Lawrence Mendell is a member of our community who now knows more than ever what a good life is all about. He is slowly recovering from what he describes as the feeling of “being buried in concrete from the neck down.”
Last October 1, Mendell, a radiologist at the Ottawa Hospital, noticed that his arms and legs weren’t behaving as they should. The next day, he was hospitalized with Guillain-Barré syndrome. GBS, as it is known, usually begins in the legs and works its way up to the neck region. Every peripheral nerve could be involved, including the cranial nerves. In Mendell’s case, he was completely paralyzed within 48 hours. He could not even move a single finger.
Most people normally fight off minor infections with the production of appropriate antibodies. In only one of 100,000 people, these same antibodies, for some unknown reason, attack the individual’s peripheral nervous system. The brain and spinal cord are spared.
Initially, Mendell required a ventilator to survive. Most people who die from GBS die a respiratory death. Once survival was assured, Mendell began the long road back to recovery.
When you are paralyzed with GBS, nerves can and usually regenerate, but it can take up to two years for the process to be complete. Nerves regenerate, by about one inch a month, but there is no way of predicting how complete the recovery will be.
Mendell began the process flat on his back. He was lifted out of bed with a ceiling mounted sling. He was fed. Although he never lost his voice, he required “sip and puff” technology – a straw electronically connected to a telephone and call button that enabled him to communicate with others. Luckily, he was always able to swallow his food. When his wife Ruth visited with their golden doodle Rosie, he was comforted by his dog licking his face with vigour.
GBS was particularly cruel for Mendell, as he had always lived an active physical life.
He could often be seen with Rosie in the Nepean Bruce Pit dog park. He was a golfer, skier, hiker, world traveller, photographer, and a dedicated grandfather not afraid to get on the floor and partake in childhood games.
Lying paralyzed in a hospital bed, his mind always remained sharp and totally focused on getting better. He continues to work harder in physiotherapy than anyone could imagine. And there was also other work to be done.
Mendell remembers moments of great despair. The clock in his room at the rehabilitation centre ticked loudly, making him aware of every passing second. His daughter Andrea mercifully exchanged the clock for a silent one. He despondently recalled the feeling of being totally dependent on others. He dreamed of once again walking Rosie in the dog park.
He worked regularly with a psychologist in order to cope with his situation and he says he learned so much. Describing himself as a person who frequently thought the glass half empty, instead of half full, he realized he would require a new approach to life’s difficult challenges. He was taught that ruminating over situations where one does not control the outcome can only lead to anxiety.
To date, there has been substantial physical improvement. After six months in hospital, he can now feed himself, shave, brush his teeth, and use an iPad. He has begun to walk with the aid of parallel bars.
Realizing his fight is not over, he is about to begin a new phase at home. His house has been equipped with a ramp and stair-lifts enabling Ruth to welcome him home for Passover.
Mendell is now committed to living his life in a “mindful” manner. He believes everyone would greatly benefit by “living and enjoying every moment.”
When visiting a shopping mall, Mendell believes people should realize how much time and effort it takes for someone in a wheelchair just to get to the mall. He encourages people, instead of ignoring those in a wheelchair, to make an effort to acknowledge and talk with them.
Making his way back to the professional, sporting and adventurous life he knew is what Mendell has never stopped striving for.
His remarkable tenacity has inspired everyone who has come into contact with him. He is grateful for all the love and support he has received.