Hernando Rodríguez woke up in late February in a South Florida hospital bed, disoriented, medicated and connected to medical equipment.
His bewilderment increased with the call from a friend, who burst into tears of happiness and amazement at being able to have a normal conversation with him again.
“Well, thank you,” Rodríguez said, surprised, “but it wasn't that bad."
It turned out he had been on the brink of death and back.
For a month, Rodríguez had been in critical condition, unconscious and paralyzed as a result of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that causes nerve damage, muscle weakness and even paralysis. Doctors told him they thought the disease, which happens after the body has fought an infection, was brought on by his recent Covid infection.
His wife of 22 years, Solangi Urueña, was by his side when Rodríguez woke up. She remembers looking at him and thinking: “When am I going to tell him everything we’ve been through?”
At the end of the call with his friend, Urueña said, “Listen, honey, we have to talk.”
“I began to show him videos and tell him everything,” Urueña said from her home in Miami. “He started crying, and he would ask: ‘What do you mean I was that sick?’ And we both started crying.”
But what Rodríguez also didn't know is how much the doctors and nurses credit his wife's daily devotion and tireless efforts with jump-starting his remarkable recovery. “An excess of love” was how doctors described the couple, Urueña said.
‘You’re scaring me, honey’
Ahead of a planned anniversary trip from Florida to Tennessee, Rodríguez, Urueña and their three children got tested for Covid-19 on Jan. 3. That was before vaccines were available to the general public. Although they didn't have symptoms, they tested positive.
Once the family tested negative over a week later, they went on their planned vacation. A few days into their trip, Rodríguez began to feel bad — “it was as if my legs were literally burning from the inside,” he said.
Back in Florida about a week after their trip, they went to a nearby clinic, because Rodríguez was still in pain; he was told that it was post-Covid syndrome, which can include fatigue, disorientation and pain in the extremities. They recommended that he continue to take pain relievers.
But the pain persisted, the weakness increased, and his wife began to worry. One day, Rodríguez wanted to help his wife prepare lunch but had to ask her for help to stand up. “You’re scaring me, honey,” Urueña told him.
He stumbled into the kitchen, took a glass of water and collapsed: “I can't feel my legs,” he said.
“I was screaming like crazy,” his wife said. His nephews, who live in Colombia, were visiting and ran to help lift him. They asked for an Uber ride to go to Kendall Regional Medical Center.
It was Jan. 20, as many hospitals were grappling with high numbers of Covid patients. When they arrived, Rodríguez's paralysis was spreading throughout the rest of his body; if it reached his respiratory muscles and he wasn’t intubated in time, his life would be in danger.
They did exams, CT scans and MRIs. Urueña remembers being “inconsolable." The nurses took pity on her and let her see her husband before they transferred him to the intensive care unit.
The neurologist told Urueña the diagnosis: It was Guillain-Barré, a rare neurological disorder in which the body’s defenses lose control and attack healthy myelin cells, the coating that lines the connections between neurons in the brain and the body’s nervous system, according to the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
It isn’t known why it afflicts some and not others, and there's no cure.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 6,000 people develop Guillain-Barré in the U.S. every year. At least 250 cases have been reported in a dozen countries after people had Covid-19 infections.
Although the majority recover, those who suffer complete paralysis, like Rodríguez, are less likely to survive.
Hernando Rodríguez was born in Ibagué, Colombia, 46 years ago, and in 1999 he met his wife, Solangi Urueña, 42, in Cali. He liked her immediately, but for months, “I didn’t even give him the time,” she said. One day, when it seemed that he was going to give up on her, it was she who gave him the first kiss. Two years later they were married. They had three children: Juan Pablo, 22, Mariana, 16, and Gerónimo, 14.
Three years ago they emigrated from Colombia to the U.S. after having spent half their lives together.
When Rodriguez was first hospitalized Jan. 20, his wife wasn’t allowed in with him because of coronavirus restrictions.
She asked to install a tripod with an iPad in Rodríguez’s room to see him and talk to him, throughout the day and night, whether he was conscious or unconscious, “so that he would not feel alone and forgotten," she said.
