A Day With a Palm Tree: Leylah Fernandez, World-Class Fighter

“A day with a palm tree is a great day.”

Stories of personal triumph, community engagement, and environmental stewardship.

This is the first of a new series of inspirational stories I’ll be posting as I continue my path of recovery. I hope they will inspire you to appreciate each day we are given — whether you have palm trees or pine trees or buildings outside your door, it’s a great day.

Leylah Annie Fernandez had a goal

Earlier this year, when Leylah Annie Fernandez was a little-known 18-year-old Canadian tennis player living in South Florida, she said that her goal was to be in the top ten professional women players in the world. The sport writers were skeptical.

Not anymore. She turned 19 on the day before playing for the trophy in the finals of the US Open tennis tournament, having beaten top-ranked opponents on the way to Arthur Ashe stadium, beginning with Naomi Osaka. She’s zoomed into 23rd place on the roster.

In the on-court interview after her stunning victory over Osaka, she was asked if she ever believed she could best Osaka. ”Yes,” she responded with a huge smile. ”Just before the match.”

That’s confidence.

She stepped up

There’s a lot to be said for someone like Fernandez, who has lost a lot of first and second round of matches on the WTA tour this year, producing a completely different level of tennis under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe stadium, for stepping up in close matches against a series of true champions and executing better than they did. That’s what great players do.

Dan Wolken, USA Today, September 11, 2021

Inner steel

As bubbly and engaging as she is off court, the inner steel shines through.

Simon Cambers, The Guardian, September 10, 2021

It’s steel honed by hard work. The daughter of immigrants from Ecuador and the Philippines, Fernandez moved from Montreal to my neighboring town of Boynton Beach in 2018. I assumed that the move was to permit her to train at a prestigious (and expensive) tennis academy, like Chris Evert’s school. Then I read that she trains on public courts and at the beach, and that her father, a former soccer player, is her coach.

Check out this training video, and remember that it’s hot and humid — sweat dripping off your face when you go for a walk — down here.

…a world-class fighter who walks between points with the steely determination of someone on her way to break up a bar brawl.

Christopher Clarey, The New York Times, September 12, 2021

A new bar

Fernandez didn’t win the US Open championship. That went to another brown-skinned daughter of immigrants, England’s Emma Raducanu. These multicultural, multilingual teenagers have just set a new bar for grit, resilience, and joy in the game.

While Raducanu — the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam title — expressed wonderment at her unlikely win, Fernandez, whose top-100 ranking got her into the tournament, may have been tripped up by really, really being sure she would prevail. Recovering from this loss, she said during the on-court interview, would be hard. And then she added this.

I know on this day it was especially hard for New York and everyone around us. I just hope that I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the past 20 years.

Leylah Fernandez, September 11, 2021

Class act

Leylah Fernandez, New York strong, world-class fighter, class act. You are inspiring my continuing journey of recovery.

Wellness Wednesday: How I Built Back Better

Regular readers will know that I am a huge advocate of water exercise. Last month, I wrote about what water exercise can do for you. In May, I wrote about how water fitness helped me survive a 2019 ruptured aneurysm and to recover and rehabilitate as I celebrated my second anniversary of that trauma. At the end of 2019, when I was strong enough to resume taking classes and before the pandemic had shut down LA Fitness, I wrote that water keeps saving my life.

Heel pain prevented me from jogging

One of the reasons that I became such an advocate of water exercise years ago was that I had developed plantar fasciitis, heel pain that did not permit me to continue to jog as my cardiovascular routine. Although I purchased orthodic inserts for my sneakers, iced my heels, and stretched as recommended by the physical therapists at FYZICAL, nothing really improved. Blame my high-arched dancer’s feet, too tender for the hard world of running.

Buoyancy allowed me to run in water, and resistance improved my overall strength. I even put my old orthotics in my water shoes, — mine are from Ryka.

I didn’t think I would ever jog again. It never occurred to me that I might have to re-learn how to walk, or that starting over would rehabilitate the old injury as I built back better.

I had to re-learn how to walk

July 2019

When I was released from the Amsterdam ICU after six weeks, most of it intubated and inert, I had lost 30 percent of my body weight and the ability to move. Returning home to the United States depended on my ability to walk. Weeks into recovery in the hospital’s 7A unit, I finally stood, but my legs felt as empty as cardboard tubes. Weeks of additional work with my awesome physiotherapists, and I flew home.

