On an overcast First Friday, more than 100 people assembled at Sopris Park to take a picture for Bob Olenick’s upcoming 65th birthday.
Olenick, the well-known owner and operator of the Red Rock Diner in Carbondale, was afflicted with a rare autoimmune disease in January and had been in recovery in Denver for months.
Many members of the assembly wore Hawaiian shirts despite the chill, a tribute to Olenick’s propensity for wearing them.
As photographer Jim Ryan climbed into the basket of a fire department ladder and began his ascent, the group did its best to form a large “65” for the photo.
As the basket reached its peak and Ryan signaled to smile, the audience’s attention was diverted to two figures approaching the park. A cheer went up from the crowd as Olenick himself, supported by crutches and escorted by his daughter Meg, hobbled toward the scene. The pair joined the formation for a couple of shots, and as soon as the photo op was over, he was engulfed by well-wishers.
“We snuck into town without telling really anybody,” Olenick said. “Crashing the party was kinda fun.”
He had been released earlier than expected and had been in town for about a day. Although the event was put together by others and he describes himself as “more of a sidelines guy,” he seemed touched by the turnout.
“It was an incredible tribute,” he added. “It’s nice that the community cares.”
Olenick founded the Red Rock Diner in 1994 and has lived in Carbondale since 1981. He was also instrumental in founding diners in New Castle and Eagle, but is no longer directly involved in their operation.
Like his kids — Peter, 30, Michael, 28, and Meg, 26 — Olenick has stayed fit and active. But in early January, he came down with a cold and ear infection. He was started on antibiotics for the latter, and felt brave enough to attend a CrossFit session on Jan. 14. He was surprised by how much the class wiped him out.
“It’s the most tired my legs had felt in a long, long time,” he said.
That night, he had trouble walking to the bathroom. He had to support himself on the walls to get around the house. His wife, Susie Wallace, took him to the Valley View Hospital Emergency Room.
“I told Susie to drop me off and I’d walk in,” Olenick said. “Stagger was a better word than walk.”
An MRI quickly ruled out a stroke, but Olenick’s condition continued to decline.
“By morning Susie had to feed me breakfast because I had no arms and no hands,” he said. “By the end of the night I couldn’t swallow.”
Soon, he was intubated and eventually put on a respirator.
“By the night of the 16th, he could only move his left eyebrow,” Wallace recalled.
“I was never in great pain,” Olenick said. “I was just flat out down. I never expected it to be me. One day I was 64, and the next I woke up and it was like I was 94.”
At the urging of one of the nurses, Dr. Susan Inscore did some research and came up with the diagnosis of Guillain–Barré Syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune disorder which attacks the myelin sheath around nerve cells.
GBS annually affects one or two people in 100,000. It is often difficult to pinpoint a specific cause, although a bout of flu or a cold are common precursors. There are several possible treatments. Olenick began a five-day course of gamma globulin, an approach that was intended to stop the damage. It isn’t a cure in and of itself, but it gives the body a chance to begin repairing itself.
“The care and attention I was given at Valley View was awesome,” Olenick said. “They figured it out quickly and got me on the right meds.”
He admitted that his memories of the first week were highly fragmented.
“I thought I was there for one day,” he said. “The other seven are basically blank.”
After eight days in Glenwood, Olenick was moved to Colorado Acute Long Term Hospital in Denver. He described the first couple of days there as “rough,” but they soon settled into a system of shifts with some member of the family with him day and night. Several friends, including Barb Bush and Barb Sterling, helped out as well.
Over time, Olenick began to recover movement in his legs, and then his arms. He began physical and occupational therapy. After three and a half weeks, they began to wean him off the ventilator as his previously paralyzed diaphragm began to recover.
In mid-February, Olenick checked into Craig Hospital, a rehabilitation center in the Denver area that specializes in spinal cord and brain injuries.
“My experience at Craig was phenomenal,” Olenick said. “Nothing is traditional there.”
Facilities included a room filled with mock-ups of cars, beds, bathtubs and the like for practicing transfers from a wheelchair and generally navigating the challenges of everyday life.
Initially, they gave him a tentative release date of May 5. Of the three patients with GBS, he had the best prognosis. One woman had been there since November, while another had been there since July and was still on a ventilator.
“It attacks everybody a little differently,” Olenick observed. He said he was surprised at how many people he has met who knew about the disease or knew someone that had it.
“When you’re there you hear other people’s stories,” he added, describing fellow patients with a host of spinal cord injuries from vehicle, sports and other accidents.
Olenick was soon able to sit up in a wheelchair, then graduated to a walker and eventually to crutches. In late February, Meg Olenick, who posted most of the updates on his Caringbridge site, wrote about his progress standing on his own.
“My dad is a warrior and I know that accomplishing little tasks like this today motivate him to keep working,” she said.
“The next big goal for him is to get his swallowing back,” she added. It wasn’t long until that landmark was achieved. “Once I was able to eat I put a little weight back on,” Bob said. “I had lost about 30 pounds.”
At a “behind his back” meeting, a group of Olenick’s caregivers and doctors decided he was making enough progress that he could be released in time to spend his 65th birthday, April 9, at home. Later, they decided on April 2.
Olenick returned to find the Red Rock Diner still running more or less as usual.
“My staff just operated the place,” he observed. “They picked up the slack of me not being there and not being able to communicate with them for six or seven weeks.”
It will likely have to continue running without him for a while longer, and he may never be as involved as he once was. “The Diner will remain the Diner,” Olenick said. “I won’t be working seven days a week like I did before. Your priorities change a little.”
There’s still a long road to recovery. “It’s not done by any means, but I’m no longer throwing food over my shoulder trying to get a fork to my mouth,” Olenick observed with a wry grin. “I’m thankful to be home, and thankful for the support I’ve received from up and down the valley. The care and support I got was unbelievable. Susie was great. My ex-wife Molly was great,” he said. “I have the hope that my body will return to what it was before. It doesn’t happen to everybody.”
Luckily, Bob and Susie live in a single-level home, so the adjustment isn’t too difficult.
“They want you to be able to function with all the stuff you’re going to run into at home. A lot of people have to remodel. We were fortunate that we didn’t really have to change anything.”
Olenick hopes his story might help raise awareness.
“Those that don’t know about Guillain–Barré would do well to look it up and learn something,” he said.
A more detailed account of Olenick’s illness and recovery can be found at www.caringbridge.org/visit/bobolenick.