It's a hell of a case of the flu, thought Ralph Neas one evening last winter as he lay in a Minneapolis motel room, his hands and feet numb. The next morning he stood on wobbly legs and looked into the bathroom mirror, panicked. Half his face drooped grotesquely, paralyzed. And as he lay in bed awaiting a ride to a doctor, Neas began to writhe and scream in pain as the paralysis worked its way further through his body.
That's the way the bizarre medical saga of a young Capitol Hill legislative lawyer began last February. Before it was over, Neas became totally paralyzed. He watched and listened -- his mind unimparied -- as a priest administered general absolution at his bedside.
"Sometimes I feel like Lazarus," Neas says today. Often when he walks the halls of Congress, dapper in a three-piece, pin-stripe suit and tapping his fashionable walking stick on the marble floors, he is spied by old friends who were aware of his imminent death earlier this year. They stammer at the sight of the 33-year-old Neas back in the place where he served as chief legislative assistant for, first, Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) and, now, for Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.).
Today Neas uses words such as "incredible," "amazing" and "interesting" to describe his bout with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disease whose cause is a mystery and whose treatment is merely a waiting game. Most of the 3,000 people who will be hit by the disease this year will experience several weeks of paralysis before beginning a slow recovery. Neas was hit harder and spent three months in critical condition.
Next month Neas and his friends hope to arrange a party that will raise funds to pay some of his medical expenses and to fund research into the strange syndrome. That gathering will publicly mark the return of Neas to Washington where his reputation as an expert on civil rights legislation is known to Capitol Hill insiders.
"I don't think the basic framework of my life changed," says Neas, the son of a Chicago businessman and 1971 graduate of the University of Chicago's law school. "I always had a strong faith in God, and that faith was very important." On the wall of his Minneapolis hospital room was a needlepoint sampler that read, "Nothing is So Full of Victory as Patience." It was a gift from a nun who had Guillian-Barre syndrome 25 years ago; she visited him regularly and, perhaps more than others on the hospital staff, understood the peculiar frustration Neas felt as he fought against pain to steal three or four hours of sleep a day.
Neas was struck by the illness last February on the first day of his first visit to Minnesota with the freshman senator who had hired him as his 45,000-a-year chief legislative aide. By March 5 Neas could no longer hold a newspaper, and double-vision prevented him from watching television. He listened to the radio for news.
"I used to believe that if I had enough time I could do just about anything I wanted to do professionally and personally," Neas says. "But I didn't take into account acts of God. This made me aware of my vulnerability as well as my dependence on other people."
He participated in his own care, using his eyes to communicate with the medical staff when his arm could no longer point at letters on a board. He hopes to write a book about the experience, if only to give those dealing with Guillain-Barre patients an idea of what it's like on the other side.
These days Neas leaves his office in the afternoon to rest. His stamina is in short supply, but he is back up to 142 pounds from the 119 pounds he fell to at one point. Though Neas specialized in legislation that touched on voting rights, busing and education, the civil rights of the handicapped now loom larger in his life as he coaxes his body back to normal. The formal therapy has ended. Now, for the man who came to the edge of death, "living is the best exercise."