I am no stranger to hospital stays, and doctor’s appointments.
I am no stranger to the health and wellness world.
I am no stranger to the fitness industry, and I am no stranger to myself.
When I was 13, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. It’s called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, and I also have Ulcerative Colitis. You can look up these diseases for yourself if you’re unfamiliar with them, but I don’t believe that their definitions are important. For I am not my illness and I will never let myself be defined by it. I remember my doctor telling me that I’d be different from the other kids because of the traumatic experience I had been through with my disease. He said I’d be “tougher than the rest.” I didn’t want to be tougher. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be just like the rest of them.
Over the course of the next 10 years, I would learn many different things. Things about the world, things about myself, and I would fight back daily thoughts and worries about the possibility of getting sick again. Luckily, the medication I was prescribed worked well for me. I am now in remission, and have been able to live a relatively normal life, despite having to go for checkups every 6 months, have a scope once a year, and get regular blood tests.
In the summer and fall of 2017, I believed I was unstoppable.
I worked extremely hard on my body and outer appearance. I was working full time at a health café, serving up green smoothies and avocado toasts. After work, I’d walk 40 minutes uphill to the spin studio that I was training to become an instructor at. I’d take a class, and then walk 40 minutes back home, but not before stopping at Goodlife where I’d lift weights for 30 minutes. It would be almost 9 p.m. by this point, and sometimes I’d pick up a few sushi rolls and sip back miso soup before bed, or sometimes I’d just go straight to sleep, eating nothing at all. I lived this way for nearly 3 months, and then I found out that the spin studio had cut me. I was told I wasn’t working hard enough. This would be my first experience with working so hard at something and having it not work out.
I was absolutely devastated.
Here I was, nearly killing myself, judging my body so horrifically every single day, taking progress photos, working on a playlist for my future classes, and aggressively pushing myself to stay “on beat” with every song I would spin to.
But it wasn’t enough. And so I was let go.
And on November 27, 6:30 a.m., I was leaving for work; I had my hand on the door knob of my front door when I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. I felt hot, achy and clammy. I went back to my room feeling dizzy as I lay down in my bed. I thought I was just coming down with a very sudden flu--I had no idea what was to come.
I slept that whole morning, and lay on the couch for the rest of the day. Things got increasingly worse; I started sweating profusely. I’d fall asleep and wake up, my clothes soaked through; my face red and hot. And then after every heat wave, within an hour I’d be shivering. My teeth chattered so badly, and I could feel the heat escaping from my head. I’d cover my entire body with every blanket in my apartment, but nothing was warm enough. I somehow managed to get myself to a walk-in clinic where I was told that I had the flu. The doctor said, “You’ll be better in a few days.” He took a look at my throat, said it was swollen, he took my temperature: 104 degrees Celsius. But somehow, he told me that it’d be best if I went home and rested. I couldn’t even walk out of that clinic.
It was a Friday night now, I had been sick for a full week with no sign of improvement.
My sister and her boyfriend were planning on driving to my parent’s place in Kitchener, so I tagged along because I couldn’t take care of myself anymore. I was white as ghost, I hadn’t eaten in a week, and I could barely drink water. My fever was still sickeningly high and my throat hurt so badly it felt like knives were, cutting through my entire body apart each time I swallowed. My nose plugged up with thick mucus and I could no longer breathe through it. The whites of my eyes had blood in them. My eyelids were puffy and purple; it looked like I had been punched in the face. I’ll never forget the absolute horror in my sister’s eyes when she saw me for the first time that night.
In Kitchener I went to see my family doctor who guessed I had a very bad case of pneumonia. She sent me for x-rays, which proved her guess to be correct. I was put on antibiotics, and sent home. Another week passed, my fever was still high, my course of antibiotics was done, and I only felt sicker. My mom took me to the emergency room and this is where I was diagnosed with mono, as well as having a severe case of pneumonia. The mono explained the throat pain, and why the medication wasn’t working, unfortunately there’s no pill that can cure mono. I was sent home again, given another round of antibiotics for the pneumonia, and was told to rest. My family doctor requested that I had my blood drawn daily to keep track of my white blood cell count, which had dropped so low, it wasn’t at a measurable number anymore.
