Zach’s Story

When diagnosed with a rare condition, access to advanced health care was critical

Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) was not something I had even heard of until I was diagnosed with it. In fact, no one in my circle had—until that’s all they heard about when I went through the unimaginable.

On November 22, 2022, I was admitted to Victoria General Hospital (VGH) following months of feeling unwell. At first, I thought it was just a cold and kept chalking it up to a busy schedule of junior hockey and being in the first semester of my business degree at the University of Victoria (UVic). But then I started losing the ability to move my legs and feeling a constant tingling up and down my body. My legs would drag, and my knees would buckle. My parents, who live in Kelowna, were terrified. My dad flew in and rushed me to the emergency room.

The next few days were a blur, as I was in-and-out of it, sleeping 18 to 20 hours each day. I was admitted to VGH’s neurology unit—later, I learned that VGH is known as a centre for neurology excellence. I was grateful for that, as it didn’t take the neurologist long to determine I had Guillain-Barre syndrome. A spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis.

GBS is a rare disease in which a person’s immune system attacks and damages their nerves. It is thought to be caused by an over-reaction of the immune system, a sort of allergic reaction to an infection. The immune system mistakenly attacks the peripheral nerves—and it can be very dangerous, including the paralysis of muscles that control breathing, and even cardiac arrest.

In my case, I couldn’t lift my legs off the bed. My smile would droop. I wouldn’t feel a thump tack on my back… it was scary—that’s the feeling I remember most.

Thankfully, my doctors knew how to treat this rare condition and were quick to administer intravenous immunoglobulin to target the antibodies that had been attacking my nerves. I had an almost immediate positive response; over two days I received two doses and my symptoms started to ease. Within a couple of weeks, I was working with physiotherapists at VGH and with the aid of a walker, I was soon back on my feet.

Reflecting on my stay at VGH, I couldn’t be more thankful to the nurses and doctors. I remember how kind they all were. One nurse, Nishi, was always available when I needed support. My parents were incredible, too—my mom, my dad, or both, were always at my bedside. And my friends visited daily.

Though I had been told I may be hospitalized for up to six months, thanks to the work of my care team, on December 16th, I went home—less than a month after being admitted, and right in time for Christmas.

Having been hospitalized during final exams, I withdrew from UVIC for the remainder of the school year. For the first half of 2023 I focused on recovering and building back my strength, then traveled with friends to Australia before returning to UVIC and my studies this past fall.

I share my story today because so many people go through VGH every day and the care teams rise up to help everyone; they provide vital care. And truly, it can affect any one of us at any time. I was a strong, active teenager when this happened to me.

I’m grateful for having my life back.

Zach Warren, grateful patient, UVIC student, hockey player, son