I have had two bouts of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, in 1969 and 1973. The first time, I had gotten a smallpox vaccination before I went on a trip to Europe with my boyfriend. We were planning to be gone for two months. Several weeks after we arrived, I began to notice funny feelings in my lower legs and lower arms — pins and needles. I went to the Consulate in Copenhagen and got the name of a doctor, who advised me to go home, though he didn’t say what it was or what he thought it might be. So after being gone only a few weeks, I sent my Mother a telegram saying “Coming home. Don’t worry.” She took me to a neurologist, who did a spinal tap and diagnosed Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which comes under the umbrella of polyneuritis, along with polio and multiple sclerosis. Not a lot is known about it, but it seems to be an inflammation of the ganglia outside the spinal column, and it affects the autonomic nervous system. Since muscles don’t get nerve cues, they atrophy. I was in bed for two months and wondering if I would ever be able to walk again. I had to be very careful when eating not to choke. My body didn’t feel like my own and was numb. Eventually the tide turned and I began to get well. I had a powerful dream. I was on a train in Russia and got off at a monastery to go to a holy well, where I drank some of the water. The next morning I noticed a small twinge of feeling in a tooth, for the first time in months. From then on, feeling in my body increased.I went to Easter Seal to learn how to walk again.
This set-back in my life as an actress was devastating. I had been scheduled to go back to Theatre Calgary in the fall for the season, but I had to skip being in the first production.
I felt at the time that I learned lot from this experience, not the least of which was how old people walk and are afraid of falling over or being knocked off their feet! I was physically very fragile for a while. But it also gave me a new perspective on what I wanted to do, and why I need to do theatre.
The second time I had this debilitating illness was just after a summer job in Canada, playing at Festival Lennoxville in Quebec. I was barefoot in the show, and inadvertently stepped on a nail backstage. I went to the local doctor who gave me a tetanus shot. I went to a doctor in Toronto who diagnosed the problem and anyway by this time, I was pretty aware of what the symptoms meant. I had been planning to move to Toronto and share a house with some actor friends, but I had to leave my car behind and fly home to Atlanta, where I could be taken care of. This time I had to be hospitalized for a week and given massive doses of cortisone to stop the downward escalation of the illness. I was out of commission and tapering off the cortisone for several months.
I got back into acting at the Alliance theatre in Atlanta in a production of Cat On A Hot Tin roof, playing Sister Woman. And slowly I got better and could take up acting again. But I have dealt with the after effects of it my whole life.