It's hard to imagine that, just three years ago, the young woman with the big smile holding her college soccer team's championship trophy was barely able to walk.
Alexis Donnelly was a sophomore at Clay High School in 2008 when she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre (ghee-YA-buh-RAY) syndrome, a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the nerves.
People with Guillain-Barre syndrome feel weakness and tingling in their extremities at first, followed by sensations that can quickly spread and eventually paralyze the entire body.
“Her legs went out on her when she was walking into the house her sophomore year,” said Alexis' father, Ed Donnelly. “She was complaining that her hands and feet were getting numb, and she was getting headaches. She said it felt like her legs were falling asleep. Two days later she couldn't lift her legs off the bed. It works its way up from the feet to your vital organs.
“She's pretty much over it now. She may complain of headaches, and she still has to go in for regular checkups. Your nervous system has to rebuild itself where it did get attacked. That takes a year or two years. She tried to play (soccer) two months after being out of the hospital. It was truly remarkable.”
Ed Donnelly hopes his daughter's determination and recovery can be a beacon of hope for others who are or have been afflicted with Guillain-Barre syndrome.
“Her goal was to play college soccer, and there was no stopping her,” he said. “I'm extremely proud. For everything she's been through, the way she held herself together and didn't hang her head and refused to not reach her goals, I'm extremely proud of that. You don't see that many kids that age with that kind of work ethic.”
Alexis, 19, just completed her freshman season as a forward on the Siena Heights (Mich.) University soccer team. The Saints, coached by Scott Oliver, went 13-8 overall and won the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference with a 5-1 record this fall.
Not only did Alexis have to overcome Guillain-Barre syndrome in high school, she tore her ACL halfway through her senior season (2010-11) at Clay and still made first-team All-City League and all-district.
Alexis started four of 21 games at Siena Heights and scored one goal, against fourth-ranked (Division II) Robert Morris.
“Knock on wood,” Alexis said. “I haven't had a relapse or felt any tingling since my sophomore year. At times, if I overwork myself, I get tingly in my hands and feet. It has scared me a few times.”
Alexis said she sometimes thinks about a relapse of Guillain-Barre syndrome, but she has learned to deal with it. After all, there is only a one in 100,000 chance that she could get it again.
“Hopefully not,” she said. “It's kind of like, I've been through it once and if it's going to happen again, it's going to happen. I know what it feels like if it starts to progress again. I'm more aware of my body and how it's reacting. I just try to hydrate and just deal with it. I'm used to the feeling, so I just try to let it run its course.”
Doctors have told Alexis that it's not a good idea to “head” the ball during a soccer match or practice. But, the athlete in Alexis Donnelly always emerges.
“They told me I was going to get bad headaches and backaches because of that, and heading the ball could make it worse or make it continue,” she said. “I'm so used to getting the headaches; if heading is going to make a play, then I'm going to do it. I get headaches quite often. I get about two or three a week that are bad and make me nauseous.”
Alexis, who is studying pre-nursing at Siena Heights, said she chose that field after watching the doctors and nurses who have helped her.
“That was one of my main reasons,” she said. “I thought about going into nursing and being an occupational therapist, working with patients like myself who have disabilities that prevent you from doing everyday tasks like showering, putting on your clothes, stuff like that. Two nurses really stuck out to me in my time at the hospital. They had a big impact on my life and they helped with the experience I was going through.”