Mark Foyer is listening to the Barry Manilow channel on his iPhone. I don’t ask why.
“This is the theme song from ‘Foul Play,’” he assures me. Then he’s telling me about this movie. He says it stars Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, which places it some time in the last half of the 20th century and squarely in Foyer’s wheelhouse. “They take over this cab and there is a Japanese couple in the back seat,” he says.
For a man who doesn’t move much, Foyer is animated now. “Chevy Chase pretends to be a policeman and the Japanese couple says, ‘Kojak, bang bang!’”
I take his word for it. This is a Mark Foyer kind of non sequitur. He has a way of leading me into conversation cul-de-sacs from which there is no escape. I begin to think he planned the Barry Manilow music thing precisely to set up this “Foul Play” riff. Then I remember where we are.
In some ways, Foyer is the same man I’ve known for a dozen years. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of pop trivia. He still knows all the gossip from Half Moon Bay sports fields. He’s quick-witted and quicker with an opinion. The first thing he said to me after a year of silence? “I hear there was a hockey game and a Trump rally broke out.” It is pure Mark Foyer.
In other ways, though, the guy in an Oakland hospital bed is a profoundly different man than the one who last stepped foot in Half Moon Bay more than a year ago. He is fully involved in what has at times been a life-and-death struggle with a condition few people understand and fewer still have experienced. He has Guillain-Barre syndrome, and even learning that truth has been difficult. But then, nothing has ever been all that easy for the guy staring up at me from the hospital bed.
Foyer’s life has been a portrait in stability. He’s worked for the Review for 18 years. He has lived in San Mateo all his life. But many friends on the coast might be surprised to learn that his family’s story includes chapters written in Austria, Hong Kong, Bolivia and Venezuela. In fact, the story of his family is, in some ways, the story of the 20th century.
It begins with his mother, Edith Foyer, who is a force of nature. She has outlasted war and survived the deaths of two husbands. Foyer lives with her, and the two care for each other, both literally and figuratively. She has depended on him for rides, housework, companionship and a thousand other things. Friends might wonder how a 93-year-old woman has coped with the devastating illness of such a son, but they wouldn’t if they knew her own story of survival.
She was a Jewish teenager living in her native Vienna, Austria, when Hitler’s message of hate spread through Europe like a fungus. There were 192,000 Jews living in Austria in 1938, the year the Nazis swarmed through Germany’s neighboring state. A year later, only 57,000 remained and Edith Weingrun became part of the diaspora.
Her family found its way to La Paz, Bolivia, where she met a young man named Carl Mautner. Three years later, her first son, Willy, was born. Shortly thereafter, the young family moved to Caracas, Venezuela. Edith Mautner had learned Spanish and found a new life halfway round the world.
Then one day in 1953 Carl Mautner went for a swim in the ocean and he did not come back. The family found his body but never knew exactly why he died in the waves that day. Willy was just 4 at the time.
Before long, Edith met a fellow refugee from Vienna, an exporter named Julius Foyer. While Edith and her family went to South America, Foyer had gone to the Philippines. Foyer eventually made it to San Francisco and began exporting paper products to South America and beyond. He and Edith married, traveled to the United States and ultimately to San Mateo. In 1962, Mark Foyer was born into a family hardened by crisis and bound by love.
A SPECIAL CONNECTION
You are not looking at the New York Times. The Half Moon Bay Review doesn’t cover Major League Baseball or the Olympics or even sporting events elsewhere in the Bay Area. It endeavors to be the written record of the people and events in and around Half Moon Bay and nothing else.
Since 1997, Foyer has collected the mostly little things on the coast that are now taped to the family refrigerator and together weave the story of a community. He’s written hundreds of bylined articles about youth football, adult tennis and seemingly everything in between. He knows generations of Coastsiders now, mostly through his coverage of the only high school in town. His journalistic remove was compromised long ago. He is objective the way a grizzly is neutral about the salmon run. Let’s say he maintains a vested interest.
Other sports writers would have longed for bigger stages and more important contests — and he did find excuses to cover national and even international events, often on his own dime. But, in Half Moon Bay, Foyer discovered a small community that he could bear hug. Suffice to say, the town returned the embrace.
His fans came out of the woodwork when he fell ill. The Boys and Girls Club of the Coastside honored him with its 2015 Open Heart award. The Half Moon Bay High School Cougar Booster Club made a huge get-well banner, signed it and sent him a photo of the thing since the banner itself would have wrapped around the hospital. After the Cougar football team won a Central Coast Section title, coach Keith Holden traveled to Oakland to deliver a championship ring to the reporter who is as much a part of the team as the quarterback.
