Chief beats disease

ready for work

January 28, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

Gary Hawbaker says what happened to him on Dec. 29, 2002, was like an ice storm bringing down a power grid.

Hawbaker, 55, is returning today as Hagerstown's fire chief after more than a year of battling an obscure nerve disease that almost completely paralyzed him. It can be fatal.

"This is my love," Hawbaker said in an interview Tuesday. "There's two things that kept me going through this. One was my family. The other was getting back to the job I love.


"And anything short of that would not have been a recovery."

Hawbaker is now spry in comparison. He limps as he walks, but he expects that to subside eventually.

He has a firm handshake, and smiles as he talks about his rehabilitation from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which at one point forced him to breathe and feed through machines.

Hawbaker has passed a city-ordered physical examination, but going from being immobilized to getting the go-ahead to come back to work last Friday has taken him down a frightening and uncertain path, he said.

Hawbaker said he was on vacation the day he first noticed something was not right. He was at home with his wife, Brenda, a city administrative assistant.

As he went to bed, he felt tingling in his legs. He said he asked Brenda to crack his back before he fell asleep.

"I thought my back was out of line," he said.

The next day he woke up and put his feet on the floor.

"I went flat on the floor," he said.

He said he first thought it may have been a stroke, but from his emergency training he knew strokes usually affected only one side of the body. Neither of his legs was working.

He called 911 and was taken to Washington County Hospital. Within hours he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre, he said.

"As the day progressed, the paralysis progressed. It was very scary," Hawbaker said.

That day he was transferred to Frederick Memorial Hospital.

'You lose everything'

Within 10 days, Hawbaker could move only his left eyelid. He could not breathe or eat on his own. Nevertheless, he could feel if someone touched him, and he could see and hear.

"You're a healthy, active person, and all of a sudden you're in bed and can't move," he said.

He said his doctors don't know what triggered his disease, but it was explained to him that his immune system had attacked his nerves, affecting his motor skills.

The symptoms were like a winter storm, he said.

"You have a major ice storm, and then you lose everything," he said.

The nature of the disease which, according to the Guillain-Barre Syndrome Foundation Web site affects one or two people in 100,000, is that most patients usually recover completely or nearly completely.

According to the Mayo Clinic's Web site, the disease can range from general feeling of weakness, in its least serious form, to total paralysis in it most serious form. Because of the impaired breathing, the disease can be fatal.

Over the course of his treatment, Hawbaker contracted pneumonia three times. He underwent five treatments to process his blood through a machine and remove the plasma, the liquid portion of the blood.

Over the months, Hawbaker gradually regained control of his body.

"Just like when you restore power, it comes back in sections," he said.

In late January or early February, he recalled, he could flop his hand. Then he regained movement in a foot. He was off the ventilator in early February. Soon his legs began regaining movement.

In late March he was transferred back to Washington County Hospital.

On April 24, he took his first step using parallel bars. In June, he could feed himself and walk by himself with a walker, although he was mostly wheelchair-bound. On June 11, he was discharged from the hospital.

Since then, Hawbaker has continued to regain movement through hours of weekly physical training. He was able to drive in July, although he traded his manual transmission car for an automatic. In August, doctors approved him for administrative duties.

Last Friday, Hawbaker met with City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman, who reviewed his medical history and approved his return to work.

Back to work

Hawbaker said the first order of business today will be to sit down with Rick Kipe, who has been acting chief in Hawbaker's absence. Kipe is retiring, and his last day in the office will come in mid-February.

Hawbaker is stepping into the job as the city is ramping up for its budget season. He said he already has in mind some departmental changes.

He said adding staff is the first priority, but he would also like to see training procedures become more uniform for city firefighters and an increase in emergency preparedness in connection with homeland security.

Hawbaker was hired by the city in 1985 as fire chief. While he would be eligible to retire in four to five years, he said he planned early in his illness to return.

"I never thought of retiring. I never thought of changing jobs. ... I'm just anxious to get back," he said. "For my life to get back to normal. For the department to at least know who the chief is going to be for the next four to five years."

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