What if you were told that you are lucky to be alive? That once again you made an unprecedented recovery given the odds? And because of this, for a second time in your life, you are now a medical case study? What do you do with the knowledge that you came so close to the edge? Do you readjust and limit the definition of those borders and become more cautious, or, do you decide to live even more magnificently beyond those prescribed and unimaginative borders?
The first time I became a medical case study with the near amputation of my right leg it spurned a change so dramatic, so life affirming, that in many ways I became a completely different person. I experienced the most severe pain and the very real possibility of never walking unassisted again. I decided that this would not be my fate and that I would prove all the doctors and specialists wrong. I distinctly remember when this audacious and ill-informed decision was made: within hours of my first surgery and under the influence of some pretty heavy-duty pain medication. I had no idea how I would go about doing this. Two years of full-time physical therapy and multiple surgeries later, I did just that. I proved them all wrong. It was an arduous journey of constant uncertain struggle. A demanding crusade into the unknown that I would not wish on my worst enemy. Thankfully, most of that experience was blurred by the false comfort of strong nerve and pain medication. And through enduring this darkness emerged a tremendous gift: an unexpected discovery of a love for adventure in the ocean. This revelation changed my life. When I look back on what I recall of that experience, what I thought at the time was the worst possible thing that could ever happen to me, was in fact the best thing to ever happen to me: I found that glorious treasure that makes my heart truly sing.
Six months ago, in an inadvertent and second exploration of medical boundaries, the odds were once again stacked against me. I was diagnosed with Pulmonary Edema caused in part by over 200 jellyfish stings that I endured during my most recent long-distance swim from Northern Ireland to Scotland. The likelihood of suffering long-term damage was high. Still I prayed that somehow within this limited data set of possible outcomes, there would be room for an outlier.
Once discharged from the hospital, I continued to experience significant pain and had absolutely no energy. In fact I was so tired that I slept most of each day. And breathing – that fundamental necessity - though much improved – remained very difficult. At times it was extremely scary. The limited period that I was awake each day meant there really was not much else I could do but rest. The highlight of each day was a phone call from family and friends or a special visit from one of my friends. All of which was welcomed but completely exhausting. This experience became a lesson in both gratitude (the outpouring of love from friends and strangers was overwhelming) and patience. Not only in the ability of my body to heal (however slowly) but also patience with not knowing exactly what the outcome would be. Fourteen days after my Northern Ireland swim, I walked outside for the first time. Extremely weak and dazed, I needed to nap for 4 hours after walking only ½ block. Exasperated, oftentimes I would simply cry.
Unlike my last injury where quantifiable and incremental improvement at physical therapy motivated me even during the most difficult of days, where I could even see my skin graft and other scars heal, my healing was entirely inconspicuous. With no tangible way to know how I was fairing except for delightfully fleeting moments of increased lung capacity only to be set back with frustratingly prolonged periods of reduced function, my journey centered wholly on a belief – my faith - in the uncertain.
Thrown back into the routine of work a mere four weeks from my swim to Scotland on October 2nd, I was neither emotionally nor physically ready. I had no choice but to pretend as if everything were fine, even though it was far from it. Exhausted from my first day back in the office, I was asleep in bed by 6pm. Night after night I dragged my weary body home to bed before sunset. It was lonely and tremendously isolating.
Reflecting back on this period, though it was challenging to maintain this pretense, it was the best thing I could have done.
I remember dipping my toes in the water at Crissy Field in San Francisco three weeks after I was discharged from hospital. As the cool water swirled invitingly around my knees for the first time in over a month, I knew I had to return to the sea. I also knew that if I shared this desire with my team of doctors they would be far from impressed. Yet I hoped that if I simply acted as if I were supposed to be improving, my body and my mind would somehow catch up with the idea.
On October 1st I dove my body into the San Francisco Bay. Emotionally and physically fragile, this momentous “first dip” was extremely poignant. I knew I needed this. Each morning before work I immersed myself religiously in the briny waters of the Bay. Sometimes all I could do was cry as my body and my mind would take me no further than 30 yards from shore. Though often disappointed with my lack of strength, my practice of patience won over. In early November I quietly returned to the pool. As I walked into the pool enclosure on that cool dark pre-dawn morning, I remember marveling at how big the pool now seemed to me. Unable to finish even half of a workout (most of which was spent hanging onto the wall out of breath), I kept trying. Tempering my desire to return to the water with listening to my body, I set out to find a modicum of routine. Soon though, my stalwart patience gave way to a deep frustration. December became an emotional roller coaster like none other.
Returning back from Christmas spent at home in New Zealand, I craved the sea more than ever before. Reality set in and I wondered what would be next if my lungs did not fully recover. So I continued to pretend as if my body had healed. Diligently attending swim practice and swimming in the Bay, finally a major breakthrough occurred a few weeks later. My lungs suddenly felt expansive and light. It was a feeling that I cannot adequately put into words. As my motor ticked over in the water, I once again felt free. Final confirmation of a recovery came from my doctors on February 10th. Flabbergasted with the x-ray presentation of my near perfect lungs, I was given a healthy 9/10.
So what to do? Eagerly sneaking a look over the walls that have confined me for so many months all I crave is another adventure. Its form, however, has yet to materialize and yet I know this time it will carry a deeper level of gratitude not only for all of those who have been so kind and supportive but also for one more chance to enter the arena.