It sounds like a nightmare, but for Viera, it was the reality she woke up to on Aug. 6 last year. She was rushed to the emergency room, where tests determined that Viera was suffering from Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition that affects the immune and peripheral nervous systems.
“I was completely paralyzed,” Viera said. “I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t even stand up. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t swallow my own saliva. It was terrifying. My family and I thought I was a goner, but somehow I’m still here.”
Doctors credit Viera’s recovery to her commitment to exercise. Even at the age of 71, she exercises regularly, working out at Curves in Antioch daily. She circuit trains, using the facility’s 13 machines, and focuses on strength building as well as cardio. Her favorite exercise is Zumba.
Guillain-Barré syndrome recovery typically takes several months – in some cases a year. It’s usually worse for people over the age of 40. Patients typically don’t start to show signs of recovery until they’ve completed four weeks of treatments, but Viera defied the odds and was released from the hospital within a month. She continued treatment with physical, speech and occupational therapists, and returned to Curves by November.
Viera was initially told that despite treatments and therapy she might be wheelchair bound, but she wasn’t about to accept that as her fate. After she left intensive care, she impressed her doctors immediately by showing she could swing her feet off the bed and prop herself up.
“My doctor would see me walking down the hallway with one of my therapists and he’d stop and point and say, ‘You are one lucky lady.’ And I am. I’m still gaining strength. I’m not completely back to normal, but I will be.”
Viera joined Curves in 2010. She walked regularly for exercise, but desired a program that would challenge the rest of her body. She began to integrate a visit to Curves into her daily schedule and within a few months, it was routine. Doctors say her regular circuit training at Curves helped prepare her body to fight off the infection in her immune system, which created weakness throughout her body.
Curves manager Sue Espy said Viera has become an inspiration to many of the Curves clients: “Everyone comes to Curves with a story, but Maria is our most dramatic success story. She came to us in the beginning wanting to challenge herself with a new exercise routine, and now she’s using the cardio and strength training to get healthy again. You never know if you’re going to have a health setback, and Maria is proof of that. She’s made a miraculous recovery.”
Viera’s commitment to her Curves workout has inspired friends and family – including seven children, 19 grandchildren, 21 great grandchildren and one great-great grandchild – to re-evaluate their own diet and exercise routines. But she’s willing to share her story with all who claim they don’t have time to exercise.
“Exercise makes all the difference,” Viera said. “You need to make time for yourself. It’s your health. You should cherish it – protect it. I’m 71, and I had to relearn how to tie my shoes, and practice swallowing without choking myself. You never think that something will take over your body like that. I’m very lucky.”
Her battle with Guillain-Barré syndrome isn’t over, but Viera has been able to take a positive experience out of the ordeal. As part of her occupational therapy, she practiced working her fingers back into shape by stringing beads to make jewelry such as bracelets and earrings. Viera has control over her reflexes now, but she’ll continue making jewelry as a hobby.
“Life’s funny,” Viera said. “Who knew I’d have to lose control of my hands to realize I like working with them so much?”