Rare disease strengthens Tupelo woman’s faith

Julie Martin and her husband Josh bow their heads in prayer as the Rev. Sherry Long closes out Wednesday evening's devotional at First Christian Church. (Lauren Wood)

Julie Martin and her husband Josh bow their heads in prayer as the Rev. Sherry Long closes out Wednesday evening’s devotional at First Christian Church. (Lauren Wood)

By Riley Manning/Daily Journal

The odds of contracting Guillain-Barre syndrome are almost as unlikely as being struck by lightening.

But in January, Tupelo native and resident Julie Martin became the one in 100,000 people to contract the sickness each year.

Beginning with symptoms of numbness, the syndrome eventually causes total paralysis. Spending a total of five months in an Atlanta hospital, the 25-year educator and mother realized how much God had left to teach her.

Uncomfortably numb
Born in Tupelo, Martin spent the bulk of her teaching career in Atlanta before returning three years ago to teach the Challenge gifted courses at Tupelo Middle School.

On Jan. 5 of this year, her school year was cut short when she noticed numbness in her hands and feet.

“I went to the emergency room and they thought I was having atypical migraines. They sent me home, but within 24 hours, I couldn’t lift my arms. My muscles were weak, I couldn’t walk,” she said. “I knew something was wrong when they asked if I intended to go back to teaching school.”

Martin’s experience is typical of victims with Guillain-Barre syndrome. The auto-immune syndrome attacks the body’s nervous signals, destroying the myelin sheath around the nerves and preventing the brain from sending signals to nerves.

After a spinal tap and the implementation of a pace maker, Martin was transferred to the Shepherd’s Center intensive care unit in Atlanta. Excessive fluid pressing on her brain was causing seizures and hallucinations, which the doctors quickly relieved by use of a shunt.

Over the next 12 weeks, she attended rehab, where she learned to walk and eat again. The real help, however, came from visitors and church members from her former congregation in Atlanta.

“It’s amazing how much people love you,” she said. “They were God’s angels here on Earth.”

Rehab
The journey from being fully paralyzed to fully functional is a tough one. In the beginning, Martin said she literally didn’t know which way was up.

“The first step was sitting up, but I had to use a hand mirror to see what sitting up was because I had lost my proprioception – your body’s sense of where you are in space,” she said. “Later, they harnessed me into a treadmill that would walk for me, so my brain could remember what walking was like.”

Martin said her seven-year-old son handled the situation well, as did her husband.

“For the longest time, I couldn’t even talk on the phone,” she said. “My husband and I really learned the meaning of our vows.”

Martin said her recovery came with its fair share of frustrating moments, namely learning to walk again and accepting her dependence on her family for help. She resented missing six months of her son’s life, but Guillain-Barre syndrome is only fatal in about 5 percent of its victims. The vast majority of those who catch it make a full recovery, and only a miniscule percentage of cases recur.

“The great thing is I knew I was going to get better,” she said. “Looking around the Shepherd’s Center, I got survivor’s guilt a little because a lot of the people in there have limits on how well they can get.”

Of course, Martin wondered, “Why me,” and “How did I get here,” but not for long. Everything in this life, she said, is attitude.

“I tried to take blessings into perspective. Even the most mundane things are blessings, like lying in bed at night hearing myself breathe on my own,” she said. “Because there were many nights I lay in bed listening to a ventilator breathe for me.”

It’s a God thing

Martin is quick to say that God sustained her through it all, answering her in prayer, as well as in the form of the church.

“He and I spent a lot of time together. When you’re lying there and you can’t talk or move, God is still there,” she said. “To be trapped in my body, but my mind knowing everything, I can’t imagine not having prayer. It became a conversation.”

Martin grew up in the First Christian Church in Tupelo, and when she was transferred to the Shepherd’s Center, the chaplain contacted Martin’s congregation from when she lived in Atlanta. Almost daily they sent gifts or visited, even brought her communion. When she returned to Tupelo, her fellow First Christian members eagerly assisted her with food, finances, and transportation to therapy.

“I felt like everything I had done before helped put the support I needed in place,” she said.

In early August, Martin hit the landmark of walking again on her own, with the assistance of the walker. Though everyday tasks like folding clothes or washing dishes are still difficult, she said she is getting better every day.

Most of all, she anticipates being back in the classroom, which she plans to be in the fall.

“I sent my son to first grade when school started and the house was so quiet,” she said. “I’ve had to adjust to quiet time. It’s helped me appreciate the noise.”

riley.manning@journalinc.com