Diagnosed with disorder ... Airman fights to stay

  • Published
  • By Mike Joseph
  • JBSA-Lackland Public Affairs
It normally takes a trainee 8.5 weeks to complete Air Force Basic Military Training. For one recent graduate, it took overcoming Guillain-Barre Syndrome to become an Airman, graduating six months after his arrival at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

In his fourth week of basic training last December, trainee Luke Bolen, a physically fit 21-year-old, noticed he was two minutes slower on a 1½-mile run. He attributed the slower time to a respiratory infection.

"It was weird," he said about his time jumping to 12 minutes, 46 seconds from 10:55.

Little did Bolen know it was the first sign of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), an immune system disorder that damages nerve cells and causes muscle weakness. A week later, on Christmas Day 2011, the disorder began to overtake his extremities. First it was his fingers, then his right arm, then his left arm and finally his legs. In less than 72 hours, GBS had paralyzed the young trainee from the neck down.

By the time his parents flew in from North Carolina, the day after the young trainee was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at San Antonio Military Medical Center, Bolen was on a ventilator.

Between the paralysis and the ventilator, the situation looked bleak.

After the SAMMC team started treatment and began to counter the GBS attack, Bolen and his parents were told recovery could take up to two years.

"I told his neurologist you don't know my son, he's got the heart of a champion. Give him a chance, he's a fighter; I think he'll amaze you," said his father, Brian Bolen.

When given the option to succumb to GBS' damage to his body and possible separation from the Air Force, Luke instead chose to fight.

And that's exactly what the young Bolen did.

It seemed as quickly as he was struck down by GBS, Bolen began to fight back. After 11 days in ICU, including a week on a ventilator, he took his first steps on the road to recovery a little more than two weeks after being admitted to SAMMC.

By early February, Bolen was moved from the San Antonio Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center to the 324th Training Squadron, the BMT medical hold unit. He continued to rebuild strength and stamina over the next two months in the 324th TRS until he passed the test to return to basic training.

He went back to the 321st TRS April 20 and graduated BMT May 11.

Not only had Bolen defied the odds, he obliterated the doctors' anticipated recovery time frame.

"The doctor originally told me a minimum of 18 months to a couple of years," said Bolen, now in technical training at Sheppard Air Force Base. "The medicine was working a lot faster than they anticipated. Everything started coming back a day at a time.

"By Jan. 10, I was able to stand up and would strategically fall into something. I walked 100 feet and back that night. When my parents came in the next morning, I walked with a walker. That was the big turning point."

From there, Bolen pushed himself every day to regain movement in his legs and arms. Driven by will, positive reinforcement and his family's emotional support, he always believed he would complete the training.

But Bolen first had to convince his doctors and the Air Force.

"They wanted to discharge me. I kept saying, 'no.' My dad kept saying, 'No!'" Bolen said. "I told them, 'Give me a chance, you don't know what I can do.' I've learned to walk again, I've learned to write again, I've learned to lift one pound at a time. I've got it all back. They told me I was going to be in leg braces for another six months. I'm out of them and it hasn't been three months."

Bolen's rapid recovery was nothing short of miraculous.

"He was on a ventilator, unable to move," said Master Sgt. Nicole Basnight, 321st TRS first sergeant, when she saw Bolen in the ICU unit. "Only his eyes were moving. It seemed as soon as the doctors said what he couldn't do, all of a sudden - I would say it's a miracle - he started getting better."

How quickly Bolen was back on his feet also surprised the hospital staff.

"The doctors (at the rehabilitation center) had explained to us it was going to be a long, arduous process," said Brian Bolen. "(The day Luke was walking with a walker) one of the neurologists looked at me and said, 'this is absolutely remarkable.' I told him as his father, I call this a miracle.

"To those responsible for giving my son the opportunity to prove he has the heart of a champion, I cannot thank you enough," said the father.

"I always believed the U.S. Air Force was the best choice for my son in his service to the greatest nation on earth ... and with the care and dedication our family received from everyone associated with Luke's training and recovery, my beliefs were confirmed."