Episode 017 - The Comeback

At the age of 27, Travis Mann got a crash course in Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a neurological disorder that started as what he thought was just a lingering respiratory infection. Suddenly, he found himself in a Critical Care Unit too weak to function. This is his story of facing his fears, the long, slow recovery, and the depression that followed.

Our theme music is "Start Again" by Monk Turner + Fascinoma. Other music in this episode is:

5:33    "Out of Paradise" by Lobo Loco

11:32    "Anxiety" by Kai Engel

15:29    "Peace Within" by Peter Rudenko

19:03    "Somber Heart" by Lee Rosevere

22:37    "Marathon Man" by Jason Shaw

26:33    "Peace Flower" by Ketsa

32:49    "Travel Light" by Jason Shaw


Travis: My name is Travis Mann, and I’m a teacher. I teach Business and Technical Writing, which sounds boring, but I make it fun. At least I think I do. There’s no wood around here to knock, but… I do that. I also do contracting a lot right now to train some medical assistants to become medical assistants, and I’ve got three kids, one beautiful wife, a dog, and my two chickens, and a cat that’s driving me crazy, so…

Flora: Chickens!

Travis: Yeah.

Flora: And you’ve always lived over here? Or in Texas?

Travis: Pretty much in Texas. I grew up in the military. My dad was in the Army, and we traveled all over, from California to Georgia to South Carolina. And my parents divorced when I was 12, and we moved back to Weatherford, which is a little town outside of Fort Worth, and then I came down here to Austin after I fell in love with my wife.

Flora: How did you get into teaching?

Travis: I got into teaching not on a whim but just on a… I was in higher education fundraising for the longest time, where I raised money for colleges, and I was working at a medical school, and I have always wanted to try my hand at teaching something. So I knew one of the presidents of one of the community colleges there, and she sent me down to the English Chair. And I went and met with her, and we talked for about 20, 30 minutes, and there was only one class I could teach, which was a developmental class, Developmental English. And after 30 minutes, she pushed the books across the way to me and said, “Go get ‘em, tiger.” That’s all the training I had to be a teacher. And I’m like, “Oh yeah, I got this,” and… The first day I woke up, and I thought, “What the heck am I doing? I have no idea how to teach.” And by the third day, I walked out, and I found myself saying aloud, “This is what I want to do. I can’t believe they’re going to pay me for this.”

Flora: Wow. That’s awesome, to discover something accidentally.

Travis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Especially something I love to do. It’s not always perfect, but it’s so fascinating to me. So, and here I am.

Flora: And here you are. When I emailed you, and I asked you what transformation story would you like to tell, and you, I hope I’m going to pronounce this right. Guillain-Barré syndrome?

Travis: Exactly. Guillain-Barré is exactly what it was.

Flora: And you had that in your late 20s, and you said it was the worst thing and the best thing that ever happened to you, so please share.

Travis: Yeah. OK. So I was 27, and one Sunday I took a run, and I ran about six or eight miles, and had a fantastic run. Felt good, felt great, that kind of stuff. And within two weeks after that, I was in a cardiac care unit, a critical care unit, and I could barely move. And so, it was a weird juxtaposition in my head to see I was able to run here, and then all of a sudden, I’m in a critical care unit. After that Sunday run, a couple days later, I started feeling bad, got an upper respiratory infection, coughing, all that kind of stuff. But something was different about this, and I kept feeling weaker and weaker and weaker, and the doc just said, “We think you’re sick with a cold.” But then I got up one Friday morning, and you know, a gallon of milk, how you have to pop the top off? I couldn’t do it, and I thought to myself, “Something is really, really not right.” And so I called my best friend who was a doctor, he said, “Come to the hospital.” He was working in the E.R., so…

Flora: Were you living by yourself at that time?

Travis: No, I was married to my second wife, Malisa. And went down there, and they ran all these tests, and they brought in infectious disease people and all that kind of stuff. It was actually my best friend’s nurse who says, “I think you may have Guillain-Barré.” And then my friend the doctor said, “Wow, I never even considered that.” So what they do is they do a spinal tap, and they check out fluids in your spinal tap, and sure enough, that’s what it was.

