Tim Helgeson, in black shirt, surrounded by RAMC Rehab staff.
A Remarkable Partnership, A Remarkable Recovery
Tim Helgeson knew that something was wrong. The active, large-animal veterinarian who was used to treating cows in fields and barns at all hours of the day and night felt something odd in his right leg. By the next day, November 10, 2007, both legs were affected. Later, with his arms now tingling, he drove to his office, paid all of his bills for the month of November, left some notes for his secretary, and called a few clients to tell them that he wouldn’t be around for awhile.
Later that morning he was admitted to a Madison hospital where he was diagnosed with Acute Motor Axnoal Neuropathy, a variant of the Guilliain-Barré syndrome.
AMAN, as it is known, is characterized by weakening or tingling in the legs. The weakness quickly progresses upward to the arms. Based on research he had done in veterinary school in 1976, Dr. Helgeson suspected that he had Guillian-Barré. He knew that he had to find treatment before the disease spread to his respiratory muscles.
“I started my day doing farm calls, and less than 12 hours later, I was flat on my back. I was only able to move my hands,” Helgeson explains.
Due to Helgeson’s quick thinking, his neurologist, Dr. Oliver Ni, was able to halt the progression of the disease. During the five-day process, Helgeson lost over 30 pounds of muscle. By the time the disease progression had ended, he didn’t even possess the mobility required to participate in an intense rehab program. He was encouraged to seek a rehab program elsewhere.
“I wanted to go home,” says Helgeson. By “home,” he meant Reedsburg, the town where he and his wife Dee live, and where his practice, Dairyland Veterinary Service, was located. “Reedsburg Area Senior Life Center had one bed available. I got there in a van on November 20, sitting in a wheelchair.”
And that is where the real work began.
“I knew Tim before he came to Reedsburg Area Senior Life Center,” says Russ Lankey, physical therapy assistant. “He was our vet, so I knew what kind of person he was, and I knew what he could handle. I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel.”
But Helgeson had to start from scratch. Not only was he unable to walk, he was unable to stand, or even sit up by himself. In fact, he spent one month just relearning how to balance himself.
“I was a basket case,” says Helgeson. “I was high-maintenance. It took two people to do everything for me, from propping me up in bed, to cutting my food. I couldn’t even brush my teeth.”
Lankey is quick to agree that Helgeson was a basket case. And Lankey laughs when he says that Helgeson was a LOT of trouble. It doesn’t take long to see that the relationship between Helgeson and his physical therapy and occupational therapy team goes beyond working on exercises and first steps.
“There was a lot of bantering going back and forth,” says Helgeson. “I think Russ and Joan (Kaul) liked to play ‘Good Cop/Bad Cop.’ ”
Joan Kaul, an occupational therapy assistant, said Helgeson’s attitude had a lot to do with his progress.
“He was so motivated,” Kaul says. “He set his own goals. You can have the best therapists in the world, but if the patient isn’t willing to do the work, they’re not going to progress. He was always willing to go the extra mile.”
Helgeson started with 15 minutes of physical and occupational therapy a day. He had limited endurance and was very easily fatigued, another hallmark of the Guilliain-Barré syndromes.
The therapy staff showed him exercises to do over each weekend. When he practiced, he found that he could do them by Monday.
“I approached it like a training camp,” explains Helgeson. “Before my sessions, I drank a 7 oz. can of Mountain Dew. I drank chocolate milk three times a day. And I always had Gatorade in my room to replenish my electrolytes. I worked really hard to get out!”
“Sometimes we had to hold him back,” says Lankey, with a smile.
To start out nearly paralyzed, with little or no muscle function, unable to complete even the simplest daily living task, must have blindsided this formerly active veterinarian.
“My neurologist, Dr. Ni, said that I stood a good chance of getting back to 100%,” says Helgeson. Armed with that information, Helgeson didn’t let anything stand in his way.
One of Helgeson’s highlights was the day he stood up without use of a machine. “It was remarkable,” he says.
Helgeson’s 15-minute physical therapy sessions stretch to an hour a day, not including occupational therapy that was an additional 45 minutes a day. Mixed in with the hard work was a lot of laughter.
Using a walker and needing some assistance, Helgeson left Reedsburg Area Senior Living Center on March 1 of this year. “They couldn’t stand it any more!” he laughs. But nothing could be further from the truth. He continued therapy as an outpatient at Reedsburg Area Medical Center through April.
Today, Helgeson is independent in all of his daily activities – he walks without any assistance and is now driving.
Though a disease once halted this very active man, Helgeson made a fantastic recovery, due in large part to the speedy diagnosis and treatment in Madison, and later, to his team of therapists, and his own training-program approach to therapy. He is quick to point out that entire staff at Reedsburg Area Senior Living Center is a group of remarkable people who rose to his challenge.