From Ballroom Dancer to Guillain-Barre Survivor to Future Occupational Therapist


“Two beats late — my legs were always two beats late to the song,” Anna Houston says. Her body just could not respond. She could feel her knee caps tingling and, soon enough, a numbness that eventually spread all over her body. These are the first signs of a disorder called Guillain-Barre syndrome, an extremely rare condition where the immune system attacks the nervous system.

Anna was born in Santa Barbara, California and moved to Provo, Utah to attend Brigham Young University, where she studied Exercise & Wellness with a minor in Ballroom. At 20 years old, Anna was engrossed with dancing. She was a member of the BYU Ballroom Company and performed three ballroom styles in competition, from the waltz to the cha-cha, and taught seven dance classes, all while being a full-time student.

On audition day for a placement in Latin dance class, Anna’s coach noticed her movements got significantly slower. “I knew all the moves in my head, it just didn’t translate with my body,” she says. Her entire lower body began to feel like lead, and she would have to pick her legs up to get into the car.

Three days later, Anna was completely paralyzed. Her sister rushed her to the ER. The doctors, however, were doubtful that it was anything serious. They prescribed Xanax for anxiety and told her, “‘You’re too young and healthy for anything to happen,’” she remembers.

After two ER visits and two doctors visits in Provo, a nurse practitioner saw her collapse on the examination table. They tested her for reflexes and she had none. The nurse immediately called the University of Utah Health ER where they diagnosed her with Guillain-Barre syndrome and admitted her onto the Neuro Acute Care Unit. After two weeks, Anna received outpatient rehab care that lasted for six months until recovery. The doctors were still unsure of the cause but believed it may have been triggered by a respiratory infection. “It’s kind of like a fluke,” Anna says. “Your immune system freaks out and attacks you on accident.”

With physical therapy, Anna worked on walking, moving, and different strengthening exercises to prepare her to live independently and dance again. In occupational therapy, she worked on things like cooking, standing endurance, and other activities to help with her fine motor skills and dexterity. “It’s important to always take things slow,” she says, “or you could get nerve fatigue. And if you overdo yourself, you could regress.”

“All my plans were thrown out of the window with this disease,” Anna says. Her neurologist hinted that she might not be able to compete at the same level she had been. “I was running out of time to make my goals happen, and Guillain-Barre syndrome just made things a little more challenging,” she says.

Anna has now fully recovered—but still has just as much chance as anyone else (1 in 100,000) of getting Guillain-Barre syndrome again. Anna’s occupational therapist helped tremendously in what they call an “Occupational Narrative,” helping the patient to pursue life and independence by integrating the past and present to shape an empowering future for themselves, despite their perceived setbacks. Her therapist said, “You should become an OT. You’ve had these experiences and you can use it to help other people.”


Anna has reignited her passion for dancing and competing, performing even better than she did before. Now in her second year of U of U Health’s Occupational Therapy program, she is also involved with Grey Matters, which teaches dance to people living with Parkinson's disease and other neurological impairments. For Anna, it’s a special form of occupational therapy: providing patients with an opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of dance and leisure activities that can translate to their everyday activities.

“During this challenging time of my life, my family and my healthcare team were my biggest supporters, particularly my occupational and physical therapists. They helped me find hope and motivation to continue forward when my heart wanted me to give up. I was inspired to be that person for others, because they made such an impact in my life. As an OT, I can help others participate in the many aspects of life that make it fulfilling, and to find the hope to persevere when they believe all is lost.”

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