CHAMPAIGN - Last year, Linda Sheets was having one of her best-selling years as a Realtor, and she and her husband had just moved into a new home of their own near Dewey.
On the surface, all appeared to be well.
But Sheets' friendly smile and enthusiasm with her clients were increasingly covering excruciating pain. She took to carrying a cane in her car to help her walk and sometimes arrived at home showings with her husband, Richard, who would drive for her and accompany her customers to the front door.
Early last fall, Sheets as-sumed the pain was being caused by an escalation of her long-standing rheumatoid ar-thritis. But last November, she was additionally diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome - a condition in which the immune system attacks part of the nervous system.
For now, Sheets is bedridden and unable to walk - but not out of business: With some help from her colleagues at Re/Max Realty Associates and her husband, who has become both her nurse at home and her legs out in the world, Sheets is still selling houses.
What she finds hardest about her condition, besides the pain, is being confined to a rented hospital bed in her living room instead of being out and around, dealing with customers in person, Sheets said.
?You know, I could always just go and go and go, like the Energizer bunny,? she added.
While her current prognosis is full of variables, Sheets said she is hopeful.
Guillain-Barre can affect anyone, and its cause remains unknown. What is known is that the condition causes the body's immune system to attack myelin - the ?insulation? covering the nerves - and that it can progress very quickly.
Symptoms often start with a tingling, weakness or a numb feeling in the legs that sometimes spreads to the arms or upper body. As symptoms intensify, a complete paralysis of legs, arms and breathing muscles can occur.
Recovery from Guillain-Barre can range from a few weeks to a few years, but most patients do recover from even the most severe cases, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
In Sheets' case, the condition has attacked her limbs and is affecting her feet and legs below the knees. She also has some paralysis in her hands, especially the left one, but can hold a pen and fork with her right hand, she said.
Sheets can also sit up in bed, though that's just a recent development that took three months to accomplish, she and her husband said.
Complicating her condition have been injuries from two falls Sheets had last year. One was last January on a broken concrete sidewalk, and one was in September at her home. The second fall caused such a severe laceration to her right leg, she eventually underwent skin graft surgery in November.
Richard Sheets said his wife has tackled her illness with amazing strength and determination. First diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1986, she had already developed a high tolerance for pain as that disease continued to worsen over the years, he said.
?She's tough,? he added with a smile.
Sheets has already undergone the only available treatments for Guillain-Barre, she said. But the treatments weren't considered successful, and she and her husband have been told her recovery could be an 18-month process.
Sheets, who spent time in Carle Foundation Hospital and The Carle Arbours, came home Dec. 23 for the holidays, and her husband said he was determined that once he got her home, he would keep her there. He has become her primary caregiver, along with home health therapists.
The Sheetses are awaiting the next step: a consultation scheduled with specialists at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis that was arranged by Carle physicians.
Since she became ill, Sheets and her husband said, they have been moved to tears by the kindness of their friends and colleagues, who have turned up at their home with everything from cooked meals to money to help pay Linda's staggeringly high medical bills.
The bills currently stand at $95,000, Richard Sheets said, because his wife has been unable to get health insurance for the past several years due to her pre-existing rheumatoid arthritis.
Linda and Richard Sheets said they are also overwhelmingly grateful to Linda's colleagues at Re/Max, who have stepped in and helped her carry on her business by taking turns carrying around her pager and showing houses she has listed.
Bill Craig, managing broker at Re/Max Realty Associates, said Sheets is a strong and positive person who has always been willing to help people with anything.
?She has an extremely loyal client following,? he said. ?She's extremely well-respected, and she's loved throughout the real estate community.?
Richard Sheets said his wife has received a sackful of cards and is still getting a backlog of flowers delivered that were ordered as long ago as last month.
?She's a nice person,? he said. ?That's why everyone wants to help her.?
A 54-year-old former marketing professional, Linda Sheets grew up in Chicago and received master's degrees in both fine arts and business administration from the University of Illinois. Married to her husband for 27 years and the mother of three grown children, she turned a longtime interest in real estate into a new career about eight years ago.
Sheets said she loves her work and is determined to carry on with help from her colleagues and husband. Richard Sheets, a semi-retired management consultant, helps his wife stay connected to customers and her office via phone and e-mail, and is now studying for his own real estate license to be of further help to her while she is recovering.
Sheets said her hope is that if her husband enjoys real estate as much as she does, they'll continue working as a team after she is fully recovered. Meanwhile, she is sending her regular customers letters to explain her condition and ask for their patience.
?I don't want them to give up on me,? she said.
The Sheetses are taking it all one day at a time and trying not to think too far into the future, they said.
They're comforted greatly by all the prayers and moral support that friends have offered, and Linda said her hope is based on the power of those prayers.
?We're going to come out of this,? Richard Sheets said.
Realtors plan benefit dance to aid colleague
The Champaign County Association of Realtors is holding a benefit dance to help Linda Sheets with her medical bills.
The dance, to be held at the Regent Ballroom & Banquet Center in Savoy on Saturday, Feb. 8, is open to the public.
Tickets are $75 a person, and all the proceeds will go to help Sheets, who has Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Tickets are on sale at Sheets' firm, Re/Max Realty Associates, and other real estate firms including Prudential Landmark, BradyMiller GMAC, and Coldwell Banker Devonshire. Tickets can also be purchased at the Champaign County Association of Realtors office.
Advance purchase is requested, but tickets will also be available at the door, said Bill Craig, Re/Max's managing broker.
The dance will feature a silent auction to help raise money for Sheets. Anyone wishing to donate prizes for the auction is asked to contact Linda Gavelek at 359-3131.