Teacher brings holiday cheer to patients in Willingboro specialty hospital
Kim Mulford, Cherry Hill Courier-Post Published 2:37 p.m. ET Dec. 7, 2018
WILLINGBORO – More than four years after nearly dying from a severe form of Guillain-Barre syndrome, Linda Stepler arrived at Acuity Specialty Hospital on Wednesday bearing gifts from not so far.
A first-grade teacher at Haddonfield Friends School, the 51-year-old asked students to make holiday decorations for patients at the acute-care facility, where she learned to breathe on her own again.
Twenty kindergartners made guided Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer drawings with crayons and markers on oak tag (“Halfway down your paper, draw a big U,” Stepler told them). Fifteen first-graders glued paper dreidels with tissue paper “stained glass.” And 15 sixth-graders — the same kids who nearly lost their teacher in 2014 —made guided drawings of nutcrackers.
For the Audubon resident, such artwork was good medicine. The message on a student-made banner encouraged her during her months-long recovery: “You’ll get better. Stay positive!”
Linda Stepler claps during a multi-denominational holiday gathering at Acuity Specialty Hospital Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 in Willingboro, N.J. Stepler, who spent weeks there after nearly dying from Guillian-Barre syndrome at age 46 is now 51 and fully recovered. Stepler delivered holiday decorations made by her students at Haddonfield Friends School.
“When I saw it, it was an epiphany for me,” said Stepler. “That’s what I need to do. I need to stay positive.”
It was a long road. At age 46, after spring break in April 2014, Stepler got up for a second cup of coffee before work and discovered her feet felt like cinder blocks. By the next morning, she was “like a marionette,” unable to walk or sit up on her own.
Fifteen minutes after arriving at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, she gasped: “Somebody help me. I can’t breathe.”
A rush of white coats swarmed around her before everything went black.
Likely triggered by an upper respiratory virus she caught a few days earlier, the syndrome paralyzed Stepler from the neck down. The rare condition develops when the immune system attacks the nerves, leading to weakness, numbness, tingling and sometimes paralysis.
“It was so scary,” Stepler recalled.
Twelve days later, she was transferred to Acuity (then known as Lourdes Specialty Hospital), where she spent the next three weeks before moving to a rehab. By September, she returned to teaching, using only a cane.
Every year, she returns to the specialty hospital to share her students’ artwork, usually around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This year, staff asked her to come a little early. The decorations will be used to brighten the hospital.
Linda Stepler lowers her head during a prayer at a multi-denominational holiday gathering at Acuity Specialty Hospital Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018 in Willingboro, N.J. Stepler, who spent weeks there after nearly dying from Guillian-Barre syndrome at age 46 is now 51 and fully recovered. Stepler delivered holiday decorations made by her students at Haddonfield Friends School.
Holidays spent away from home are especially hard for patients, said Monica Titus, the hospital’s regional CEO and a former trauma nurse. It’s important for patients to have personal memorabilia hanging in their rooms, reminders of “why they’re fighting the fight.” Patients spend an average 28 days in the specialty hospital.
“Sometimes, this is their last chance to fight,” Titus said.
Today, Stepler hardly has any lingering effects from the syndrome, though she’s careful not to catch another virus and can never again get a flu vaccination. She met other Guillain-Barre survivors who haven’t recovered as well as she has. She calls herself “very lucky.”
“I thank God every day, I really do,” Stepler said.
Holiday decorations made by Linda Stepler’s students of Haddonfield Friends School ready to be displayed at Acuity Specialty Hospital in Willingboro, N.J.