Marathon Man

Joe Oldham’s journey through Guillain-Barré Syndrome started in a hospital bed and ended on a finish line

Published in 2005 Ohio Rising Stars — August 2005

When Joe Oldham stepped up to the starting line of the Honolulu Marathon on Dec. 12, 2004, he was at the beginning of a 26.2 mile journey. He was also marking the end of an extensive, excruciating recovery. He was less than two years removed from a devastating bout with Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), which had temporarily paralyzed him, yet here he was, eager to prove his health by running his first marathon.
 
“I just wanted to be able to walk again,” remembers the civil litigation attorney from Akron. “I didn’t really care about running.” But during his convalescence he had found inspiration while reading Runner’s World. The magazine was asking for submissions of why running the Honolulu Marathon would be a dream come true. The 10 winners would be flown to an oceanfront hotel in advance of the marathon and treated like star athletes. As a runner struggling to overcome a serious disease, Oldham certainly had an inspiring story. “I thought that if I could finish a marathon then I’d prove to myself that I had gotten better,” he says. So his wife, Bunny, entered his story and the next thing he knew he was in Hawaii. Now he just had to finish the thing.
 
Finish it he did, in a very respectable time of three hours and 53 minutes. The last five miles were the most difficult, which he blames on insufficient training. “I probably could have run it faster if I had a longer time to train, but I have three kids and I’m married and I work,” he says. “I just didn’t have that much time.”
 
Time is one thing he doesn’t take for granted anymore. And the pain of those last five miles surely paled in comparison to the agony of the previous two years. It all started in Febraury 2003 when he experienced numbness in his feet, legs and hands. Within three days of first noticing the symptoms, Oldham was nearly paralyzed. He limped in to his doctor’s office. “He looked at me for about two minutes and said, ‘You have Guillain-Barré Syndrome and you have to get over to the hospital,’” says Oldham. The doctor told him he could be dead within half an hour. “It was scary. The doctor put me right into a wheelchair, took me past the emergency room, and checked me into intensive care. I was in the hospital for three weeks.”
 
GBS, an inflammatory disorder of the peripheral nerves, can become life-threatening very quickly. It can attack the breathing muscles, causing suffocation. The cause is unknown, but around 50 percent of cases occur shortly after a viral or bacterial infection. As it did with Oldham, GBS usually begins with weakness in the legs and arms, and it may become so severe that a respirator is required to keep the patient alive.
 
While Oldham was able to breathe on his own, he did receive nine rounds of a blood-cleansing procedure called plasmapheresis to reduce the severity of the symptoms. When he was discharged from Akron General, he relied on a wheelchair at times and struggled to help Bunny and the kids around the house. It was two months before he could return to Oldham & Dowling, the law firm where he and his father practice. It took a year for Oldham to feel normal again. That’s when he started thinking marathon.
 
Now that Oldham has proved he is recovered, he’s not sure if he will tackle another marathon. “Anybody can run a marathon if you want to,” says Oldham. “There’s always going to be someone who’s faster, but anybody can do it. I think legal stuff is the same way—as long as you work on it, you’re going to get things done. You can get anything done; you just have to work at it.”

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