnosed with GBS at the beginning of my matric year, as I felt that this setback had crushed my aspirations of finishing as my school’s dux scholar and potentially being placed on the WCED’s merit list, which were my initial goals for the year.
After my diagnosis, I made my health a priority and was assured that I could retake my matric in 2016 if necessary. However, after a month and a half at home recovering, I realised I would eventually make a full recovery and began to devote my time to catching up on the matric syllabus.
GBS had already taken away so much from my matric year, my goal of being my school’s 1500m athletics champion and having to spend the night of my matric dance seated, missing out on the traditional prefects’ waltz and also having to have my date cut up my food for me. So I was determined to fight it and beat it.
The positivity of my neurologist in treating my illness set the tone for my recovery and allowed me to be very positive about my circumstances from day one. A lot of hard work and perseverance throughout the recovery process coupled with an incredible amount of invaluable support, love and encouragement from my school friends, teachers, headmaster and family allowed me to get back on track and achieve the unthinkable of being the overall top achiever of 2015 – something which had been the wildest of dreams for a healthy, pre-GBS me.
Life beyond GBS
I am 99% of the way there in terms of my recovery. Although I still suffer from minor bouts of fatigue, I’m back to doing what I love which is running. As a competitive athlete beforehand, I’ve noted that my times are considerably slower post-GBS than they were before, but I’m grateful to be back on the road doing what I love. I’m extremely fortunate to have suffered from a mild form of GBS and resultantly have been lucky enough to make a full and relatively swift recovery.
Pre-GBS I was sitting on the fence between going into medicine and going into the business world. GBS put things into perspective and reminded me of how fragile life can be and how many basic things we take for granted on a daily basis, like the ability to unscrew the cap of a toothpaste tube. The level of professionalism and positivity shown by my neurologist in dealing with my health has inspired me to go into the medical profession so that one day I can be in a position to help someone the way I was helped in my time of poor health.
I want to make a difference, however small it may be in the greater scheme of things. I’m extremely grateful to be back to full health and I now feel that it’s my duty to help give back and to make a difference in the lives of others. Basic healthcare is a necessity and a right to all and I’d feel privileged to be able to fulfil this basic human right of others as a profession one day. With widespread poverty and social issues plaguing South Africa, the country needs as many quality doctors as it can get and I feel that I can put my knowledge and skills to good use by helping others.
As in almost every aspect of everyday life, technological advancements can help simplify tasks and improve the quality of life of many people around the world. The healthcare sector will, I’m sure, be no exception, especially in terms of developing more cost effective and efficient screening methods, treatments and vaccinations in the years to come which can help improve the standard of healthcare globally. I am excited to join the medical profession and contribute to future healthcare innovation.