Airman 1st Class Lori Cord, who said she's back to about 50 percent, has been performing administrative rather than mechanical duties for the 436th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron as she continues her recovery. (GARY EMEIGH / THE NEWS JOURNAL)
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DOVER, Del. — She'd dream that she could run.
Then Lori Cord would wake up, and she couldn't move at all.
It's been more than three months since Airman 1st Class Cord fell victim to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare nerve disorder that left her essentially paralyzed, save for isolated parts of her body that throbbed with pain.
Now she's back on her feet, thanks to modern medicine, intensive physical therapy, an outpouring of support from her family and squadron mates, and a drive and personality that just won't quit.
"Unbelievable," said Lt. Col. Andrew Levien, her squadron commander, recalling Cord's early attempts to get back to work. "I hope her attitude is infectious. ... That kind of positive attitude in the face of the worst kinds of adversity. She had to learn how to do everything all over again. Walking, talking, everything."
"Even when she was deteriorating, as soon as I walked in the door, the first thing out of her mouth was, ‘How was your day?' " said Capt. Suzanne Howes, the officer in charge of the maintenance unit of the 436th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Dover Air Force Base. "I was like, me?"
Her unit, Cord said, provided constant support.
"They're just like brothers," she said. "They would call me all the time, stop by my office over here, anything I need, and everyone is there. Being new to the Air Force, I knew that there is a lot of camaraderie. But to get that so forcefully is just amazing. ... It's just awesome."
Cord, 23, is not back all the way — only 50 percent, by her estimation — and still keeps close to the wall, touching it as she goes. The lanky crew chief is doing administrative rather than mechanical tasks for the 436th.
For now, she's fine with that. "Every day is an exciting day for me," she said. "Just to be here is awesome. I was a happy person before. But I took a lot of things for granted. ... Now, I am genuinely excited about every day."
Cord, a native of Woodstock, Ga., said her Air Force and civilian doctors are unsure how she contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder more common to older adults in which a person's own immune system damages her nerve cells, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and can result in permanent nerve damage or death.
The rare condition most often occurs following a respiratory illness or bout of diarrhea. Cord, however, began to experience bad headaches about a week after receiving a unit-ordered flu mist vaccine late last summer.
When her closest friend in the unit came to the airport to pick her up following a visit to Georgia, he saw Cord slowly shuffling, and pressing on the wall for support.
"We need to go to the ER," Senior Airman Nick Anderson told her. Cord underwent 7 1/2 hours of tests and, Anderson said, "It was scary."
"The pain was starting to become unbearable," said Cord, recalling her continued deterioration as she entered intensive care at Kent General Hospital, where she spent an entire week. "That's when the double vision started. I started having horrible headaches ... mind-splitting migraines." Her back, she said, was "splitting in half. ... It's like somebody was ripping my muscles from my spine and off of my back."
The pain made her vomit. The pain medication didn't always help.
Dover base administrators were unable to supply the name of the vaccine Friday, or whether any other airmen suffered adverse reactions to the flu mist.
"The docs aren't going to say on the record that the vaccine started it," said Cord. According to CDC, Guillain-Barré syndrome can develop following a vaccination, but it is rare.
Her feet still hurt — it feels like her boots are filled with broken glass, she says — "but it's OK. I deal with it. I work with it. Because it'll go away, eventually.
"I think that God gives us as much as we can handle," she said. "Yeah, I'm happy to be at work. I'm happy to be around people, be independent, that I can walk, and that I can talk. Because I love to talk."
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