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Written by Elizabeth Earley
Photographs by Ken Mountain

Rare Paralyzing Disorder Won’t Strike Out This Young Baseball Star

T.R. Williams began 2021 as a celebrated left-handed pitcher looking forward to a full-ride baseball scholarship to Virginia Tech in the fall.

He had also fielded Zoom calls with Major League Baseball scouts about his prospects for professional baseball, and was lifting weights of 400 pounds.

Then, on February 5, the high school senior’s left foot felt tingly. By the next morning, his left eye was swollen and his face, hands, and feet were numb. His family took him to an ER, where he was given some medication. The next day, when he tried to eat, the food slid out the side of his mouth.

His parents took him to the University of Virginia Medical Center on February 7, where he was eventually diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare paralyzing disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves.

TR Williams in CHKD's inpatient rehabilitation unit.He couldn’t walk or lift his arms, or even talk with his family. He had so much trouble breathing, he had to be “trached,” in which a tube was put in his windpipe and attached to a ventilator.

“He and I would cry every couple of days, and think, “Is this a dream?” remembers his father, Tim Williams.

But he gradually improved at UVA, and was weaned off the ventilator. Once he was past the worst phase of the syndrome and ready to be discharged, he still faced regaining everything he lost during weeks of paralysis.

He was transferred in early March to CHKD, which has the only pediatric inpatient rehabilitation unit in Virginia, to regain strength and mobility. Patients come from all over Virginia and surrounding states to this rehab unit. Jennifer Barboza, a pediatric nurse practitioner on the unit, said usually when patients arrive from outside the area, they are tired and want to wait until the next day to start rehab.

“The first thing T.R. said to me was, ‘I'm here! When do I start rehab?’” Barboza said.

He began that day. “I was excited to get here and start working instead of lying in bed. I knew I’d heal quicker once I got up and going. I could move my arm and nothing else,” he remembers.

TR Williams showing progress after rehabilitation at CHKD.Physical and occupational therapists worked with him six days a week, for several hours in the morning, and more in the afternoon. Occupational therapist Kelly Allen helped him regain strength in his arms, while physical therapist Michael Graham honed in on helping him walk again.

Within days, the trache was removed. Within weeks, he was able to walk and throw a baseball. They started by tossing a ball while he was seated on a mat, progressed to sitting on a therapy ball to standing to toss a real baseball, and then going outside where standing on grass to throw a ball worked even more muscles.

Allen said patients usually get more tired as they get to the end of a session and the end of the day. “He got stronger. Our goal is to engross him in an activity he loves because the rate of recovery will be faster.”

“I thought I would come back quick but not this quick,” said T.R., who also turned 18 on the unit and is being discharged on Thursday.

T.R., who is being discharged April 1, received 600 to 800 cards from friends and family during his illness, and countless social media comments wishing him well.

His father said doctors first said it could take six months to walk again. “I’m so happy,” he said. “They’ve done such a great job. It’s unbelievable.”

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