Serge Payer remembers the feeling. He remembers the weakness, the muscle pain and the fear of the unknown. He remembers telling medical professionals that he was suffering through more than just a bad case of the flu and some pulled muscles. And, more than quite possibly anyone, he knows what Anaheim Ducks winger Patrick Eaves is going through.
On Monday, the Ducks released a medical update on Eaves, 33, who has been sidelined for five of Anaheim’s first seven games with what was said to be a lower-body injury. In the statement, the Ducks revealed that Eaves had been admitted to and since transferred out of the intensive care unit at Newport Beach’s Hoag Hospital with what is suspected to be Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disorder that causes the immune system to target and attack the nervous system. It’s also the same illness that put Payer out of commission for roughly 10 months right as he was about to achieve his dream of playing in the NHL.
“It was Jan. 10, 1999,” Payer recalls. “I’m 19 years old, playing junior hockey in Kitchener. It was a Sunday morning. We had a game that day. I wake up, just like every other game day, and I want to have a meal but my energy level was beyond weak. It took every ounce of energy out of me just to get out of bed and convince myself to just start moving and I would feel better. Once I managed to do that, I managed to put my hockey gear on and get through the game but certainly was battling something else. It wasn’t until the following morning that my immune system was truly fighting against me. I couldn’t get out of bed.”
Payer was plagued with lower-back pain, sharp and consistent enough that medication, such as Tylenol 3, couldn’t keep him asleep. The only thing that even offered him anything resembling relief was lying flat on his back in the bathtub. Payer remained in excruciating pain for another day before his first trip to a doctor. On Day 4, he saw his team doctor with the OHL’s Rangers. By Day 7, he found himself in hospital, where he was given a shot of Demerol that allowed him to sleep for more than a few hours consecutively for the first time since the pain began. But by the early hours of the following morning, Payer was back in hospital and later transferred to London University Hospital. It wasn’t until Day 10, after a series of tests, that Payer was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
“I was only 19 years old, so in a different stage of my life than Patrick, but I had signed a pro contract with the Florida Panthers. You’re quite scared because of the unknown, especially for the first 10 days before I was diagnosed,” Payer said. “You know your body is going through something but no medical team or doctor can tell you what you have. The unknown, not being treated and getting worse daily, not feeling your stomach and knowing that you’ve got to use the bathroom. Everything is affected and it’s very, very scary.”
The difficulty, though, is that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is an extremely rare illness, making it much more difficult to diagnose. The National Organization for Rare Diseases notes that only one or two in every 100,000 people are afflicted with Guillain-Barre Syndrome each year. And the symptoms can vary. For Payer — who raises funds through the Serge Payer Foundation, Payer to research, educate and support those battling Guillian-Barre Syndrome — it was back pain and, later, stiffness in his hamstrings and hip flexor that progressed to the point his muscles were tingling. For others, weakness or pain can start in the feet, hands or arms, some see numbness in the extremities as a symptom and in some cases there are issues swallowing or breathing.
Catching Guillain-Barre Syndrome in a timely fashion is important to prevent nerve damage, and patients often undergo treatment in one of two ways: plasma exchange or intravenous immune globulin. Payer underwent the latter. “It takes five days and that basically sends a signal to the immune system to stop attacking the nervous system,” he said.
Being persistent and continuing to assert that something more than the flu and muscle pain was affecting him also served Payer well and helped him avoid potential nerve damage that the disorder can cause if left untreated. Payer noted he had to deal with damage to the myelin sheath that insulates his nerves, but the only lasting impact of the illness is numbness in his ankle. And because it was caught before it could progress further, Payer’s condition began to improve almost daily once he was treated. However, he cautioned against any expectation that Eaves would be back in the near future. While no two cases are the same, Payer believes he attempted to push himself too much, too soon, and, due in part to a recovering immune system, Payer was sidelined again with mononucleosis eight months after being hospitalized with Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
“Patience is a virtue in a situation like this,” Payer said. “He’s been treated, therefore the days ahead are brighter than the days behind him. I look forward to speaking with him just to give him that positive reinforcement that what’s ahead will be better.”
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