Creighton law student Lexi Weisbeck has always charged ahead — at every opportunity, over every obstacle, onward, upward, smile on her face, joke at the ready.
Weisbeck’s go-go-go isn’t strictly figurative. She was a runner. Her track-and-field specialty was the 400- and 800-meter races — “the ones that everyone hates,” she says. Her speed won her a few state championships in high school, which scored her an athletic scholarship to South Dakota State University, where she studied construction management. Her post-college plan: take a job in Hawaii.
In all aspects of her life, Weisbeck couldn’t stop moving. Then she lost the ability to move at all.
It started last September with a head cold. No irregular symptoms at first. Then one morning Weisbeck couldn’t lift her book bag. She thought it was just a pinched nerve. Then her body really started to malfunction. She fell down the stairs. Twice. From there it got worse. Within a few days, she was in the hospital, unable to move anything but a few fingers and toes.
“It was kind of weird, obviously,” a deadpan Weisbeck says now.
She was soon diagnosed with acute flaccid myelitis, an extremely rare condition that inflames the gray matter in the spinal cord and short-circuits the brain’s messaging to the body. The muscles forget how to move. The condition is typically preceded by a respiratory illness.
The diagnosis of AFM is relatively new, and the causes remain unknown. The Centers for Disease Control has confirmed fewer than 1,000 cases in the U.S. since it began tracking AFM in 2014. Making Weisbeck’s case even rarer: Most people with the condition are young children — the average age is 5 years — not college students in their early 20s.
Hospital bed-bound for months, Weisbeck took off what was supposed to be her final semester at South Dakota State University. Her mother, Necole Weisbeck, came to live with her — first in the hospital, then back at Lexi’s home in Brookings.
There’s no clear roadmap to recovery from AFM. But being a determined 20-something former athlete with boundless positivity and a self-effacing sense of humor … that certainly doesn’t hurt one’s recovery prospects. Day by day, step by step, Lexi built up her body again. And as quickly as she could.
“It was like teaching a baby how to do everything again,” she says. “I basically started from nothing. I had to learn how to brush my teeth again. How to sit up in bed again. My lowest point was when it took me 45 minutes to put on my shirt.”
At inpatient rehab, Weisbeck was a 21-year-old in a group of 80-somethings. They became a tight family unit, everyone cheering on everyone else’s recovery. Weisbeck’s primary goal, beyond regaining control of her body, was to make her new octogenarian friends laugh. Making her friends laugh is her favorite thing to do.
By January, Weisbeck could get around in a wheelchair. She decided to go back to school to finish her hours and graduate. By May commencement, she was able to walk with a walker across the stage. It was the first time her friends and family had seen her walk in nearly nine months.
“It was awesome,” she says. “I walked super slow, but, like I told my dad, ‘The slower you walk, the more applause you get.’”
Weisbeck has made more progress since. She can drive again, and shortly before moving to Omaha this semester she walked 50 feet not holding onto anything. She’s still using a wheelchair but is now entirely independent — though she can still use a little help every now and then. Fortunately, she says, everyone at Creighton has been extremely supportive.
When it became clear that she wouldn’t be moving to Hawaii for the construction job in the spring, Weisbeck decided to pursue a degree in construction law. She was already considering Creighton, but it was her physical and occupational therapy sessions that convinced her: Five of her six therapists were Creighton-educated, and they all had nothing but good things to say about the University. That (and scholarship aid) sealed the deal; she started at Creighton in August.
Creighton was ideal in a lot of ways, says Weisbeck’s mother.
“For one, it’s far enough away from us for her to be independent, but close enough that if she needs something, we’re only six hours away. As a parent, you like to see that your daughter’s school cares about her. I feel like I’m leaving Lexi with family.”
Studying construction law is an extension of what Weisbeck has wanted to do since she was a little kid playing around the sites of her father’s general contracting company. Her family built three houses together throughout her childhood, and gutted and restored two more. By age 8, Weisbeck was already operating a forklift (under close supervision, of course).
To explain her love of construction, Weisbeck uses a quote from Nick Miller, her favorite character on her favorite TV show, New Girl: “It’s like high-stakes Legos.”
“That’s what construction is to me,” she says. “It’s seeing something from beginning to end. It’s taking something and, piece by piece, step by step, building it into something great.”