When Holly Gerlach was a child, she despised gym class, and was terrible at sports. She never liked doing any sort of physical activity at all. That feeling stayed with her well into her twenties; although she chased after weight loss by going to the odd fitness class from time to time. When she was pregnant at 26, she stayed active by going for walks and doing simple home workout videos. she wasn’t in the best physical shape, but she was fairly healthy.
That all changed in 2011, just three weeks after the birth of her daughter. One morning she was enjoying my newborn at home and felt great, and by that evening she was weak and having trouble walking. Less than 72 hours later, she was in the intensive care unit at the Grey Nuns hospital, breathing on a ventilator. Holly Gerlach was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder that attacks your nerves and paralyses your body. She was completely paralyzed from the neck down; and couldn’t move, talk, or hold her new daughter. She spent almost 3 months on life support in ICU before she could breathe on her own again, and before the paralysis started to fade.
One week, she could move her fingers, and the next she could move her hand. Very slowly she grew stronger, and started physiotherapy. With the help of an incredible team of physio and occupational therapists at the Grey Nuns and Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, she strengthened her muscles and learned to use her body again. She learned to feed herself, to brush her hair and teeth, and to take care of herself. After spending 12 weeks in a wheelchair, che then learned to use her legs – to walk with a walker, then with a cane, then walk on her own again. She came home after almost 5 months in the hospital, when her daughter was almost 6 months old.
Once home – although Holly Gerlach was walking again – she still had a long way to go. She had lost almost 30 pounds of muscle in ICU and had only regained about 10 of it back by this point. Her entire body was weak, and she still didn’t have the strength to run. She knew that she needed to continue exercising if she wanted to get any stronger so she joined a yoga class for seniors. There were many moves she couldn’t do at first, but she still gave it her all and as the weeks went on, she grew stronger, and could do more and more. After that, Holly decided to try running. “My shins and ankles would ache in pain and I’d have to wait days before trying again, but over time, I could run a little bit longer and a little bit faster.,” she says. Seeing her progress ignited a flame inside her to push even further so she decided to try the at home workout program – Insanity. Just like yoga and running, there were a lot of exercises that she couldn’t do at first, but she was determined to keep trying. And seeing herself getting stronger as the weeks went by, and seeing her abilities improve, was such a motivator to keep going. By the end of it, she felt so much stronger.
For the first time in her life, she ENJOYED exercise. She looked forward to her workouts and even started to crave them. Exercise was not only strengthening her body, it was strengthening her mind. Seeing herself reach her goals made her feel unstoppable. She went on to complete two more at home workout programs.
Eventually, Holly Gerlach decided to venture into a gym. “I was very intimidated and felt out of place at first, but I quickly discovered that the gym was a very empowering experience, and I haven’t looked back since,” she says.
Lifting weights, not only as a woman, but as someone that’s been paralyzed and couldn’t even lift a fork at one point, has made her feel both physically and emotionally stronger than ever. The gym has taught her about goals, and it’s taught her about the discipline and determination it takes to reach those goals. Working out is a lifestyle for her now, and she’s spent the last 3 years getting herself to the point where she is now stronger than she ever was before GBS – and in the best shape of her life.
Exercise is about so much more than just being physically fit and healthy. Exercise is a blessing. She feels so grateful to be able to do all that she can now. There was a time she would have given anything to be able to walk on a treadmill again, let alone run as fast as she can now. And she knows there are people out there with disabilities, that wish they were able to go for a run, or go to the gym – which is a constant reminder to her of how fortunate she am.
“While going through GBS was one of the hardest experiences of my life, I know that it happened for a reason, and it has made me the strong person that I am today.”
By Holly Gerlach