Better alignment

My dance background and my American Council on Exercise personal trainer certification helped me be aware of keeping my ears over my shoulders, my shoulders down and back, and my knees over my hips. As my body slowly came back into its own through physical therapy at FYZICAL, there were weeks when I felt like a Transformer every time I slowly stood up, my parts slowly clicking into place.

Better body mechanics

I used the audio workouts from WeightWatchers, aaptiv, to keep me focused and motivated on my outdoor walks. For the first time since my days as a barefoot modern dancer, I was super conscious of how I used my feet in propelling my weight forward. As much as I thought I knew about how to move, I picked up tips like landing mid-foot instead of on my heel. That single tip probably helped more than any other in keeping plantar fasciitis at bay.

Fall 2020

Better strengthening

I continued to do the exercises I had done at PT to strengthen my legs (particularly squats and monster walks), adding resistance bands when my old Lycra water bands gave out. Mine are Fitfort, no longer under that in Amazon, but they look very similar to these. My daughter’s hand weights came out of the closet, too.

Better stretching

The two things I missed most about moving my body while I was hospitalized were relaxation — when you’re lying in bed all day, you never get that “ahhh” release — and stretching. As I recovered strength and movement, I regained the need to relax and the ability to stretch. Water gave me back loads of stretching, and my weekly yoga class with Jade Wonzo has facilitated even more.

Et voilá! I’m jogging

Bit by bit, walking became trotting became jogging, without any heel pain, and now I’m jogging — not running every day but doing a steady 15-minute mile several times a week. I’m swimming or biking the other days. And doing weights and stretching too. Our rescue Lab and I walk every day.

Someone said, “Oh, you’re cross-training!” Guess so. A little bit of everything seems to be a good balance for now. As I continue to build back better.

September 8, 2021 running in my Ryka water shoes

Wellness Wednesday: How the Fitness Habit Helped One Journalist Recover from COVID

My devotion to fitness aided in my recovery.

Jorge Milian, Post reporter’s hellish month with COVID-19, The Palm Beach Post, April 10, 2021

I recognized the gratitude in these words. My exercise teaching experience gave me a whole lot of helping hands when I pulled myself up from post-Intensive Care syndrome following my lengthy hospitalization in 2019. Although my illness pre-dated COVID, I felt a sort of kinship with Jorge Milian’s experience. I wanted to find out more.

Here is what I learned in my research, including a telephone conversation with Jorge a few weeks ago.

Palm Beach Post reporter Jorge Milian

In his coverage of the COVID pandemic’s impact on his beat of Lake Worth Beach and Boynton Beach, Palm Beach Post reporter and journalist Jorge Milian has written tributes to fallen community leaders and other victims of the virus, stories on the verbal attacks on the city’s Central American migrants, and articles on the eviction moratorium. What he never expected to write was a story on his own hellish encounter with COVID-19 at the end of January.

Hellish month

I had a raging fever, my head felt like it was on the verge of exploding and each of the 206 bones in my body ached.

That began around 4-5 weeks of unpleasantness that, at its worst, had me wondering if I would wind up like some of the people I’ve written about since last March in the Palm Beach Post who died after getting COVID-19 (and if would I have time to alert the Post’s editors not to use the headshot that makes me look 20 pounds heavier in my obituary?)

I can joke about it now. But there’s nothing funny about running a high fever for days and feeling like you are trying to breathe under water while your doctor is wondering aloud whether you should check into a hospital – a thought that terrified me even more than the unexplainable nightmares and hallucinations that dogged me for around 10 unrelenting, miserable days and nights.

Walking from one side of the house to the other seemed like a marathon. The worst of it was at night when I would wake up gasping for air, almost as if I had forgotten to breathe.

Fatigue was another big issue. For around two weeks after getting sick, I would sleep for 10 hours then spend the rest of the day feeling like I needed a nap.

My doctor told me I should seriously consider going to the hospital if my oxygen level fell below 90. My oxygen level never dropped under 92, but still low enough for thoughts of ventilators and doctors in space suits to cram my thoughts.

