It was a Wednesday morning in Winder, Ga., when Dr. Allen Braselton had his first inkling something was wrong. His tongue burned and his fingers tingled when he drank his morning orange juice.
The sensations worsened and by Friday he could no longer make a fist.
“When I walked out on Friday afternoon, I had no idea that was my last day of clinical practice,” Braselton says.
By Saturday he was admitted to Athens Regional Hospital. By Sunday he was completely paralyzed.
He was in the grips of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an uncommon but devastating disorder in which the body’s immune system
attacks the sensory, motor and autonomic nerves. The avid outdoorsman who never took a sick day went from planning a Saturday morning hunting trip to being unable to breathe without a respirator.
Braselton spent nine weeks in the intensive care unit before his immune system stopped its coup d’etat and he was stable enough to be moved to Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta, a long-term care facility. There, he began a months-long recovery coupled with intensive physical and occupational therapy “trying to get something back in my fingers.”
“It was the first of February before I saw my hand move on its own without the help of electrical stimulation,” Braselton said.
All the while, the staff and dentists carried on in his Winder dental practice. He relied on his office manager to keep the business financially solvent while his patients hoped for his return.
“My patients were like my family. They were praying for me and hoping for me. You always hear ‘nobody likes a dentist,”’ he said, laughing. “But I tried to disprove that. Maybe they don’t like dentistry, but hopefully they like the dentist.”
But his paralysis was so complete that he couldn’t even blink his eyes. Yet, even trapped in a body that he couldn’t control, Braselton never felt alone. For one, his wife, Diane, slept on a pile of pillows on the floor next to his bed every night. He also found comfort in faith. “For someone in a mostly dead body I’ve never felt more alive in Christ,” he says. “It was a scary time, but those are the times you tend to grow, if you allow it.”
He didn’t fear dying. He just wanted to tell his family that everything would be all right. But even when his body began to recover, it was a long time before he could do more than make a clicking sound with his tongue. The long-term rehabilitation he started in 1998 was intense, with physical therapists pushing him to move his body and occupational therapists training him on how to live in case his recovery was incomplete. After weeks in a wheelchair, there was plenty of frustration for Braselton, whose goal was nothing short of regaining his pre-illness mobility.
“I have a lot of respect and admiration for the folks who do learn to live in the wheelchair,” he said. “It’s incredible; you see a lot of veterans coming back, and you watch them learn how to make life happen.”
Eventually, Braselton regained the majority of his functionality. He walked out of the rehabilitation center (although he had to take a wheelchair just in case) but he never regained full function in his hands and fingers, leaving him unable to perform dental work.
“I still owned a practice and I had a dentist there in my office. They were trying to decide if they were going to stay there or re-open an office in town,” he said.
Braselton’s appearances at the practice were mainly public relations gestures, but he tried to keep his skills current through continuing education classes. One of those classes would change his life.
Dr. Van Haywood, Professor in the Department of Oral Rehabilitation and Director of Dental Continuing Education, met Braselton at a course in Athens. Haywood said he initially didn’t want to go, but felt compelled to attend.
“I had no reason to go except God telling me I needed to be there,” Haywood says.
Once he met Braselton, he knew why he was there. Haywood said he was impressed by Braselton’s skills, ethics and enthusiasm.
“He had a lot of the gifts and graces that are hard to come by,” Haywood said.
The school needed instructors, and Braselton fit the bill.
“He asked me if I’d ever thought about teaching,” Braselton said.
Haywood suggested he volunteer twice a month to see how he liked it. He was hired 18 months later as an Assistant Professor.
“There’s not a lot of demand for dentists with no hands, but they found something for me to do here,” said Braselton, who instructs students on screenings, chart reviews and treatment plans. He also speaks regularly to physical therapy students about his experiences.
“It worked out great,” Haywood said. “He’s been a great contributor to the dental school.”
ON A MISSION
Braselton’s teaching job has also provided him an outlet for mission work. He had to give up his pro bono dental trips to developing nations because of the after-effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, but when students asked him to accompany them on outreach trips to Peru, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I was worried about how I was going to be effective in mission trips with no hands, but it’s like the Lord multiplied my hands by the number of students who go,” he said.
Nov. 8 was the 12th anniversary of the spinal tap that revealed his illness. His son, Alex, who was just a year old when his father got sick, has been joined by Joshua, now nine. Braselton’s wife, Diane, has transitioned from beautician into a stay-at-home mom. Braselton is still an active outdoorsman, never missing an opportunity to go hunting and fishing with his sons. He rarely thinks about the experience that changed the course of his life; only on those rare occasions where he discovers a limitation.
“I tried to snow ski a couple of years ago – I was not a good skier to start with,” he said with a laugh. “I quickly learned that you need everything working to come down a hill in one piece.”