Payer’s toughest battle is off the ice

The medical field is ever advancing. Scientists have spliced the gene, virtually eradicated the polio virus and cloned a sheep.

With today’s medical focus centered on the “major” epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, cancer and diabetes, San Antonio Rampage center Serge Payer is trying to break the ice on another debilitating illness for which there is no known cure: Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS).

The National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke (NINDS) defines GBS as a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. The first symptoms of this disorder include varying degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs. In many instances, the weakness and abnormal sensations spread to the arms and upper body. These symptoms can increase in intensity until the muscles cannot be used at all and the patient is almost totally paralyzed.

Doctors diagnosed Payer with GBS five years ago. “I was paralyzed from the waist down,” said the 25-year-old Payer. “In a two month span, I’d lost over 50 pounds.”

The paralysis struck in January of 1999 when Payer was 19 years old and playing for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. He woke up on a Sunday with a sore back and later played in his hockey game that evening. After the game, Payer went home.

“I thought that it was just muscle spasms,” Payer said, “because I’d been shoveling snow in my driveway from the snow storm the day before.”

The following week, Payer never slept, leaving him with black eyes. In an effort to alleviate the pain, Payer would lay in a hot tub and follow it with a cold shower. After seven days, he went to the hospital after deteriorating so much that he couldn’t walk.

“They gave me a shot of Demerol for the back pain, and I slept for three hours,” Payer said.

But Payer’s symptoms progressed. He reached his weakest point in 10 days, similar to other GBS patients where most people reach the stage of greatest weakness within the first two weeks after symptoms appear.

He would follow the shower routine for a couple of days until the time he couldn’t tell if the water was hot or cold. “It was then,” Payer said, “that the doctors knew that I had GBS.”

For Payer, it was hard to understand how or why this happened. “I remember thinking, here I was this athlete in optimum health so how could this happen?”

The NINDS states that GBS can affect anybody at any age. It is a syndrome rather than a disease because it is not clear that a specific disease-causing agent is involved. Reflexes such as knee jerks are usually lost. Because the signals traveling along the nerve are slower, a nerve conduction velocity (NCV) test can give a doctor clues to aid the diagnosis.

Payer spent a month at the University Hospital in London, Ont., before being transferred to an in-patient rehab hospital. Through the support of his family, friends and the medical staff, he was able to fight off the illness and regain the feeling in his legs as well as return to life as a professional hockey player.

Payer has surpassed the three-year mark where 30 percent of those with GBS still have a residual weakness.

Today, as he continues on his journey of becoming a regular in the National Hockey League, Payer vows to educate and support other GBS victims through the Serge Payer Foundation with annual golf tournaments in Canada as well as Lucky Puck Nights and a Skate-A-Thon with the Rampage.

“Ultimately, I’d like to do whatever I can to help fund research, new treatments and a cure for this disease,” Payer said.