Thursday, November 7, 2013

Don't Cancel Your Gym Membership

Professional writers spend many hours sitting on our asses in front of our computers. Sad, but true. And since I started writing full-time in 2000 (hold on a second while I get my calculator . . .) Yes, that would make thirteen years that I’ve been sitting around on my ass for eight-to-fourteen hours per day. That’s a lot of ass time.
My kids were elementary school-aged when I started writing. I wrote when they were asleep, at school, before they woke up, or when my mother was with them. Of course, I ran around doing the usual mom things when I wasn’t strapped to my desk, but for the first couple years of my writing career I didn’t make a point of getting fit. My life was nothing but the kids, the house, the computer, and a doctor-husband who wasn’t around all that much.
Then one day in the fall of 2001, after I’d signed my first two-book deal with a publisher, I woke up and looked in the mirror to find that my ass had sculpted itself into the exact size and shape of the seat of my ergonomic office chair. (I don’t think that’s what the infomercials mean when they promise you’ll get “sculpted glutes.” ) Boy howdy, it was time for a change.
For the next five years, I was a fitness fanatic. I worked out six days a week (cardio, Zumba, yoga, hiking, walking, weights, Pilates) and cut back drastically on sugar, artificial sweeteners, refined flour, and fried foods. Yeah, I lost a ton of weight and I felt great, but please don’t be misled – I looked and felt fabulous for me. Kate Moss I was not. At my peak of adult fitness, I wore a size 10, and was damn proud of it. Okay, so let’s fast-forward to 2006, the year my husband and I separated. The process was an emotional, logistical, and financial carnival ride, and my dedication to health and fitness fell to the wayside. So that’s how it happened that in the autumn of 2010 I looked in the mirror again and saw that Mr. Office-Chair Booty was back in town. I went back to the gym.
Why am I telling you all this? Because one of the biggest questions about this whole ordeal is how I managed to survive an encounter with necrotizing fasciitis, and this is part of the answer. When I got sick in December 2011, I had a whole year of mindful eating and hard work at the gym behind me. I had given up the ass-shaping chair and gotten myself a treadmill desk, where I could write and walk at the same time. A lost a good bit of the weight I had put on and was enjoying kickboxing, Zumba, yoga, hiking, and weightlifting again. So when I lay there in University of Maryland’s Shock Trauma unit, doctors told my family and friends that I was remarkably strong for a fifty-year-old woman, and my general health made a huge difference in my ability to fight off an infection that could have killed me.

With my trainer, Chad, on my first day back in the gym, June, 2012

At this point I want to introduce you to a buddy of mine, Chad. He’s been my personal trainer and dear friend since 2010. With his encouragement, I was able to rebound from the stressful post-divorce years and really enjoy moving my body again. About two days before I ended up in the Shock Trauma unit, he was putting me through my paces with indoor sprints, ordering me to do figure eights around a course of little orange cones. I hated him for that, of course, but I was feeling pretty dang proud of myself – right up until the moment my left knee popped and I hobbled in pain.
Yes, this was the same knee where the infection would be found just days later. It was also the knee that had been surgically reconstructed after I blew out my ACL on the ski slopes in Colorado in 1991. But nobody knows if these events are connected to my illness, and every doctor I’ve asked has shaken his or her head and assured me it’s unlikely. And, to be honest, I had been feeling sick for a while before I hurt my knee working out with Chad.
Still . . . there have been many cases where otherwise healthy people contract flesh-eating bacteria with no external wound, so there must be something left to learn about the infection process, right? So, how I got this devastating illness remains a mystery.
After that episode with the orange cones, I was a no-show with Chad two days in a row. Since I never missed without advance notice, he got worried. He made some calls and found out I was in the hospital and wasn’t expected to make it. Chad remembers being stunned.
“I said out loud, ‘Holy shit!” Chad recalls. “’I just saw her a couple days ago and she was fine! How can she be near death?’ And then I thought, no. Not Susan. Nothing’s gonna kill that girl. She’s too strong.”
I did fight to stay alive. I might not have realized it at the time, but all the hard work I’d done in 2011 had prepared me for the most daunting physical challenge of my life.  Getting back in the gym had saved my life.
Too many times we’ve seen recent news stories about people who’ve suffered the sudden loss of limb – combat veterans, accident victims, terrorism targets, and casualties of natural disasters. Every story is a tragedy and my heart goes out to every person who has suffered that kind of sudden, irreversible loss. It must be devastating to wake up in the hospital to see that you’re without your hands, or legs, or feet.
I wouldn’t know, because that’s not how it happened for me. In my case, it was a slow, agonizing sickness that destroyed my overall heath before it claimed my leg. All of my organ systems were damaged by the infection and there was a time when one doctor told me not to get my hopes up that I would ever regain the function of my kidneys. “You may end up on dialysis the rest of your life,” she said. “You need to prepare yourself.”
So the amputation itself wasn't the primary battle for me. Before I could even deal with the reality of living with one leg, I had to heal from the inside out – my brain, my lungs, my kidneys, and my heart.
        I do remember briefly regaining consciousness after I had the amputation surgery. The recovery room nurse touched my arm and asked me if I understood that I only had one leg. I nodded.
But really, I was too sick and weak to care.

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