I got to know Serge Payer during a trip my son Zachary and I made to see a couple of Florida Panthers games with my sister, Belinda, in January 2006. In the time since we’ve developed a neat friendship, and I recently helped Serge put together a piece that will soon be published in the Guillain-Barre Syndrome Foundation of Canada’s newsletter. Guillain-Barre Syndrome is an inflammatory disorder of the nerves outside the brain and spinal chord. Serge, who now plays professional hockey in the Minnesota Wild organization, developed GBS back in 1999, when he was 19 years old. He recovered, but has since devoted untold hours and resources to helping promote awareness of GBS and find a cure. You can access his website at http://www.sergepayerfoundation.org/. Here’s an interview with Serge…
When the Ottawa Senators clinched the NHL’s Eastern Conference last May, it was a bittersweet moment for Serge Payer. Payer’s teammates, some of them very close friends, would be playing for the Stanley Cup, hockey’s ultimate prize. But Payer wouldn’t be with them. After spending the bulk of the 2006-07 season in the American Hockey League in Binghamton,N.Y., playing for Ottawa’s top minor-league team, the 28-year-old Payer suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during a fight against an opposing player in February. Those fisticuffs, he admitted later, came about partly in frustration from toiling in Binghamton, the last-place team in the American Hockey League, instead of playing in the National Hockey League (hockey’s premier league and highest level) for the surging Senators. The injury required surgery, meaning the Rockland, Ontario, native would be watching the Cup finals from the sidelines. Rolling with the punches, however – much like the one which cost him any chance at playing for the Cup last season – is nothing new for Payer. He’s battled a tougher foe: Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Payer, now with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, is an outspoken advocate for GBS research and an honorary board member of the Guillain-Barre Syndrome Foundation of Canada. He spoke with the foundation about his experiences with the disease.
How did you develop into a professional hockey player?
Where I was born and raised, if you didn’t wear skates by the age of 6, you were basically out of the loop. My dad and my uncles played at a high level, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to play youth hockey and get support from both my parents. We lived outside the city, in Rockland, about 35 kilometers east of Ottawa, so playing organized hockey demanded a lot of travel. My dad would drive into the city to work in the morning, come home after work, grab a quick bite to eat, then take me to Ottawa for either practice or a game. It demanded a lot of time. Without my mom and dad I wouldn’t have made it to the NHL.
You were 19 years old and playing junior hockey – so obviously you had to be in near-perfect health – when you felt the first symptoms of Guillain-Barre Syndrome. What exactly happened?
I was playing for the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League and was having a great season – in fact, the best season of my junior career. I’m a health freak anyway, but even so I was feeling really good and confident on the ice. Then I woke up on Sunday morning, January 10, 1999, with severe back pain. My brother was in town to watch me play – I had a game that afternoon – but I could barely get up from the breakfast table. I shoveled snow the day before and I thought I must have pulled a muscle. I played through the pain, but it was very challenging. My back was aching. The pain was pretty severe and my energy level was so low. I got by, but the following morning I couldn’t get out of bed at all. I was just trying to fight through it. Later on, I asked the team trainer if I could see the team doctor. The doctor said I had the flu and that I must have pulled a muscle.
What was the pain like?
The pain was so severe I couldn’t even tie my shoelaces. I didn’t do anything all week. I’d lie in bed with my feet up, hoping this thing would just go by. The team was on the road, but I stayed home. The following weekend I went to the clinic to see the doctor and he tells me the same thing – that I had the flu, and that maybe I pulled a muscle in my back. I got back home and went to bed. The following Sunday morning the pain was so bad I admitted myself to the hospital.
Didn’t the doctors suspect something serious?
They gave me a shot of Demerol and ran some tests. They said, “We don’t see anything.” They’re still thinking I pulled a muscle. I slept about three hours and they let me go back home. I would rest in a hot bath just laying there hoping and praying the pain would go away. At 3 a.m., after a hot bath followed by a cold shower, I suddenly couldn’t tell if the water was hot or cold, my body was so numb. I went to the same hospital and the same doctors. At this point it had been eight days since my first symptoms.
You were transferred to London University Hospital in Ontario. More tests were run, and finally you were diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome – 10 days after your first symptom. What was your reaction?
Well, my body was numb at this point. It was a very bizarre feeling and obvious to me that something was severely wrong. The communication between my nerves and my brain just shut down. I was somewhat relieved but scared at the same time to finally find out what was wrong, and that I would recover from this syndrome. I knew I had I had a tough road ahead of me, but at least we knew what it was and what we were dealing with.
What was the outlook then, at the beginning?
Dr. Angelika Hawn, whom I respect so much, treated me. She told me they’d treat everything and that it was just a matter of time before I got better. She said I was a young, athletic man. She said, “No worries, you’re going to make it back.” She said the quicker they got me off morphine, the better off I’d be. She wanted me to get off the drugs as soon as possible. I was taking 27 pills a day and on morphine for the pain, so sometimes I was so out of it I couldn’t accomplish much. After 30 days at London University, I was transferred to Grand River Rehabilitation Hospital in Kitchener, Ontario, for another 30 days, where I improved physically quickly. It was such a challenge mentally, but because I respected what Dr. Hawn had previously said to me I got off the morphine and lived with the pain. It meant many days and nights of discomfort, but I knew I was better off without the drugs because I could push myself and focus on my rehabilitation exercises, and quite frankly, I’m a firm believer in a drug-free health.