Jorge Milian, Post reporter’s hellish month with COVID-19, The Palm Beach Post, April 10, 2021

Exercise habit

In a recent conversation, Jorge told me that before being bedridden by COVID-19 for 15 days, he had not been sick in his 26 years with The Palm Beach Post. He is an active 61-year-old, a diligent gym-goer (“a little bit of a maniac”), and former runner. He credits his lifetime fitness habit with his quick comeback.

As sick as I got, I still feel kind of lucky. My devotion to fitness aided in my recovery. [Still], it’s only been in the past couple of weeks that I can go for my hour-long bike ride or complete my daily strengthtraining routine without stopping every 15 minutes to catch my breath.

Jorge Milian, Post reporter’s hellish month with COVID-19, The Palm Beach Post, April 10, 2021

His body struggled though what had been comfortable workouts.

When I returned to the gym, it felt like a fever would suddenly rage through my body, heating up like crazy, although my temperature would be normal. But my muscle memory was there to see me though.

Jorge Milian, reporter and journalist

Fitness advice

Jorge is happy to be on the other side of his COVID-19 illness. He is not a long hauler, having been able to resume his full activity routine. And what does he recommend to help others build up their strength?

Find something you like to do and do it. Every day. Consistently. Work up to being active for an hour a day.

Jorge Milian, reporter and journalist

Staying well

Follow the public health recommendations: get vaccinated, wear a mask, and practice social distancing.

I’ve heard a lot of people saying that contracting COVID-19 was no worse than catching the flu, but the virus put this 60-year-old through a physical and mental wringer like I haven’t experienced before.

What I had, you don’t want.

Jorge Milian, Post reporter’s hellish month with COVID-19, The Palm Beach Post, April 10, 2021
Reporter Jorge Milian, photo Thomas Cordy, The Palm Beach Post

Wellness Wednesday: Why I Celebrated My Two-Year “All Clear” With New Shoes

Of all the tools I used to strengthen my body over my two-year recovery from a ruptured aneurysm, my trusty Skechers were the last to go.

I had three pairs of them, all army-issue grey, in sizes 7, 7.5, and 8. My husband bought them for me in Amsterdam during my hospitalization. It wasn’t that he didn’t know that I wear a 7. It was that my lower legs and feet were puffy from lack of use.

A long period of immobility with the legs dependent (below heart level) can lead to a build up of fluid, since we rely on the movement of the muscles in the leg to move the blood and fluid up out of the legs towards the heart.

The Vascular Society of Great Britain and Ireland

From May into June, I lay immobile in the ICU, my feet flexed against a pillow at the foot of the bed to prevent them from curling into each other, pigeon toed. For four weeks, my body battled its way back from the systemic-shut down that followed the ruptured aneurysm.

When I finally emerged from the fog of illness, I noticed how thin my arms and legs were (my puffy feet came later). My immediate thought: “This is fantastic! I can fit into my wedding outfit!” My second thought: “But I can’t move.” The ICU nurses strapped my flaccid thin legs to a bed-mounted motorized bicycle, and I began to work my way back.

It took another month to regain the ability to stand. There was no question about trying to get my unresponsive feet into even the bigger Skechers — if you’ve ever tried to put a shoe on a baby, you get the idea. Instead, I slid into a pair of pink plastic Crocs a roommate had left behind. Here I am taking the Crocs for a spin with my jazzy blue Rollator about 10 days before flying back to the States, with my very proud husband narrating for our daughter. (Yeah, I was pretty exhausted by the whole process, as my flat affect shows. Easy to forget that.)

At the end of July, I left the Crocs behind in Amsterdam and wore my size 8 Skechers when we flew to Shands Hospital in Florida before continuing my recovery back home. Those sturdy gray shoes took me shuffling down the neighborhood sidewalks and through my paces in FYZICAL therapy. My feet and calves stayed puffy, even with the compression stockings the therapist recommended. (They’re basically SPANX for your calves, hard to squeeze into and a relief to roll off.)

In November, the doctor at Shands suggested that the lower legs might not recover any further. “This may be it,” he said, matter of factly. “Maybe,” I said, and walked up two flights of stairs to our daughter’s apartment.

In February, we added Kumba, rescued by Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, to our household, and he kept me company in my morning walks, the two of us slowly gaining confidence in our frail bodies. My feet unswelled. I fit into my proper size of my battle-grey Skechers. I kept going into the pandemic, past a telehealth Shands checkup that showed continued progress, aiming at the two-year, in-person checkup that I hoped would release me back into the civilian population.

