Surrounded by family and friends in October 2022, Kelli Bixler was thrilled to be hosting an event to celebrate her life. She was able to chat, eat some of her favorite foods and walk around to spend time with her loved ones. Just a year prior, she was unable to perform any of those activities due to Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS).
In March 2021, Kelli, a nurse at a Texas Medical Center hospital, was diagnosed with GBS, a rare neurological disorder in which the body's immune system attacks its own nervous system. The disorder is estimated to affect about one person in 100,000 each year.
“Within two months, I was only able to turn my head and shrug my shoulders,” said Kelli. “I slowly lost the ability to swallow, breathe on my own and control my bowel and bladder. Then, I became unable to speak, was seeing double vision, had facial weakness and relentless chronic pain.”
Kelli was being medically treated at a Houston-area hospital for GBS when she was also diagnosed with Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP) eight weeks after the GBS diagnosis. CIDP is a neurological disorder characterized by progressive weakness and impaired sensory function in the legs and arms.
Kelli spent three months in an acute care hospital. Once she was stabilized, in June 2021, Kelli was transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann in the Texas Medical Center to begin rehabilitation.
“I knew that if I didn’t go to TIRR Memorial Hermann, I wouldn’t receive the best rehabilitation available given the severity of my neurodegenerative disease,” said Kelli. “If I had gone anywhere else, I believe I would’ve had a slower recovery and a higher risk for complications.”
Kelli was a TIRR Memorial Hermann inpatient for two months, during which time she received physical, occupational and speech therapy.
“In the beginning, simply sitting on the side of the bed and getting into a power chair for the first time was therapy,” said Kelli. “My pain and fatigue were extreme due to the disease and working around a ventilator was not easy.”
The biggest milestones that Kelli says she achieved during inpatient rehabilitation were weaning off the ventilator, tracheotomy removal and being able eat a regular diet. A comprehensive care team, including respiratory therapists, speech therapists her nursing team and more, worked together to help her achieve those goals before she was discharged from inpatient care.
“Two of my goals for Kelli were to get her to a PO (by mouth) diet so she could have her PEG (percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy) feeding tube removed and to wean her from the ventilator to progress to decannulation (removal of her tracheotomy),” said her speech-language pathologist Chynah Blankenship, MA, CCC-SLP, CBIS. “The day she could eat, drink and take her medications by mouth was a big deal. I also did co-treatments frequently with physical therapy and occupational therapy to alleviate her anxiety about being weaned from the ventilator.”
Chynah was able to utilize an expiratory muscle strength trainer to help Kelli strengthen her cough which, in turn, improved her respiratory health to progress to decannulation.
In occupational therapy, Kelli made small steps towards her independence. She was able to utilize TIRR Memorial Hermann’s Assistive Technology (AT) Lab as part of her therapy.
“In the AT Lab we used an AMADEO® (a hand and finger robotic rehabilitation device) which attached magnets to the ends of her fingers while she played an interactive game,” said Sarah Cupit, OTR, MOT. “This works on movements in the fingers and thumbs. In addition, we did things like teach her to use voice activation on her phone. When she discharged from inpatient care, she was brushing her teeth and eating with some assistance and splinting. She also had amazing support from her mom the entire time, who was an integral part of Kelli’s recovery journey.”
In August 2021, she was discharged from TIRR Memorial Hermann as an inpatient. Kelli continued rehabilitation via outpatient therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann Outpatient Rehabilitation – Kirby Glen Center and TIRR Memorial Hermann Outpatient Rehabilitation – Sugar Land.
“In outpatient therapy, my occupational therapists also worked with me on typing skills, giving me a modified mouse and helping me find new ways to use my electronics,” said Kelli. “I also was involved in a virtual class that met twice a week with two other patients. We were working together on similar hand exercises. I saw significant improvement after the program.”
“The most emotional milestone came in January 2022,”added Kelli. “That was when I knew I could flex my calf – and that meant walking could be in my near future. By May 2022, I was walking with a standard walker. Now I am able to walk on my own with my ankle foot orthosis braces, climb stairs and get in and out of a car with ease.”
As she continues her recovery, Kelli is celebrating with her friends and planning for her future. “My plans are to return to working as a nurse once I am physically able,” said Kelli. “I was in the middle of earning my Master of Science in Nursing in quality and patient safety when I was diagnosed. I plan on finishing my degree when I return to work. I will also continue swimming, boxing and would love to begin learning to rock climb.”
Kelli’s future goals also include figuring out a way to sell affordable assistive devices to help others with disabilities or injuries.
“Seeing a patient recover like this one is the best part of my job,” said Sarah. “Kelli has made such amazing gains!”
“I am forever grateful for those who have cared for me!” said Kelli. “TIRR Memorial Hermann is wonderful, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the team at TIRR Memorial Hermann.”
For the 34th consecutive year, TIRR Memorial Hermann is recognized as the best rehabilitation hospital in Texas and No. 4 in the nation according to U.S. News and World Report's "Best Rehabilitation Hospitals" in America.Learn More
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