Did you have trouble climbing the stairs this morning? Was it a struggle to leave your La-Z-Boy recliner? Cross your fingers that you don't have Guillian-Barre syndrome -- or by tomorrow night you could be utterly paralyzed, intubated and dependent on a mechanical ventilator in a hospital intensive care unit. In the weeks that follow, you might easily die from lung infections, bedsores or other complications of paralysis. Nourished by a feeding tube inserted through your abdominal wall, you may lie awake for years, praying for the day when enough strength returns to your legs and arms to finally allow you pick up the remains of your broken life.
Although this sounds like some nightmare scenario from a Steven King novel, Guillian-Barre syndrome -- sometimes called "ascending paralysis" -- is actually the most common cause of non-traumatic paralysis. If the delicate motor nerve cells in your spine start to sicken, you can suddenly lose the use of your muscles and become a living brain trapped in a corpse-like body. Because the cranial nerves are unaffected, you will be able to blink and move your eyes, but the affliction will leave you totally helpless -- unable to eat or drink, or even take a breath.
The causes of Guillian-Barre are almost as scary as the syndrome -- as in 1976 when hundreds of people developed the syndrome after getting swine flue vaccinations. Even a minor flue infection can causing otherwise healthy people to secrete antibodies that destroy the fatty insulation which normally protects your neurons. No cure exists for Guillian-Barre, but with the proper care, you can at least hope for a full recovery in about 90% of cases, often within a month or so -- although you might be forever haunted by your terrible brush with death.
On the bright side, an attack of Guillian-Barre is a great excuse to stay in bed and avoid your spouse, mailbox, E-Mail or phone messages. You can claim later that -- like Hotblack Desiato in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- you needed to be dead for a year for "tax reasons."