That day came at the end of July, and I threw out all three pairs of my illness-weary, pandemic-worn grey Skechers and replaced them with these Akk memory foam sneakers. One day, I might even update to heels! It’s a new day, a new year, and life awaits!

Wellness Wednesday: Why Do I Miss Being a Patient?

I sat alone in the audiologist’s isolation room, my eyes closed, and concentrated on listening. And there it was, a beep. And another. And … there, another.

Why was I having my hearing tested? As we emerged out of the pandemic and into society, it seemed to me that I wasn’t hearing people as well. Maybe it was the masks. Or my ears. Or both. My husband, who wears hearing aids — most of the time, though masks wreak havoc with other things hooked around ears— thought I wasn’t hearing as well. So, I went to the ENT practice which had last tested my hearing in 2018.

We’ll get to the results shortly. Here’s what happened to me first.

Being in that small, quiet room and following the audiologist’s orders brought back an unexpected wave of nostalgia for the comforting simplicity of being a hospital patient. No errands. No to do list. No bills, no calls. Just being in that bed for that time was all that was required. Doing what I was told.

It felt really weird to miss it.

It was a simpler time. Maybe like “doing time”? Definitely much nicer than being locked up, but similar in requiring the acceptance that I was in this place and that’s all there was to it.

How did I lie in a single bed for three months? I just did.

The trade off, of course, was that a big bunch of that time there was absolutely nothing my body could do for itself. I was an indebted, and often inert, captive. But my body held on until my mind could join in the effort. I was a very good patient. I aced it.

So here I was sitting alone in this small room, following the audiologist’s commands, when I was overcome with nostalgia.

My reverie was interrupted by the audiologist as she prepared me for the next test. Had I had any antibiotics by IV? Yes, I said, loads while I was hospitalized in 2019. She nodded, wired me up, and shut the door. I anticipated hearing more beeps and tweets. Nothing happened. Or maybe, I thought, something had happened and I couldn’t hear it. Not one sound for what seemed like minutes.

“Sorry,” her voice called over the equipment, “Got a little tied up there. OK, now we’ll start.”

The beeps restarted. I sailed through the test. The audiologist pronounced my hearing “perfect.”

Despite all that I’d been through, I’d avoided damage that hardcore IV antibiotics can cause to the sensory cells in the inner ear that detect sound and motion, resulting in hearing loss, dizziness, and tinnitus. It’s called ototoxicity. Another bullet dodged. Another one-in-a-million story.

That night, I Googled the question, “Why do some people like being in the hospital?”

Because being hospitalized can be like a retreat. No decisions, other than medical ones. No dishes to wash,no housework. No work deadlines. 3 meals, clean sheets. A call bell.

Nancy Walters, on Quora

And, in my case, because these men and women became my community. Who wouldn’t miss this amazing support team?

Wellness Wednesday: How Am I a One-in-a -Million Outcome?

In her opinion column in the Sunday New York Times, Dr. Daniela J. Lamas writes about unexpected ICU turn-arounds, when the grim repetition of bad news is trumped by unanticipated good news:

… the one in a million outcomes, the patients who surprise and humble us.

Daniela J. Lamas, pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston

I am one of those patients. I dodged death on May 5, 2019, when I suffered a ruptured arterial aneurysm while on vacation in Amsterdam, barely making it into the ER as my heart stopped. I dodged it again after sailing through surgery a day later, and repeatedly over the next several weeks, as my organs took turns failing. Somehow, I survived.

As tempting as it is to focus only on life or death in the ICU, there is a vast world between survival and true recovery.

Daniela J. Lamas, pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston

And here I sit in the patio of our home in South Florida two years and two months later, on this Independence Day, celebrating that rarest of miracles, full recovery. What made the difference? Being lucky enough to be taken to OLVG Hospital, for starters, where the staff were skilled, compassionate, and supportive. Being strong to start with. Trained by my early years to make the best out of any situation. And laughter.

Skill and compassion

The talented team of English-speaking doctors and nurses at OLVG hospital acted fast to stop the hemorrhage and never gave up as my body crashed, and they were also compassionate human beings that supported me and my exhausted family through those awful ICU weeks.

