NFL Quarterback Danny Wuerffel’s Malady: What is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

by Dr Sam Girgis on June 16, 2011

Danny Wuerffel is a former college and professional football player who has set many records and received numerous awards for his accomplishments.  Growing up the son of a United States Air Force Chaplain, Danny lived in many different places including South Carolina, Spain, Nebraska and Colorado.  He graduated valedictorian of Fort Walton Beach High School in Florida, where he quarterbacked his football team to the Florida Class 4A state football championship.  He attended the University of Florida on an athletic scholarship and led the Gators to four continuous SEC championships and in his last season to a national championship.  Danny won the 1996 Heisman trophy and the Draddy Trophy, and was named the NCAA Quarterback of the Year.  Danny was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the fourth round during the 1997 NFL draft.  He played for the Saints for three seasons, and then played for the Green Bay Packers, the Chicago Bears, and finally for the Washington Redskins.  After retiring from professional football, he has worked as executive director of Desire Street Ministries, a non-profit community development organization in New Orleans, Louisiana.  On June 15, 2011 it was announced by his executive assistant, Sara Pace that “Danny Wuerffel has been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which he recently contracted as a result of a stomach virus”. It was also reported by Desire Street Ministries board chair, Luder Whitlock, that “Fortunately, an early diagnosis identified the disease, permitting swift medical treatment. Consequently, his [Guillain-Barre Syndrome] specialist expects a full recovery”. Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) is an autoimmune disorder that is characterized by an acute inflammatory demyelinating peripheral polyneuropathy.  In other words, the immune system attacks the body’s nervous system and causes numbness and weakness that usually starts in the leg but progresses upward toward the head.  As a result, it is also known as ascending paralysis.  Muscles from the entire body can be affected and when the muscles that control breathing become paralyzed the patient needs mechanical ventilation as a life saving treatment.  The exact cause is unknown but it is often triggered by an acute infectious illness such as a stomach virus or diarrhea.  It is hypothesized that antibodies originally directed at the acute infection go on to cross react with the body’s own nerve cells.  On a yearly basis, GBS will afflict one person in 100,000.  Treatment of the disease consists of supportive care, as well as an attempt to eliminate the autoimmune antibodies through the use of intravenous immunoglobulins and plasmapheresis.  Glucocorticoid steroids have not been shown to be effective in the treatment of GBS.  Most patients will make a complete recovery with 80% returning to their baseline functional status within a few months to one year.  Danny Wuerffel is expected to make a complete recovery.

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