The Day I Was Paralyzed

Ronda Coryell

RONDA CORYELL is a talented artist and world-renowned, award-winning jeweler (one of her bracelets is in the Albuquerque Museum of Art collection). If you spend any time with her at all, you can’t help but absorb some of her energy. She positively vibrates with happiness and demonstrates a real zest for life. Much of that is just who she is.

But 14 years ago she experienced something that, contrary to expectation, may have fed that verve — something most of us would consider traumatizing. She got Guillain-Barré syndrome and spent months paralyzed. Was it traumatic? Yeah, most of us would think it was. But that’s now how she remembers it.

One day you wake up and have Guillain-Barré?

In 2010 I had been teaching in Mendocino and I got sick. It was strep. And then it went away. That was a Wednesday. Saturday, I woke up and I had a little bit of double vision. I thought, did I sit on my glasses? I didn’t worry about it. I Googled it and it says, seek immediate medical attention. So, of course, I took a nap on the couch. When I woke up, it was worse. I’d see two of you. I finally went to the emergency room. Walking down the stairs, I could feel something weird in my knees. By midnight they got me into a room.

Guillain-Barré normally starts in your feet and progresses up. So, I had a rare variant of a rare disease. It’s called Miller Fisher syndrome and it starts in your eyes. Whatever is the first thing to go is the last thing to come back and sometimes can have the most damage. But I was able to walk earlier because that was the last thing to go was my walking.

Guillain-Barré takes the myelin off of every nerve in your body. You know when your feet go to sleep? Not the tingle, but the hurt? My entire body felt like that. Extremely painful. So, they put you on morphine. And my body is 100% paralyzed. Not because of the drugs, but because of the disease.

Was it a rapid progression?

By that night, trying to lift a glass of water was difficult. I could still, with help, walk to the bathroom and back. But by morning, I could no longer walk. The next day I was completely paralyzed.

You must have been terrified. You speak of this so lightly. I mean, you go into the hospital and by morning you can’t walk.

The oddest thing is my goddaughter, Cody, is a doctor and she called me on Sunday morning. She never calls me. I got admitted on Saturday at midnight, Sunday morning she called. She goes, I just felt like I needed to call you. I said, funny thing you should say that, I was thinking about you. I gave her the symptoms and she goes, I want to talk to your doctors.

She’s the one that thought it sounded like Guillain-Barré. She’d had experience with it. She actually helped with the diagnosis. Then she explains, It’s not going to be pleasant, it has to run its course, but you’ll be fine. I thought, my body needs to rest like it’s never rested before. So I accepted it.

Guillain-Barré is incredibly rare. Even my doctor, when I got out, she goes, I saw it once in medical school like 35 years ago, but I’ve never had a patient with it.

Then you’re in this stasis for months.

Yeah, they just come roll you every few hours. It was the oddest thing. My tongue wasn’t paralyzed. I could talk, but I couldn’t move anything other than my tongue and my lips.

It goes on for several months like this. It’s so much overload, the pain. You can’t listen to books on tape. You can’t watch TV. Everything’s double vision anyway. Everything is too much input because every nerve in your body is freaking out.

That’s when I started learning to meditate. Because, it was so awful, I couldn’t be there. You know, what it comes down to is, you’re on morphine but the pain is still there and it’s intense. So I just needed to not be there. I got to the point where I could actually leave and not be there, for hours at a time. You know, it’s just breathing in and out. I envisioned breathing in all the love and positive energy, all the bright light and beautiful things, coming in from my toes. I could feel it, in my imagination, all the way to the top of my head. I’d hold it for one minute and then as I would exhale, I would just envision the dark and the negative leaving. And if you’re really doing that, there’s nothing else.

I later had a Buddhist monk tell me, you’re a Buddhist and you just don’t know it. It’s what we all strive for, to be able to have that out of body experience. I had to, because I just couldn’t be there.

There was a point that the head anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic said, if it gets to the point where you’re having a hard time swallowing, ask to be put on the respirator. Don’t wait and make it where they have to try to bring you back. So when I said, OK, I’m having trouble swallowing, within seconds they were putting me on a respirator. Then you’re in a coma-like state. But I could still hear things going on.

How long were you on the respirator?

A few days maybe. I had a friend that sat there with me, and I could hear him saying, try to breathe on your own. You don’t because the machine’s breathing for you. When he would say that, I would do it.

Could you get Guillain-Barré again?

Oh, yeah. A virus is what triggered it. Strep, I had just gotten over it. And then days later, this comes on. It made me deaf in my left ear.

There was a time in the 1980s where flu shots triggered a number of people to get Guillain-Barré. That is why I can never take any kind of immunization. I can’t have shingles, pneumonia, or flu. It’s not worth putting my life on the line. Except, thankfully, the COVID RNA shot is OK.

When could you walk again?

When I could wiggle my toes a little bit, that was enough that I could go to a nursing home, to rehab. That meant something was coming back. I was still paralyzed except my toes. But I could talk. That made it not nearly so awful.

Did you have to relearn how to walk?

Yes! It’s not like your muscles are atrophied. It’s just not in your brain. And I’d put a foot out and think, OK, I’m balanced on this leg. How do I shift my weight to that leg? How do I get my body over on top of it? Well, you’ve got bars on the side you hold on to and literally just push your weight over, then balance on it. It’s that slow, learning to walk. You’ve got to figure out how to balance over your feet. I’m still not great at stairs.

What was the last thing to come back?

My eyes. Because they were the first to go.

So, you still had double vision?

Oh yeah, like I would see two of you sitting there. And you know what? One had more of a tan than the other. I was seeing different colors with each. That was interesting, too. One’s a little more blue-toned, the other’s much more bronzed.

You have such a positive attitude about it.

You know, negative energy sickens you. If you’re in pain, maybe you’re dwelling on that. No! I didn’t even want to think about it. And I didn’t. I thought about other things. You know, you can only think of one thing at a time.

I had such wonderful nurses. Everyone took such good care of me. In fact, when I was getting out, my nurse woke me at like 5:00 in the morning and said, I know you’re leaving this morning. I just wanted to tell you, I’m going to tell stories about you. She goes, I am certain that your positive attitude made you heal quicker than anyone I’ve ever seen. And it’s not quick. It’s months and months. But the prognosis was that it would take a year, and it didn’t.

Do some people not fully recover?

Oh, definitely. I lost my reflexes. You know how they tap your knee or elbow to test your reflexes? I don’t have any. They’ll never come back.

I worked at recovery. The doctor gave me exercises to do. I asked how many times a day to do it. She laughed at me and said, nobody ever does them. What? Why wouldn’t you? I want to do them twice a day. Because this is serious shit.

That winter I was still learning to walk again, but by the next year I was skiing. I’m skiing and flying down the hill. On every run, I’d think, I’m so lucky. Guillain-Barré gives you the realization that you use it or lose it.

You’ve talked about writing a book about your life. What’s the title?

It’s Only My Life, Who Gives a Shit. And in parentheses, There are just some stories nobody needs to hear.

I actually look back at it all as interesting. How your body can repair itself. My body just needed to do whatever it needed to do, and I allowed it to. I never felt I was a victim – It could have been worse. I’m lucky.


Learn more at

Photo Beth Wald