It may have been a workout on the cruise ship that caused an undiagnosed aneurysm to develop a leak last May, but it was my body’s strength that kept me alive in the Amsterdam ICU. Still, as happens when you lie still for six weeks, I lost a quarter of my weight and most of my muscle. Three months later, I walked out of the OLVG Hospital and onto an airplane bound for home. The physical therapist at Shands Hospital proclaimed me ready for outpatient PT, which I completed on Halloween.

Being strong is our best defense.

A brief career as a modern dancer in the 1970s became a part-time job teaching exercise for the next 40 years, right up until we took the fateful cruise last spring. But it took nearly losing my life to impress upon me the value of being strong.

Today, as we isolate to protect ourselves and others from the coronavirus, we should be training our bodies to withstand whatever awaits us. We don’t know what lies ahead, but one thing is certain: whether it’s a paper cut or a vicious virus, something will threaten us.

Being strong is our best defense.

The Dutch healthcare system calls this “Better In, Better Out.” Patients who are in good condition before surgery recover faster and are less likely to suffer complications than patients whose physical condition is poor.

And here’s the challenge: nearly half of those who make it out of the ICU will lose critical muscle mass. Half of us end up with ICU-Aquired Weakness, unable to move. And if we can’t move, we won’t get back to living, not without a whole lot of compromise.

When I came out of the medical fog, I was initially mesmerized by my thin legs and arms. “I can wear my wedding outfit again!” Then, I realized I couldn’t move. After a lifetime of teaching others how to better use their bodies, I was unable to even lift a finger to help myself.

The OLVG Hospital physiotherapists were ready for me. A bed-mounted bicycle moved my legs for me. A harness sat me up and eventually stood me up. It was scary. It was uncomfortable. It was slow. It took 15 minutes and three people to get me out of bed. Progress came in the form of being able to me peel a tangerine, even if it took me an hour. Eventually, I walked.

Being strong is our best defense.

I rebuilt myself doing exercises like squats and pushup that engage multiple muscle groups, including critical core muscles. Walking to build stamina. Stretching to encourage good body alignment.

Today, I walked four miles. It took me just over an hour. I had great company in the form of our rescue, a black Lab recovering from his own journey from a shelter in Puerto Rico.

Watch your shoulders, and breathe!

Being strong is our best defense.

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