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Fighting Two Illnesses at Once: Coronavirus and Guillain-Barré Syndrome

January 19, 2024

A photo of Madeline, who fought both Coronavirus and Guillain-Barré Syndrome

In January of 2021, when most Americans were lining up to receive their first COVID-19 vaccine in the hopes of dodging coronavirus, 52-year-old Madeline C. arrived at Overlook Medical Center with concerning symptoms that were rapidly progressing.

“My husband had just recovered from COVID-19 with the help of Overlook’s amazing team, and now I was starting to notice my own health deteriorating fast,” says Madeline. “I was extra tired, my legs and feet felt prickly, and I was having muscle spasms. When I developed a high fever, began to slur my words, and couldn’t move my legs, I got really scared. Within days, I was paralyzed from head to toe. I thought I was going to die.”

Looking For Answers

Madeline had contracted the coronavirus and was admitted to Overlook Medical Center’s intensive care unit (ICU). Her respiratory muscles had become so weak that she was intubated and placed on a ventilator. The ICU team also placed her into a medically induced coma while analyzing her rapidly declining health. It started with a consultation from Atlantic Health System neurologist, Jillian Alderson, MD.

“Madeline came into the hospital with progressive weakness and within a few days, she couldn’t breathe on her own. This is suggestive of Guillain-Barré syndrome,” says Dr. Alderson. “As part of our evaluation, we did a spinal tap to look for elevated protein in her spinal fluid, and that confirmed our suspicions.”

Not only had Madeline contracted COVID-19, but she had also developed a rare complication from the virus known as Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which is a condition where a person’s immune system attacks the peripheral nerves. For Madeline, this started in her legs and quickly progressed to her breathing and swallowing muscles, leaving her fully paralyzed.

Expert Care in Action

“I was very sick and I felt like I was teetering on life and afterlife,” says Madeline. “Dr. Alderson was such a source of comfort to me. She showed up at my bedside donned in her pandemic hazmat suit and all I could see were her eyes — those expressive eyes. They were my only source of comfort. She was there with me. Her gentle touch, her encouragement, her sense of certainty, all of it told me to trust her. And, I did.”

Madeline’s healing began with immunoglobulin therapy — pooled antibodies donated from healthy people. Over the course of five days, Madeline was given this intravenous treatment to help her body heal, and it worked.

Although Madeline doesn’t remember much during those dark days at Overlook, she does recall waking up from her coma in the ICU. She was in distress, but she was alive. Six weeks later when she was stable enough to be transferred to an inpatient rehab facility, Madeline left the hospital with a tracheostomy for breathing support and a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) feeding tube. She would require the help of acute inpatient rehabilitation to learn how to breathe, swallow and walk again.

A New Normal After COVID and GBS

“Patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome can take a long time to heal, it all depends on the amount of nerve damage,” says Dr. Alderson. “Some people fully recover, but some are left with various neurologic symptoms. Madeline was one of the more serious cases we’ve seen, and her body is not the same as it used to be. My hope is that she will ultimately feel comfortable in her new skin, realize how much incredible progress she has made, and continue to persevere through her challenges.”

As ‘the quarterback’ of Madeline’s health care team, Dr. Alderson’s support takes many forms — from managing pain to guiding intensive physical therapy. She also holds ongoing virtual discussions with Madeline’s multidisciplinary team of doctors, all within the health system’s electronic medical record.

“I’m not back to normal, but I’m working to get there,” says Madeline, who explains that she still has residual brain fog, limb pain and numbness, and is challenged by weather and unsteady surfaces. “I don’t know how much progress I will make, but I do know that without the neuro and ICU teams at Overlook Medical Center, I wouldn’t be here. During the height of a pandemic, this team did everything they could to help me. They wouldn’t stop, and I am alive because of them.”

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