Dani Schwebach received a nice surprise Saturday afternoon.
Friends of Schwebach and her son, Reilly, invited them over to their house and surprised them with a table top filled with Christmas presents. The gifts included candies, toys, gift cards and other items all donated by local businesses and collected by Julie Payne, her son Caden Schmitt and their friend Debra McCartney.
It was an emotional moment for Schwebach, 38, who did her best to not cry while sharing hugs with her friends. They sat around the table, opened gifts and shared a few smiles and holiday warmth.
The surprise gift-giving was a moment born out of a desire to help a friend and neighbor who is struggling with health issues. Two-and-a-half years ago, Schwebach received a much less pleasant surprise when she began to notice a numbing sensation in her legs, and she started to struggle with her balance.
As the condition slowly worsened, she sought medical advice from her doctor. And after a series of tests she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The rare disease affects peripheral nerves in the body, causing weakness and a loss of sensation that usually returns almost completely after a few weeks or months.
But it’s been a slow road to recovery for Schwebach.
“I started having some feelings in my feet, like when you’re sitting there and it’s numb,” Schweback said. “I talked to my doctor in town and she said I should see a neurologist.”
Schwebach also suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and thought initially that the medications she took to treat that condition could be causing some of her symptoms. But eventually her doctors zeroed in on Guillain-Barré Syndrome and began a course of physical therapy and observation to see how it progressed.
“I got wheeled over to the intensive unit of the brain and neurological unit at (Avera) McKennan, and then stayed seven and a half weeks and rehabbed three times a day for six weeks. I did physical therapy for over a year and a half,” Schwebach said.
The disease limits her mobility, requiring her to use a walker to help her keep her balance. She had to leave her job at KMIT due to the effects of the disease and she can’t drive a car. She has little sensation from just above her kneecaps down, and despite intense work and rehabilitation, her strength has not returned as much as she had hoped.
Schwebach’s condition inspired Julie Payne, Caden Schmitt and McCartney to organize an effort to deliver the Christmas gifts. So they hopped in the car on Friday, visited businesses around Mitchell and told them Schwebach’s story. Stop after stop, businesses added something to the growing pile of goodies, and within 24 hours they had a trove of gifts for the pair.
Schmitt, 11, said it was something he wanted to do for his friend Reilly.
“Reilly told me that he didn’t have that many Christmas presents, so I was hoping we could somehow get some presents for him,” Schmitt said.
Payne liked the idea and recruited McCartney to help. She said she was overwhelmed by the generosity of area businesses in helping someone they didn’t necessarily know. Nineteen businesses donated gifts to the group, resulting in the big surprise at Payne’s home Saturday afternoon.
“We just drove around and asked. We told the story and everyone was very generous,” Payne said.
Schwebach said the gesture overwhelmed her.
“I’m so excited and thankful. It completely warms my heart. I miss being able to see these guys because I can’t be as active anymore. I’m pretty much in my house,” Schwebach said. “How amazing is this? They pulled off a bit of a Christmas miracle.”
Schwebach said about 80 percent of Guillain-Barré Syndrome patients recover almost completely within weeks to a couple of years of diagnosis, but a small percentage never recover fully. She admits working and waiting for improvement in her condition can be emotionally frustrating. A moment of generosity like the one she and her son received Saturday can go a long way in keeping spirits up, she said.
“(My condition) is kind of at a standstill because I plateaued both feeling-wise and I’m not getting too much strength back,” Schwebach said. “I’m still hoping to get better, but there are days. You have to have a mixture of being optimistic that you’ll get better, but realistic that this might be the new you, and that hits me in waves at different times.”
She is in the process of applying for disability assistance through the state as she still can’t return to work and she’s preparing for another round of physical therapy. She hopes her continued efforts will be enough to get her moving around again on her own.
“I actually just got the paperwork to do more physical therapy starting next week, and I’m hoping to get back some of that strength again, and I’m hoping it stays a little longer this time,” Schwebach said.
She said the support of her friends and neighbors means the world to her as she and her family cope with the rare disease. And gathered around a table piled with gifts with them helps steel her resolve to continue her fight against the disease, she said.
“This is an amazing outpouring,” Schwebach said. “I’m still hoping, and I’m pretty stubborn. If it were down to brute strength, I would beat this, and I’m trying to carry that forward,” Schwebach said.