Posts tagged Resilience
Sidewalk Lessons

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “It’s not how many times you fall that matters; it’s how many times you get back up.”

It’s a great message, but to me, at least in my circumstances, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Don’t get me wrong, getting up from a fall, whether physical or emotional, is incredibly important. Learning to pick yourself back up is a valuable skill, and is representative of a special type of grit and determination that’s needed to get through the realities of life. But there’s more to it.

As someone who is well-versed in falling after nine years living with Miyoshi Myopathy, an adult-onset form of muscular dystrophy, I’ve become an expert on the subject, for better or worse. I’ve fallen all sorts of ways – I’ve tripped on cobblestone sidewalks, I’ve stumbled getting off a bus, and I’ve been knocked over by oblivious strangers engrossed in their iPhones. I’ve even fallen over after sneezing. Even with the greatest of precautions, it doesn’t take much to fall, especially now that I’m nine years into this disease, a physical shell of my former self.

As a serial faller, it often feels like the famous saying has been turned around on me: It’s not how many times you pick yourself back up, it’s how many more times you’re going to fall now that you are upright again.

Falling, as you can imagine, is no fun. It’s not something I’ll ever quite get used to. But thankfully, so far, I’ve gotten back up every time, although in the last few years I’ve needed the help of others to do so. Assistance or not, there is pride in getting up after a fall, dusting myself off, and continuing on with life.

However, it isn’t from the act of getting back up where I’ve learned life’s most important lessons; it’s on the ground post-fall. It is here –on the cold, miserable pavement, or the hard wooden floor, or the cushiony carpeting (oh look, the Cheerio from yesterday’s breakfast), where I’ve had to confront the sobering realities of my life, mainly, that my disease isn’t going to get better anytime soon, if ever. Lying on the ground, unsure how I’m going to get back up, is terrifying. Every time it happens, my body trembles, my heart races uncontrollably. I often feel like I could pass out, that is, if I don’t throw up first.

But it is in these most frustrating moments after a fall where I have found the resolve to keep going, unlocking strength I never knew I had. I found this resolve - to continue living my life despite the weighty knowledge of what lies ahead – ironically enough, after trying to give up.

It was middle of winter in early 2013, and I was going on five years dealing with increasing muscle weakness that I knew was only going to get worse with time. That night, on a side street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I fell for the umpteenth time, but it was the first time I couldn’t pick myself back up using my own strength. Instead, I had to crawl over to a parked car and use it as leverage to stand up again. When I finished, exhausted, I plopped myself onto the hood. I wanted to quit life right then and there.

Over the years, I had suppressed my emotions, putting on a strong façade to keep myself sane day after day. But on this night, it was all just too much. I had fallen twice in five minutes, and if the car wasn’t there to bail me out, I might have taken myself up on the alternate option to crawl under a nearby bush and wait for life to pass me by.

In those dark moments on the ground, when I failed over and over again to get up – first with my body weight, then with a flimsy metal fence that never had a chance to support me - I thought this was going to become my life, my future. Fall. Get up somehow. Fall again. My life reduced to perverse clockwork.

On the hood of the car, I felt an exhaustion I had never felt before, and have never since. It was a combination of physical exhaustion and emotional burnout. I had used all my strength to get up onto the hood, after crawling 20 feet to even get to the car, after failing twice to get up, after having fallen again five minutes before that and pulling myself up using a stronger fence further down the street. Giving up was not only an emotional decision, it felt perfectly rational. How could I deal with this every day? And it’s supposed to get worse from here?

Deep down though, I couldn’t give up. Maybe it was my subconscious giving me a jolt, telling me to snap out of it, or maybe it was a divine nudge reminding me I had so much yet to live for – I believe it was both. Eventually, I pried myself from the hood of the car and walked, ever so carefully, the remaining block to my apartment.

It was only months later that I could fully understand how that experience was a turning point in my life. The falls haven’t gotten any easier since then, but in finding my inner strength that night – and I had to really be pushed to brink to find it – I gained a new confidence. I realized that if I could withstand the pavement, the failed attempts to get up, the dark thoughts that swirled through my mind, even the knowledge that falls like this would become a regular occurrence, I could withstand anything. Suddenly, dreams that were dashed no longer seemed impossible.

