When I was 22, I got very sick.
It happened my senior year of college, on the first weekend of winter break. I woke up Saturday morning and felt “funny.” My hands were clumsy and I dropped a bowl. No huge deal, but while out that night with girlfriends, I felt strange walking in my boots. Permanent pins and needles. Like all my foot parts weren’t working quite as they should. By Sunday morning, I was inexplicably walking flat-footed, the arches honed from years of dance class gone just like that.
By Monday morning, I couldn’t walk.
My mom rushed me to the doctor, who examined me and said a funny French name: Guillain-Barre syndrome (you can read more about it here). Tests at a neurologist later that afternoon confirmed it was the rare autoimmune condition with no cause or cure. Serious cases cause nerve damage that leads to paralysis in the arms and legs, which is what happened to me, but most people eventually recover completely. GBS often appears after a viral or bacterial infection — I’d felt mildly ill for a few weeks, but had chalked it up to final exams and other school busyness.
I was admitted to the hospital for a week, immune-boosting liquid pumping into my veins. After discharge, two days before Christmas, I needed physical therapy for months to learn how to walk again. My mother had to bathe and dress me, among other humiliating things.
I returned to campus for the next semester in February. I could walk, but very slowly and unsteadily. My balance was off and my foot arches had yet to return. The doctors advised against me going back to school at all, but I wasn’t deferring graduation. I’d worked my tail off — I’d scored a 4.0 GPA for the semester, something I’d found out in the hospital. I also had a school trip to Ireland planned for late February.
I’d paid for the trip back in the fall and one of my best friends was going. Plus, I’m part Irish and wanted to see where some of my “people” had lived. So I went on an eight-day trip around the Emerald Isle via coach with 30 college kids and two professors.
When our sightseeing started, I forced myself every step of the way, walking around Galway, going to a feast at Bunratty Castle, viewing the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin. One of my friends, Megan, stayed behind the rest of the group and walked slowly with me all throughout the trip. She was like my mom, telling me to take it easy and worryingly cautioning me against getting too close to the edge at the Cliffs of Moher. In the course of it all, I often forgot how sick I’d been and the challenges I still faced. I was in a beautiful country learning about religion and history, slowly learning to dance again in pubs, scouting the streets for pizza after one too many Irish meals. After months of feeling slow and sick, I finally felt like a young person again.
I returned from Ireland in much better shape, mentally and physically, than when I’d left. I don’t undermine the role my previous physical therapy played in my improvement. But walking around outside everyday in a foreign place is much different than walking on a treadmill in a hospital.
I graduated with honors that spring. Later that May, I took a three-week cross-country road trip with my friend Nicole. That trip, too, got me through to the next level of recovery. I remember two friends we made who forced us to walk miles one day through downtown Hollywood. I cursed them, but I hadn’t walked so many miles since before I got sick.
I’ve completely recovered from Guillain-Barre, save for some minimal strength issues in my left leg. I never forget being sick, even though it’s been seven years, and I never regret the trip to Ireland during such a rough time. In fact, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Has traveled helped you heal from something, physically or emotionally?