Guillain-Barré’s a strange syndrome. It’s not something you can catch. It’s something where the body turns on itself, and the immune system starts attacking cells. And it’s the long nerves that run to your hands and fingers from your brain. They’re covered in a tissue that’s called myelin. And the, your white blood cells and all that kind of start eating away the myelin on the sheaths, and so you don’t conduct electricity down to your hands and your feet, and it goes from exterior extremity in.

Flora: At this point, did you know what that syndrome was?

Travis: I had heard of it, and we had looked it up online, but that’s about it.

Flora: How were you feeling at that time?

Travis: Scared. I was very afraid, mostly because out of ignorance. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know what would happen, what could happen. Then of course, you know, when you hit that spot, you begin to look like at worst case scenarios. And worst case scenarios is in a wheelchair and all that stuff if you don’t recover well. I’m like, “Great!” Guillain-Barré made a big appearance in the United States. It’s typically, 90% of the time, it’s kicked off by an upper respiratory infection, but sometimes vaccines or shots can cause the body’s immune system to turn on itself.

Flora: What are some of the, I guess the first physical symptoms that you felt?

Travis: Weakness. You know, walking was difficult. Picking stuff up was difficult. As it progresses, you get weaker and weaker, and the one place you don’t want to go is when your diaphragm gets affected, and it becomes difficult to breathe. They put you on a ventilator. And if they put you on a ventilator, the outcomes are not as good as doing without a ventilator, and so I was just like determined not to go on a vent. I was in Critical Care Unit. I was there between, a little over, right under three weeks. What they do is, there’s two treatments for it. One is a steroid injection, series of steroids, or what they call plasmapheresis. Plasmapheresis, they use a dialysis machine. They pump your blood out, and they remove the plasma. And then they put all the cells with fresh plasma back in. Which sounds weird, but by the second time, I could tell it had arrested my fall, my slide down.

And nights in the Critical Care Unit were the hardest because I don’t sleep well. Never really have. But in a situation like that where they close your door a little bit, but they leave it open so they can check on you, and there’s always people moving and that kind of stuff. And it was middle of the night, so it’s like, “What happens if I don’t…” You know, it’s the what ifs that occur.

Flora: Like what if you stop breathing? Like that kind of fear?

Travis: No. What if I don’t recover? I wasn’t too concerned about myself in the moment, because I had read enough. By the first week, we had a really good idea what it was and had it arrested, and that kind of stuff. But some people don’t recover as well, and I was like, “What if I’m one of those people that doesn’t really recover from this?”

Flora: And who was your biggest support during that time?

Travis: It was my wife, Malisa. Very supportive. And the funny thing is, people would come in and see me, and because of how the disease process works, and it takes away the ability to conduct signals between your brain and parts of your body, my whole face was, I looked great, because there were no wrinkles, there were no nothing, because of the disease process. People would come in and go, “You look great!” And I’m like, “Ugh. Thank you. I appreciate you telling me I look great, but I don’t feel great.”

But it was about the second week in that I woke up from a dream, and I can’t remember the dream to this day. I just remember that it was something that was going to happen, and I really had this feeling of, I had a feeling of “It’s going to be OK. I don’t know why.” I’m not a religious guy. Fairly agnostic. But something beyond me let me know that it would be OK.

Flora: Oh, wow.

Travis: And in that moment, I thought, “Wow. This is absolutely horrible, and this is absolutely great.” Because it really taught me about myself, my world, and the world itself. Yeah, it was a transformative experience. It wasn’t all good, but life is never all good.

Flora: No, it isn’t.

