Rare illness left this Clovis man paralyzed. Now he’s helping others. ‘Keep pushing’

Learn about what Guillain-Barré Syndrome is and how it ‘paralyzed’ Clovis man

Back on his feet with the help of a walker, Rob Vasquez wants to bring awareness to GBS and help others in diagnosing it early.
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Back on his feet with the help of a walker, Rob Vasquez wants to bring awareness to GBS and help others in diagnosing it early.

There were many days Rob Vasquez thought he was going to die.

The Clovis man couldn’t speak or even write those fears, or describe the pain, for months. A rare illness, Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), had left him paralyzed, trapped in a body that no longer worked for him.

Vasquez didn’t know what was wrong with him when he tried to get out of bed one morning in January 2017 and fell to the floor, unable to move. By the time family members rushed him to Kaiser Permanente, he could barely breathe.

A neurologist, Dr. Ann Bebensee, soon realized what was wrong. She diagnosed him with GBS, a syndrome that attacks the nerves, usually following a viral disease. She prescribed a series of antibodies – a blood protein – to address harmful antibodies in Vasquez’s body that were attacking his nerves.

As he recovered, Vasquez lay paralyzed in bed, hooked into a ventilator that breathed for him. He struggled to even open his eyes. A daughter came up with a system to communicate with him. She and her three siblings, along with their devoted mother, Cheryl, spent hours reciting the alphabet at his bedside, asking Vasquez to blink when they reached a letter he wanted.

By the summer of 2017, the terrifying fight for his life had finally taken a turn. Vasquez regained the use of his muscles and could walk again with help from “his buddy” – his trusted walker. Doctors say he’ll need that buddy for the rest of his life. He wears leg braces and doesn’t have full mobility in his hands.

“Compared to where he was,” Bebensee said, “he’s marvelous.”

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Rob Vasquez with his wife, Cheryl, at Kaiser Permanente in Fresno in 2017. VASQUEZ FAMILY Special to The Bee

Despite the challenges he still faces, Vasquez is leading a one-mile “Walk & Roll” at Clovis’ Dry Creek Park on Saturday, March 9 to raise money for GBS research and education.

“I just want to help as much as I can,” Vasquez said.

Like so many, he and his family had never heard of GBS before his diagnosis.

Bebensee said Vasquez’s GBS was one of the worst cases she’s seen. She usually sees two to three GBS patients a year, and said that one or two people per 100,000 individuals will come down with the rare syndrome.

Vasquez had symptoms for weeks before his diagnosis. It started with tingling in his mouth, feet and legs, and felt like a bad flu.

Vasquez credits the “loving hand” of others in his survival. Keisha Watkins, a nurse in Kaiser’s intensive care unit, watched his family and friends with admiration as they lovingly cared for him in the ICU, too. Family continued that intensive around-the-clock medical care for months in their Clovis home after Vasquez was discharged from the hospital.

“Meeting with him after the ordeal,” Watkins said, “I can’t imagine him not being able to talk for any amount of time. … He’s got so much personality. … He has the strength and determination to make something good come out of this, along with his family.”

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Rob Vasquez and wife Cheryl at the 2018 Walk & Roll fundraiser in Clovis for GBS research and education. VASQUEZ FAMILY Special to The Bee

His wife said the experience made Vasquez even more compassionate, and strengthened their relationship.

Vasquez returned to his job last year in Selma, where he works as a condition monitoring analyst, supporting the operation of machinery used for construction.

“Some days are unbearable,” Vasquez said of physical pain he still experiences, “but you’ve got to get up and keep pushing.”

He said GBS also changed his perspective.

“I tell my kids – in my own words – pump the brakes. Slow down. … Take that time to enjoy your surroundings,” Vasquez said. “Like that old saying says: Stop to smell the roses, because we don’t know what goes on tomorrow.”

2019 Clovis Walk & Roll

Fundraiser walk for GBS|CIDP Foundation International

Dry Creek Park, East and West, 855 N. Clovis Ave., Clovis

9 a.m. registration, 10 a.m. walk, Saturday, March 9

Online registration at gbs-cidp.org

Questions, email walks@gbs-cidp.org, or walk chair Rob Vasquez at gbsrobv@gmail.com