New Mom Develops Guillan-Barre Syndrome After Difficult Labor

October 15, 2014

When Heather Hodsdon walked into Belmont Wheelworks in April 2010 to get her bicycle fixed, manager Gary Wood couldn’t help but laugh. Hodsdon was planning to do the Hyannis Port Challenge for Best Buddies, a 100-mile ride from Boston to Cape Cod.

“She bought it when she was 12 years old and it was like a kid’s bike,” he says.

Hodsdon ended up buying another bike — and dating Wood. The couple married on Oct. 7, 2012. They’re both into fitness and attended Boston University’s School of Hospitality. He is 42 years old; she is 31.

Last year, Heather did four triathlons, and when she got pregnant, she did prenatal yoga until two weeks before delivery. The pregnancy had been fine, but after her 26 hours of labor at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, doctors persuaded her to have a C-section. Wesley Bailey Wood, a robust 9-pounder, was born on Aug. 23.

On Aug. 27, Gary brought mother and baby home. The next day, they moved from Waltham into their dream house in Wayland, a fixer-upper they had fixed up. “We truly were on top of the world,” says Gary, at 6-feet-4 a gentle giant of a guy. “We had a beautiful, happy baby and had moved to a great town we never thought we could afford.”

On Friday, Aug, 29, Heather woke up with abdominal pain and went to the emergency room at Newton-Wellesley, where doctors assumed it was a result of a tough labor. The next day, she had tingling in her fingers and toes.

By Sunday morning, she could barely lift her arms and couldn’t lift her legs at all. A doctor at Newton-Wellesley mentioned Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder that occurs when the immune system attacks the nervous system.

‘It’s awesome to have that finish line, but we’re running up a steep hill.’ – Gary Wood

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When breathing became difficult, doctors decided to transfer her to Massachusetts General Hospital. She arrived there at 5 a.m. on Labor Day.

Within hours, Heather was put on a respirator and feeding tube. Soon, she could not move, talk, or open her eyes, but she apparently can understand what is being said. Doctors now think she may have Miller Fisher syndrome, a rare, acquired nerve disease that is a variant of Guillain-Barre, both possibly caused by a virus. Though most people recover, it can take months or years.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Miller Fisher syndrome is characterized by abnormal muscle coordination, paralysis of the eye muscles, and absence of tendon reflexes. Heather Wood is getting immunoglobulin treatment.

Dr. David Chad, a Mass. General neurologist who is not treating her, says that Guillain-Barre strikes about two people in 100,000; Miller Fisher syndrome is more rare; and patients with features of both even more so.

Gary Wood literally has his hands full. At the hospital on a recent day, he cradles Wesley in his arms, feeds him a bottle of formula, lifts him to his shoulder and burps him, repeating the process until Wes is asleep. “This little man has helped me out a great deal,” he says, his eyes welling up as he speaks of the unfathomable events of the past month.

Family and friends have rallied around, with Wheelworks giving him paid time off and colleagues at Brookline High, where Heather teaches special needs students, contributing their sick days for her.

It’s a long road to recovery, but he’s heartened on this particular day because Heather wiggled an eyelid. She has begun to move her chin slightly; up and down means yes, side to side means no. “That’s how we communicate,” he says.

Twice a day he takes Wesley to visit and he lays the baby against his mother for some “skin on skin” time. Heather’s parents are here from Florida, and her mother stays overnight with her. The hospital room is decorated with cards from her students. A pair of red boxing gloves, signed by colleagues, hangs on the wall.

Friends have started a Giving Forward page at to help cover medical and child care costs, as well as the purchase of a wheelchair-accessible car and home accommodations.

This week, Heather was moved to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Cambridge, with the goal of getting her lungs and legs in shape to sit upright in a wheelchair and, eventually, on her own.

“It’s awesome to have that finish line, but we’re running up a steep hill, and I’m taking it step by step,” Gary says. “I hope there’s a nice cold beer waiting for me, and a glass of wine for her.”

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