Avera Medical Minute: Rare condition affects college student's nervous system

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - What starts off as a case of the sniffles can become a rare but serious condition called acute flaccid myelitis. It affects the nervous system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been seven confirmed cases this year in the United States.

AFM is a newer diagnosis and typically affects young children. But Lexi Weisbeck developed this condition during college. Now, she's working to overcome it.

"So, it started with just like a head cold basically," Weisbeck said.

She was diagnosed with acute flaccid myletis in September of 2018.

"My symptoms were kind of just like congestion, just your normal flu-like symptoms basically for like the first two weeks," she said. "And then, on September 10th, I went to school and couldn't lift my book bag with my right arm."

She then developed something similar to growing pains. That's when her mom came with her to the hospital and when she learned what was going on. After three days, Lexi couldn't walk.

"So, I spent 10 days in the hospital and then 64 days in inpatient rehab," she said.

"It's a fairly newer diagnosis. It started coming around in 2014 when the first cases started to present, and it typically presents itself every two years. So 2014, there was a huge uptick of the cases, 2016, and then 2018," Dr. Kristen Jost said.

Dr. Jost works in Avera's physical medicine and rehab.

"A lot of the cases have been preceded by a respiratory infection, and there's some research ongoing on that enterovirus might be the potential cause of the illness. But it's not been confirmed yet," Dr. Jost said.

AFM can suddenly occur with weakness in the arms, legs and face. It can even cause respiratory issues.

"It's really hard to predict if this is going to occur or not because enterovirus is a very common bug out there," Dr. Jost said. "And people get colds from that all the time and do well."

When Dr. Jost first saw Lexi, she was unable to turn over in bed or get dressed. She started physical and occupational therapy though.

"We started out with doing simple things, just working on transferring her in and out of a bed. Eventually, we were able to get her into the pool to help regain some of her strength," Dr. Jost said. "Functional e-stem was a big part of her recovery too, where they placed the electrodes on the muscles, to help kind of stimulate the muscles."

But, Lexi's positive attitude towards the condition has been a major help in her recovery.

"So, her strength is returning and every time we see her in the clinic setting, she's getting a little bit more strength," Dr. Jost said.

"A positive attitude can get you a long ways and just embrace the things you have to go through," Weisbeck said. "It's not easy, so every day is just going to be kind of hard. But, just keeping at it and staying strong."

Lexi is graduating from South Dakota State University with a degree in construction management. She was ready to go to Hawaii in January for a construction job, but since being diagnosed with AFM, she decided to go to law school to give herself time to recover.

Right now, the cause of AFM is unknown. But in many cases, the patient had a viral infection before developing the condition. The best practices to prevent a viral infection is to wash your hands with soap and water, avoid touching your face with unwashed hands, and avoid close contact with people who are sick.