Stillwater volunteer firefighter battling rare disease, overwhelmed by community

As a volunteer firefighter in Stillwater, Ryan Smith has battled his fair share of blazes.

Now he is in the fight of his life, after being diagnosed with a potentially deadly disease.

"It's been overwhelming, both with my husband's health crisis and just the outpouring of support we've gotten," said Smith's wife Priscilla Shannon.

Late last month, Smith returned from a work trip to northern Minnesota with a virus his family thought at first was COVID-19.

But within days, his headache, sore throat, body aches and fever turned into paralysis of his face and neck, leaving him unable to breathe, speak or swallow. 

"Absolutely frightening. When someone can't breathe and can't protect their airway, there's nothing much you can do to help them out," said Shannon.

Doctors eventually diagnosed Smith with two rare forms of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disorder where the body's immune system attacks its nerves.

In extreme cases, Guillain-Barre can be fatal, but doctors say 80% of people can make a full recovery.

"They maybe see one case of it every three years. They don't ever see both of the syndromes at the same time. His speech therapist in 26 years has never seen this, so we're just dealing with something that's not very well known," said Shannon.

So far, a GoFundMe to help Smith's family with medical expenses, lost wages, and long term rehab has raised about $25,000 of its $125,000 goal.

But it's the show of support from their friends, family and community that means the most. 

"You just feel so hopeless and yet so blessed at the same time that people I don't know would give to my husband for his well-being and to help him recuperate and progress with his healthcare journey," said Shannon.