Thus began the family's odyssey with a disease they knew nothing about. Guillain-Barré syndrome is particularly dangerous because it affects the entire body. Immobility can trigger, for example, clots in the legs that travel to the heart or the lungs, so any complication can be fatal.
Rodríguez had to wear special compression boots that stimulated his circulation, but the immobility created an open wound on his tailbone that had to be disinfected often to avoid infection. Teams of nurses came and went at all hours, and there, keeping vigil through her iPad, was his wife, observing and learning.
The most unexpected complication came five days after Rodríguez was admitted: To the doctors’ surprise, he tested positive for Covid-19 again that day and for the entire following month.
He developed severe pneumonia that lasted 50 days. They had to give him a tracheostomy to breathe, and he couldn’t chew or swallow, so he was fed and medicated with a tube connected to his stomach.
Ten days passed, and then Rodríguez seemed to recover: He began to move his face and smile.
“We were all happy. The neurologist called us, put the camera on, we were all greeting him, everyone was euphoric,” Urueña said. But two days later, on Feb. 7, the paralysis returned, stronger than ever.
‘I felt that I went in to heal him’
After Rodríguez had been in the hospital for 28 days, a nurse, Rafael, called Urueña in the middle of the night.
“Your husband is not well. ... I did not leave him like this last night,” said the nurse, who had become a friend to them. Although Rodríguez had gone from intensive care to intermediate care, they had to call the ICU doctors, the nurse said.
“When he put him on the camera I almost died — he was very, very ill," Urueña said. The nurse encouraged her to come running to the hospital and seek permission to see him.
When she got to the hospital, Urueña begged the head nurse. “I beg you, please, let me see my husband,” she said she told her. “I haven't been able to touch him, to feel him. I know he's in bad shape — I know that if he sees me he will be able to stand up, his energy, my energy. ... We need each other. Please, this is cruel.”
A doctor told Urueña that they had done everything medically possible but that her husband's condition was “critical and delicate” and that he wasn't responding. Although they didn’t say it, Urueña felt they were warning her to say goodbye.
As she was waiting to be allowed in, Urueña knelt, raised her hands and began to pray.
“I felt that a person took one hand and another person took the other, and when I opened my eyes I thought they were going to stop me, but they were two nurses praying and crying with me,” she said.
A nurse came out and told Urueña that she had a minute to go in and see her husband.
“When I entered the room, she told him, ‘Your wife is here.’ ... And when she told him that, he opened his eyes and closed his mouth, he came to, and of course, I went over to him, I gave him kisses and kisses, I told him to be strong, to be calm, that God was with us, and I began to pray, in a way ... that I cannot explain. I'm short of words for it,” Urueña said.
Nine hours later, doctors managed to stabilize Rodríguez’s heart and found what was killing him: a urinary infection that had reached his kidneys.
“The doctors told me that he was born again that day," Urueña said.
The second leg of his "odyssey," as she put it, was beginning: to learn to eat, swallow, go to the bathroom, sit, walk, “just like a baby.”
Rodríguez had been at the point of respiratory failure, said Dr. José Barros, an internal medicine specialist who treated him at Kendall Regional Medical Center.
What impressed him the most was how Rodríguez was able to recover with the dedication of his family, and especially his wife.
“We saw all the affection, love ... that is, you are talking about a lady who slept looking at her husband on the iPad. We put it on a tripod, and she managed to see him at night and 24 hours a day,” Barros said.
Rodríguez's sons, Juan Pablo and Gerónimo, would speak to him by video at all hours; his daughter, Mariana, would tell him what she did in school and sing songs they used to sing in church. Nephews, cousins and uncles sent him voice messages encouraging him.
“I spent 30 days without seeing my husband, only on camera. I don’t know what to call it ... a torture, a crime. That’s very hard," Urueña said. "It's so tough — the person you love the most is there dying, and you can’t even go and hold his hand? Very hard, really. Maddening.”
