HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (9/29/12)—People face unimaginable hardships in life. It’s an unfortunate truth that many know well, and for 28 year-old DeAnna (Wood) Herran, this fact couldn't be more of a reality.
Since the latter half of 2007, DeAnna has confronted a string of near overwhelming woes: she battled a potentially lethal syndrome that left her partially paralyzed while she was pregnant with her first child, Keirli; her husband, Jacob, then a sergeant in the military, was called away on active duty mere days before her diagnosis; and her mother and best friend, Kimberly (Wood) Watson, took her own life in 2009. And, believe it or not, that’s just the “major” stuff. What’s most impressive about DeAnna, though, is how she’s managed to transform this lengthy string of emotional blows into motivation that is helping to better her own wellness and the life of her family.
How has she done it, you ask? She’s gripped the figurative weight of the world with bare hands and is lifting it high above her shoulders—both as a humble person and one of our region’s only female strongman competitors.
A native and current resident of Dalton, KY, DeAnna attended high school at Hopkins County Central, married her husband Jacob in 2004, and graduated from Madisonville Community College in 2005 with a degree in occupational therapy. Soon after, she was able to secure positions as an occupational therapy assistant with different practitioners across the region and country. Needless to say, life was moving along at a steady and seemingly secure pace for the young twosome. However, in December 2007, DeAnna and Jacob were hit with a mix of unexpected news that would eventually reshape their entire life together.
“Jacob was in the reserves and he got called to active duty. He was going to be stationed in New Jersey for a year. Then, the first day after he left, I found out I was pregnant with our daughter, Keirli,” recalls DeAnna. “Then I started feeling really sick a couple days later. I was feeling flu-like symptoms—mainly chills and a numbing or tingling feeling in my hands, feet, and tongue. It was really weird. From there, I just gradually got weaker and weaker. I kept going back to my OB for help. At the time, though, I just figured I was dehydrated.”
Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before she and her care providers came to realize that the symptoms were indicative of much more than dehydration.
“My mom had to take me back and it was to the point that I was falling down; I could hardly make it into my doctor’s office,” explains DeAnna of the sudden and odd infirmity. “I kept falling and they had to catch me over and over. They finally got me in a wheelchair and rolled me back, and my doctor ended up admitting me, but they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. From there, they called a neurologist in, who told me there was nothing wrong with me. He said that it was all in my head. This was in Paducah, KY. He discharged me three different times and told me there was absolutely nothing wrong with me. My OB said, ‘I will not accept that, there is obviously something wrong with her, you need to go back and you need to check it out.’ So, by the third go-around, the entire left side of my face had become paralyzed and the neurologist started to do some tests on me, and when he did, he stops in the middle of the testing and goes, ‘I’ll meet you and your mom back in your room.’ He told us with this stricken look on his face, like he already knew at that point what it was and was scared for me. When I got back to my room, he came in and he told us that I was suffering from Guillain–Barré syndrome.”
Defined first and foremost by the devastating effects the syndrome can wreak upon a person’s immune system, Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS) is found in an estimated one to two people per 100,000 each year, according to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic, and can result in lifelong issues or death.
Specifically, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) explains that:
Guillain-Barré syndrome is a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. The first symptoms of this disorder include varying degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs. In many instances, the weakness and abnormal sensations spread to the arms and upper body. These symptoms can increase in intensity until the muscles cannot be used at all and the patient is almost totally paralyzed. In these cases, the disorder is life-threatening.
As of this writing, medical organizations are still studying the causes of the syndrome, which seem to range from recent infections to simple vaccinations, but have yet to find an end-all cure for the ailment. Keeping these stats in mind, it’s no wonder that recovery from the autoimmune disease—if possible—can sometimes take years of intense physical therapy and further medical treatment.
Knowing this startling information from firsthand research and experience in the medical field, DeAnna was devastated for the sake of her own health and the sake of her unborn child.
“I had dealt with two patients that were affected by GBS as an occupational therapy assistant. The first one died and my second one was in Colorado when I worked out there. The last I saw of her, she was on her way out. So, as you can imagine, I balled my eyes out when they told me I had it,” says DeAnna. “They basically told me there was no guarantee that I would make it, and if I did, they said that, ‘Your child may not make it, but even if she does, there is a very, very high risk that they will be deaf, blind, mentally retarded or have hydrocephalus.’”
After learning that her best option was to undergo advanced treatment at the University of Louisville, DeAnna made a phone call to Jacob informing him of the unfortunate diagnosis. From there, it was no time before he was rushing to her side.
“I was down in Camp Bullis Texas when she called, but I flew out to Louisville the same day,” says Jacob. “I didn’t know anything about how serious the syndrome was at the time and a buddy of mine from New York, whose wife is a nurse practitioner, told me he knew what it was and asked me, ‘Who has it?’ I said Deanna just called me and said she’s got it. He looked at me and told me to get to her as soon as I could. Luckily, he was also my team leader, so he made all the arrangements. That was probably 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning. We were eating lunch as a matter of fact, but I was in Louisville by 10 o’clock that night. Luckily, I had another buddy who was a city cop in Louisville—a guy I’d met in the army—and he picked me up at the airport. We were speeding all the way to the hospital, blue lights and everything.”