Months after Foyer was hospitalized, people I don’t know continue to stop me on the street and ask how he’s coming along. The answer is always the same: He’s getting better, but it’s slow. Dreadfully slow.
In fact, Foyer has a quip about the pace of his progress, and anyone who has navigated Bay Area traffic can relate:
“It’s as slow as the 5 o’clock Friday commute on the Nimitz,” he says.
MARK FALLS ILL
If his recovery has been slow, his fall from fair health was anything but. It started like a cold in late March 2015. On March 30, he went to the doctor instead of work. He thought he might have a bad case of allergies, and he was given an inhaler that did nothing for his symptoms. He was back at the doctor’s office on April 3 and this time doctors prescribed a codeine cough syrup, again to no avail.
Brother Willy Mautner says Foyer made three trips to the Mills-Peninsula Hospital emergency room between April 1 and 4. He has yet to return home after the last visit.
He was admitted on that Saturday, and doctors ordered an MRI and CT scan in a frenzied attempt to discover why Foyer’s body had simply quit. They even sent his blood to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a vain attempt to find out what was wrong, Mautner remembers. Doctors talked to his mother about what he had eaten in the weeks before he fell ill. They were becoming desperate.
“He went ‘code blue’ at one point,” recalls Mautner, referring to cardiopulmonary arrest that brought his brother to the brink of death that spring. “His body totally shut down. He went from 100 to zero in 24 to 48 hours.
“I was freaking out,” Mautner said. “I was afraid he wasn’t going to make it.”
Whatever the doctors call it, Mautner describes his brother as essentially comatose from April 5 to May 25, 2015. If you were looking for reassurance, you had to find it in the slightest of eye movements. It was as if a darkness had fallen over my friend.
In the middle of it all, on April 24, he was transferred across the bay, to San Leandro’s Kindred Hospital, an acute care facility. Doctors visited, but each time left without delivering definitive answers. Wait and see, they said. Since September, he has been in a room in the neurological wing of the Bay Area Healthcare Center, a subacute care facility in Oakland.
Along that journey, doctors settled on a diagnosis: Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Guillain-Barre is known as a syndrome rather than a disease because it is defined by a group of symptoms. The precise trigger isn’t known. Researchers do know that it is an autoimmune disorder that often follows a respiratory illness or infection, and that it causes the body’s own immune forces to attack the peripheral nervous system with a vengence. These are the nerves outside of the brain and spinal column that convey messages to the farthest reaches of the body. Specifically, Foyer’s immune system has attacked the myelin insulation that provides a pathway for information sent and received by the nerves. The demyelination that occurs as a result is also a hallmark of multiple sclerosis.
Think of the nerves as electric wires and the myelin insulation as the rubber coating on those wires. Without that coating, the signals are lost.
GBS affects men and women. People over the age of 50 are more likely to suffer; Foyer was 52 at the time of his diagnosis. No one knows why it affects some people and not others. And you should know that it is rare. Only one in 100,000 people come down with the syndrome. That translates to fewer than 6,000 cases in the United States in any given year.
Like other medical conditions, GBS comes cloaked in its own mystifying terms and phrases. The National Institutes of Health speaks of “sensitized T lymphocytes,” “acute motor axonal neuropathy” and “venous sludging.” That is when red blood cells build up in veins that are no longer exercised by atrophied muscles. Whatever the cause, GBS results in a frightening paralysis-like state.
In the absence of good news, families take heart in the fact that, usually, sufferers begin to snap out of it in a matter of weeks or months. About 30 percent of patients suffer some residual weakness three years after onset, but usually progress much more quickly than Foyer.
Russ Walter was the same age as Foyer when he contracted the syndrome 11 years ago. Today he is a patients’ liaison with the GBS Foundation. The Sonoma County resident makes it his business to let people like Foyer know that there is a light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
“It burned through me,” Walter said. He was in intensive care for six weeks and rehabilitation for another six weeks. He went home in a wheelchair, then endured eight months of physical therapy before he could use a cane to get back to work. It was 15 months after onset of symptoms before he could drive again.
“By all accounts mine has been a very good recovery,” Walter said.
At the time I spoke with Walter, Foyer was one of three active cases he was keeping track of in the Bay Area. He sees his role as offering a living example.
“You are just plain scared,” Walter says of the experience of being unable to move and stricken with an unknown condition. “Am I going to be OK ever again? It’s terrifying. It’s depressing. In my case, I had the support of friends and a loving partner, but it was still up to me to work and fight and hate this.”
If love alone were a cure, Foyer would have walked out of the hospital room long ago. Brother Willy and sister-in-law Susan Mautner pay him nearly daily visits from their home in Orinda. His mom visits regularly, as do friends from the Review, the sports writing fraternity and others he’s touched throughout the Bay Area. The walls of his room are increasingly papered with family photos and newspaper clippings. The staff at Bay Area Healthcare has also been pulled into his orbit.
