Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit

'Rome wasn't built in a day'

Sports writer makes progress 16 months after falling ill with Guillain-Barre

  • Updated
  • 12

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.

MARK’S HISTORY

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.

MORE QUESTIONS

THAN ANSWERS

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.”

RECOVERY

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.

(12) comments

Susan in HMB

Clay, thank you for the wonderful update on Mark! I hope he's reading all these comments and he knows how much we miss him here on the Coast. Mark...keep getting stronger one day at a time and in the really tough moments, try to hear us all cheering for you. I'll be at the ticker-tape parade when you return to HMB!

Andy Rose

Hi Clay,

Great article about Mark Foyer. Thank you for the update and explanation and his family history. Mark and I were friends in High School through our Jewish youth group, and I have bumped into him a few times over the years. I am on the verge of relocating back to the Bay Area after 18 years, and I plan on visiting Mark now that I know where to find him. Andy

CSchmaljohn

[smile]I am so happy to get an update on Mark-he is always on my mind as we plan the Pumpkin Run each year. Mark was always there, taking photos, talking to people, and even helping when we needed it. I look forward to a time when he can come again. Mark, you are in my thoughts. Cara

wv7

Best wishes to a speedy recovery Scoop. I still remember those press conferences after every baseball game and being stoked about getting Athlete of the Week and a free meal. It was really awesome having such a dedicated, humble person covering the local sports growing up. Its definitely something that won't ever be forgotten. Thanks for everything Mark.

RyanH

Thanks Clay,

After 9 years away from HMB, I remember the first time running into Scoop. Not only did he remember me after all that time, but he recited specific stat lines from my tenure on the basketball team, and brought up some of the fun moments from my senior season. I was a mediocre athlete, on a mediocre team that followed on the coattails of the very talented class of '02 (john parsons & Co.). Scoop is so incredibly genuine.I bet there are tons of others who have had similar run ins with the man.

Best of luck with recovery Scoop!!

Thanks Clay,

August West

Solid work here. Thank you.

Our family has missed him a ton the last 16 months and I have followed Frank's and now Mark's updates on Facebook anticipating the next good news.

Always love chatting with him. Get back soon Mark!

George

I don't know what to say. The 'right' words just don't come to mind.

Mark is a one of a kind and to know that he is getting better is wonderful news indeed; but to understand how and why this happened to Mark is beyond my comprehension.

I just flash back to a guy with a seemingly endless knowledge about so many things that always met me with a smile and always took the time to chat whenever our paths crossed. It is very difficult, if not impossible, not to like and appreciate Mark and his place in our community.

It has clearly been a constant and enormous struggle which isn’t over yet, but it is extremely encouraging to know that Mark is on the backside of this dreadful ‘syndrome’ that changed his life.

I am so glad to now know that he is doing better and hopefully not far from going home … and maybe even back to what we’d call work.

Kind of puts our daily troubles and squabbles in perspective, doesn’t it?

Thank you, Clay.

Truth Patrol

MY MAN! Made my day. He is even clean shaven (sort of). In a city where everybody disagrees with everybody about everything... no one can dispute Mark's contribution to the kids in this town. Look forward to having pancakes with Mark at our favorite place in the future. Much love.

Mark 5:36 ...... God Bless....

Marc

Thank-you Clay for this news. I really miss Mark's work. He is in my prayers. I am so happy his health is improving.

HMBSueG

Great article! We have missed you Scoop. Best quote = If love alone were a cure, Foyer would have walked out of the hospital room long ago.. Keep up the hard work!

HMB Surf

Clay, thank you for this beautifully-written article. Many of us do miss Scoop and think of him often. Your description of his medical condition and progress is very thorough and helps in understanding his challenges. And his family history is fascinating.

I am encouraged that GBS typically allows a recovery, and hope the best for Mark. It is wonderful that he can now speak - although I do feel empathy for his nurses now that he can crack his corny jokes ;-)

bigsea 940

Thank you HMB Review for keeping this vital. I always looked forward to Mark's certain charm in a fun way. He certainly was always caught up in the fun and adventures of our Cougars. As an OC* I welcome him into our ranks of those who would rather be interested in the football game or a surfing contest than anything else. He has proven himself for a long time now. I consider him a Cougar. This experience is going to make our friend Mark a better everything. Mostly good luck and hang in there!
(*original Cougar) :D

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

More Stories