As soon as he arrived at the hospital—in the midst of tornado weather no less—DeAnna was moved to the operating room where she began a series of treatments that would last for nearly two months.
“I was there for a month-and-a-half and I had to have an IV-IG treatment the majority of that time,” says DeAnna. “It’s called plasmapheresis and it’s basically like a plasma transfusion or exchange.”
The reason for the exchange of plasma? The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) explains the procedure:
There are also a number of ways to treat the complications of the disease. Currently, plasmapheresis (also known as plasma exchange) and high-dose immunoglobulin therapy are used. Plasmapheresis seems to reduce the severity and duration of the Guillain-Barré episode. In high-dose immunoglobulin therapy, doctors give intravenous injections of the proteins that in small quantities, the immune system uses naturally to attack invading organism. Investigators have found that giving high doses of these immunoglobulins, derived from a pool of thousands of normal donors, to Guillain-Barré patients can lessen the immune attack on the nervous system. The most critical part of the treatment for this syndrome consists of keeping the patient's body functioning during recovery of the nervous system. This can sometimes require placing the patient on a ventilator, a heart monitor, or other machines that assist body function.
“At the time, the left side of my face was still paralyzed and I was so weak in other parts of my body that I couldn’t even bring my hand to my mouth. I couldn’t physically roll from side to side in the bed either,” says DeAnna.
And if her physical limitations weren’t enough, the pain of completely regenerating a large portion of her nervous system was excruciatingly painful.
“I wanted to be ‘zonked out’ all day because I was hurting so bad, especially when I was in the ICU getting the IV-IG treatments,” DeAnna recalls. “I had never used any kind of pain medication in my life, but what I was feeling was unbearable. It was worse than childbirth in my opinion.”
After undergoing a multitude of plasma exchanges and heavy doses of pain medication, DeAnna was transferred to a nearby assisted living facility where she finally began to make notable progress.
“During my first week at the nursing home, I was able to start sitting up on the edge of the bed without assistance,” DeAnna explains. “Then, by the second week, I was walking with a walker and some assistance.”
Near the beginning of March, and at the close of her second week at the facility, DeAnna and Jacob were finally able to return to their home in Dalton after almost three months. And while there were plenty of issues that could possibly arise with their unborn child, a variety of remaining rehabilitation to be completed, and even more medication to deal with, the couple was ecstatic to simply be back in the comforts of their hometown - even if it was only for a short while.
“Of course, the continued rehabilitation wasn’t too fun,” says DeAnna. “We had ‘home health’ helping us out for a couple of weeks until they thought that it was good for me to go to outpatient therapy, but I ended up not going. Instead, I wound up going to New Jersey with Jacob and staying there for a little bit. That was in April or May. I was still a little weak at times, but I recovered relatively quickly considering my situation and was able to walk without assistance by the time I was 5 to 6 months pregnant.”
While DeAnna still required intermittent doses of phenergan for several months and also suffered from pain medication withdrawals for several weeks, which could have resulted in potentially negative effects on both her own wellbeing and the health of her child, she and Jacob received some great news following an ultrasound: their baby girl was healthy and seemed to be developing normally.
Keeping this positive news in mind, DeAnna and Jacob placed themselves in the hands of medical providers once again in August. Fortunately, it was for the birth of their daughter this time.
Though she was unable to receive an epidural due to the potentially negative reaction the anesthetic can produce in those suffering or recovering from GBS, she was able to tackle the intense pain of labor and gave birth naturally. What’s more, Keirli was the picture of wellness upon her arrival and remains a shining example of health at the age of four.
“There is nothing wrong with Keirli. She’s mean as a snake, but there is nothing wrong with her,” laughs DeAnna.
Even better, DeAnna is no longer diagnosed with GBS. Though she notes that the syndrome could return and that she still experiences some minor lingering symptoms, which include minor tingling in both her arms and face, she is able to function normally today and requires no day-to-day assistance.
The unfortunate news, however, is that the harshest of DeAnna’s emotional blows still loomed large on the horizon. Specifically, she would have to deal with the loss of her best friend, constant supporter, and loving mother, Kimberly (Wood) Watson, the year after Keirli’s birth.
“My mom committed suicide in 2009. That was rough—really, really rough. She took her life with a gun, too,” says DeAnna. “She was my best friend and was always there for me, so after that happened I was ‘set back’ a little bit and had to think about some things. It was very hard to lose her.”
From there, DeAnna thought deeply about her life and came to understand that she had two options: move forward or give in. As one may guess, she chose the former and used the exceptional misfortune she had battled as inspiration to become a stronger and healthier person.