And he is getting better. At first, as the paralysis was only beginning to release its shackles, Foyer was able to communicate by blinking. Friends would hold a card with rows of letters and ask him to spell out what was on his mind. Is the first letter on row 1? Row 2? Is it L? Is it M? It was maddening for Foyer and for the rest of us, too. Then, in February, he began to talk. He hasn’t stopped since and his quality of life is much improved as a result.
“I think about it differently now,” he says. “It’s part of my life; I can’t hide from it.” He recalls dark days early in his illness and says he doesn’t mind talking about it.
“The doctors would come. They would listen to my lungs and say, ‘It’s a slow process. You are making progress,’” Foyer says. It was hardly solace for a man who used all his energy just to breathe. “Because I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t ask them, ‘What do you mean?’ That was the hardest part.”
Then there is the pain. Mark describes his pain as similar to the pins and needles sensation the rest of us feel when we fall asleep on our arm or leave our leg propped awkwardly for too long. Only, for him, the feeling never leaves.
“There is a lot of pain. We’re talking about a nerve system,” said occupational therapist Judy Carney, who heads Foyer’s therapy team at Bay Area Healthcare Center. “Imagine the thousands of nerves in your body on fire.”
Carney has been working with Foyer for months now, and, like the rest of the center staff, clearly cares about his development.
“His situation was very severe,” she says. “He really could not even quite turn his head, let alone move his arms and legs. So we start with the basics.” She speaks of his “asymmetrical movement,” by which she means he has essentially locked his arms and legs straight and has to have help to bend them. She and others in the physical therapy department are pushing Foyer to do more each day, and all involved say there are good days and the other kind as well.
Three times a week, his therapists use a mechanical hoist to lift him from his bed and into a wheelchair for a short roll to a bright therapy room filled with weights, bars and other equipment that seems more suited to a yoga studio than a hospital environment. Afterward, he sends friends encouraging updates on Facebook. He asks his family to write that he sat up for so many minutes or even stood for a while. Sixteen months after he was hospitalized, he is now able to sit up for 30 minutes or so with the help of staff. He is working on his balance and increasing his range of movement.
“You see the changes in such miniscule ways,” Carney says. “The hardest part is getting someone to keep going.”
On a recent physical therapy day, Foyer was surrounded by professionals at the Bay Area Healthcare Center. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was enjoying the attention, if not the therapy itself.
“I think we should try some side bridging,” physical therapist Cecile Chaconas tells him.
“I agree,” he says. “I won’t have to face the wall, will I?”
“Do you even know what side bridging is,” Chaconas asks?
“No,” he says with a smile, “but I trust that you know what you are doing.”
Foyer says he knows the hard work is necessary. Without it, he says, “I would be a vegetable.” His therapy is sometimes an ordeal. He lets his therapists know with a shrill yelp when they’ve gone too far. He prefers ice to pain medication.
“I don’t think you can OD on ice,” he explains.
The hardest part, harder than the pain and the physical therapy, harder than missing friends on the coast, can be looking in the rearview mirror. And, for better or worse, he has plenty of time for that now. As articulate as he can be about some aspects of his life and condition, words seem to fail him when it comes to discussing what is on his mind. He says he sometimes has “crazy flashbacks.” He doesn’t want to talk about it much, but says he has dwelled on past mistakes. “Boy, were you a stupid ass,” he says. He’s looking at me, but talking to himself.
Foyer seems happier now that he can talk. The experts say that once he can reliably swallow and eat solid food that things may go more quickly. At that point, he might relocate to a skilled nursing facility and a trip home might not be that far off. He concentrates on his therapy. He takes it one day at a time.
“It’s building a foundation, and then building up from that foundation,” he says. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
For more than a dozen years, Foyer and I have enjoyed a complicated relationship. It won’t surprise him to read that he has sometimes driven me nuts. The feeling is mutual. About once a year, he slams down his pen and stomps out of the office, muttering under his breath about the injustice of some dumb thing I’ve done. But he always comes back. And regardless of how I feel about him at any given moment, I know that I have never known a more committed individual. He takes his camera to events that will never end up in his sports pages. He rushes to any sheriff’s call. He is often my only volunteer. There is nothing Mark Foyer won’t do for a friend and that includes me. It’s his dedication that gives me hope.
The time comes to say goodbye again. I have to make the trip over the San Mateo Bridge and back to work. It’s a trip he longs to make himself. Goodbye, I say, as I turn and walk out the door.
“Hey, Clay?” he says as loud as he can manage. I duck my head back in the room.
“I love you,” he says.
I love you, too, Mark.