A simple, preventative health measure almost took the life of would-be soccer player Seth Burk.
In December 2014, the current West Virginia University freshman received his flu shot, just as he did for the previous 18 years of his life. But, this time, the shot resulted in paralysis from the waist down. The devastating loss of the ability to walk stole the hopes and dreams of becoming a WVU Men’s Soccer player.
“I played soccer for 15 years, and it was such a difficult situation being an athlete and a soccer player, my ability to walk and run is so important. And it all just got taken away just like that,” Burk, a freshman pre-nursing major from Sunbury, Pennsylvania, said. “I had the flu shot the day after my 18th birthday, and three weeks later, I could barely walk into the ER without the help of my dad. By 3 p.m., I couldn’t feel from my knees down. By 5 p.m., I couldn’t feel from the waist down.”
Already looking to follow in his mother’s footsteps of becoming a nurse, Burk’s sudden illness reinforced his commitment to WVU in hopes of helping others.
“Our students often have personal stories, like Seth’s, that lead them to the field of nursing,” said Misti Woldemikael, assistant dean, WVU School of Nursing. “Their experiences, coupled with a strong academic background, provide them with unique perspectives that enable them to excel in the healthcare profession.”
Complications from flu shots are rare but serious in cases of those who become affected by Guillain-Barre syndrome. Burk said his doctors believe the flu shot triggered mass production of antibodies that attacked his central nervous system. In this disorder, a person’s own immune system damages their nerve cells, which can lead to paralysis and ultimately death if paralysis spreads to the diaphragm.
“I was scared I wouldn’t be able to walk again,” Burk said. “Doctors told me a majority of people fully recover, which gave me hope. But it was one of those things nobody knew the severity of it and how destroyed my nerves may have been. And regeneration of nerves is slow.”
After a week in the hospital and a slew of medical tests and treatments including one that washed out the blood and plasma in Burk’s body and cycled it through a machine to remove the antibodies Burk was discharged in a wheelchair.
“I knew my life would change, and I knew I would have to adapt to the kind of lifestyle a wheelchair would allow,” Burk said. “But I was determined to make great progress so I listened to all the medical advice and kept undergoing treatment.”
Slowly, Burk made his way from wheelchair to walker to walking again with the help of intensive therapy over the past year. He completed Adventure WV, a camp-based program that prepares incoming students for life at WVU.
“I knew the trip would be strenuous and a big push, but when July rolled around, I was walking and starting to exercise a bit more. I didn’t think I’d be able to make the entire trip, but I did,” he said.
Burk also participated in a 120-mile hiking, biking and kayaking trip as part of the Project Athena program. Project Athena is a nonprofit based out of California that works with women who have experienced life-altering medical setbacks to achieve their adventurous dream. Burk is the first man to be a part of the program.
“The program really teaches you that doctors can cure the body, but Project Athena can cure the spirit, and I really found myself again during that race,” Burk said. “It helped me get back to a healthy lifestyle and remember who I am.”
The emotional toll was of particular concern to Jackie Burk, Seth’s mother.
“It was scary really scary. I tried to get him up for church that Sunday, and he said ‘Mom, I can’t walk.’ He was just playing soccer the night before,” Jackie said. “Some day, he thought he was going to be this great soccer player and had these high inspirations. Then, he was lying in a hospital bed unable to feel his legs. The unknown was so scary; I’m a nurse and take care of people for a living, but I was scared. Not just for the physical but for his mind, he was an 18-year-old with many hopes and dreams. After completing Adventure WV and Project Athena, it seemed like his spirit was back. He was back to smiling.”
Seth hopes to follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a nurse. After having been on the receiving side of treatment, he says his desire to help others is even stronger.
“It’s my calling; to help the wellbeing of society not just physically, but through the mind and spirit and the positive outlook,” Seth said. “You can change society. I want to do more than just help people I want to do everything I can.”
Seth believes he is a testament to a powerful mind and positive determination. Burk is now able to walk about five to 10 miles per day, though he struggles with endurance and has to take breaks at times. But that doesn’t stop him from pursuing an active lifestyle.
“I’m trying to get back to playing soccer. I want it even more because it was almost taken away from me. A year ago, I didn’t think I would have the opportunity, but I want to try to walk on for the team, impress the coach and live this dream,” Burk said. “It’s a dream that I’m going to turn into a reality.”
Story by Candace Nelson
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