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Face of Defense: Airman Battles Back From Rare Illness

By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Chuck Walker
436th Airlift Wing

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del., Feb. 6, 2013 – Imagine having to relearn all the things you learned as a kid: how to eat, how to walk, how to talk.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Airman 1st Class Lori Cord places labels on folders Jan. 28, 2013, her first day back at work after contracting Guillain-Barre Syndrome in October 2012. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Chuck Walker

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

That's exactly what happened to Air Force Airman 1st Class Lori Cord, 436th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, when she acquired a rare illness in October.

A few days before Cord went home on leave, she received the annual flu immunization in the form of the flu mist. When she got to her home in Woodstock, Ga., Cord began to notice symptoms, but initially brushed them off.

"I noticed my feet were becoming numb and felt like they were being stuck with pins and needles," Cord said. "I was also starting to have a neck problem. Then my tongue started to go numb, and then my entire mouth. It was weird. Then my hands felt like pins and needles, and the next night it got worse."

A day before she was scheduled to return here, Cord said, she began to feel weak. She tried to help her grandmother with some yard work, but she could barely pick up a 20-pound bag of mulch. Afterward, her calves felt like they were on fire, she said.

Nov. 2, the day of Cord’s flight to return from leave, she and her parents knew something was wrong. The plan was for Cord to go straight to the emergency room once she got back to Delaware. When she arrived at the airport in Philadelphia, Air Force Senior Airman Nicholas Anderson was there to pick her up and immediately noticed something was not right. As Cord walked toward him, he said, she was holding the wall and shuffling her feet.

"I asked her what was going on, and she said her feet hurt and the pain was moving up her legs,” Anderson said. “I told her, ‘We [have] to get to the ER now.’"

Anderson and Cord spent seven and a half hours at the emergency room, but the doctors were unable to determine what her symptoms meant and wanted her to see a neurologist the following Monday.

Anderson said he and his roommate, Air Force Senior Airman Nicolaos Hofbauer, stayed with Cord over the weekend because they didn't want to leave her alone.

"On Monday, I was a hot mess," Cord said. "I couldn't feel my back when I took a shower. When we got to the front desk, they noticed I was walking weird and got me a wheelchair. When they saw that I couldn't even fill out the paperwork or hold a pen, I think they could tell something was really wrong. When we got back to the family medical area, I was slouching more and more, and they let a doctor see me really quick."

Cord's condition continued to deteriorate at an alarming pace. Along with all of her other symptoms, her speech started slurring badly. She was transported by ambulance to a civilian hospital, where a neurologist gave her a spinal tap and found an extreme amount of proteins in her spine.

Cord was transferred to the intensive care unit, where she learned she had contracted Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and that her condition would get worse before it got better.

The syndrome is rare, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders. GBS occurs a few days or weeks after the patient has had symptoms of a respiratory or gastrointestinal viral infection. Occasionally, surgery will trigger the syndrome. In rare instances, vaccinations may increase the risk of GBS.

Cord was paralyzed from head to toe and had lost her ability to talk or to do anything on her own.

Cord was declared a critical patient. At that point, Air Force Master Sgt. Keith Eberhardt, the 436th AMXS first sergeant, arranged for Cord's parents to be flown up from Georgia. Eberhardt arranged lodging for them, among other things, and other squadron members took care of all the family's peripheral needs, so Rick Cord and his wife, Lisa, could take care of their daughter.

"I was so impressed by the squadron and the Air Force family," said Rick, a retired police officer. "They took care of things so we could look after Lori. Every time I mentioned a need, they were there with help. They provided meals and everything. I was just blown away by the compassion people had for her. It was truly a humbling experience."

Cord’s recovery process was long and hard, her father said, comparing it to raising her from infancy again.

"She had to learn to talk again, because her mouth was paralyzed," he said. "We had to do absolutely everything for her. It was quite frightening for me. Daily, I could see the recuperation was going very slowly. There were times I wondered if she would ever fully recover. But I knew with her determination that she would."

Cord's attitude not only helped herself, but also encouraged her family, friends, co-workers, and even other patients.

"The nurses said she is the most encouraging and uplifting person," Rick said. "She has an infectious enthusiasm. She had all the patients in a semi-circle around her, all in wheelchairs, doing exercises. She had everyone laughing and encouraged. The first time she got out of her wheelchair and onto a walker, the whole place -- therapists and patients -- erupted in applause."

Another person who noticed her attitude was her commander, Air Force Lt. Col. Andrew Levien.

"Her positive attitude in this difficult situation is something to be modeled,” he said. “I have never seen such an upbeat person in the midst of a life-changing situation. She was always smiling, finding the positive in every challenge, and regularly begging to come back to work. Her attitude is infectious."

Cord has slowly and steadily progressed on the road to recovery. She and her parents decided they wouldn’t return to Georgia until she was able to go to work on her own for a full week. That goal was met Feb. 1, and her parents drove back to Georgia on Feb. 3.

Kristoffer Surdukowski, Cord's physical therapist, said it is hard to say how much longer she will continue to recover. She has made great progress thus far, he said, but still has a long way to go to be back to normal again.

"With GBS, there are no set parameters for recovery," he said. "She has really progressed well. … Her long-term prognosis is unknown, because a diagnosis is difficult to get to. This could come up again. There are a lot of question marks as to what will happen."

Cord's father had nothing but praise for the love and support his family received from the 436th AMXS.

"I had tunnel vision -- nothing mattered to me but Lori's recovery," he said. "That's where the squadron came in. The first sergeant, her supervisors, the NCOs, everyone came in and took care of so much for us. It was just one show of compassion after another."


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