Six years ago, doctors told Garth Riess they thought he was faking it.
But the Pemberton resident knew there was an explanation for his deteriorating health.
“I woke up one morning basically paralyzed from the waist down,” Riess said Friday (Jan. 11) from Costa Rica. “I was very, very sick for three years.”
The 60-year-old’s symptoms baffled medical professionals for months. His resting heart rate had risen to 135 beats per minute, his liver and kidneys were failing. An active guy who competed in triathlons and played hockey, Riess had developed Type II diabetes, suffered chronic pain and was losing his vision.
“I was going blind — I couldn’t even read anymore,” he said.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) is a rare autoimmune disorder that turns white blood cells against the spinal column. Riess isn’t certain how he contracted it, but he knows it can be beaten.
He’s taken that message out on the road, hoping to inspire others battling GBS during a two-year, 40,000-kilometre bicycle journey to South America and back that began in Pemberton four months ago.
“I started to talk to people and mentor people who are sick with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, because (doctors) have no idea how to diagnose it or cure it,” said Riess. “That led me to think that if I could raise public awareness about it and raise funds to come up with a diagnosis, even, would really really help. In my case, it took six months before I got a diagnosis. A couple of doctors even implied I was faking.”
Riess, once the owner and operator of Locals Living Room in Pemberton and Bestsellers book store in Whistler, has been able to help other individuals afflicted by GBS by sharing his story of recovery. Though there’s no widely accepted treatment for the condition, Riess believes it was through diet, exercise and positive reinforcement — via meditation, in his case — that he got healthy.
“I am already starting to accomplish what I wanted to do, and that’s tell people ‘I know you’re paralyzed, I know you can’t move, but there’s hope and this is how I did it,’” he said.
Riess said he’s had great experiences and met wonderful people on his trip. He took some time off the bike to travel around Central America recently, but is resuming the ride from Guatemala on Thursday (Jan. 17).
Riess said he’s “99 per cent” recovered, with some minor paralysis in his right hand and diaphragm. That’s left him short of breath at times during the journey.
“When I climb the big mountains on my bike … I have to stop, put my foot down and let my breathing catch up,” he said. “But hey, I’m doing them. I’m 8,000 km into this tour and I don’t think there’s anything I can’t ride over.”
Riess won’t be returning until September 2014, and since he’s well ahead of schedule on his journey so far, he said he may “zig-zag” through South America on his way back. He’s excited to re-introduce himself to his two grandsons that were infants when he left.
He’s also eager to continue living life as he did long before he knew what GBS was.
“When I get back, we’ve all gotta go out and do some turns,” he laughed.
Riess’s ultimate goal is to raise enough money to help develop a proper method to diagnose GBS. A part-time writer, Riess has completed three books and is working on a fourth. He is selling electronic copies of the light-hearted novels to support his cause, but will accept donations of any size.
Like the Garth Rides for Hope page on Facebook for updates on Riess’s travels, and for a link to support his fundraising efforts for GBS research.