Gareth glad to be alive after battling rare health disorder

Gareth with wife Amanda, dad Gareth and Levi the family dog. INPT04-012
Gareth with wife Amanda, dad Gareth and Levi the family dog. INPT04-012

Gareth Galway admits he would once have been a ‘why me?’ type of person but having spent nine weeks in intensive care, completely paralysed and on a life support machine, his views on life have changed.

The 28-year-old Portadown man had been married for just three weeks when he was struck down by the rare Guillain-Barré Syndrome in September 2014, a serious condition which affects the peripheral nervous system, and can be triggered by a viral infection.

Physiotherapists work with Gareth in the pool in the groundbreaking aqua therapy. INPT04-013

Physiotherapists work with Gareth in the pool in the groundbreaking aqua therapy. INPT04-013

The civil engineer had been suffering from tonsillitis the week before his wedding but was feeling great on the big day. It was on the second week of his honeymoon - he is married to Tandragee teacher Amanda - that he began to suffer from headaches and weakness in his hands and feet.

On his return, his condition deteriorated over a number of days to the point where he couldn’t stand and was having difficulty breathing. By the time he was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit in Craigavon, he was in such a critical state that doctors said they needed to ventilate him immediately, to enable him to breathe.

He said, “That scared the life out of me. I did cry. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I had just got married three weeks previously.”

Five days later his lungs collapsed completely and his new wife was asked to give her permission to put a tracheal (breathing) tube in.

Said Gareth, “For nine weeks I was reliant on life support to keep me alive and was completely paralysed and couldn’t speak. I could move my eyes but I couldn’t blink or turn my head so Amanda devised a system of communication where I had to look up once for yes and twice for no.”

The pain was so intense that he was given high-strength painkillers which brought their own problems of terrifying hallucinations. Said Gareth, “I thought vampires and werewolves were eating me alive and that someone was drilling into my chest.”

During this time, Gareth prayed constantly and asked God to heal him. He said, “I had a sense of peace that my prayer was going to be answered.”

Although his dad Gary is rector of Drumcree Parish Church, Gareth only became a Christian in hospital, when doctors told him he would have to be ventilated. He explained, “Praying kept me sane and positive. Without it I think I would have gone mad.”

Towards the end of his time in intensive care, Gareth took part in a pioneering aquatic physiotherapy project at Craigavon, which has since been named runner-up in a UK healthcare awards scheme.

While the benefits of aquatic physiotherapy are well-known for patients following illness or injury, it has not generally been used for intensive care patients.

However, the physiotherapy led to a marked improvement in Gareth’s recovery. By the third session his breathing tube was removed and he was transferred from intensive care to a rehab ward.

He explained, “On dry land the physiotherapy was extremely painful and nothing much was happening. But the pool was sheer bliss... This helped with pain relief and sleeping pattern, improving my mood and motivation for recovery.”

Gareth spent four weeks in ward 2 south (the stroke ward) and two days before Christmas was transferred to Musgrave Park Hospital, where he had to build up his muscle strength and learn how to walk again.

On March 6 - almost six months after being admitted to intensive care - he walked out of hospital with the aid of two sticks.

Today, sitting in his new home, the deeds for which he signed in intensive care, he is thankful for the distance he has come. He still has some minor problems with his eyes and lips, and can’t walk far as the nerve endings in his feet have been damaged, but he has returned to work and is glad to be alive.

He said, “I have definitely learnt patience and I accept things are the way they are. Now, instead of thinking ‘why me?’ I think ‘why not me?’.”

Gareth has paid tribute to the unwavering support he has received from wife Amanda, dad Gary, mum Heather, twin sister Laura, brother-in-law Alan Sergeant, work colleagues and hospital staff.

Recently he organised a coffee morning to raise money for the intensive care unit at Craigavon, as a thank you to the dedicated staff.