Doors that had closed in my face opened once again. No problem seemed insurmountable. This audio clip, recorded on the phone and edited by Dr. Annie Brewster, chronicles my nine-year journey, back to 2008, when I was first diagnosed and started feeling symptoms, on through the present day. My life these last nine years feels like a three-act play – Act 1: Denial, Act II: Depression, Act III: Acceptance.

I am in a better place today, although I still fall, and still occasionally wonder if there is a limit to how much frustration I can take. But it is from these moments on the ground, when I am forced to confront the magnitude of my disease, watching helplessly as the mobility of my former life slips further out of reach, that I have learned to let go. To let go of the feeling of permanence that each fall brings. To let go of the notion that this is all my life has been reduced to. To let go of what I can’t control. Falling is merely one activity – albeit a miserable one – in a life that is so much more than my muscle weakness. Falling can be physical or emotional, but it happens to all of us, repeatedly, even with the most careful planning. I hope that my story – and my lessons learned from the pavement - can be one of many stories that you can refer to when life knocks you down.

Because, as I learned the hard way, and as the great saying should have gone, it’s not how many times you fall that matters. It’s not even how many times you get back up. What matters is knowing that you are going to fall again, and when you do, that the sidewalk is powerless to stop you. You are more resilient than you know.

Fighting for Life After West Nile Virus

In August of 2012, Charlie Atkinson was bitten by a mosquito in the garden outside his home in Cambridge, Mass.

From that bite, against the odds, he contracted West Nile Virus. It nearly killed him.

Charlie was in a coma for more than a week, paralyzed in his left arm and right leg. He spent more than 400 days total in two hospitals. He is still recovering.

Before the fateful insect bite, Charlie, married, with four children and nine grandchildren, was incredibly active. He was an avid tennis player, a self-taught pianist, an educator and entrepreneur who started numerous companies. West Nile Virus changed that life.I met Charlie, now 78, on a snowy December day at his home, now retrofitted with a wheelchair ramp and a stair lift. We spoke in the sunny dining room, which has been transformed into a bedroom, complete with a hospital bed and Charlie’s ventilator equipment (he has a tracheostomy and is on the ventilator at night). Charlie lay propped up on his pillows as we spoke, and his warm handshake and bright eyes made me feel right at home.

A self-described “Just Do It” guy, Charlie fought his way back from near death with amazing determination. He surpassed the predictions of the medical community and has continued to make progress: he can now get around with a roller walker and even take steps on his own with a cane.

But beyond his physical comeback, Charlie’s story is also about learning to be a smarter patient; questioning the conventional medical wisdom and seeking out health care providers who are truly compassionate.

West Nile Virus is an arthropod-borne virus (an arbovirus), most often spread by mosquitoes between the months of June and September. It has been found in 48 states (all but Hawaii and Alaska) and in the District of Columbia. It was first detected in North America in 1999 and has continued to spread since that time. In 2013, the CDC reported 2,374 cases and 114 deaths.

With an incubation period of 2-14 days, only one in five people infected will develop symptoms, most commonly fever, body aches, joint aches and other relatively minor ailments. Less that 1% of infected individuals develop serious and at times fatal neurologic illness, including encephalitis and poliomyelitis, like Charlie. While the odds of serious illness are low, the consequences can be devastating. Without any viable treatment options or a vaccine, prevention is essential.

West Nile isn’t something we typically worry about, but after hearing Charlie’s saga, I know I will be more conscientious about covering up, applying mosquito repellent and staying indoors during peak mosquito hours during the summer months.

More importantly, Charlie’s story has taught me a lot about the power of a positive attitude in healing. In coming to terms with his lasting physical deficits, he also acknowledges that there are some things he now does better than he did before his illness. For instance, in learning to use his hands again, he feels his piano playing has improved. In his words, “I now hit the notes more accurately than before I got sick.”

Charlie would like to express his tremendous gratitude to the medical institutions where he received his care, Massachusetts General Hospital and Spaulding Hospital for Continuing Medical Care in Cambridge. In his words, “They saved my life and made it worth living.”

Originally published on WBUR Commonhealth Blog, January 17, 2014

Resources:

http://www.cdc.gov/westnile/index.html

1-888-246-2675 is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information helpline for the West Nile Virus and is open 24 hours a day. It is also available for Spanish speakers (1-888-246-2857) as well as those who are hearing-impaired (1-866-874-2646).