Serge Payer – Raising Awareness about Guillain-Barré Syndrome Through the Serge Payer Foundation
Andrew Rodger – NHLA Writer
Overcoming obstacles – it is a theme in many of our NHL Alumni articles. Some of our members were cut by their Junior team, while others had to pay their dues in the minors for several seasons or overcome serious injuries in pursuit of their NHL dream. The path to the world’s greatest league is unique and varied, but there is only one way to describe the story of NHL Alumni member Serge Payer’s journey to the NHL, and that is remarkable.
At 19-years old, Serge was a member of the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, healthy and in top athletic form as he made his way to the NHL. Like every young man with NHL aspirations, the last obstacle he expected to be placed in his way was a potentially life-threatening illness called Guillain-Barré Syndrome.
“Guillain-Barré Syndrome is an illness where the body’s immune system attacks the peripheral part of the nervous system,” Serge explained. “Every case is different, but the nerve conductor has what is called the myelin sheath and the myelin protects the nerve; it’s similar to an electric wire – the nerve being the wire itself and the rubber surrounding the wire is the myelin sheath.”
“In my case, the myelin sheath deteriorated, but fortunately the myelin can regenerate. If there is nerve damage though, it cannot be regenerated and that creates permanent paralysis. It is treated with a spinal tap, which gets the liquid protein from your spine and they mix that with your own type of blood plasma. With a five-day treatment, it sends a signal to the body’s immune system to stop attacking the nervous system.”
While Guillain-Barré Syndrome is not hereditary or contagious, little is known about the illness; even the cause is unknown at this time. However, in about 50% of the cases, it follows a viral or bacterial infection. It usually begins with weakness or numbness in the legs or arms and can move on to affect muscles in the chest, face and eyes. The frightening aspect of this illness is that when you are diagnosed, you do not know what the full repercussions will be. As Serge explained, if there is nerve damage, things can get much worse very quickly and if the chest muscles are severely affected, patients may require a ventilator to assist their breathing. Most patients will go on to make a full recovery and lead symptom-free lives, but with such varied symptoms and so many unknowns, making a diagnosis is difficult and takes time.
“I was very fortunate to be diagnosed within ten days of my first symptoms,” Serge recalled. “Once I was diagnosed I was on my way to getting better, but it took a full year. I spent two months in hospital, followed by a month in a rehabilitation hospital and was out of hockey for a year. I had a lot of great support from the Kitchener Rangers and their fans, the nursing staff, my billet home and of course, my family was fantastic through it all. I was transferred from Kitchener to the London, Ontario University Hospital and my mother and father came to visit me there. The ongoing support was really needed because it took a long time to recover fully. As a 19-year old, to be out of the game for that extended period, as difficult as it was physically, it was tough mentally too.”
“I had paralysis all the way up to my hips,” he said of his early symptoms. “It was more of a numbness – my motor skills were there but the touch and feeling was not. I could pinch the skin but I wouldn’t feel it, I didn’t have any physical sensation.”
With so many questions surrounding the cause of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, Serge has taken on the role of ambassador and spokesman; raising funds for much-needed research through the Serge Payer Foundation. The Foundation hosts an annual golf tournament, boat cruises, skate-a-thons, casino nights, and any events he can think of to help raise awareness. Donations can also be made at any time at the Serge Payer Foundation website (www.sergepayerfoundation.org – upcoming events are listed there as well).
“Once you are in the hospital and you are living through it, dealing with the shots and the reality of experiencing something like this, your mind gets going and thinks about a variety of different things. With that extended period of time in hospital, I came to the realization that while I was playing Junior hockey and had signed a professional contract with the Florida Panthers, this was a reality check. There is more to life than playing hockey or going to school and through advice from friends and family, I decided I had to give back in this way by starting the Foundation.”
Putting on that NHL jersey for the first time is an amazing experience for any player and I asked Serge if there was an added excitement for him after battling through the effects of Guillain-Barré.
“Of course! It felt like a long time, but it was a short time too,” he said of his illness and recovery. “When you consider where I was physically at that time – when I turned 20, I weighed 140lbs. My first symptom was January 1999 and my first NHL game was November 12th, 2000, so when you start considering all of that, it wasn’t that long.”
After a full recovery from his illness, the Rockland, Ontario native went on to play professionally for 11 seasons in North America and Europe. During his NHL career, Serge played 114 games with the Florida Panthers and 10 games with the Ottawa Senators. There are many favourite moments and fond memories during a hockey career and Serge shared some of them in our interview.
“A favourite moment from my playing career was playing for Canada at the Under-18 Championship,” he reminisced. “We won the gold medal and it was an extremely proud moment! To not only win the gold, but to represent your country too. There are not many opportunities to play for your country and to win a championship and share that experience with some of the most elite players around was very special.”
“My first NHL game is a special memory too,” he continued. “I remember being on the road in Syracuse, New York when I got called up. The coach came into the dressing room after the game and said ‘You’re going up to the National Hockey League.’ Your mind isn’t necessarily ready for that; you are in the American Hockey League and you are just coming off a win and next thing you know, it’s like a light switch goes off. Everything you have every worked for your whole career, on and off the ice, all the focus and training, it is finally coming true – you are off to the National Hockey League. It was a huge, phenomenal experience leading up to that night!”
“My first goal was in Ottawa, my hometown and my second NHL goal was in Montreal the following night – those kinds of nights stay with you!”
Since his retirement after the 2011 season, Serge has been working as an agent with Unlimited Sports Management. Their main office is in Klagenfurt, Austria and Serge has founded Unlimited Sports Management North America. Along with his friend and former Kitchener Rangers teammate Michael Mazzuca, he is assisting Canadian, American and European players with their career choices. With his own personal experience as a player, he can help them work towards that next level themselves, following their own hockey dreams.
“I was passionate about the game of hockey and I thought I would stay in the game,” Serge said. “I thought that maybe I would coach – I had a good eye for the game. When I went over to Europe four years ago, my first year playing there I met a gentleman named Patrick Pilloni. We became really good friends, I respected him a lot and he became my agent. I had a great appreciation for our friendship and slowly we started building a greater connection. He was working as an agent after a 16 year playing career in Europe, representing Team Austria at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City – he was a real hockey guy.”
“A lot of parents out there are not familiar with some of the decisions that need to be made. For a player that has been through it, it is a good position to be in with regards to explaining the process and the different rules and regulations as you move up to through the various levels – there are different guidelines with collective bargaining agreements and contracts in each league. It has been a lot of fun to be able to give back to the game, to return what has been given to us – it’s a great life lesson.”
Giving back to the game is another recurring theme in our NHL Alumni articles and once again, we see in Serge the NHL Alumni motto of “Hockey’s Greatest Family” at its best. Overcoming a frightening and potentially life-threatening illness, building memories that will last a lifetime on the ice and now giving back to many people in countless communities through his work at the Serge Payer Foundation. There really is only one word to describe this story – remarkable!
For more information on the Serge Payer Foundation, you can visit the website (www.sergepayerfoundation.org) and you can follow Serge on Twitter (@SergePayer).
Andrew Rodger is the resident writer for the NHL Alumni Association and his goal is to help bridge the gap between hockey fans and their hockey heroes. You can find him on Twitter as @ARodgerTVOS.