Fire chief's recovery astounds

NEIL RATLEY
Last updated 05:00 21/07/2014
Bruce Stubbs
NICOLE JOHNSTONE/FAIRFAX NZ
BEFORE THE 'WORST DAY': New Zealand Fire Service Southland area commander Bruce Stubbs before he was left paralysed by the rare Guillain-Barre syndrome. Stubbs has astounded medical staff with his recovery efforts.

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Bruce Stubbs was "scared s...less" as he lay on his back staring up at the fluorescent lights of a hospital ceiling.

"I remember my wife, Collette, holding my hand and I couldn't feel it."

The New Zealand Fire Service area commander for Southland was paralysed. His entire body, apart from his mind, had shut down.

"I was locked in," he said. "I'm not afraid of much and I've been in a few sticky situations in my time but, I won't lie, this was the most afraid I have been in my life.

"I was so helpless and so completely dependent on other people's ability to care for me."

One minute Stubbs had been a fit 45-year-old firefighter, father and husband, the next he was a prisoner in his own body.

On a quiet Tuesday, Stubbs was getting stuck into a bit of landscape gardening at his Invercargill home.

After lifting and shifting a few railway sleepers, he felt some tingling in his fingers and toes.

The next day his hamstrings were tight. Stubbs was back at work for the short week following Easter and the Southland anniversary day holiday.

During the next week, stiffness and fatigue set in before a band of strong pain wrapped itself around his chest.

Several days later, Stubbs stood up from the couch and then collapsed face-first onto the floor.

In Dunedin Hospital, with treatment just under way, Stubbs lived through the "worst day" of his life.

His body shut down.

"I was totally paralysed and locked in," he said.

Stubbs' own body had been the architect of his rapid demise. His immune system had launched all-out war on his own tissues.

He was ambushed by an auto-immune syndrome he had never heard of before - Guillain-Barre syndrome.

With the syndrome, immune cells attack the myelin sheath - the fatty substance covering nerve fibres. The myelin sheath insulates and protects the nerve fibres and if the sheath is damaged, messages from the brain may be slowed or blocked.

The messages from Stubbs' brain to rest of his body, including the breathing muscles, were not getting through.

Doctors in Dunedin began pumping an antibody from other people's blood - immunoglobulin - into Stubbs' body when he first arrived.

Immunoglobulin is a special protein used naturally by the immune system and in high doses is thought to help reduce the auto-immune attack on the nervous system.

But before the tide was turned, medical staff were forced to attach Stubbs to a ventilator so he could breathe.

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An indented scar at his throat shows where a hole was dug for a tracheotomy.

Unable to move a muscle but able to hear, see and think, the veteran firefighter decided he would not stay lying down.

He has fought tirelessly to rebuild the muscles, regain the strength and co-ordination he was robbed of as he lay staring at fluorescent lights for almost seven weeks.

On Monday, Stubbs will walk back in to the Invercargill fire station gym to continue the rehabilitation that has stunned medical staff.

"I've trimmed about five months off the original time frame that I was given for getting home," he said.

"Doctors give you the worst-case scenario and the averages. Talk of up to a year on my back didn't fill me with joy."

The support of medical staff at the hospitals, and rehabilitation units, his "girls at home", extended family and the New Zealand Fire Service, especially Invercargill members, and a lot of "bloody hard work" were the reasons he had come such a long way in such a short time, Stubbs said.

"That got me breathing again on my own, rolling over in bed on my own, sitting up and eventually standing and walking in two months," he said.

Stubbs spills some tea from a cup, and crouching to clean up the mess before his wife gets home takes some effort.

The simple things like tying a shoelace and brushing his teeth are still tougher than they should be. There is still a wee bit of tingling in the fingers and toes, which doesn't help the balance.

But Stubbs has time. He is well ahead of schedule and is motivated to get back to work and back on the sidelines of the netball court and football fields to cheer on his daughters.

A trademark sense of humour has also helped him beat GBS, the rare disorder that affects one in 100,000 New Zealanders each year.

"I've taken the hit for Southland," he joked.

"I'll take this one on the chin so no-one else has to go through a weight-loss programme I would not recommend."

- The Southland Times

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