Lexi Weisbeck on quest to walk after running competitively
ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) — Lexi Weisbeck was a runner.
She won some state championships with Central High School in track, and was good enough to run for South Dakota State University in college.
Now, she’s running a whole different kind of race.
Weisbeck was starting her senior year at Brookings last September when, one day, everything shut down.
It was in stages, but it came quickly. After spending a day sick in bed with a regular cold, she discovered one Monday that she couldn’t lift her book bag. No big deal, must be a pinched nerve, she thought.
She went for a walk that night to wear herself out, and she started to fall apart. She fell down the stairs. She fell two more times. It was time to go to a hospital.
“I went to the (emergency room) in Brookings,” Weisbeck recalled. “They shipped me to Sioux Falls, that was Monday and Tuesday. Then Wednesday, I couldn’t move my arms or legs except for my fingers and toes.”
The cause, it was eventually determined — acute flaccid myelitis. It’s extraordinarily unlikely to know someone who suffers from the disease. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has confirmed fewer than 1,000 cases in the country since 2014, when it started tracking it. The vast majority — roughly 90%— are in young children.
“I hit the one in a million,” Weisbeck said, drastically understating the statistical reality of how bizarre her diagnosis is.
The disease causes inflammation in the spinal cord, which disrupts the brain’s messaging to the body. So while Weisbeck intellectually knows how to walk, her body can’t interpret the signals her brain is sending it to tell it to do so.
“I couldn’t move, really,” Weisbeck told Aberdeen American News. “So I basically had to relearn everything. Daily tasks, couldn’t reach up to brush my teeth, had to use counters to support my arms.”
The diagnosis came in September, and Weisbeck was in a hospital until early December. By her side nearly every moment since the initial hospital visit has been her mother, Necole Weisbeck of Mina, who moved in with her daughter and has lived with her since.
“I stayed in her (hospital) room, slept in a very uncomfortable chair for 74 days,” Necole Weisbeck said without a hint of puffed-up pride. “And then when she was out of in-patient, we moved into a permanent unit across the street, that was a month. Then I moved to her house with her in Brookings so she could finish college. So we lived (in Brookings), drove back and forth to Sioux Falls for therapy and back and forth from class.”
Necole Weisbeck, much like her daughter, counts the family pretty fortunate concerning the circumstances surrounding Lexi’s illness.
“We always say it was lucky I wasn’t working. We only had and have the one kid, and so it wasn’t even a second thought for (Lexi’s father) Kurt and I that, yeah, I’ll be with her and get her through this,” Necole Weisbeck said. “We’ll do whatever we have to do for her to help her out. But she did all the work. She put in the effort, wanted it.”
That notion is a critical truth for the mother — that her own efforts and sacrifice are nothing compared to those of her daughter, in whom she admits she has enormous amount of pride. Necole doesn’t want this story to be about her.
By her own reckoning — though hardly in terms of the mathematics of the situation — Lexi Weisbeck was lucky. Some acute flaccid myelitis patients can’t breathe or eat. She could and can. But she couldn’t walk, and had to reteach her body to do everything from that to putting on a shirt to putting a pot on the stove.
Combine the inability to do simple tasks with the absurd unlikeliness of her circumstances, and Weisbeck’s was a recipe for depression, frustration, anger, even despair.
That just isn’t Weisbeck’s way, though.
“It’s just — I wouldn’t,” she said. “Obviously, no one wants to go through it. But if you’re negative about it, you’ll never get better. I’m only 22, so I kind of need to get better.”
No “why me?” Really?
“No,” she said. “I had a pretty good run for stuff, now I have to get back to it. I think that helped me. That is one benefit of collegiate athletics. I had to go through a ton of pain to get results, so I mean, I feel like I was pretty prepared. The average age to get this is like 4. So to already have a good attitude about it has really helped me — just from the aspect of not looking down on it. If you’re sad about it all the time, you’re not going to get better.”
The positive attitude has worked wonders.
Weisbeck walked — with substantial help from others — by October. She was back in school by January. By May, she took her walker across the stage at graduation.
“I was shaking in my boots the whole time,” Weisbeck said with her trademark giggle. “But I told my dad, ‘The slower you walk, the more claps you get.’”
Today, she’s still mostly using a wheelchair to get around. It’s just faster than a walker or crutches, though she can certainly use those. Her goal is to be out of the wheelchair by December. She’s in physical and occupational therapy several times a week, continuing her long recovery.
Now, she’s headed to law school at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, after graduating from SDSU with a construction management degree in May.
“I was supposed to move to Hawaii in January for a construction management job,” Weisbeck said. “But that didn’t work.”
As positive as she comes across — she laughed constantly while chatting on the phone as she painted boxes to match her furniture — Weisbeck doesn’t want to pretend.
“I get those moments,” she said. “Don’t let me fool you.”
Her mother has seen them, few and far between though they may be.
“She really only had two low spots,” Necole Weisbeck said. “There was one in the hospital where she was still losing movement and she said she was afraid to go to sleep, because what if she woke up and couldn’t move at all — lost that movement that was in her hands? That was tough. It was hard not to cry then. But we just talked about it. We said, look, we have to trust this is going to work. She was a little worried. I said we can either sit here and wallow or suck it up and deal with it. Those are the two choices, there’s no in between on this. She said ‘OK,’ and from then on, she was amazing.”
The other came during an early therapy session.
“One day in the therapy room as an in-patient, she was laying on her back and they were having her try to reach up, and she couldn’t do it,” Necole recalled. “That was hard for both of us. But other than that, every day, she was just, ‘Alright, let’s get to it.’”
Sometimes it’s frustrating, Lexi Wesibeck said, to know exactly how to do the simplest action but not be able to perform it.
“It’s like a baby almost now,” she said. “I had to crawl before I could walk.”
But, almost to a fault, the younger Weisbeck remains positive.
“I was talking to my therapist and, you know, we could only do three different things in therapy, and now I can do 15 things in therapy” she said. “Just gaining so much speed. So it’s just time. I feel like the recovery is mostly time, and nobody wants to deal with time.”
The gap from running competitively to learning to crawl again isn’t something of which she hasn’t taken notice. But training for races and training for life are just two different types of training. She’s used to working hard.
“It’s weird,” Weisbeck admitted. “If I could describe anything, it would be ‘weird.’ But I feel like it’s a chance to try new stuff. When I moved to Omaha, the rock-climbing gym I used to go to has adaptive climbing, so I’ll do that, and it’s different kinds of workouts, which is nice. When you’re a runner, your only workout is running, so it’s nice to try different things.”
When losing control of your body can be called “trying different things,” it’s pretty obvious what kind of attitude is being discussed.
“Staying positive is definitely key to recovery,” Weisbeck said.
Information from: Aberdeen American News, http://www.aberdeennews.com