Support

My dear friend Anne, one of the nurses who most encouraged me in the weeks after my surgery, was so matter of fact about the inevitability of my complete recovery, so relaxed about my progress, that I never once doubted that I’d make it. My physiotherapist, Gemma, was sure I’d walk out of there. And I did.

Anne and her colleagues on 7A, OLVG Hospital, sent me this greeting a few weeks back. They are still in my corner.

Strength

It helped tremendously that I was physically fit. I danced in my 20s, developed a lifetime jogging habit, and taught exercise for the five years preceding that fateful trip. Six weeks of being motionless in the ICU sapped me of a quarter of my weight and the ability to move, but I had a surplus muscle and a love of moving to draw on. Eventually, it felt familiar. Then, good. Then, great.

Determination

I’ve never been particularly ambitious, but I’m very good at making the most of whatever circumstances I find myself in. I give credit to my upbringing in the Foreign Service. Learning how to chew and swallow again took days. Learning how to walk again took months. Full recovery took two years, and I continue to book an hour of my morning, every morning, to getting stronger every day.

Laughter

My love of a good community laugh has carried me over many a hurdle. I think I have to thank my Dad for that gene in my DNA, along with my passion for writing and my love of singing.

Words matter — a lot. Choose them carefully. Humor and wit matter — a lot. And puns are always good. And, music matters — sing it, play it, listen to it.

My sister, Susan Robb Amerson Hartnett, eulogizing our father, Robert C. Amerson in 2006

Lying inert in my ICU bed, unable to move and fighting for my life, I broke out into song — “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys. Although I don’t remember much of those weeks, I clearly recall hearing an ICU alarm marking that iconic beat — “Bah, bah, bah” (rest) “Bah, bah, bah” (rest) — and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to pick up the tune, just as I did many times while teaching exercise with this fun music.

Bah, bah, bah, (rest) bah, Barbara Ann (rest). Bah, bah, bah, (rest) bah, Barbara Ann (rest).Bah, bah, bah, (rest) bah, Barbara Ann (rest)

Barbara Ann, by Fred Fassert, recorded by The Beach Boys in 1965

My sister and my daughter (who had flown in from the States) smiled at my husband. “That’s her,” my sister said, and joined in with the harmony. Within moments, my family and nearby nurses and doctors added their voices, all of them laughing.

Starting my next book

All of which has got me ready to begin the book about all this. Working title: “Singing in the ICU: How A Community of Strangers Saved My Life.” Or something along those lines, witty and musical and wordy as Dad would have wanted.

Stay tuned!

My father, Robert Amerson, and me singing in Caracas circa 1956
My father, Robert Amerson, and me singing in Caracas circa 1956

Wellness Wednesday: How I celebrated my second anniversary of being alive

As I sipped my first cup of coffee this morning, I checked for the Amsterdam time. It was about two in the afternoon, two years ago to the hour from when my heart stopped on May 5, 2019.

My second anniversary

We’d just crossed the Atlantic on a Holland America cruise ship and should have been at Keukenhof Gardens but my husband had bronchitis, so we had stayed in Amsterdam to pick up medicine when I fainted on the sidewalk.
The EMTs arrived quickly, but my vital signs were within normal range and I told them I felt perfectly fine. Of course I did not feel perfectly fine. I’d had several days of cramping in my abdomen but I had been ignoring it, focused as I was on the next leg of our journey and a reunion with family at the Oslo Opera. “Take us back to the ship,” I commanded.

The ship doctor would not let us back on board unless we signed waivers relieving Holland America of the responsibility for our actions. I was determined, R was sick, and getting back to our room seemed like the only thing to do. We signed the waivers and got to the room, but when R returned with lunch 15 minutes later I was sprawled on the bed, semi conscious. This time, the decision was made for us — the ship doctor and his staff, along with a new set of EMTs, evacuated us off the ship within minutes. Although I understand I must have been unconscious, I remember someone saying as I was rolled into the ER at OLVG Hospital, “We are starting CPR.”

Imagine my poor husband watching this drama unfold, sitting in the ER lounge with our luggage and still very, very sick himself.

Surviving

The ER team identified a ruptured arterial aneurysm in my abdomen as the reason for my condition, and they quickly performed a clamping procedure that stopped the leak. However, the amount of blood in my abdomen had already begun to wreak havoc with my organs, and I spent the next six weeks in the ICU as my body fought off failure.

