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Finding the strength within

A bout of debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome had Jessica down, but not out.

Woman outside of home with dog.
Jessica outside her home, hanging with her best friend, Frankie.

When Jessica Bohorquez quit showing up at the gym, that’s when she—and her friends—knew something serious was up. The lifelong fitness buff, a recent graduate of Caldwell University in New Jersey who’d recently returned home to Bethpage, had been feeling run down and out of sorts for several weeks last September. “My energy level was just low,” she said. “I had pain in my neck and just generally didn’t feel like myself.”

She chalked up her symptoms to fatigue and, like the athlete she’d always been, figured she’d push through the pain and snap back to her normal energetic self. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, Jessica woke one morning without enough oomph to even get out of bed. When she finally gathered the strength to take that small step, she found she was too weak to navigate the stairs. Her family doctor had a hunch what could be the culprit: Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)—a rare autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks the peripheral nerve system, causing weakness, fatigue and potential paralysis. 

Jessica’s doctor sent the young woman and her mom, Carol, to the emergency room at Plainview Hospital. “I thought I’d have a few tests and be OK,” Jessica said, but not long after arriving at the hospital, she could no longer walk.

Tests revealed that Jessica did have GBS. She was admitted to the hospital for further testing and intensive treatment, but things got worse before they got better. Her neck and arms were stiff, and she feared having to be put on a ventilator in order to breathe. “I honestly freaked out at the prospect of being intubated,” she said.

Woman in kitchen making salad.
Jessica’s healthy habits have helped speed her recovery.

Finally, on her ninth day in the hospital, she began to turn a corner. On that day, two significant things occurred: She sat up on her own, and she had a visitor. Sven Gierlinger, Northwell Health’s vice president and chief experience officer, dropped by to see her—and shared his own experience with GBS.

Mr. Gierlinger, Jessica learned, contracted GBS in his 20s, like her. Unlike her, he needed a ventilator for a time. “But to look at him now, I would never have known that he was ever sick,” Jessica said. Mr. Gierlinger reassured Jessica that she would be back loving life again and that she’d run again. “He gave me hope,” she said. “I instantly felt better after meeting him.”

Jessica’s road to recovery began with a stint in the acute inpatient rehabilitation program at Glen Cove Hospital where she worked with occupational therapist Maureen Lampman, MS, OTR/L, and physical therapist Anthony Cardone, PT, DPT. These experts helped Jessica re-learn everyday tasks like walking and self-care via therapeutic exercise. The biggest challenge was endurance; she tired out easily. But Jessica’s therapists were impressed with her determination. “Even on the hardest days, Jessica showed enough incredible resolve to accomplish the goals set out for her,” said Mr. Cardone. Ms. Lampman credits Jessica’s internal strength: “She progressed so well mainly because of her positive attitude and motivation to return to being an active young woman.”

Woman sitting on bed playing video games.
Jessica’s back to the things she enjoys, like athletics—and the occasional video game.

Once she completed inpatient rehab, Jessica returned home. It had been a whole month since that morning she couldn’t get out of bed, but she wasn’t back to fighting shape quite yet. With the help of Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation Services (STARS) in East Meadow, Jessica continued to exercise and work on occupational therapy skills. Her STARS occupational therapist, Frank Lombardo, OTR/LCKTP, CPT, didn’t have to push Jessica to do her exercises; she pushed herself. “She regained strength in her upper extremities and improved her fine motor coordination, giving her the confidence to do all of her activities of daily living independently,” Mr. Lombardo said.

Doctors tell Jessica it could take a year for her to fully return to normal, but she’s not planning to wait passively for that to happen. Inspired by Mr. Gierlinger, Jessica plans to run a race with him when she’s fully recovered. She’s back at the gym on the days she feels well enough and is active in an online GBS community. 

Most important among her life goals: to become a nurse or other healthcare professional, so she can make the same kind of impact on others. “My nurses made all the difference for me and I would like to be able to make a difference for sick kids,” she said. “I’m not happy I got GBS, but the people I’ve met as a result have inspired me and changed my life for the better.”