The reason? In truth, DeAnna felt that her mother’s depression and subsequent passing was directly linked to poor health. Particularly, DeAnna says that her mother battled obesity for much of her life and was unable to do some of the things other parents could as a result. In the end, her life was cut far too short and she missed much of her daughter and grandchildren’s lives. For these reasons, DeAnna began to actively avoid similar health issues in her own life.
It wasn’t too long after giving birth to her son, Bayden, who is now one-and-a-half years old, that DeAnna stumbled headlong into the world of strongman training and competition.
“Last year, I watched my cousin [Corey Utley] compete in the [Refuge Barbell] strongman competition in Madsionville that Derek [Stone] hosted, and the whole time I was sitting there, I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I could do that,’” says DeAnna of her first experience with the world of Strongman.
Though the first-ever NAS-sanctioned event in Madisonville served as the main impetus for DeAnna’s interest in strongman-style training, she didn’t begin taking a hands-on approach until Nortonville resident and experienced strongman competitor, Derek Stone, sent out an early invitation to the second annual Refuge Barbell competition in April 2012.
“I grew up with Derek and Corey. I’ve pretty well known them all my life,” says DeAnna. “When Derek posted info about the second competition, it reminded me that it was something I wanted to try and I started training soon after. It’s funny, too, because I didn’t do any kind of working out or training before that point. I started cold turkey, but Derek and Corey were impressed with the stuff that I could do, and they were like, ‘Yeah, you’re doing this competition.’”
So, after months spent preparing for her first real competition—during which DeAnna lost nearly 20 pounds—the 25th of August arrived and it was time to step up to the proverbial plate. And step up to the plate she did.
“I had basically trained for four months, I competed, did the best I could do, and I won second place in the heavyweight women’s division,” explains DeAnna of her high placement. “It was awesome. I was so nervous Saturday morning, though, that I was only able to eat half a bowl of cereal, but I got first place in the first event. Then I got first in the second event, third in the third event, and second to last in the fourth event. I literally felt like I was going to pass out. I kept getting dizzier and dizzier, and I think it was because I didn’t have enough food in my system. Then I ate and I got second place in the last category. I think I could have done better in the third and fourth events if I would have eaten more. Overall, I only missed first place by two points.”
As a result of DeAnna’s close second place win at the competition, she plans on entering other regional events in the near future and has even become determined to attend the national competition in 2013 where she would be facing off against a variety of strongman athletes from all over the nation. And while she admits that the thought of heading to nationals can be daunting, her auspicious training regimen is far from tame and has given her the confidence she needs to give it her all.
“I usually work out five days a week, three of which are weight training. I do about 45 minutes of intense weight training on two of those three days. Then, on Saturdays, I go to Derek’s house and practice actual events. I’ll spend from two to four hours doing that most of the time,” says DeAnna. “My favorite category to practice is the Farmer’s Carry. In the girls’ division, you pick up and pack about 125 pounds. Then you carry it as fast as you can for 80 feet. When we got to this event in the competition, I think I made it in 10.47 seconds.”
Ultimately, however, DeAnna says that winning a trophy or a national title isn’t the main reason she’s participating in the sport. Instead, she offers a motive born from a strong will and love.
“I have no ‘big’ plans with strongman competitions. Right now, I’m kind of using it as a tool to get healthy, to get fit, and to feel better about myself,” says DeAnna. “My mom was extremely obese, which eventually led to her depression. She couldn’t do things with me and my brother. I don’t want that for my kids. When they say, ‘Mommy, let’s go do this or that,’ I want to be able to do it. I don’t want to have a weight issue, so a lot of why I’m doing of this is to better myself.”
So, at what appears to be the inspirational end of an ostensibly never-ending roller coaster of ups and downs, losses and gains, heartache and triumph, what insight does DeAnna walk away with? What advice can she offer?
“We all want to be healthy, you know? I looked at my weight at the age of 28 and was unhappy. I thought, ‘I’m supposed to be in the best shape of my life, but I’m in the worst shape I’ve ever been. This is ridiculous.’ And that’s what a lot of people might be thinking. It’s easy to take things for granted. Simply getting up and being able to walk is a blessing that people shouldn’t simply overlook,” says DeAnna.
She notes that the experience helped to change her point of view on physical therapy in several ways as well.
“Because I’m a therapist that’s dealt with GBS and the down time that comes with it, it gives me empathy for my patients. That’s a big thing,” says DeAnna. “I tell my story a lot and I think it helps to encourage people who might be having a hard time. It just makes you have a different outlook on life.”
And at the summation life, simply choosing a new outlook may be paramount to a rewarding future. In Deanna’s case, turning difficulty into a positive personal muse has allowed her to walk alongside her children at the park unhindered; to physically challenge herself in ways she may have never known possible; and, most importantly, to honor the memory of her mother while inspiring others to better themselves.
Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos by Jeff Harp