BANGKOK – When Caroline Bradner started to feel weakness in her limbs on Dec. 21, doctors at first believed she was suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS). They prescribed some medicine, and the 22-year-old — who has been living and teaching English in Thailand — took it and went home for the night. But when the Indiana native woke up the next morning completely unable to move, she asked a friend to call an ambulance.
At the hospital, Bradner learned what doctors say is the real cause of her paralysis: a rare autoimmune disease called Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Once she learned of the diagnosis, Bradner’s mom rushed to buy a ticket for a flight to Thailand. Now her family is fighting to bring them both back home because, they say, “insurance has denied our request for any transportation home, and it could be months until she’s able to take a regular flight.”
Caroline “will require a nurse and special seating on the airplane to make the trip home as well as future hospitalization and physical rehabilitation,” her sister Pierce wrote in a GoFundMe appeal. “This fund is to make sure that she can get home and receive the best possible care.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, the fund was over halfway to reaching its $100,000 goal. But as the Bradners work to bring back Caroline, if you’re wondering what Guillain-Barré Syndrome actually is — and why it caused her to be unable to move, here are some answers.
GBS, as it’s known, is a rare disease in which the body’s immune system ultimately attacks its own nerves. It affects just one in 100,000 people in America per year.
According to the World Health Organization, the first symptoms of the disorder tend to be weakness in the legs, arms or face. “For some people, these symptoms can lead to paralysis of the legs, arms, or muscles in the face,” an information page on GBS from the WHO reads. “In 20–30 percent of people, the chest muscles are affected, making it hard to breathe.”
The Mayo Clinic says the precise cause of GBS remains unclear, but the disorder often occurs following an infection of some kind — either bacterial or viral. The illness most commonly associated with GBS is campylobacter, a type of food poisoning that results from undercooked chicken. But GBS can also be triggered by more common illnesses, such as influenza, Zika virus, Hepatitis A, B, C and E, and mycoplasma pneumoniae. In extremely rare cases, the disorder can result from surgery.
Regardless of the cause, patients with GBS have the best prognosis when the disorder is caught early, since the symptoms can be offset by immunotherapy treatment. WHO says that “most recover fully” from GBS, even in the “most severe cases.” Given that knowledge, it seems safe to say that Bradner will eventually make a full recovery. But in the meantime, her family is working tirelessly to get her back.
“Caroline’s journey to Thailand was an opportunity to teach English, to travel, and make a difference in this world,” her sister writes. “Please help us get Caroline home.”
By Abby Haglage