Aldergrove-born Matt Reisig is back at home, making holiday memories with his wife and one-year-old daughter Ayla this Christmas.
It’s something many, including Reisig himself, thought impossible after being paralyzed chest-down by Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) in late February.
Reisig was unable to breathe on his own, eat, and hug “daddy’s little girl” for months after first being rushed to Peace Arch Hospital, with what felt like the flu.
“It was tingling in my arms and legs,” Reisig described, “an overall weakness.”
Now, Reisig hopes to raise awareness about GBS – a mysterious inflammatory disorder where the immune system attacks its nerves instead of the virus the body is sick with, according to Muscular Dystrophy Canada.
There is no known cause for the condition.
Initially after falling ill, Reisig – a small-business owner and painter – remembers trying to push back client appointments one week, offering them a discount as an incentive for waiting.
But within seven days, on March 7, the 32-year-old father would be intubated and on life support.
“It’s still hard to talk about,” Reisig told the Aldergrove Star.
“I don’t want anyone else to go through what I went through.”
After the initial GBS diagnosis, the disorder sucked the “drive” out of him, along with the loss of his motor skills except for slight head, shoulder, and face movements including nods and eyelid twitches.
“I thought GBS had ruined my life,” Reisig told the Aldergrove Star.
Through it all, his wife Ashley stuck by his side at Surrey Memorial Hospital’s intensive care unit, managing to sleep nightly on a pull-out couch in his room.
“I would come home once every four days or so,” she explained. Even her mother, Ayla’s grandmother, relocated from Kamloops to care for the one-year-old full time.
Ayla was uncomfortable and scared seeing her dad incapacitated.
Ashley became Reisig’s main mode of communication, and ultimate source of hope.
She tuned-in to what her paralyzed husband was mouthing with his lips.
And for when she wasn’t in his room, Ashley made a whiteboard list of Reisig’s needs and feelings.
For instance: “I need… suction, a nurse, my wife. Or I feel cold, pain,” she said about the list. Reisig reacted to truths pointed out the only way he could, in minute movements.
“When Matt was at his worst, I was constantly telling him, ‘It’s going to be okay, I know it isn’t now but it will be’ and, ‘This will end. This isn’t forever’ and ‘You’re going to make it through this.’”
A turning point came after Reisig faced a week of especially painful nerve pain, but with extreme effort, moved his fingers.
Unbeknownst to Reisig, Ashley had been posting regular status updates to her Facebook page, chronicling 147 days of her husband’s condition.
Soon the statuses became the only connection the patient had to the outside world.
Bedridden and defeated, “it got to the point where if Ashley wasn’t there I would ask others to read my update and the comments,” Resig retold.
When he managed to gain wrist and arm movement, he read through all the messages on his own and “had a good cry,” he said.
“You don’t really know how big your village is until you’re going through something.”
An online GoFundMe account for the family has raised over $20,000, which “got [them] through” living and medical expenses, and is still able to accept donations.
There are two days in hospital Reisig will always remember: his wedding anniversary and his first real meal – a reuben sandwich after months of feeding tubes turned-to liquids.
On the Reisigs’ fourth wedding anniversary, he asked his physiotherapist to help him sketch a heart on canvas with the words “I love you.”
The artwork that Resig said “looks like our daughter did it” now rests on their bedside table at home.
Throughout the five-month ordeal, Reisig said he lost a total of 45 pounds, all of which he has gained back, “and five pounds more,” he chuckled.
Undoubtedly, the most crucial part of Reisig’s recovery from GBS was “getting off the ventilator,” Ashley explained. “We would go down to the lowest level of it and then Matt would panic.
“It was a mental switch that had to happen in him,” she said. After that occurred, within a week Reisig was breathing on his own, lungs strengthening from their use.
“I told myself I was going to walk again,” Reisig explained about his fight for life. And after 16 weeks in the hospital, he did just that.
Reisig returned home to South Surrey on July 24.
Since going public, Reisig has been able to connect with other victims of GBS, ones as young as 11 years old.
“One boy felt like he couldn’t connect with anyone because of what he went through,” Reisig said about a Calgary child who was diagnosed with GBS.
“He remembers screaming in his head like I did,” frustrated by the inability to move or communicate.
Ashley has also been sent hundreds of messages from people all over the world affected by the disease.
Christmas this year looks a lot different for the Reisigs, who before GBS, found the holidays a hectic time of obligation.
“I’m walking every day, hitting the gym… Ayla likes to lay on my chest and sit with me and watch TV,” Reisig beamed.
The Reisigs have dedicated time to visit with Santa and watch their daughter’s face light-up in wonder of the season.
“It’s all so surreal,” Ashley said.