A few short weeks ago, I could run a 7:53 mile for 4 miles. I was skiing with my sons on black diamond mogul runs. And just last summer, I was climbing the high peaks of the Adirondacks, working on my Adirondack Mountain Club 46er status; a long term goal to climb the highest 46 peaks in the Adirondacks, all over 4000 feet. Fitness was (still is) a passion of mine; I was a regular at the gym; 4, sometimes 5 out of 7 days, working on cardio and core strength. This week, I’m learning how to walk again.
On January 13, 2013 I was diagnosed with Guillian-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological condition, where the immune system mistakenly attacks your nervous system. It starts in your toes and finger tips, and gradually works its way up the body, resulting in a gradual weakening of your muscles. Causes are not well understood. While the progression and severity of the condition varies by individual, the worst case scenario is death because of the inability of the heart and lung muscles to keep vital systems functioning. This is rare and happens mostly when individuals are unable to get hospital care. The best case scenario is full recovery, with no lingering effects. The good news is that most people eventually recover, with only minor disabilities going forward. For some it takes weeks, for others it takes years; but most experts agree that physical therapy, fitness and nutrition are critically important factors aiding in this recovery.
A lot goes through your mind when you’re lying in a hospital bed, unable to lift your legs or arms. Although I was not fully paralyzed, I could not roll over in the bed, could not lift my arms or legs off of the bed. I could only wiggle my toes and fingers. I could barely talk, had difficulty swallowing even small amounts of water. Needless to say, I spent those critical hours and days contemplating the things that were truly important in my life. I wondered if I would ever see my children again, hear their laughter, enjoy their smiles or just feel the warmth of their hugs. In hindsight, I consider myself lucky – my doctors caught the problem early and began treatment to stop the nerve damage almost immediately.
GBS is characterized by a gradual weakening to a low point, or nadir as my Neurologist called it, followed by gradual improvement. I hit my low point on a Tuesday night, and the next day I began my recovery. That morning, I had no strength. My Physical Therapist (PT) had to pull me out of bed. My goal: to stand up. With help balancing from my PT and Nurse, I mustered the strength and stood for the first time in days. With a walker, I was able to take two steps forward, and then back. I fell back to the bed, literally exhausted. In that moment, I knew I was in for a long road to recovery. I thought of my work at Hyland’s and my associations with Michelle Jezycki and Mike Ehredt, two amazing people doing extraordinary things with fitness and life. Just two weeks before all this, I was editing an article Michelle wrote on setting small fitness goals. In October, I had met Mike in Mississippi and ran 5K with him during his trek to run a marathon every day for 81 days; I learned to appreciate the glory of every mile, and the determination one needs to accomplish long term physical challenges. I found strength in their passion. I knew that I would need to set small goals each day, and take baby steps first, if I ever wanted to climb or run again. It was then that I decided this could be MY opportunity to try and inspire others to overcome their own challenges. This would be my new mountain.
For the days immediately following my low point, I set small goals, first, to simply stretch my calf and torso muscles while lying down, to lift my legs and arms just a little bit higher and then to take just a few more steps each day. Initially, progress was slow, but at two points, I experienced exponential leaps relative to previous days. Within 6 days, I managed to go up and down a stair case with a cane and help from my PT. It was then that my doctors decided I could go home.
I’m writing this article, on my fourth day at home. Each day I’m doing just a little bit more and getting stronger every day. I’m doing Physical Therapy twice a day and taking short walks outside; but the important thing is that with each walk, I’m taking a few more steps and going just a little bit further. Today, I walked a half mile outside, carrying my cane at my side, but not depending on it for support – a new milestone. My point to this is that someday, I want to finish my goal to climb all 46 Adirondack High Peaks; I want to run an 8 minute mile, and I want to feel fresh powder in my face as I carve out new turns down the ski hill. But in order to reach those goals, I have to set and accomplish much smaller ones first. I know it won’t be easy; it’s like starting over from the beginning. How can I climb a mountain when I can barely make it up the stairs? The answer is that I can do it with a positive attitude and small steps. And so can you, in facing whatever fitness challenges you have in your own lives.
Nutrition & Homeopathic Medicine
One of the things you notice when you’re in a hyper-weakened state, is how much energy it takes to do things you normally wouldn’t even notice; digestion, for example. On the first day home, I didn’t pay much attention to what I ate and paid the price later with extreme discomfort and slower progress from one day to the next. On day two home, I began something close to an anti-inflammatory diet, with emphasis on fish, non-starchy vegetables, fresh fruits, nuts and whole grains – basically, nothing from a box or can. After making those dietary changes, the difference in my energy levels and how I feel, is nothing short of remarkable. Today, I also began supplementation with Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids, and an energy cocktail rich in Choline, Vitamins A, C, E, B vitamins, DMAE, Chromium, Ginkgo and Coenzyme Q10. I’ll keep you posted on how this makes me feel.
Another challenge is muscle soreness and pulled muscles. Even small numbers of reps, 5 leg lifts and 10 squats, or 10 reps with a stretch band, are straining my muscles to a point where they are sore and jittery. I’m using Hyland’s Muscle Therapy Gel with Arnica, to alleviate the pain and relax my legs while I’m resting. It’s also helping me recover faster from fatigue, supporting my goal to do just a little more day by day.
What can you do?
I’m not writing this for sympathy, or for acknowledgement. I am writing to help others realize that no matter what challenges you face, you can achieve your goals. In many ways I’m lucky because my condition is now self-limiting and I’m faced with clearly definable physical challenges that I MUST overcome. I can afford to make it the main priority in my life for the next few weeks. Equally important, however, is the reality that if I wasn’t physically fit before this happened, my road to recovery would be substantially more daunting. Knowing this, it should be clear that we owe it to ourselves, our loved ones and to the community around us to take better care of ourselves. With that, I want to challenge you to set your own fitness and healthy lifestyle goals. Just think about it for a moment and consider my question, “If I can do this, can you do that?” I know we can!
P.S. If you want to keep track of my progress, you can subscribe to this blog, or follow me on Google Plus (the link to my profile is below). I’ll post updates from time to time.