FRISCO, Texas — When Travis Frederick tweeted Wednesday that he has been diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, thoughts turned to a 17-year-old high school senior.
It was right around Patriots’ Day in 1987. Back home, that’s Boston Marathon day. The mononucleosis was in full rage. Always tired. Couldn’t concentrate. But this was baseball season and I loved to play baseball, even had dreams — though far-fetched — of playing college baseball.
So I continued to try to play, but then tingling came in the arms and fingers. It hurt to move. Easy tasks were harder and harder.
Blood was drawn. Tests were performed. The pain from a spinal tap remains a fresh memory, especially the way the needle was wiggled back and forth.
The diagnosis came quickly: Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that affects the nerves. The easiest way to describe it: the antibodies that were fighting the mono turned on the body and effectively “ate” the nerves away.
This is how I celebrated my graduation from Medway High School, grabbing my right wrist with my left arm and pulling the tassel from one side to the other. There wouldn’t be any throwing of the graduation cap.
The diagnosis of Frederick, the Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl center, hit home.
For a few weeks the Cowboys attempted to come up with answers to what ailed Frederick. They thought it was stingers, or a pinched nerve, which makes sense when you consider the weakness and the tingling. Frederick saw specialist Dr. Robert Watkins before the Cowboys left their training camp in Oxnard, California, and he thought the nerve inflammation was solely due to the stingers. Structurally, everything else was fine.
But Frederick’s weakness remained, so when the Cowboys returned home, he got more tests. Blood was drawn. Guillain-Barré syndrome.
I don’t know the severity of Frederick’s symptoms. The last time I spoke to him outside the Cowboys locker room at AT&T Stadium after the Aug. 18 preseason game against the Bengals, he looked and sounded fine. Diseases affect everyone differently. I only know what Guillain-Barré did to me. At the time, I thought I would be back playing baseball in a few weeks. I joked to the local newspaper that the snowstorms that postponed a number of games helped me out.
There wouldn’t be another high school game.
I spent a couple of nights in intensive care because I failed a breathing test. The doctors worried my lungs would be affected. Every few hours the nurses would wake me up to do another test. Somehow I remember those nights as the best nights of sleep I had in the hospital. Thankfully it never affected my legs.
After a couple of weeks, I returned to school. I don’t remember carrying many books around since a bad (good?) case of senioritis had kicked in. But I didn’t have the dexterity in my fingers to open a milk carton. A friend did that for me every day. I could barely hold my lunch tray. I could barely put on a T-shirt. Thank goodness for sweatpants and shorts.
Early rehab consisted of me simply putting my palm on a table and trying to lift one finger at a time. Once that improved, I moved on to grip strength with some rubber-band apparatus that offered resistance. I remember laying on my stomach being asked to just raise my arm in the air. I remember trying and failing to get it an inch in the air. Soon I was able to lift my arm with 5-pound weights. I remember trying to catch a tennis ball with little success.
It was crushing. This is not how my senior year was supposed to go.
When I went to Northeastern University for my freshman year, my rehab continued with the athletic trainers. I felt bad. They were used to working with fine athletes. Now they’re stuck with me. Slowly the strength returned. I became more proficient with my left arm than before since it was stronger than my right. My left-handed shot was ugly but sometimes it went in.
Roughly 10 months after I was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré, I felt back to normal. Years later, I still have some dexterity issues with my right hand, but nothing truly noticeable. I can’t give blood. I can’t get a flu shot.
Other than that, everything is back to normal.
Well, as normal as a 48-year-old, out-of-shape sportswriter can be.
This is not meant to put a timetable on Frederick’s recovery. Again, this is my story, and diseases affect people differently.
In Frederick’s public statement, he said the treatment he received immediately made him feel better. There have been medical advancements in the last 30-plus years to help deal with Guillain-Barré. Another thing will help him as well: He is a professional athlete and in terrific shape.
But make no mistake, this is a serious issue.