Travis: You have to take the pieces as they come and decide how you’re going to look at yourself and look at these things that happened to you. So, yeah. And then they finally moved me out of Critical Care when I finished my plasmapheresis, there were five of them, and that was odd because it’s a strange feeling to watch your blood come out and circulate through here and then come back in through another tube, and it was kind of weird, and it was cold. Freezing cold. So after five treatments, they moved me out of Critical Care, and because I was an employee at the hospital, and fairly high up in the rankings, they gave me this big, beautiful room, right? The VIP room. And that was nice, but after a week, I’m like, “I gotta get out of here.” Because I just had to get home and get some sleep. You know, they come in at 2 in the morning and draw blood, all that kind of stuff, and you wake up, and just, I just wanted rest. So my wife picked me up. Everybody knew I was going home, so they were like, “All right, if something happens, you call us. We’ll come get you.” And I’m like, “Yep. That’s fine.”

So we went out to get Mexican food, because I had eaten hospital food for the longest time, and I could barely cut the stuff on my plate, but I was determined to eat. By the time I was done eating, I’d only been out of the hospital for 45 minutes, I was wiped out. Malisa had to help me up the stairs, we lived on the second floor in an apartment, and it was a realization that I’ve got a long way to go. I was so tired just from leaving the hospital, getting in the car, and walking in the restaurant. And that was a strange feeling. Again, I kept thinking, “Wow, six weeks ago, I was running six to eight miles and getting ready for a marathon. And now I can barely walk.”

We lived on the second floor, so I started taking the stairs down to the landing and going up. I’d have to go back to bed. It was, your muscles, it’s fascinating how much strength you lose by laying in bed doing nothing. I mean, it was just really hard, but Malisa would get up, and we’d walk down to the stop sign and then come back, and then walk down this road, and you know, I just kept doing it over and over and over.

And I wasn’t back at work yet. I guess it was about right at three months that I went back to work. And I didn’t want to go back. I just was like wanted to just hide. And little did I know, I was suffering from pretty severe depression at that point. Depression just because even though I knew, I felt myself getting better, it was a depression like, “Dang, why did this happen to me?” And even though I had that feeling that I’d be OK, it’s still a depression.

And there was one time that I realized I was, not contemplating suicide, but thinking about suicide, because there comes a point where sometimes you just want whatever you’re going through to end. And I was coming down a road, and I was coming over a hill, coming down the hill, and it was a four lane, and I was in the left lane, and this 18-wheeler was coming at me, and I thought, “Wow, it’d be so easy just to drift over in that lane.” And I had to pull over and say, “Wait a minute.” Because that was, that scared me. And so, got some help. Started taking medication. I’m a big one for therapy.

Flora: Oh yeah, me too.

Travis: Yeah, because it does wonders. They usually tell you what you already know, but you know how that works.

Flora: Yeah, so when you were in that moment, thinking about taking your life, what made you decide not to do that?

Travis: It scared me that that thought even came into my head. And it wasn’t a thought of, “I’m going to do it.” It was a what-if. “What if I did this?” And that frightened me just to be thinking that way. And I know throughout life, some of us do the same thing, you know, we think, “This is just not worth it.” That kind of stuff.

Flora: And this moment came after, how long has it been since you left the hospital and back at home?

Travis: I was about a month after I was back at work, I was still, I was trying to go to work full time, and I would make it until 11 or 12, and I just was wiped out. I had a boss who was, we got along pretty well, but every once in awhile, we’d tangle. And he kept telling me, “You just gotta come back to work. You just gotta come back to work.” And he wasn’t doing it for the job; he was doing it more from my perspective. And he was absolutely right. After awhile, I figured out, “Yeah, I gotta get back in this routine. I need to have that routine of coming to work.” And he was absolutely right.

Flora: Did you have physical therapy? What did you have to do?

Travis: Yeah, I had all kinds of physical therapy, and putting my fingers together, and that kind of stuff.

Flora: And then you also had therapy for your depression as well.

Travis: Yeah.

Flora: And did it help?

Travis: Yeah. It took about two years before I got off of meds, and that’s kind of classic for depression. But the nice thing that happened was almost a year from the day that I went in, I ran a marathon. And it wasn’t great time, but I completed the marathon. That’s what I’d wanted to do anyway. It was my first one. And it was a lot of fun. I felt closure at that point.

Flora: That’s awesome.

Travis: Still wasn’t back all the way. My feet still bother me, because the extremities, it’s neuropathy, there and in my hands sometimes too. So, but I’m, I would call myself completely healed.

