One life to live. For some it plays out as expected, though always there are bumps in the road. For others it’s cut tragically short before it’s hardly begun or when someone is in their prime. Perhaps more tragically, there are those who are given a long life and do nothing with it.
The variations are many, for we’re all unique, but for me the path led to a second chance, one that was demonstrated in dramatic fashion yesterday. If you’re someone who’s in dire need of a second chance, one you can fight to create, then this post is for you. If you’re wanting a little inspiration for your day, then this post is for you, too. Read on…
This month is an anniversary for me, its nature depending upon one’s perspective. At this point in my life I choose to see the anniversary in a positive light. Yesterday I chose to treat it as such and, in exchange, was rewarded beyond imagining.
Yesterday was the day I was never supposed to have…
Some of you are familiar with my health history or know bits and pieces, but I’m sure there are those who aren’t so I’ll review the oft told tale and place this post in its proper perspective.
In June 2009 while living in Wyoming I developed difficulty breathing. I’d wake up at night and it was as if my lungs were convulsing. My shortness of breath grew worse so I went to my physician. The next month I was diagnosed with COPD. I worsened. By December I’d lost 20 pounds and climbing a flight of stairs was agony. I demanded that something be done—so I was sent to a psychiatrist. Seriously. I’m not joking.
The psychiatrist wanted me on Zoloft, but my past history with anti-depressants was terrible so I was told to take a leave of absence from my job. I was then loaded up with other meds to help me transition onto the medication. Nightmare. I was delirious and incoherent. In May 2010 I was rushed to the hospital. I weighed 85 pounds. I was within hours of dying.
It was then discovered (by different doctors) that I’d never had COPD, but instead Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis, a lung disease brought on by a bacterial infection. The infection had already ravaged 1/3 of my lung capacity. Gone forever. In August 2010, 4 years ago this month, I was told I’d be on oxygen for the rest of my life. Still, on the off chance something more could be done they arranged for me to see the doctors at National Jewish Health (leading respiratory hospital in the US) in Denver in November 2010. Their treatment, which was aggressive and decisive, turned things around. In March 2011 I started walking and went off oxygen entirely on December 30, 2011.
Let’s fast forward to the present.
I’m in Missoula, Montana now where the weather is better for me and I’ve been walking religiously and practicing yoga. There’s a tradition here that residents and visitors hike to the “M,” a giant, cement “M” on the side of Mt. Sentinel directly above the university. Day after day I’d walk along the river and longingly gaze up at the symbol, which is visible from all over the city, and wonder if I might one day consider such a hike.
With every walk it came to mean more and more to me.
Not long ago I managed a 6-mile walk along the river and went huckleberry picking in a nearby canyon. The time seemed right to see if I could manage the hike, no matter how long it took.
Yesterday, I rose early and by 8:20AM was heading down the walking path on my bike. It’s a 3-mile ride over level ground. It takes a long time for my stiff lungs to respond and I hoped the bike ride would help prepare me. When I walk the first mile is often a challenge until my scared lungs start to stretch. When I parked my bike I was struggling and worried that I’d done too much. I took a ten-minute break.
At 8:50AM I started up the stairs leading to the first switchback, which is the longest one. On the incline the longest I could walk was about 30 seconds. I rested at least 5-6 times on that first leg and took a lot of pictures. There was a chance I couldn’t manage a second switchback. Head down, my thoughts focused on the moment and each step, I kept going. 30 seconds walking. A 30 second rest. 30 seconds walking. A 30 second break. One switchback and then another. Stop and take a picture.
The unthinkable happened. On a short switchback with only a slight incline I made it the full length without stopping. More resting. More pictures. Head down, focus upon each step. Time passed. I looked up. I was there. It was 9:50AM. I’d ascended 620 feet vertically in my .75 mile hike.
I’d wondered if I’d cry. I didn’t. Instead, I took in the view and was thankful for every step I’d taken, for every step was another step in my second chance at life. For someone who was supposed to go on Social Security and pull an oxygen tank around for the rest of her life this was a huge moment.
Yeah, there’s always a “but,” and this one was brought on by my unyielding curiosity, or maybe it was time for my second chance to extend a reward for hard work…
I’d noticed people walking a short distance to the north to look at the view there. The incline was slight, so before heading down I walked that way. I took more pictures, turned around, and realized I was facing another switchback that would take me to the top of the “M.” H’m, seemed like a another fun, though small, accomplishment. I walked to the top of the “M.”
I also noticed that my 40 minute rest had revived me and that my lungs remained pliable.
A short distance ahead was a sign that faced the other direction so I walked to it and discovered it reported the fire danger level (very high). At that point the “M” was barely in sight off to the side and below me. Too, where I was the trail was actually less steep and I was enjoying the fact that it wasn’t choked with people. I was exploring. Further up the trail there was a sizable rock outcropping. I have a weakness for rock formations so off I went while taking regular rests. Then I found a cave…
Perhaps you see how this is going?
My lungs grew stronger. The new sights made me hungry for further adventure. I was doing something few were attempting. I was climbing a freakin’ mountain! Oh, I hadn’t yet decided to climb it, but it was beginning to cross my mind. I came upon a cave. The trail cut up a wooded ravine that was beautiful.
Yeah, okay, this was crazy. What was I thinking? I was wondering the same thing, but I kept walking, resting, walking…
Keep in mind that it’s 620 feet to the “M” and then another 1,338 feet to the summit. There are two trails up the west side. I was on the easier, though longer, one. I kept walking. It became steeper near the top, but at that point I was too determined to turn back. Extra rests. Fewer steps between…
The trail curled around to the east side and it was a short, rocky scramble to the top. I’d made it! It was 12:50PM. For the first time in 40 years I’d climbed a mountain of any size. I had the summit to myself. I took pictures galore. I filmed video. I drank the last of my warm water (I’d only planned to hike to the “M,” after all). I was on the summit for over 30 minutes, most of it spent walking in circles trying to comprehend what I’d done.
Four years ago, walking along the river without oxygen was viewed as impossible. Doing what I’d just done was, well, beyond impossible, I guess. Thankfulness. Inspiration. Elation. Gratitude. Emotions that were simply off the charts (they’d have been more so if I hadn’t been so tired) assaulted me on the summit and despite my need to rest I kept walking in circles.
Mt. Sentinel stands only 5,158 feet tall, but for me, yesterday, it was Everest.
I have no illusions here, for though I’ve stretched my capabilities, I’m still aware of my risks. My great recovery in 2011 led to my returning to working in January 2012. Within 3 months I was having breathing problems. In 6 months I was seeing the doctor. In 9 months I was back on meds and oxygen. There’s no traditional workplace in my future, not if I want to live. I’ll live in a box first. Instead, I work to keep my lungs healthy and I write and hopefully that combination will serve me.
For now, I’m thankful for every extra day I’m able to enjoy.
Such a recovery isn’t in everyone’s future, and some will do better than I have, but I’m thankful for where I am now. Too, I want those people who are out there thinking “I wonder…” to realize that your wondering just might have possibilities attached to it. I beat the odds and my prognosis, but I didn’t do it alone. I found great doctors and I’ve had tremendous support along the way.
Me standing on the summit? That moment is for them, too. Thank you.