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Barton Health

Dream Chaser: A Barton Patient's Heroic Fight to Run Again

South Lake Tahoe, CA - It was August 2013 when Kyle Van Mouwerik was recovering from a bout of strep throat but the pesky low grade fever and body fatigue lingered. Chalking them up to residual strep symptoms, the extremely fit 22-year-old returned to work as a wildland firefighter with the Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District in Lake Tahoe, NV. Shortly after returning, the crew was called to a fire in Elko, NV. It was there that Kyle started feeling the weakness and tingling in his feet. Unable to walk, he was taken to Emergency Department at Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital where he went from battling a wildland blaze just hours before to battling for his own survival.

Within two hours of his arrival at the ED, Kyle was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a disorder in which the body's immune system mistakenly attacks the nervous system. While not contagious, the syndrome is rare, afflicting only about one person in 100,000. In the following hours, Kyle was airlifted to Reno and over the next four days, GBS began attacking his respiratory functions making it impossible for him to breathe. He was put on life support and spent the next month in a drug-induced coma. When he awoke, Kyle was paralyzed from the neck down; only able to move his head side to side and make slight movements on the right side of his face. 

The healthy young man who had aspirations of becoming a paramedic firefighter found himself confined to a wheelchair, unable to feed himself, and facing a long recovery. Over the next two years, Kyle embarked on a courageous and inspirational journey of self-discovery and healing. 

Typically during the onset of GBS, hands and feet are the first extremities affected but in recovery they are the last to regain feeling and strength. Patiently and painfully undergoing weekly rehabilitation sessions Kyle had to wear heavy, cumbersome support braces to keep his body weight from fracturing his bones due to severe muscle atrophy. But he gradually progressed from walking for a few pain-filled minutes each day to walking for a few hours each day.

By February 2015, Kyle was walking on his own, but still unable to run. He was looking for other rehabilitation options when he heard about the AlterG anti-gravity treadmill at Barton Health. Designed to help patients run and walk without having to bear their full body weight, the treadmill reduces exercise impacts and lessens joint compression to optimize rehabilitation and physical therapy outcomes. Its differential air pressure technology allows precise unweighting, up to 80 percent of a person’s body weight. 

After nearly two years of rehabilitation Kyle ran on the AlterG for the first time. “I almost started crying,” he said. “It was such a spiritual experience. I don’t see it as just a workout; it’s just beautiful.”

Alan Barichievich, Barton Health’s Rehabilitation & Sports Medicine director was with Kyle the day he ran for the first time on the AlterG. “In the 20 years of being in the rehabilitation business, this was one of the coolest moments I have ever experienced,” says Alan. “He was the happiest person in the world and I just felt so lucky to be a part of his joy.”   

The two worked closely to create specially-designed orthotics to help Kyle with his running gait and create additional support required for him to continue training. Today, Kyle is running twice a week for 30 minutes on the treadmill. “Being able to work out on the AlterG provides me with the opportunity to step my workout up slowly so I can achieve my goals in a healthy fashion,” he said. 

Kyle has never lost sight of his goals. This March, the well-spoken 24-year-old enrolled in paramedic school. He hopes to finish his schooling by year’s end and achieve his dream of becoming a paramedic firefighter. Kyle also has been named the Reno region’s liaison for GBS Foundation International, a foundation created to provide GBS suffers with a support network. “I experienced something in my life that most people never will. Now I feel a responsibly to make it better for people who go through an experience like mine.”

To read more inspirational patient stories and learn more about the AlterG and Barton’s Rehabilitation & Sports Medicine services, visit bartonhealth.org/rehab.