Urueña asked that they let her spend more time with him, maybe to stay in the hospital one night or several. It wasn’t an easy decision, because the Covid-19 restrictions meant she wouldn’t be able to enter and leave, but when they saw how Rodríguez reacted to his wife's presence, doctors relented once he tested negative for Covid on Feb. 19.
She then went to work.
‘The love they professed was incredible’
“She became a VIP nurse, respiratory therapist, physiotherapist, rehabilitator, hairdresser, everything — for love," Rodríguez said about his wife. “That girl earned herself a trip to Hawaii,” he joked as Urueña laughed next to him.
Urueña said the doctors described the couple as "an excess of love." "This woman can't leave. She'll be the one getting him up from the bed, whatever it takes,'" Urueña said, quoting the doctors.
For much of that first month, Rodríguez was sedated because of pain or because his involuntary movements made treatment difficult. The medicines caused nightmares and hallucinations. When he was finally able to move his head a bit, the two devised a system to communicate, letter by letter.
“She would say to me, ‘Do you want to tell me something?’ Yes. ‘Vowel or consonant?’ Vowel. And I shook my head with each letter," Rodríguez said. "It would take us hours. ”
Urueña spent the entire day by her husband’s side. She cut his nails, his hair and his beard, she helped him relieve himself, and she cleaned him, from his ears to his feet. She swapped his hospital gown for his real clothes, and when the physical therapists left, between looks and jokes that only the two of them understood, she continued doing the therapy for hours more, so he would regain control of his muscles — and of his life — as quickly as possible.
“The love they professed was incredible,” said Barros, the doctor.
Urueña took refuge in prayer. From the beginning, she sent voice messages by WhatsApp to update friends and family about her husband's status, and they forwarded them to others. The messages reached thousands of people and congregations — Catholics, Adventists, Pentecostals, Jews — across Colombia and the U.S. “It became massive,” she said.
Churches hung photos of the family and offered masses, vigils and fasts for them and organized prayer groups. Dozens of people called to tell them they had inspired them; some offered money to help pay medical bills. Urueña asked only that they pray for her husband.
“Me, I was absolutely sure that my husband was going to get out of that ICU and get out of that bed," she said. “I never doubted.”
Rodríguez spent 78 days in the hospital working on his rehabilitation, with a grueling regimen of physical therapy and exercises that left him sweating but always lively, making jokes and grateful for how he had progressed.
He finally left the hospital on April 8. Although doctors said it could take up to a year to start walking, he took a few steps with a walker.
The first thing Rodríguez did was go to church, kneel and thank God. From there, he went home, where he was welcomed by 30 neighbors and friends, holding banners with phrases like “You are a brave man,” “a warrior” and “a miracle of God."
“People like him move hearts," said Amparo Saavedra, a lifelong friend who was there to greet him with colored balloons in hand.
Rodríguez said, “If I hadn’t had my family with me during that time, I think my healing process would have been slower, or maybe I simply wouldn’t have fought.”
Multiple studies (and analyses of studies) endorsed by the National Institutes of Health confirm that stress delays healing and that emotional well-being and good personal relationships, in quantity and in quality, accelerate the healing of wounds and physical trauma.
Barros, the doctor, remarked on his healing. “Think about this," he said. "He is a patient who had muscular atrophy, he did not breathe on his own, he did not eat on his own, and he recovered.
“With these patients, you realize the things that we think are guaranteed are not guaranteed,” Barros said. “The Covid epidemic has been horrible. We see many patients who actually do not make it, with these types of diseases and many other Covid complications. This case for us was like that light of hope that, yes, if you do things well, if you treat patients, if you have a family that helps us, they will succeed.”
‘Like me there are thousands’
During his arduous recovery, Rodríguez thought not only about returning to his normal life and even running the Miami Marathon next year — but also about helping others like him.
Now people with Guillain-Barré call the family for advice. They share their stories, the videos of their recovery and, most of all, their good cheer.
“Like me, there are thousands,” Rodríguez said. “To those who are in bed, we bring the message that it is possible, to have faith in God, to be strong, that the family is important, that you have to work as a team, that they are going to stand up again and that they are going to have a normal life.”
An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.
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