Our daughter and my sister flew to be at my husband’s side through these very long and dark weeks, and they were supported by the remarkably compassionate OLVG doctors and nurses and the extended family of another ICU patient. These dear people became our friends forever — I just mailed them some gifts.

Recovering

When I was discharged to the hospital’s gastroenterology unit, I had lost 30% of my bodyweight and the ability to move. The doctors told me that I might not have made it at all had I not been strong, the result of teaching water exercise to fellow retirees in Florida. The lifetime exercise habit gave my body the muscle memory it needed as I slowly recovered my ability to move, then to stand, then to walk.

R and I flew to Florida at the end of July, where the University of Florida Shands Hospital took over my care and confirmed that I was strong enough to continue my recovery as an outpatient. I shuffled down my neighborhood sidewalk using a walker and then a cane, and regained my ability to walk unassisted through physical therapy. We even joined a gym, and then, just weeks before my first anniversary, the pandemic hit.

Living

Quarantine did not stop me. My walks got longer and faster. The hand weights came out from the closet. I worked out on Zoom with my sister’s Colorado fitness instructor. We bought a stationary bike. I swam in our community pool and jogged in the ocean.

I have regained, maybe even surpassed, my May 5, 2019 strength and resilience. My next Shands checkup is in July, and we’re expecting me to be discharged.

Gratitude

I really wasn’t sure how I was going to celebrate this day. But then, I got a surprise call from Marsha, who was the first person to entrust me with being her personal trainer in the water. Marsha had just finished a water exercise class with an instructor who was filled with joy and enthusiasm, the feeling that I hoped to impart with every class when I was teaching. The repetition of exercises we’d worked on together, the freedom of moving in water and connecting with others — well, she simply had to call me.

As we caught up with each others lives, I was filled with gratitude for Marsha and all my former students who helped me to be strong enough to survive in 2019. We have made it through this awful pandemic year and will see each other over breakfast or in a pool when conditions permit. We are in each other’s lives, and that is a wonderful thing.

Indeed, I am reminded, today and every day, that life is a wonderful thing.

Travel Tuesday: Looking At The Dutch Tulips

Visitors tiptoe through the tulips in Dutch virus test, wrote Mike Corder recently for the AP, documenting the opening of the famed Keukenhof Gardens for a lucky 5,000 people. It is one of hundreds of public venues that the Dutch government has allowed to reopen under strict conditions to evaluate whether rapid testing can safely help the country ease coronavirus restrictions amid rising levels of vaccinations and warmer weather.

This is a gift. It feels great today. It is beautiful weather anyway … but to walk through the tulips is fantastic!

Corder quotesWritingBerries blogger Berry de Nijs, who shared the following picture on her WritingBerries Facebook page. Dank, Berry!
Dutch blogger Berry De Nijs posted this photo of the tulips in Keukenhof Gardens after her recent visit.

On May 5, 2019, we were scheduled to spend the day at Keukenhof Gardens when our cruise ship stopped in Amsterdam for the day before sailing on to Norway to complete a three-week cross-Atlantic voyage. We had missed the brief tulip season when we were in Amsterdam 2018, catching glimpses of the flowers only at the floating market during our week-long stay, so we’re really looking forward to seeing the 7 million tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and myriad other flowers meticulously hand-planted throughout Keukenhof’s manicured lawns by a small army of gardeners.

Photo by Jane Kelly Amerson López, 2018

But, through one of the zillion of timing miracles that allow me to tell you this today, we were not among the tulips on May 5, 2019, when I fainted on an Amsterdam sidewalk. We were outside a pharmacy getting medication for my husband’s bronchitis. Quick response by EMTs had me in an ER within minutes just as my heart stopped. I had ruptured an undiagnosed aneurysm. OLVG Hospital’s expert intervention sealed the leak, but I would be in the ICU for six weeks as my body struggled to survive, and another six weeks in the gastroenterology unit as I slowly regained movement of my wasted limbs.

I celebrated my one-year anniversary back on my feet. But this year as I commemorate surviving and recovering, I am even more grateful to have been spared breast cancer, to be vaccinated, and to be the least interesting patient in my doctor’s roster.

There’s a whole lot to look forward to, maybe even tiptoeing through Kukenhof one day, while living in each moment.

Wellness Wednesday: Three Strategies Behind My Recovery

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.

Keeping focused

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.

Repetition

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