Patient Overcomes Complete Paralysis and Returns to Job Helping Veterans with Disabilities
Stephen Pirrello of Perkiomenville was on vacation with his family last July at Long Beach Island, NJ, when his hands began to tingle. Three days later he entered the emergency room at an acute-care hospital and collapsed. He was completely paralyzed and unable to see or breathe on his own. Pirrello was placed in a medically induced coma and intubated. A healthy individual who had never been in the hospital before, his sudden illness came as a complete shock to his family and physicians.
A spinal tap revealed that he had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a debilitating neurological condition where the body’s immune system attacks the protective coating of the peripheral nerves. The cause is often unknown. Doctors told his wife, Jennifer, that Pirrello had one of the most severe cases they had ever seen – testing had revealed severe nerve damage. Physicians were not optimistic that he would recover, let alone walk again.
Pirrello doesn’t remember much about the first few weeks of his illness. He couldn’t move his limbs or speak, and he had double vision. All he could feel was a horrible burning sensation.
At the same time, his mother was recovering from breast cancer, and his father had quadruple bypass surgery and was a patient on the same floor as him for several days. At home, Jennifer was caring for their three children under 6, including a 7-month-old.
Nearly two months after the onset of GBS, Pirrello began to get some sensation back in his hands and feet. He chose Good Shepherd Specialty Hospital  in Bethlehem for the next phase of his recovery because the facility specializes in ventilator weaning  and complex medical conditions. At the facility he began to progress, including starting to communicate using a tracheostomy valve.
At the beginning of October, Pirrello was weaned from the ventilator, and once he was able to pass swallowing tests, he began eating again. Pirrello then transferred to the Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital  in Allentown to begin intensive therapy – three or more hours a day. Physicians were still doubtful that Pirrello would walk again, but he put his heart and soul into therapy, doing exercises in his room when he wasn’t in the therapy gym working with staff.
In the meantime, a friend organized a benefit show and raised funds to make the Pirrello home wheelchair accessible. When Pirrello was discharged home in December, he was still in a wheelchair, but he set a goal of being able to walk within 12 to 18 months of the onset of GBS. He continued therapy as an outpatient with Good Shepherd’s Neurorehabilitation  program in Allentown, with his father-in-law driving him to the facility several days a week.
He briefly used a walker, followed by a cane. Then in March, months ahead of the goal he set for himself, he began walking unassisted. Every day he achieved something new, whether it was washing dishes or keeping up with his children on an Easter egg hunt.
In early May, only 10 months after being close to death, Pirrello returned to his job as a field examiner for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Pirrello assists disabled veterans or their surviving spouses with their benefits, finances, and medical and living arrangements. While he has always loved his job and taken a personal interest in the veterans he assists, he has returned to work with a new perspective.
“It’s been an awakening to have been in the same position as the people I work with,” says Pirrello. “I have a better understanding of what they are going through. I really love my job and the people I serve. I’m so glad to be back at work.”
During his illness, Pirrello’s family, therapists and co-workers gave him all the support he needed so he could concentrate on his recovery. “Every therapist I have worked with at Good Shepherd has pushed me to get better, psychologically and physically,” he says.
His wife, parents and in-laws took shifts watching him day and night, so he was never alone throughout his hospitalization and recovery. Veterans Affairs workers from all over the country donated leave to him so his family didn’t have to worry about the loss of his income.
Pirrello’s recovery is not over – he still has severe nerve pain, tingling in his hands and a condition called foot drop. He hasn’t yet returned to some of the activities he loves, like golfing. But he is back to visiting the beach with his family, playing with his kids in the sand and even surf fishing. With his strength, determination and support system, there’s no stopping him from resuming every activity he enjoyed before GBS.