How difficult was it for you?
It was by far the most difficult challenge I’d ever had to face in my life so far, both physically and mentally. Your body basically shuts down. You’d eat, then throw up. I was in constant fear. I couldn’t go to the bathroom on my own. My blood pressure was going up and then down. My energy level was very, very low. It’s a slow process. And I wasn’t in good shape. I went into the hospital weighing 195, but came out at 143.
How did you begin recovery?
My rehabilitation consisted of the simplest tasks: brushing my teeth, grasping a pencil, walking in a swimming pool. From there, I progressed to walking on a treadmill, doing balance work, riding an exercise bike. I was still in severe pain, though, because my nerves were being attacked. On a scale of 1 to 10, it was probably a 7 or 8. It was heavy enough to keep me up nights. At the beginning of all this, I was hoping to get back with the team for a playoff run. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it back that season. I had nowhere near the capability of coming back for the playoffs that I needed.
When you finally were released from the hospital, and finished with your major rehabilitation, what did you do next?
I went back home for a couple of weeks, then spent six weeks with my mother at the cottage. I did simple exercises on the floor – stretching, things like that. My immune system was so affected and my fatigue level was so high. I remember sleeping a lot, sometimes 15 hours a day. But slowly I began to improve and feel better and started working on getting back to hockey.
Obviously your hockey career was derailed by GBS. How did your team, the Kitchener Rangers, and the Florida Panthers, the team which signed you to your first NHL contract, respond to your illness?
The Ranger family was always very supportive. I wanted to make it back on my skates and go to camp in September in Florida. That was my goal. I was working really hard over the spring and summer trying to get in shape to play. Coming into July and August, I began to gain strength really quickly. I don’t know if Florida had written me off or not, but they wrote me letters, very supportive letters.
But you never made it to the Florida Panthers’ camp.
No. In August, I got mononucleosis. It really set me back again. I think it was probably my immune system getting the better part of me again. I spent five days in the hospital, and instead of going to camp, I went back to the Kitchener Rangers and didn’t start playing until early December.
You spent six years with the Panthers organization, eventually playing more than 100 NHL games with them, plus two seasons with the Ottawa Senators, and now you’re playing with the Minnesota Wild. Almost nine years after your experience with GBS, what after-effects do you have from the disease, and how it has affected your hockey career?
There’s always some numbness in my ankle and calf areas, but I’ve learned to cope with that. I’m always doing a lot of extra stretching and maintenance work to keep my body in tip-top shape. Having been afflicted with GBS not only made me stronger physically and mentally, but it changed my spiritual life in a positive way. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior while I was in the hospital and learned to live with Him as my Lord and Savior. From a hockey perspective, since it’s a very demanding sport, I definitely put in a lot of work to keep me in the best playing shape possible.
What did you learn through all this?
At that moment, after I was diagnosed, I just realized that you don’t take your life for granted. You’re not invincible, no matter how good an athlete you are. And there are other things in life more important than playing hockey. From day one, I knew that God was in control. I’m in control of my decision-making, but God’s in control of the results, of what happens next. As frustrating as it was to spend three years in the minors after my first year as a pro, I was getting better as a player. But the opportunity to play in the NHL just wasn’t there. I was battling injuries, too, but I knew through my faith that if I kept believing in God’s path, I’d come back to the NHL. I knew God was challenging me mentally and physically. I tried to respond with hard work and dedication. That’s what I continue to do today – to work hard, to be committed in whatever I’m doing.
You’ve been committed all these years to raising awareness for GBS and raising funds for a cure as well. The Serge Payer Foundation sponsors a golf tournament, a boat cruise, a casino night and other events each year. Why do you do all that?
It’s in my heart to give back. I have a great passion for that, and when I was personally afflicted with GBS in 1999, I wanted to do what I could to help fight it. It’s such a rare illness. I want to use my position in life to make a difference. Our foundation’s mission is to raise general awareness and raise funds, so future generations and future GBS patients, can be cured more quickly, without having permanent nerve damage. There are times in life when you have ups and downs and you come across different challenges. One of the things that’s kept me going is our foundation’s mission. There’s also a great support group among people associated with GBS. First and foremost, Jesus Christ personally motivates me. I grew close to people who were somehow affected with the debilitating syndrome – people like Susan Keast, the president and person in charge of our Guillain-Barre Syndrome Foundation Canada Inc., who does such a great job in many different ways. Susan is an amazing person who does so much for those who struggle with this debilitating syndrome. She’s doing something great for others and for future generations. Another person is Sylvie Daigle. She’s on the board of my foundation and has such a great passion to help others. She motivates me in many ways to keep growing and keep doing more to make help our foundation grow. A third person I think about is Joannie Cowie. Joannie’s had GBS twice. She’s a fighter. She still has permanent damage, but she has an unbelievable soul and passion for finding a cure. A fourth person is the late Larry Brenneman. He was such a giving individual and helped us with our first-ever fundraiser in Kitchener in 1999. He’s since passed away, but he will always remain in our thoughts and prayers. Others, including people on our foundation committee, support us on a consistent basis. Some weren’t necessarily afflicted with GBS but go out of their way to help others. Charity work is not easy; it’s a gift for leading unselfishly to benefit others. Thanks to all and GOD Bless, let’s find a cure.