13 August 2006
Paul White was paralysed by poorly cooked lamb shanks. At one stage the Auckland engineer couldn’t breathe unassisted or even blink. His eyes had to be taped shut at night so he could sleep.
This is the frightening world of an extreme case of Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), which can leave people unable to move.
There is no single cause of GBS, but it can develop a week or two after a throat or intestinal infection. Campylobacter is one recognised cause.
A recent Otago University study showed New Zealand rates of campylobacter poisoning have nearly trebled in the past 15 years to be the highest in the world. Reported cases totalled 1425 in May alone.
Campylobacter is a bacterium that causes stomach cramps, fever and diarrhoea for up to a week.

In about one in every 1000 cases, the bug develops into GBS which can paralyse patients for months. The auto-immune disorder attacks the nervous system and the initial symptoms – muscle weakness in the legs, arms and face followed by tingling or numbness – can develop in hours or weeks. Latest Ministry of Health figures for 2003-04 show it affects about 190 New Zealanders a year, from mild to severe cases. A fifth of all cases will be left with a permanent disability.
In Auckland, there are seven people currently hospitalised.
White was struck by GBS in July last year. His wife and children were away and he couldn’t be bothered cooking. So he reheated some lamb shanks that had been in the fridge for several days. He had campylobacter poisoning for a week and took time off work as an engineer at Auckland’s Alloy Yachts.
But it was when the 43-year-old went back to work, still feeling unwell, he realised something was really wrong.
He tried to reach up to something on a shelf and realised he couldn’t lift his right arm above his head. Soon after, “I needed two hands to hold a cup of tea as my hands were tingling”.
On July 28 – his daughter Jessie’s 10th birthday – he woke and couldn’t move his arms or legs. A few days later White couldn’t breathe and ended up needing a tracheotomy to keep him alive.
“I got so paralysed I couldn’t blink my eyes shut.”
He couldn’t swallow, or move his head and remained in hospital for almost 11 months.
White is now back at home and slowly rebuilding his strength. He has had to learn how to walk and talk again. The roles have been reversed in his house and his children now feed him.
Brian Armstrong, 63, from Otahuhu, has bounced back after suffering a severe case of GBS in January. The cause of his GBS is unknown.
On a Monday he felt pins and needles. By Tuesday, “I felt like I was walking on glass”. On Wednesday, his muscles gave way. He collapsed at home and was taken to hospital.
His lungs collapsed shortly after and he was put on a breathing machine, and left him reliant on an alphabet board to communicate. He was in hospital for three months.
The hardest part was having to rely on others to do everything for him.
“It takes away all your dignity,” he said.