Mobility slowly returns 3 months after he suffers paralysis from neck down
Dallas photographer Michael Lowe didn’t give it much thought when he felt unexplainably fatigued one afternoon in November while shopping and decided to return home for a nap.
“I’ve always really moved so fast,” said Lowe, 47. “I thought maybe life was just catching up with me.”
But when Lowe woke up from his nap, he had trouble getting out of bed. To his astonishment, paralysis was beginning to set in from his neck down.
It was especially frightening for Lowe, who as a young child suffered polio and spent a year in an iron lung, paralyzed.
“My arms felt like somebody had tied a boulder on them,” Lowe said. “I couldn’t lift anything.”
Just before he was unable to move at all, Lowe managed to call his brother and ask for help. His brother, Scott Lowe, called 911 before heading for Lowe’s Oak Lawn apartment.
Lowe was carried from the apartment and transported to Baylor University Medical Center’s emergency room.
“It was just happening that fast,” Lowe said. “The last thing I remember is a nurse whispering in my ear that they were going to keep me sedated.”
When Lowe awakened he was in intensive care and being kept alive on a respirator.
A spinal tap, along with a series of other medical tests, led doctors to believe Lowe was suffering from the rare illness Guillain Barre Syndrome.
The cause of the illness is unknown, according to healthscout.com. It usually occurs one or two weeks after a mild viral infection such as a sore throat, bronchitis or flu, or after a vaccination or surgery.
“They asked me if I’d had a flu shot, but I’ve never had one,” Lowe said.
The illness results from inflammation and destruction of the protective sheath that covers nerve endings. It is similar to multiple sclerosis, except that disease attacks the central nervous system while Guillain-Barre strikes peripheral nerves.
Three months later, Lowe is confined to a wheel chair and living at Baylor’s Institute of Rehabilitation, where he receives physical therapy. He can move his feet and legs, but not his arms.
“I’m starting to get feeling back in my fingers,” Lowe said. “There’s no guarantee on how much is going to come back.”
With medical treatment and support, most people make full recoveries from the illness within a year. About 15 percent are left with some weakness, and for three percent the condition recurs or becomes chronic.
Lowe said the good health he has enjoyed since childhood, makes his new affliction even more difficult to understand.
“My immune system is so strong, I’ve never had anything,” said Lowe, who is HIV-negative.
Being self-employed, he carried no health insurance and was unprepared for a severe illness. He will receive Social Security disability payments to help him survive. When he leaves the Baylor facility today, he will be provided with help in his apartment by visiting caregivers to help him in and out of bed.
Lowe said the future might seem bleak, but he remains optimistic. He has taken up oil painting with his teeth. He hopes to put finished oil canvases on display at Nodding Dog Coffee Co. in the Bishop Arts District, where his framed, digitally enhanced photography is displayed for sale.
“I’ve got to adjust and make changes,” Lowe said. “I’ve never just broken. I’ve always felt this would improve.”
Lowe said he has made it through his ordeal so far largely because of the love and support he has received from his brother and his friends.
“That’s what brought me through the whole thing keeping in touch with the outside world,” Lowe said.
The physical therapists have also hastened his progress, Lowe said.
“There is something about the human touch that is healing in itself,” Lowe said. “I’m very upbeat. I’ve come along way from being totally paralyzed.”
Lowe said he wanted to tell his story so he might share with others what he has learned from his experience to appreciate life. When he was paralyzed and in a room in the hospital facing a parking lot, he watched people walking, he said.
“I wondered if they realized how lucky they were to be walking,” Lowe said.
“It’s all of the little things that we take for granted. You don’t think about those things. I know I didn’t.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of February 17, 2006.