Terrifying brush with death turned two couch potatoes into fitness gurus
Lisburn man tells how brush with death 'best thing ever to happen' as it led to him and his partner dedicating themselves to a healthy lifestyle and helping others achieve same
It is easy to imagine the terror Saul McMichael must have felt as his body began to rapidly shut down over a matter of days, leaving him unable to walk, talk, eat or even see properly. Three years on the rare illness that struck so unexpectedly and with such severity is now something the Lisburn man regards as one of the best things that has ever happened to him.
Thanks to his determination to learn to walk again and restore his damaged motor, heart and lung functions, Saul (32) and his partner, Stephenie Dickey (28) have discovered a new passion for health and fitness that has seen them study for new careers and launch their own personal training business in the city.
The couple, who admit to having led inactive lives before Saul took ill, say they can't believe how far they have come in three years.
He gave up a career in IT and Stephenie left her job as a care worker to jointly enrol in the Platinum Training Institute at Queen's University to train and study for diplomas in health and fitness, as well as personal training qualifications.
Stephenie has also become a bodybuilding competitor, and now the happy, fit and very healthy couple say the illness has transformed their lives in every way.
It all started in 2013 when Saul, who was studying for an Open University degree in ICT, suffered a chest infection, which he believes led to his immune system attacking his body.
He quickly became seriously ill and was eventually diagnosed with the extremely rare neurological condition Guillain-Barre syndrome.
The condition, which affects just 1,200 people a year in the UK, is believed to occur after an infection, when the immune system attacks the nerve roots and peripheral nerves.
The peripheral nervous system is the network of nerves that lies outside the central nervous system, including the motor nerves, which the brain uses to control muscles.
Within eight days of becoming ill Saul had lost 39lb of muscle and felt trapped in his own body.
"I wasn't very fit or healthy, didn't eat very well and spent most of my time playing computer games. Just before I took ill, I decided to try mountain biking and was doing it aimlessly and didn't really know what I was doing," he said.
"I think suddenly using so much energy and not eating properly, and putting my body under so much stress, might have had something to do with it.
"It started with a sinus and chest infection, and then I started to get double vision and my left eye wouldn't move.
"It spiralled very quickly.
"The day I went to the doctor's about my vision my tastebuds then went funny and I knew I had to get myself to hospital."
He was admitted immediately to Lagan Valley Hospital where he was told he had a serious neurological condition, although he was given no diagnosis at that stage.
"I panicked and I knew it was really serious. The first night I was admitted I took a full stroke down both sides of my face and I couldn't speak or move my lips or swallow," he explained.
"Then my arms and legs went and I couldn't walk properly. I was so scared I had a full-on panic attack and I kept thinking of motor neurone disease.
"I had four days when I didn't eat or drink anything - I think my body ate itself and I lost 39lb of muscle in eight days and was like a skeleton."
With no diagnosis, Saul went online and searched for answers. After eight days in Lagan Valley he was transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital, where he was placed in the neurological ward.
Very quickly he was told he had Guillain-Barre syndrome, which he had read about during his online searches.
"To me it was the best case scenario, because it was temporary," he said. "I was given treatment straight away and I think my illness hit a plateau at that point, which was just before it would have hit my respiratory system.
"The next step after that would have been cardiac arrest."
Although doctors wanted to keep him in hospital for some months, after only three weeks Saul insisted on going home.
He had regained the ability to swallow, but still could only walk with support and was told it could be nine months before he would walk be himself.
However, he wasn't prepared to sit around and wait. Determined to regain mobility, he joined a local running club and signed up for a coach to take on a 5km run.
"I wanted to physically rehabilitate myself and I needed a goal and thought that, even if I could walk the 5km, that would be something to achieve. I also wanted to force my body to rewire itself, as the strokes had affected my motor nerves," he said.
"I did the 5km and it was like a mountain to me, and after that I just wanted to do more and I signed up to do the relay in the Belfast Marathon; it was just unreal to be able to be there."
That was within a year of being in hospital and having not only learned to walk again, but also to run, he also signed up for the Lisburn 10k.
Having restored his cardiovascular strength he decided to work on rebuilding body muscle and joined a gym.
It was at this point he and Stephenie were both stunned to discover a whole new lifestyle and passion which was to change their lives.
"Stephenie came along to the gym to support me. I joined a bodybuilding gym, because I just felt I would grow faster if the standards were higher and I threw myself in head-first, while also endlessly studying every aspect of the lifestyle," he explained.
"We soon realised that Stephenie was a natural when it came to female bodybuilding and the focus gradually shifted from my rehab to her goal of competing.
"She had done so much to help me that I just felt 'now I am going to help her'.
"She was so good that she was able to compete this year in the Miss Athletic category in the NABBA NI competition.
"It was a massive achievement for her and for me, prepping all of her meals and overseeing her training.
"For someone who has been doing it for such a short time and who wasn't sporty before, she really held her own among people who have been training for years and I was really proud of her."
For Stephenie, it is just the start of a new career in bodybuilding.
"It is something I never thought I would get into, to be honest. I was never sporty and I used to work 12-hour night shifts and my sleeping pattern was all over the place," she said.
"I just took to the bodybuilding and decided to set myself a goal and was delighted to compete this year.
"I now hope to do the TCA and NABBA again next year.
"Seeing Saul so ill was really scary. I remember the lowest point for me was when he was in hospital and I had to shower him, because he couldn't do it himself.
"I was trying to be really strong for him, but it hit me then how real it was and I just broke down.
"It was the scariest thing ever and it was heartbreaking to see what he had to go through.
"I've never seen him more stubborn or determined to get his health back and I am extremely proud of him. I can't get over how frail and ill he was, and now there is such a difference."
Based in Elite Health and Fitness, Lisburn, the couple launched their personal training business, Tailored Aesthetics, last month, offering a wide range of services including weight loss, weight gain, aesthetic bodybuilding, postural correction, mobility and functional strength.
They will also both soon be qualified in exercise referral, which will give them the expertise to work with medically vulnerable clients, such as people with diabetes, depression, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, arthritis, high blood pressure and a range of other conditions. Saul said: "Health and fitness were forced upon us through tragedy, but we embraced it and made it our lives. My personal goal now is to obtain a level 4 qualification in neurological rehabilitation, as I understand the struggle first-hand.
"I look back now and getting Guillain-Barre is something I wouldn't change; it is the best thing that ever happened to me.
"I think about what my life would have been like if I hadn't taken it. I would still have a nocturnal lifestyle, spending my nights in front of a computer playing World Of Warcraft.
"I now look younger than I did before, and when I think back my lifestyle was so unhealthy, it was horrendous. Stephenie was working 12-hour shifts in a nursing home and now she is much happier, too.
"I really want to help people. I left hospital with no support on how to rehabilitate myself and, having been through it, I think it is a no-brainer that I can now do something for others that I know about, because I have been through it."
You can find out more about the couple's new business at www.tailored-aesthetics.com