Thrown Into the Deep End

There’s a strange sense of accomplishment that comes with defying the medical odds and cheating Death during what could have easily – should have likely – been the cause of it. 

Initially, it’s the sense of awe you feel throughout the early stages of recovery, the wonder felt as you reengage with things you once took for granted: sitting on your patio, the sun on your face as you take several deep breaths of fresh air. The gastronomical delight of eating your favorite foods as both your appetite and taste buds slowly return to normal. Running a mundane errand, such as hitting up CostCo for basic supplies or picking up clothing from the drycleaners. That first time back at the gym, be it for ten minutes on a stationary bike or ten laps in the pool. 

For me, the pool became my Happy Place after surviving a near-fatal illness during the birth of my daughter nineteen years ago. I began with a mere four laps and worked up to 1-2 miles per swim. Doing those laps, slow though they were, was the most glorious aspect of my long-term recovery process. I used to keep track of each lap by repeating silly rhymes in my head as I swam.

One, one, this is fun. Two, two, look what I can do. Laps seven and eight were always my favorites. Seven, seven, almost went to heaven. Eight, eight, but now I feel great. And ten always made me want to smile, even with my face submerged in chlorinated water. Ten, ten, let’s not do that again.

The thing about overcoming a once-in-a-lifetime medical challenge is that it’s easy – preferable even – to think you’ll be spared any further harrowing experiences of this nature. You’ve checked off that box and surely Life will reward you with a gentle path from here on out. I certainly felt that way for years after my own near-miss, my unbridled optimism about the future, I believe, helping me achieve an 80-85% recovery. I had no idea that I’d be slapped down again by the long-term consequences of having survived what was supposed to have been a heartbreaking maternal death due to preeclampsia, HELLP Syndrome, and a month-long bout with uncontrollable internal hemorrhaging or DIC (which, behind closed doors, is often defined as Death Is Certain). But those consequences did, in fact, arrive – in the form of numerous necrotic and excruciatingly painful joints.

A few months after my fourth total joint replacement last year, I read a story in the New York Times about a (much) younger swimmer who’d undergone a harrowing experience with debilitating foot and leg pain for five years before she underwent a below-the-knee amputation. She was 20 years old when the surgery took place. 

Three months later, she was back in the pool after a two-year hiatus. She quickly became a national champion in several Para Swimming events, resulting in her selection to train for the Tokyo Paralympics at the United States Olympic facility in Colorado Springs. She transferred to the University of Colorado to continue her pre-med studies while training. Life, while not what she expected, was back on track and promising a bright future.  

The New York Times story was an awesome feel-good piece about embracing one’s challenges and finding the silver lining in what initially appears to be an insurmountable setback. And those who know me also know that I love a good uplifting story. They’re like super vitamins for my soul, offering proof that the human body is capable of great things. Reading about this young woman’s courage made me believe I might actually have a shot at swimming “real” laps again one day, enough with this water jogging business!

I contacted the young woman (of course I did!) to let her know how much I was encouraged by her story, moved by her incredible level of resilience and accomplishment. What I didn’t know is that when the New York Times story dropped this past March, she was in her second month of experiencing similar issues with her other foot. 

She wrote to me a few hours ago: her right leg will also be amputated in two weeks. 

Reading her update felt like a punch in the gut. So young. So unfair. 

But Life never claimed to be fair, did it? And, as I’ve learned from my own ongoing medical challenges, not all comebacks are permanent. Relapses, complications, and changes to one’s body can wreak havoc long after the celebratory well wishes dissipate, when others expect you to be, more or less, “back to normal.”

Here’s another thing I’ve learned about ongoing medical challenges: they’re costly. Regardless of how good your health insurance might be. Additional costs add up quickly: equipment not covered by insurance, loss of income due to illness or disability, loss of income due to caring for someone with an illness or disability, experimenting with supplements and complementary treatments that might help but aren’t yet mainstream, travel to and from out-of-town/state consultations, hiring people to do the things you can no longer do for yourself. There is so much more involved in the cost of healthcare than that which insurance companies cover. So. Much. More. Major medical challenges can be not only physically crippling, but financially crippling as well. I speak with firsthand knowledge of this.

Right now, the parents of this young woman, who still dreams of representing the United States at the Paralympics, are dealing with out-of-pocket healthcare costs in the hundreds of thousands. If you’re moved to help them out, here’s the GoFundMe link:  https://www.gofundme.com/f/morgan-stickney-backonmyfeet?fbclid=IwAR07zYCDIigtCT_0NkVSGmw5_lZpV1Q2HnOJ2SJ7isiy_iuddqRv_jPA4gM

And if, in the future, you see a news story about the Paralympics, look for this name: Morgan Stickney. I’ve got a hunch she’ll be listed as a medalist. 

Morgan’s hashtag: #backonmyfeet