By Starrla Cray
HOWARD LAKE, MN When 17-year-old Earl Weier of Howard Lake woke up Jan. 8, he knew something was wrong.
“He couldn’t move from the waist down,” said Dani Palmer, Weier’s older sister.
A few months earlier, Weier had been a healthy teenager, enjoying his junior year at Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted High School. The trouble started this winter, when he contracted strep throat multiple times.
“He got antibiotics for it, but just didn’t seem to recover very well,” Palmer said.
Weier went back to the doctor Jan. 5, concerned about some tingling in his legs and feet. He was told it was most likely from the dehydration of being ill, and was advised to drink plenty of water and get some rest.
But instead of improving, the tingling turned into numbness. On Jan. 7, Weier got up to take a shower, thinking he might feel better if he cleaned up and got some circulation going. Afterward, he laid back down, and ended up sleeping for 12 hours.
When Weier woke up, he was feeling worse, and went back to sleep another few hours. By Jan. 8, his lower body was completely paralyzed.
“And he’s never regained feeling since,” Palmer said.
During his decline, Weier had been visiting his mother in Bloomington. No one realized how serious his condition was until later on. By the time he got to the intensive care unit, Weier was in septic shock and his kidneys were only functioning at about 15 percent. Once his system was able to handle it, doctors administered steroids to control inflammation.
An immune reaction
A few days later, Weier was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), inflammation can damage myelin, which is the fatty substance that covers nerve cell fibers.
The exact cause of transverse myelitis is unknown, but it often develops after viral infections. In Weier’s case, doctors believe strep throat compromised Weier’s immune system, which made him susceptible to catching another virus.
“They don’t know for sure which one,” Palmer said.
The NINDS notes that with transverse myelitis of this type, it appears that the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissue, causing inflammation and damage.
Palmer noted that the prognosis of the disorder is split one-third never recover, another third make a partial recovery, and the last third recover fully.
Weier underwent plasmapheresis (a process that removes blood plasma in order to get rid of antibodies), but it didn’t seem to lessen his paralysis. Currently, he’s receiving intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) therapy, and his family is hopeful that this will help. During treatment, Weier’s veins are infused with liquid immunoglobulin (part of blood plasma) from healthy donors.
“The goal is to reset the immune system,” Palmer said.
Doctors haven’t given Weier a prognosis yet, but they are preparing Weier for life as a paraplegic. He was moved to Gillette Children’s Hospital Jan. 24, where he can focus on rehabilitation getting in and out of a wheelchair, dressing, grooming, and overall strength.
“He’s still overwhelmingly charming through it all,” Palmer noted. “Not to say that it hasn’t hit him hard, but he’s exhibited strength, maturity, and cheer. The nurses and staff love him so much they often come visit his room on their breaks (even when he’s not on their schedule).”
Weier has also had visits from friends, family, and church members.
“People have been incredibly generous,” Palmer said, explaining that some have offered to watch her children so she can visit her brother, and others have made homemade meals for the family.
Many have also donated money, and about $8,000 has been raised on Weier’s GoFundMe site. The money will be used to help with expenses that insurance doesn’t cover. Weier’s father is planning to make modifications to his house, and the family is looking into vehicle options so Weier can still function independently.
“We’re definitely not giving up hope,” Palmer said. “We’re praying for the best and believing in miracles, but also trying to be realistic and give him the best support possible.”
To support Earl, visit www.gofundme.com and search “Earl the Conqueror’s Recovery Fund.”