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