“They’re writing about you?” one friend asks incredulously as she pulls up a chair. “Yeah, about how much of a burden I am on my friends,” Michael J. Landry ’15-’16 answers sarcastically.
I quickly realize my list of relatively serious questions probably aren’t going to go over too well.
I’m sitting across from Landry, who is confined to a wheelchair, in Lowell Dining Hall. Though I had been expecting to hold a private interview, his friends stick around at our table, and they add their own commentary throughout.
Landry has Landry’s ascending paralysis, also known as Guillain-Barré syndrome, a disorder that attacks the peripheral nervous system. “I’m like Lou Gehrig,” he says jokingly of the coincidental name match. Though his nerves still do not function properly in much of his body, Landry is expected to make a full recovery, after which the disorder will likely not affect him at all.
It all began last year on September 17th. “It started in the morning when I woke up,” Landry tells me. “I was unstable on my feet, and kept dropping stuff.” He went to class, where he had trouble taking notes, and by the end of his second class that day, his friends had to pack up his bag for him.
“I went to UHS, and I told them that I was going to be paralyzed,” he continues. But he was told that a doctor couldn’t see him for another hour, so he could stay and wait, or just come back later. “I thought well, I might not be able to walk in an hour, so I’ll just sit.” But when he called his dad, who is a physician, his dad demanded that the doctor see Landry immediately. It became obvious that something was very wrong, and Landry was sent to Massachusetts General Hospital. By that night, he couldn’t sit up. “If my dad hadn’t called, I would’ve died,” he notes casually.
Landry spent the next ten and a half months in the hospital, switching at one point to Columbia Presbyterian in New York. For two weeks near the beginning of his hospitalization, he could only move his eyes and eyelids. He was on a ventilator for about two months, until just before Thanksgiving.
Back at school as a junior, Landry’s life seems to be just like most other college students’—with a couple of logistical differences. Harvard, he notes, has been pretty accommodating. He receives extra time on exams because his hands still do not work very well, and takes two graduate-level physics classes in order to leave time for physical therapy. Landry does his rehabilitation, which includes basic leg exercises and walking, every day with his uncle, whose contract for work expired around the time Landry got sick and so took time off to help rather than renewing his contract or finding new work.
Harvard, however, and Lowell House especially, is not very wheelchair accessible. Though his blockmates live in Lowell, all are inaccessible, and so he can’t visit them day-to-day. “If I wanted a place that was very accessible they said I could go to Currier,” he explains, adding jokingly, “I would rather kill myself.” Landry had been in Cabot as a sophomore before he transferred to Lowell. “I’m never going back to that,” he added.
Landry notes that Harvard staff have been pretty supportive, such as one of the Lowell dining staff who gets him his food every day. “People in general are helpful,” he says, adding, “some people take it too far and I decline their help and they do it anyway.” He explains how once, in the Yard, he struggled make it up a hill. When he was about to coast downhill—which is the easy part—a man asked if he needed help. Landry declined, but, he says, the man “pushed me along slower than I would’ve been going and then decided to tell me his life story.”
I ask if he ever gets annoyed when his friends complain about relatively unimportant things. “No,” he answers, “though I do really enjoy making them feel bad about it. I say, ‘At least you're not in a wheelchair.’”
His friends seem to have taken the same darkly humorous approach to his condition. When Landry tells one friend walking by that he’s being profiled by The Crimson, the friend responds, “What do you do? You just sit in a chair all day.”
Larson C. Ishii ’15, one of Landry’s friends sitting at our table, explains that he wants Landry to run for Undergraduate Council president, and Landry says he’s willing to do it as long as Ishii runs his campaign and does all the work. They tell me some of their ideas for campaign posters: “The new FDR for the new U.C.” (as there is some thought that FDR had the same syndrome); “I’m not running for U.C. president, I’m rolling”; and “If you don’t vote for me, you’re a bad person,” alongside a photo of Landry in a wheelchair.
Part of Landry’s UC presidential platform, they explain, would be to improve medical care on campus. Another friend chimes in from the end of the table and suggests a poster of Landry with the caption: “UHS did this to me.”
In an attempt to return to a more serious note, I ask Landry if he thinks that this experience in a wheelchair has changed his perspective at all. “Do you think I’ve developed a new perspective on life?” he asks Ishii, who answers, “I think you’ve returned to your old perspective.” “What, that everything sucks?” Landry says.
Landry notes one benefit of his paralysis. He had made a bet with Ishii before he became sick that if Landry participated in “No Shave November,” Ishii would do the Tasty Burger challenge, which involves eating three colossal All-The-Way Dogs in under an hour. When he became paralyzed, Landry was unable to shave, he explains, and so he “took this as an opportunity” to grow a beard. Now, Landry adds, Ishii has to fulfill his part of the deal. “I agreed to it without knowing that he would be paralyzed,” Ishii grumbles. “If it weren’t for the paralysis he never would have done it.”