Patient Stories

A GBS Hero from the Peace Corps

A GBS Hero from the Peace Corps by John Pielemeier

By John Pielemeier

It was Christmas Eve, 1967, and I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Katiola, a small town upcountry in the Ivory Coast. I began to feel ticklish sensations running up and down my legs. I instinctively knew something was seriously amiss and got up in the middle of the night to find transport to a medical facility. I eventually hitchhiked and a passing truck picked me up for the 2 hour drive to the nearest city, Bouake. Somehow I found a phone in the open-air bus station. Not remembering it was Christmas morning, I called the Peace Corps doctor, Dr. Dave Walthers. Despite the holiday, he answered and told me to take a bush taxi to the capital, Abidjan, another 6 hours away and check into the Peace Corps Hostel.

He came by to check on me that evening and said I was dehydrated and should rest. Twenty-four hours later, I began to lose motor function in my legs and shoulders and was rushed to his office. Dr. Dave suspected Guillain-Barré Syndrome. After a night in a French clinic and unsuccessful attempts to extract fluid from my spinal cord to prove the diagnosis of GBS, he arranged my evacuation to a US Air Force Hospital in Spain, which had an Iron Lung. After a week there, the attack had subsided and I was no longer in danger of the paralysis spreading to my heart and lungs. I was sent by medevac helicopter to Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington D.C. where I began my rehabilitation.

How lucky I was to have Dr. Dave Walthers as my “Peace Corps doc”. He made the right call, which is probably why I can write this “Honor your Hero” message 50 years later after a full career with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).