Former Lawrence resident uses music to cope with chronic illness, and he’s now sharing his tunes

photo by: Contributed photo

Tyron Byrd works on his music at his home in Wroclaw, Poland. He has recently released his first album, which includes snapshots of his past few years with Neuromyelitis Optica, a neurological autoimmune disorder similar to multiple sclerosis.

Meeting the in-laws can be daunting.

But meeting them in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and suddenly come down with a life-threatening illness that leaves you temporarily blind and paralyzed is another thing altogether.

That’s what happened to Tyron Byrd, a former Lawrence resident, on his trip to France with his fiancée, Lucie Dubail, two years ago. Before heading off to meet his future wife’s family, he had been the head custodian at Lawrence’s Schwegler Elementary School, and Dubail was a graduate student and lecturer in the French and Italian Department at the University of Kansas.

The sudden illness led to a discovery about himself. Though he had dabbled in music previously, he suddenly found a passion for it. Playing his guitar and singing helped with the healing. Writing music, he said, was a way to feel like he was doing something worthwhile, even if only for himself.

Byrd, who currently lives in Wroclaw, Poland, where his wife works as an interpreter for a large company, recently spoke to the Journal-World by phone.

He said the only hint that something was wrong with him came several days before leaving for France. He noticed a weird rash on his hands. In France, he began experiencing back pain, and his eyes started to hurt. The first doctor diagnosed him with an ocular migraine. It got worse; he went blind in both eyes. Then he became paralyzed, and he felt like his body was on fire.

French doctors finally diagnosed him with Neuromyelitis Optica. This is a neurological autoimmune disorder similar to multiple sclerosis. However, it affects the eye nerves and the spinal cord, Byrd explained. While it goes into remission, flare-ups are always possible.

“I spent a month in critical care in a country where I didn’t speak the language, and it was a region off the beaten path enough that nobody spoke English. I had absolutely nothing to do but stare into omnipresent darkness, and someone took pity on me and lent me a small classical guitar to make my stay easier,” he said.

Once the doctors figured out what was wrong and treatment began, Byrd’s vision and paralysis improved. He currently has 50% vision in one eye and 40% in the other eye. He says it feels like he’s peering through a cloth.

The couple returned to Lawrence as soon as they could. His wife was able to return to her job, but Byrd could not. As they struggled financially, their good friends Sabine and Jacob Hendrix took them in.  

“They gave us a safe and clean place to live,” Byrd said. Hendrix, a graduate teaching assistant in French, shared Byrd’s affinity for music.

“I saw how important music was to him, so I let him borrow one of the music textbooks I used as an undergraduate It was fun to sing together,” Hendrix said in an email to the Journal-World. “Tyron couldn’t get enough and sometimes when his insomnia was bad, he would stay up and strum his electric guitar, with headphones.”

When Dubail was offered a job in Poland, the couple realized she had to take it for their financial security. Through it all, Byrd kept playing and writing songs.

Now, he’s excited about his first album, which he uploaded to Bandcamp, an online music company. The album, “Travelogues” by Eponymous Sparrow, can be found at https://eponymoussparrow.bandcamp.com/album/travelogues.

Byrd describes the album as a collection of snapshots from the past year and a half. It includes elements of folk, jazz, Native American music, Japanese music, blues, hip hop and more.

He was amazed to find that just 40 hours after the album was made available, 16,000 people had listened to his songs.

“I managed to sell 25 copies of my album to people I never met in 10 countries,”  Byrd said.

Despite being temporarily struck blind and paralyzed just as he was getting acquainted with his wife’s family, he said they approved of him. His mother-in-law is now a fan of his music.

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