Covenant Student and Basketball Coach Wrestle with Paralyzing Autoimmune Disorder

This Valentine’s Day, Covenant College’s Basketball Coach, Peter Wilkerson, exchanged vows with fiancée Samantha Walton before a crowd of 200-250 visitors.  About half were sitting; fifty to 100 others spilled into the hallway.  All listened intently to Wilkerson’s father as he conducted the ceremony, smiled as the couple traded rings, and filed into the adjacent room for a snack reception.  However, the wedding had been far from what the couple and their guests might have expected a month or even few weeks before: the ceremony was held in a hospital conference room where a usually agile Wilkerson kissed his bride while propped in a wheelchair.

On February 2, Wilkerson visited his doctor for what seemed to be just a mononucleosis infection, but by Wednesday, February 3,  he lost the ability to speak and move his limbs.  Shortly after, he became totally paralyzed in Erlanger’s ER and was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS)—a rare autoimmune disorder that programs the body’s defense system to ravage its own nervous system.  Ninety percent of GBS victims completely recover from the disorder after antibodies transfusions and weeks of rehab treatment, but, if not treated in time, GBS can cripple the nervous, muscular, and cardiorespiratory systems in a lethal combination.

Wilkerson says that his sudden drop into paralysis “was a little scary to say the least.”   His wife speaks of the intense pain she felt while watching the disorder devastate Wilkerson and her constant fear that he wouldn’t wake up again.  “It helps to keep in mind that it isn’t forever.  You’re not the one case that isn’t getting better, but your mind goes there: You will be the one case that doesn’t recover.”

However, after weeks of purée soup and an extensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy regimen at Siskin Hospital, these fears began to dissipate.  The couple considered reeling in their April 30 wedding date to Valentine’s Day—even though Wilkerson, according to Mrs. Wilkerson, was still “in really bad shape.”

“Samantha had said that ‘this was one of the biggest challenges of our life—let’s do it together,’” says Wilkerson.  “The vow says ‘in sickness and in health,’ but sickness comes first.  So, let’s do it together it sickness.”

After the wedding, Wilkerson slowly regained his footing and is now on the final track to recovery.  He is currently back at Covenant and continuing to work part-time.

The Wilkersons’ story has been much  needed encouragement to the family and friends of Joel Elmore, a Covenant senior and Columbia seminary hopeful who was also slammed with the chilling symptoms of GBS on March 7.

“It was very fast,” says Taylor Thornburg, Elmore’s girlfriend and Covenant senior.  “Within several hours, he was paralyzed.  I thought he’d had a stroke.”

Before spring break, Elmore had been fighting off the remnants of a flu and what his doctor had diagnosed as a fledgling mono infection.  The Epstein-Barr virus that causes mono (along with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a variety of other diseases) is often associated with GBS.  However,  Elmore couldn’t have guessed that his body was the one in 100,000 that would respond to the infection by turning against itself.

While driving back from the American Family Care clinic in Lookout Valley on March 7, Elmore began to lose control of his arms and legs.  He hastily contacted Thornburg and his mother—who both live in Virginia—and pulled into the Walmart parking lot, where he sank into paralysis.

When Thornburg discovered him, she found that he couldn’t walk and any semblance of speech was rapidly disappearing.  She rushed him to Parkridge Medical Center, where ER doctors claimed that he was simply dehydrated and refused to care for him.  Dejectedly, Thornburg drove him back to his house where concerned housemates attempted to provide water for him.  However, Elmore couldn’t swallow.  The muscles in his throat were also paralyzed.

At 10:30 pm, the Parkridge ER finally accepted Elmore, but still refused to give him a necessary IV and diagnosed his condition as pneumonia.  It wasn’t until Monday night that the doctors attributed his paralysis to GBS.  By then, the nerves that had been protected by a myelin sheath coating in Wilkerson were already stripped bare in Elmore.  By the time his mother arrived, he couldn’t breathe by himself.  By Tuesday, he couldn’t even blink his eyes.

“He’s on the way to healing,” Thornburg reported two weeks ago.  “Everything from the shoulders up, he can move, but he can’t talk yet.  He’s making noise, moving his mouth, barely shrugging shoulders and shaking his head.  He will be able to feel things with his hands in a couple weeks at most.”

This past Monday, April 11, Elmore was given a speaking valve and is finally able to talk with his family for the first time in over a month.  Bravely persevering through rounds of treatments and rehab at Shepherd’s Center in Atlanta, GA, he is starting to move his limbs and fingers.

Elmore’s family has posted a GoFundMe site at to pay for their daunting hospital expenses.  Thornburg asks for both prayer and support.

In response, Covenant’s rugby club raised over $148 for the Elmore family this past Saturday, April 9, in a benefit tournament against UTC, Bryan College, and the University of North Alabama.  Donations were collected before the game.

The Wilkersons have also provided an invaluable lifeline for the Elmore family.  As those who have seen the light at the end of the tunnel, Mrs. Wilkerson says that they spoke with the Elmore family every week while they were in Chattanooga and continue to provide both guidance and a listening ear when needed.

“It can be so helpful to talk to others, especially when you’re in recovery,” says Mrs. Wilkerson. She says it has been most encouraging when others realistically approach their ongoing situation as something that doesn’t right itself immediately.  “Don’t pretend everything is easy, it’s not,” she said.

Thornburg agrees.  She too hopes to remind others to keep an open and empathetic heart in the aftermath of Elmore’s bout with GBS.

“I just want people to put this in perspective,” she says.  “This could happen to anybody.  We don’t know when we are going to experience suffering and pain, but it happens.  People need to hold it in good sight of why we are here on earth and how long we will be there.”