Flora: Wow. And there is no cure for it, right?

Travis: No, there’s just treatment. And some people don’t do well, and for about seven years after that, every time somebody was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré of any form, there are different forms, I’d get the call. “Can you come down and talk to this person?” “Yep.” So…

Flora: And how long would you say it took you to fully recover?

Travis: Probably about three years. About three years from when it started.

Flora: And you ran the marathon how many years?

Travis: A year after.

Flora: Wow, you weren’t even fully healed, but you still did it. Wow.

Travis: I still did it. So I am happy, healthy. I feel great. It was a transformative experience. Sometimes I find myself forgetting about it, and that may be a weird way to say it, but I’ve been thinking about it since I knew I was coming to see you, and I look back and can’t remember the bad stuff as much as I can remember the good stuff. And that’s good for me, because I’m one of those, not really doom and gloom, but it’s like, “What if this goes bad, and this goes bad, and that goes…?” And I’m trying to teach myself not to think that way. I don’t think you can unthink something, but you can recognize when you’re doing something that’s detrimental to yourself.

Flora: Yes, for sure. Especially at our age.

Travis: Yeah, especially at our age.

Flora: Yes. So what are some of the good things that you thought of that came out of this?

Travis: My wife at the time was just fantastic. She was my best friend, and she was my wife, and she was really good to me. And I had so many people that came out of the woodwork to offer help. You know, everybody says, “Let me help. What can I do?” That kind of stuff. And nine times out of ten, there’s nothing anybody can do, but then there would be that one person that would come along, and they’d say that, and you’d say, “Yeah, this is what I need.” And man, they’d do it right then, which is cool. So, yeah.

Flora: Yeah. And what would you say is, obviously the worst part was thinking that you will, might not recover. But was there anything else?

Travis: I guess maybe most of it is mental at that point. That you’re thinking, you can “what if” yourself into a corner really quickly. And a couple of times in the middle of the night, I found myself painting myself in the corner, and I had to stop and visualize that this was going to be OK. And so, that taught me a little about myself in terms of recognizing to step back and look back at what I’m thinking, and why am I thinking that, and is it doing me any good. And if it’s not, I need to quit and do something different. Think something different.

I did tai chi after Guillain-Barré for about four years and loved it and would like to get back into it again, but it just takes a commitment. But there was one time that I was doing tai chi, and it’s just slow movements up and down and that kind of stuff, and I turned to do another movement, and inside my head, this big void opened up. And it was black and darkness and quiet, and not scary, but it was something that I still don’t understand. And it just stayed with me throughout the whole series of movement and then kind of receded. I still don’t know what it is. And I was asking the tai chi guy. I’m going, “Dude, this is what happened to me,” and this kind of stuff, and he goes, “Yep. Sounds like something happened.” And that’s all he said. So it was a strange, comforting, you know, it wasn’t scary. It was just there. A feeling of a void, of complete blackness, of emptiness. But again, not scary, and not a void that needed to be filled, just a presence of something.

Flora: What did you take away from that experience? I mean, what did you learn about yourself?

Travis: Probably the things I learned the most were that no matter what, it’s going to be OK. Had I ended up in a wheelchair, it would’ve been OK. That’s just the way life goes, and we’ve all been around the bend a couple times, and you learn to... Not giving up, but accepting how things are going and how things are. I also learned to depend on myself more, to trust myself. I trusted my reactions more. I also learned that people step out of regular life many times, meaning, you know, you go to work, you go to work, you have three weeks off a year, you go on vacation, whatever, and you come back and go to work. And here was a moment where I didn’t work. I didn’t work for almost three months, and it was a weird feeling. But it also was like, “What if I didn’t work? How would it be?” Well, wouldn’t have as much income, and that kind of stuff. But how… We get stuck on treadmills. So what would it be like not to have to work like that? And so I built that in, my wife and I have a plan for, we’re going to work for five more years, and then we’re going to look around and say, “What do we really want to do? Do we want to keep doing this for the sake of doing it, or do we want to do something different?” And so we’re both leaning toward doing something different, like moving to Mexico, buying a small place on a little island off of Cancun, staying there for six months and then going to Portugal for six months and living there. So I can still teach. I can teach online.

