How The Carpenters and a 'girl with a guitar' helped one Lancashire man overcome rare paralysing syndrome
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Ian Palmer, 71, contracted a rare form of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) in June 2022, and suffered near total paralysis of his body.
The acute motor axonal neuropathy (AMAN) variant of GBS selectively targets the motor nerve cells.
"You have to wait for them to regenerate – which in your 70s is quite worrying! I’ve been through a long journey”, said Ian.
After seven months in hospital, Ian was admitted to the Sue Ryder Neurological Care Centre Lancashire in Fulwood, where he says “there is a can-do attitude.
He said: “I’ve never been very musical, so when Sue Ryder first suggested music therapy I said, ‘what good is that going to do?’
"But I learned that music is very unlike other therapies, as it opens up all of the brain. There’s been such a positive impact – unless my family are telling fibs, they can understand me now!”
Ian, from Blackpool, previously contracted GBS when he was just 21, and it took him two years to recover, so he was able to recognise the signs this time around. “I knew the loss of muscle was exactly the same as 50 years ago” he says.
But, Ian explains, the AMAN variant works differently in one crucial way, “it starts at the top and works down, which confused the doctors for a while!”
So almost immediately, Ian’s bulbar region was affected which controls the muscles needed for swallowing, speaking and chewing.
He said: “I was in intensive care, being suctioned 24 hours a day, as I couldn’t swallow, and this was leading to choking problems, and speech issues.”
Introduction to the ‘girl with a guitar’
But when he arrived at Sue Ryder, Ian was introduced to a music therapist, who was able to overcome Ian’s initial scepticism and get to work.
He said: “I’m a typical Northern man, and I thought ‘what’s a girl with a guitar going to do for me – get me to the gym!’ But Clare sat me down and explained the process. She asked me to sing a long note uninterrupted.
"When I first tried it was very staccato. Clare told me I needed to call on the diaphragm to assist. I said, ‘I don’t even know where that is!’ But she educated me about how to breathe. By calling on the diaphragm, you’re training the brain that it can use other muscles too. It learns the pathways and reopens them.”
Clare also got Ian practicing mindfulness techniques, with some assistance from one of Ian’s old favourite records.
“She wanted something I could relax to, and being of a certain age, The Carpenters was my choice", he said.
"She told me to push away the thoughts, and just focus on the music. I was sceptical at first, but it really worked. She asked me to do it before bed, and now I put The Carpenters on my Alexa every night.”
Exercises with Clare playing the guitar and singing have also been recorded on Ian’s tablet, so they are available whenever Ian needs them.
From not being able to walk through the door, Ian now regularly walks 3km a day.