Seventeen-year-old Julia was living the typical teenage life – going to high school, hanging out with friends and participating on the dance team – until one day, her life was turned upside down.
After dance practice one day, Julia began to feel sick. Over the course of the next few days, she experienced flu-like symptoms. Unable to eat, drink or hold herself up, she was admitted to Children’s Hospital Colorado where she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS).
GBS is a rare disease in which the body's immune system attacks part of the nervous system, often causing patients to lose the ability to control their breathing or muscles. Julia had one of the most severe cases that doctors at Children’s Colorado had ever seen. Before long, she was paralyzed all the way up to her eyebrows.
Courage in difficult times
Once admitted into the hospital's Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Julia was placed on a ventilator. Unable to communicate or get air into her lungs, Julia stopped breathing twice. Her doctors decided she needed to have a tracheotomy surgery, a procedure to insert a breathing tube into the trachea through the neck. Despite these tough circumstances, she remained strong and courageous.
“On her way out the door to surgery, she hand signed ‘I love you,’" said Lori Simpkins, Julia’s mother. “Her care team was so amazed. They said they had never seen a patient so at peace with trachea surgery. Julia knew it was necessary and that it would be a turning point on her road to recovery.”
Throughout her time at Children's Colorado, Julia had her family right by her side. Julia’s mother, Lori, brought in a letter board to communicate with Julia when she was unable to speak. Once healthy enough, Julia was able to speak with her family again and even was able to have friends visit for a sleepover one night.
“If it were not for my friends and family, I would not have had the recovery that I did, because they were there every step of the way supporting me,” said Julia.
Doctors told Julia she would have a long recovery ahead of her: six months of hospital rehabilitation and six months of rehabilitation at home. A senior at Golden High School, Julia was determined to graduate with her class and continue dancing.
Caregivers and physical therapists set goals for Julia, and she continued to exceed them. Eventually, her nurses told her to set her own goals because she kept surpassing the ones set by her rehabilitation team.
A month and a half after she entered the hospital – and after much rigorous rehabilitation – her physical therapists gave her the OK to leave the hospital and start dancing again. Julia and her family were overjoyed that their hospital stay was ending sooner than planned. Still, it was a bittersweet goodbye.
“After staying at the hospital for 46 days and nights, it felt like home,” explained Lori. “It was hard to leave the friends that we made, and it was scary to be on our own.”
Julia continued to recover and was able to graduate high school on time with the rest of her class. Today, she attends Metropolitan State University of Denver and is on the college’s dance team.
In July 2015, Julia visited Children’s Colorado to mark the one-year anniversary of being admitted to the hospital. Julia developed strong relationships with her caregivers during her hospital stay, and she has continued to keep in touch with several of them, including Lizzie Donlin, one of Julia’s PICU nurses.
“Julia has been incredibly inspirational, not just in her journey and recovery, but also in her willingness to stay committed to the progress and care of other patients with this disease,” said Donlin.
Julia dreams of someday becoming a rehabilitative nurse at Children's Colorado. She says she hopes to inspire other people the way she was inspired during her hospital stay.