Dr. Lisa Sanders’ Diagnosis column in The New York Times Magazine tantalizes me like a true crime story, only with a happy ending. Sanders’ January 17, 2021 column was about a man who’d been diagnosed with a fatal neurodegenerative disease revealed to be a treatable brain disorder. She closed her essay with this:
It was only later that he recognized how strange it was to get a death sentence and lived to tell the tale. ‘“It was,” he told me, “like I was hearing my own eulogy without dying.”Lisa Sanders, The New York Times Magazine
As a survivor of a near-death illness, I recognize that feeling. Two years ago, I suffered a ruptured arterial aneurysm and weeks of system failures in an Amsterdam ICU, and when I emerged from the fog of illness, my body had lost the ability to move. That intubated and inert body in a hospital bed was me. Yet here I sit, on the eve of my second anniversary, stronger than ever and completely myself in body, mind, and spirit. How in the world did I do this?
Three things have carried me forward for these past two years: keeping focused, celebrating small goals, and repetition.
Focus seemed to take care of itself, at least initially. When I was really sick, the world shrank to nothing..Taking the next breath was the only thing. As I got better, the perimeter slowly expanded to include my body, my bed, my room, the physiotherapy gym, the park across the street.
After three months, I flew home, knowing how far I’d come. A wise doctor in Amsterdam counseled me to not let myself be discouraged at this phase by others’ impressions of me, but to keep my focus on the next step in getting better. One foot in front of the other, literally. Head down. One step at a time.
Celebrating small goals
At first, my only goals were small ones, and they felt huge. It took me several days to relearn to chew and swallow food before I could be released from the ICU. I could barely make a fist, so holding my iPhone was a victory. It took me an hour, but I finally peeled a tangerine.
Bending a knee, rolling over, and finally standing. My physiotherapist Gemma held me like a junior-high date and I shifted my weight from foot to foot..I walked out of the hospital, onto the airplane, and into my house, and every day since then I’ve continued to seek and nail those small goals.
Every day my feet hit the floor is an opportunity to get better, and the morning begins with exercise. At first, it was 10 minutes of shuffling.. It’s now an hour of striding and weight lifting. Every day.
Four times a day, I repeat the pelvic floor exercises I learned from my gynecology nurse practitioner. I use the breathing prompt on my Apple Watch to consciously breathe for those two-minute sets. Every day.
It’s gotten me a long way. And I still have a long way I want to go.
One day, you look up and realize how far you’ve come.Director of Outpatient Rehabilitation, Our Dear Lady Guesthouse, OLVG Hospital, Amsterdam