Flora: That’s true.

Travis: And if I taught two classes a semester, that’ll cover our living expenses. So I don’t know. We’re toying with these ideas and stuff.

Flora: And I love that, the way you can switch your perspective to something positive, or think that, like you said, acceptance, that “Yes, even if I am in a wheelchair, it’ll be OK.” Now, were you always like that, or is that from there on you became that way?

Travis: No. I think that was the turning point, when I was, this happened when I was 27. I look back, and 27 was one of my favorite ages. Everybody’s like, “Oh, I want to be ‘X’ again.” Never want to go back to high school; never want to go back to teenage stuff. But 27 was pretty cool, except for Guillain-Barré. But you know, it was pretty cool.

Flora: What advice do you have for the next generation about living their best life?

Travis: I’m a college professor, and what we are doing poorly as a society is, we’re demanding that 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds make a decision on what they want to do for the rest of their life. That is frickin’ wrong.

Flora: Yep. I agree.

Travis: That is just… Yeah, I mean, you see it. You know, we’re like, “OK, what are you going to do?” Like my oldest son, he graduates from UT next year with a Computer Science degree, and the first year he was at UT, he lived on campus. I’m the one that helped clean his dorm out, so it was just me and him, and we’re pretty close. And we were driving back home, and I said, “How was it?” And he goes, “It was OK.” And it was at that moment that I realized, he really, he can do this work, but it’s not going to really excite him. So I started asking him, I always ask people, if you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do? Anything in the world, what would you do? He goes, “I think I’d be a writer or a journalist.” And he’s a very good writer, and I teach writing, and you know, I always look through his papers, and his papers were well above what others were writing. And I said, “Well, do both. You can be a writer about or a journalist about technology and that kind of stuff.” So my advice is, if you want to do something, do it. I would also encourage everyone, especially young people, 16 to 25, whatever: travel. Go overseas, so how other people live. Come back, and you’ll appreciate things like our toilets, our dishwashers, that kind of stuff.

Flora: Central air.

Travis: Central air, yeah, no kidding. Oh my God. But I traveled when I was a teenager, because when my parents divorced, my dad moved overseas with the military, and so we’d go spend summers with him. So I went to Turkey and Germany and other places in Europe, and it was just eye-opening, even as a 14-year-old. The travel to learn different cultures and see different cultures and see how people live is imperative to our success as a nation at this point. I’m afraid, you know, this is not doom and gloom, this is real fear of our nation changing coming up. You know, I won’t get into political discussions, but it’s just frightening.

Flora: It is.

Travis: We’re an experiment. Democracy is an experiment, and in two years, we could be, it could be totally different.

Flora: I asked, this is something that I want to ask in all my interviews, my last question. What is your superpower?

Travis: I love that question. I use that same question in my class as well, too.

Flora: Oh, cool.

Travis: I think my superpower, and this is really weird. This is kind of the third time I’ve articulated it this way. I build doors and windows. When I teach, I build doors and windows. And my students, everybody’s like, “Wow, you’re a great teacher. You’ve taught me blah blah blah,” and I’m like, “You know, I didn’t do anything. I built some doors and windows, and you decided to look out, and you decided to go forward. And you…” I always say my students do it on their own, because they have to. I mean, we used to think of education as like empty brains, and you’re pouring something into the brains. That’s not how learning works, right? And so, I have come to the conclusion that that’s what I do. I’m a carpenter, and I build these things, and the students love to go through them sometimes. So my superpower is recognizing when students are ready for that light bulb to go off.

Flora: That’s great. That makes you a great teacher. I love that answer from a teacher. That’s great. Wow.

Travis: As I said, the third day I walked out of class, and I found myself saying aloud, “I can’t believe they’re going to pay me for this.” And I was like, right then I knew I’d become a teacher. And I did, and I’ve loved it ever since.