Posted by MARK MCCLOSKEY on Jul 10, 2011 10:00:26 PM
The mind-body connection cannot be overlooked. When either fails, it is up to the one to heal the other.
Cycling had become a passion bordering on obsession. Last year I entered the Life Time Fitness Essay contest to gain an entry to the famed off road epic- The Leadville 100. I had seen the movie "Race Across The Sky" with a group of cycling friends and felt compelled to see if I had what it takes to finish. The race is over 100 miles, with 14,000 feet of climbing, all above 10,000 ft elevation, topping off at 13,000 ft on Columbine Mountain. If you finish under 12 hours you earn the much sought after gold and silver belt buckle. I was thrilled to learn that I was chosen to represent the Dublin, Ohio club.
I had a plan. I had my vo2 max tested and I followed a strict nutrition and training plan using Life Time's resources as my base camp. Many times I passed up my favorite group rides to train alone. Leading up to the race I even slept in an altitude tent in my basement. My neighbors all had to see this for themselves just so they could inform me that I was nuts. After work, I would haul my bike to the local ski area and do intervals up the slopes. I learned to lower my nose to the handlebars to avoid flipping over backwards on the steepest inclines and that speed is your friend over the roughest terrain on the down hills. If you look down you will meet the ground I was told. Had I mentioned that I hadn't been on a mountain bike in 20 years? I attended the Lifetime training camp in Leadville to learn from some of the best riders in the country how to approach all aspects of the ride. Back home, my local Life Time club let me play the Race Across The Sky movie on the big screen in the spinning room as I simulated climbs and worked to keep my heart rate in specific training zones. And of course, this was a great excuse to buy a new bike. I jokingly told my wife that I needed a very expensive bike or I could die...very dramatic! I finished the ride 7883 calories later without a crash (thanks to the expensive bike), and earned my buckle. I have run a marathon, earned a black belt and ridden numerous century bike rides but this was my proudest athletic achievement. I was in the best condition of my adult life. Several weeks later I would be fighting for my life.
Of all days to get sick, my body chose the day we were moving into a new house. I felt I had jinxed myself. I have never been a sickly person and often bragged that I had not missed a day of work in 21 years. However, this day I felt so weak that I slept in the car as my wife did all the work. Under normal circumstances this would not be a problem- her doing all the work that is! The second night in our new house I got out of bed, only to do a flip into the dresser. My legs didn't work. I scooted down the steps and my wife drove me to the ER. We were hoping I was just dehydrated and weak. Eventually, I was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease called transverse myelitis. It is literally a one in a million illness. In effect, when your body mounts a fight against a virus, it goes haywire and starts to attack and destroy the myelin which insulates nerves and allows impulses to travel.
Within two days this autoimmune disease left me paralyzed from the waist down and with no use of my left arm. As it continued demyelinating my spinal cord it stopped my breathing and left me on a ventilator for nearly a month. As is the case in many a hospital stay, I developed pneumonia which collapsed two lungs. After a month, I was transitioned to a trach tube, all the while being fed a liquid diet by means of a stomach tube. I went a month without eating or talking. My body was so sick that I also developed a critical care myopathy which caused my muscles to waste away. I could not stand to look at my spindle like legs and kept them covered. A family member gave me an iPad which I used to communicate with my doctors and nurses. To keep my spirits up, I watched the trailers for the Leadville 100 on YouTube and a Nike commercial showing Lance Armstrong riding up the Col de la Madone in France. I imagined I was well again and climbed along as I watched the video clips over and over. The Leadville credo is "dig deep", which is what is needed when your body feels as if it has been beaten to rubble. The sad statistics of transverse myelitis are that 1/3 of the people make a good recovery, 1/3 make a partial recovery, and 1/3 remain paralyzed for the remainder of their lives. I believe that my training and conditioning for the Leadville 100 allowed me to survive the initial onslaught and complications of this disease. I decided that I was a case study of one and that I wasn't going to read any more gloomy statistics. It might be silly, but I pictured this disease as a mountain I was riding up with many switchbacks. As any cyclist knows, you don't try to predict the top, you just keep going. The same mind games any endurance athlete uses to compete can serve you well in dealing with a debilitating illness. I told myself, if I could do Leadville, I could fight this disease.
The bike has played a major role in my recovery. I was hospitalized almost 3 months; the last 6 weeks were in the spinal rehab unit. Initially, I couldn't sit upright or even hold my head up. I was lifted from wheelchair to bed. After the full days of therapy, I would do laps of the hospital ward in my wheelchair to try to build up my arm strength and endurance. My wife, Michele, was by my side always telling me I was going to get better. My two sons, Michael and Kyle, have stayed strong and made me proud as their lives too have been turned upside down.
I purchased a recumbent exercise bike when I left the hospital in January. At that point I was still in a wheelchair. I could not keep my feet from slipping off the pedals. A cycling friend helped me switch my mountain clippless pedals to my Sear's special. I snapped my shoes to the pedals by hand and still struggled to have enough strength to push my feet into the shoes. I barely managed to generate 5 watts of power and I was so slow the bike would turn off even though I was still pedaling. The edema and swelling which the doctors could not get to leave my feet was gone in 2 days. I have kept a daily log and hit 83 watts the other day. Not much by a cyclist's standards, but definite improvement.
As I write this, I am 8 months out from my initial attack and walking with crutches. I have started back part time at my veterinary practice. This year, July 4th took on added meaning for me. My goal since all of this started has been to get back on a REAL bike. While my wife and younger son steadied the bike and helped get my feet in position, my older son filmed the event on his phone (the video of which I have included). I started in the grass to soften the landing in case I fell. I pushed down on the crank and started to move. My balance held steady, the wheels were spinning and I headed towards the road. While I still couldn't really walk, I made it 5 miles on my bike around a neighborhood loop. It was only 5 miles and it wasn't over rocky terrrain or at high altitude. But this was a victory I shared with my family. This was my 2011 Leadville. The elation I felt being back on the bike brought tears to my eyes and to hear my kids laugh and say "you did it" meant more to me than the Leadville buckle. Independence Day has a whole new meaning for me. The shackles were starting to fall!
My relationships with my wife, children, family and friends have been strengthened. My Faith has been tested and reaffirmed. I do not underestimate the power of prayer and I am thankful to all those who have prayed for my recovery. Things are not perfect- there are days when the frustration gets to me. But I am better today than I was yesterday and I look forward to tomorrow. It is really that simple. I realize that it is not always what we accomplish, but what we accomplish with what we have. What we have as a population will vary from person to person. What we have as individuals will vary from day to day. Life itself is not a given- it is a gift. The challenge for all of us is not to take anything or anyone for granted. Since starting to regain my energy and strength, I have volunteered my services to help Canine Companions for Independence as a veterinarian to help these amazing dogs who in turn help people more in need than myself. I hope to use my unique perspective from having been paralyzed to keep me motivated. Another goal is to help form a therapy dog chapter through my office to visit patients in the hospital-especially the neurological rehab unit.
As I read this I realize that there are far too many I's and me's. I could not have survived or improved without the help of wonderful doctors, nurses, therapists, friends and especially my family. Some day in the future, I hope to pedal my bike up the toughest climbs in France. All those who have helped me will get a thank you note with a picture of me smiling from the top of some mountain. Hopefully, it will be just like riding a bike....