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A story of survival after a brutal botulism illness

A story of a young man temporarily paralyzed by the neurotixin produced by Clostridium botulinum:

In 36 hours he went from being a young healthy college student to complete paralysis and being kept alive by tubes and machines.

A rare illness almost stole Brent Ocker’s life. The U of L graduate says his toughest test was far from the classroom.

Brent Ocker has earned a master’s degree in Sports Administration and at just 26 years old learned lessons most will never know. “A year ago I was on my death bed,” he says. That was September 10, 2010. He says he, “woke up that day felt very dizzy, blurred vision, and I couldn’t walk straight…My lungs were collapsing and I was unable to breathe.”

Ocker says doctors went into a guess-and-check method of diagnosis Like a medical mystery from a television drama. First they thought he had vertigo, then maybe meningitis.

“Botulism was down here, no one was even beginning to contemplate that,” he says. But that was the diagnosis.

Botulism is a neuro-cognitive disorder where bacteria that Ocker ingested started in the brain and attacked the nerve ending that sent messages to his muscles.

“I have paralysis,” he says, “I am essentially trapped in my own body. I can hear but I can’t see or move. It was really frightening.”

Botulism is so rare the federal government guards the antidote. As doctors waited for it to be flown in from Georgia, they told his family the drug is so strong 25 percent of patients die during treatment.

Even though the drug was working, Ocker had to withdraw from U of L because he had two more months in 24-hour rehab facilities learning to live again.

But friends rallied around him, hosting fundraisers to help with his seven-digit medical bills. U of L professor Mary Hums says, “The one thing I remember really well was the first day he came back to school to set up his semester, and that was an emotional meeting. I’ll admit it I cried.”

Ocker says, “I could literally only come to class because I could only be on my feet about 15 to 20 minutes from strength.” But he pushed through: “Absolutely, this is the toughest test.”

He will graduate Friday with University’s Alice Eaves Barns Award, which is given to just one master student each semester who has triumphed in the face of adversity.

And what has he learned? “The power that people have to love.”

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Related Resources
What is Botulism?

Botulism is a life-threatening paralytic illness caused by neurotoxins produced by an anaerobic, gram-positive, spore-forming bacterium—Clostridium botulinum. Botulism is a rare disease and only affects a few hundred persons each...

Epidemiology and Microbiology of Botulism

C. botulinum bacteria and spores are widely distributed in nature because they are indigenous to soils and waters. They occur in both cultivated and forest soils, bottom sediment of streams...

Symptoms of Botulism

After their ingestion, botulinum neurotoxins are absorbed primarily in the duodenum and jejunum, pass into the bloodstream, and travel to synapses in the nervous system. There, the neurotoxins cause flaccid...

Detection and Treatment of Botulism

Although botulism can be diagnosed based on clinical symptoms, distinguishing it from other diseases is often difficult, especially in the absence of other known persons affected by the condition. Common...

Botulism Outcomes and Long-Term and Permanent Injury

In the past 50 years, mortality from botulism has fallen dramatically (from about 50% to 8%) because of advances in supportive care, which is the mainstay of treatment. The respiratory...

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