The Day the Doctor Said I Shouldn’t Be Alive

I knew I was in trouble the day the test results came back. I was in my doctor’s office and he was looking at the test results. He squinted, re-adjusted his glasses and looked at them again. He shook his head as he looked up at me and said, “Well, we’ll have to do this test again. These results cannot possibly be right.” When I asked how he knew they couldn’t be right, he simply said, “Because you’d be dead.”

We repeated the test and the results came back – exactly the same.  He said, “Well, I can’t explain why you are alive, but you are and now we know what we are dealing with.  Let’s get to work on healing it.” 

Looking back now – from the safe distance of fourteen years – I’m probably more affected by it now than I was then.  Now, I know how close to death I was.  Then, all I knew was that I had a problem that I needed to do something about.  The good news was that we knew what the problem was:  complete adrenal collapse.  The bad news is that neither he nor any other doctor that he consulted about my results had ever seen numbers as low as what mine were. 

He told me that it would probably take another 1-2 years to get well.  I’d already been sick for about three years by then.  We began working on it and within a year, my numbers were back in the normal range.  That meant that I was no longer sick.  However, that was when I learned a cruel lesson:  there is a huge difference between not being sick and being well.

Before the illness hit, I was an avid athlete.  I particularly loved running and would run eight miles in a little less than hour. I did that every other day.  Now, I couldn’t walk to the end of the block without having to sit down on the curb to rest.  One doctor had kindly and compassionately suggested that I might need to accept that my days of being an athlete were over.  I didn’t know much about what I was facing, but I knew that somehow and someday, I would be an athlete again.  It took another six years to finally regain my strength and stamina and fitness.  Six years.

I’m often asked how did I stay with it for six years?  There were three mindsets that were my constant companions on that journey:

  • Do one thing that matters and do it consistently and with everything you have.  A couple of years into this journey, I started to realize how much strength I had lost.  Sitting upright took effort.  Standing up for twenty minutes would leave me drenched in sweat from the effort.  I knew that I would have to rebuild what I had lost. Once my doctor said I was finally well enough to start walking, I walked every day.  At first, it was to the end of the driveway, then the end of the block.  Every day, no matter the weather, I was out there walking.
  • Accept the present reality without confining yourself to it.  A few months after I got the green light to start walking, I had worked my way up to being able to walk six blocks.  At my turnaround point was a church where I could rest on the steps before heading home.  It was a beautiful October day and I was reflecting on how much I used to love to run on a day like that.  That filled me with a deep sadness.  I used to be a runner and now I was struggling to walk six blocks.  Then it dawned on me: it simply didn’t matter what I used to be able to do.  What mattered is what I did every day to change my circumstances.  From that point on, I viewed every day out walking as a victory.  Some days, I could add in an extra ten steps and that made me feel like I had just won the Super Bowl. 
  • Be willing to change and adapt. Early on in my recovery, I said to my doctor: “Just tell me what I need to do.  I can push through anything.”  The response stopped me in my tracks: “That’s exactly what got you sick and what got you sick, will not get you well.”  Up until I got sick, I never paid attention to how I was feeling, or if I was tired or if I might need to rest. In the months leading up to my collapse, I knew I was tired, but I didn’t listen to my body.  Instead I was so proud of myself for pushing through the exhaustion.   When I say exhaustion, I don’t mean that I was tired.  I mean that I couldn’t stand long enough to take a shower.  I couldn’t sit up long enough to put on my make-up.  I couldn’t sit up long enough to brush my teeth.  I came up with a clever work around for that last one:  I would sit on a kitchen stool, lean forward and rest my elbows on my bathroom vanity so that all I had to do was raise my forearm to brush my teeth and it worked.  Until the day came when I could no longer raise my forearm. 

    Instead of more of the same behavior, which would certainly get me more of the same results, I had to change.  I had to learn to listen to my body.  I had to learn new ways of being and operating.  My husband and I had to re-learn what we thought we knew about eating well.  We even had to change how we cooked in a much more basic way:  early on, I couldn’t walk down the stairs to the kitchen, so he had to learn to cook.  One day, he brought the phone upstairs to the bed where I was resting and he said, “Okay.  I’ve made all the hamburgers and pasta I can stand.  You can train anything, so I’m going to call you from my cellphone down in the kitchen and you can teach me how to cook over the phone.”   And we did and we had fun along the way. 

As I reflect on my journey more, I’m sure there are dozens of other lessons that I learned on the road to being an athlete again.  And, I am an athlete again:  this season, I logged 95 days of cross-country skiing, last summer I summited 6 or 7 mountain passes on my road bike (this summer that number will be higher), and I went out paddle boarding countless times.  The sceneries change, but what I feel when I’m out there doesn’t:  intense gratitude.  I could have missed all of it.  I’m so grateful to the doctors who were my partners in healing, to my husband for being the most patient and loving nurse and to God for giving me a second chance and for gifting me with resilience.