It was now December. And on one morning, my family doctor called my mom and said that I needed to get more blood tests done. I was in the TV room, listening to their conversation, and I broke down in tears because at that point I knew I could no longer get off the couch. I felt sicker than I have ever felt in my entire life; there are no words to describe the heaviness that I felt in my body. I knew I needed to get to the emergency room immediately, and the only option for me to get there was to call 911. I thought I would die that very day.
When the ambulance arrived, and I was lying on the stretcher inside the truck, the only thing running through my mind was that I must be incredibly ill.
So ill, that my life was most likely going to end in the next hour.
I couldn’t breathe at that point. I was given a yellow mask because everyone was worried that I was “contagious,” however this horrific mask only made breathing 10 times harder. I was breathing through my mouth, which became so dry, my lips cracked and bled. But I couldn’t drink water because swallowing was even more painful than breathing. My whole body felt like it was attacking me, and I didn’t know why.
I was admitted to the hospital that day, and for the rest of December. Over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I lay in a hospital bed. No one understood why my fever wasn’t dropping. I was rushed to test after test, after test, they even checked my heart and brain. I had so many blood tests done that my veins in my left arm blew out and the doctor had to insert a thin tube through my jugular. I was given three blood transfusions. I don’t remember having those done. Actually, there are a lot of lost memories.
There are weeks where I have absolutely no memory from.
And that still haunts me.
Eventually, doctors clued in and discovered that not only did I have pneumonia, and mono, I also had an incredibly severe case of sinusitis. And on December 28th 2017, I had my first sinus surgery. I remember being rolled down to the operating room, all these doctors around me. I kept hearing one man say, “You’re doing so great!” I have no memory after that, and those next couple weeks are completely black to me. I only remember having strange visions, hearing strange sounds, seeing strange things, and hallucinating a lot. I was put on Fentanyl, an insanely strong opioid used to treat severe pain. It is 80 to 500 times stronger than Morphine and starts working within five minutes of administration.
All I really remember is waking up in a new place. And not only was I in a new place, but there was also a large tube down my throat, preventing me from being able to talk, or move without feeling like I was being suffocated or chocking. My parents were next to me. I was told that it was January 7th 2018. Then I learned that not only was I waking up in a new year, I was also waking up in a new city. I had been taken by ambulance after my second surgery failed and transferred to Toronto, where I had my third surgery on my sinuses.
Everything is blurry, and as time goes on, my memory from this ordeal becomes worse and worse. I’m relying on information that my parents give me, and what my doctors have told me, but I wish I could remember for myself. I wish I could remember how I felt during those weeks where everything is black. What kind of thoughts were going through my mind when I was alone? Was I scared?
After the third surgery, my fever went down, and then disappeared completely. It never came back. I stayed in the ICU for just over 2 weeks and was intubated for 12 days. I cannot begin to explain the feeling of lying in a hospital bed, fully conscious but unable to move. I had no way of communication to my parents or my doctors with the tube in my throat. I’d try to write things down but I couldn’t spell, and as I was writing I knew none of my sentences made sense. That was probably one of the most horrifying realizations I’ve ever had. I thought to myself, “I’d rather die than have this tube in my throat.”
There is so much that happened in that ICU. So many feelings and so many dark, lonely nights listening to the patients around me cry and moan in pain. So many days spent staring at the clock watching the time tick by. So many x-rays and CT scans. There are no words.
One night, I remember accepting death. I prayed, and I prayed to God, “Please let this end.” I just wanted it to be over. I could no longer remember what feeling good felt like, and I was in so much discomfort that I didn’t want to put in any more energy to get better. I just wanted it to end.
Eventually, the tube was removed and I was able to leave the hospital. I was told that I was functioning “just below base level.” This is when my road to recovery began. I had to take a wheelchair out of the hospital because I was unable to walk on my own after laying in a bed for so long. I remember looking in the mirror for the first time and was in complete shock at the state of my body. My bones stuck out in every direction and I was completely emaciated. I had lost just over 35 lbs in two months.
I spent the next 3 months recovering at my parent’s house in Kitchener and came back to my apartment sometime during the end of March. I spent of these months coughing at every moment of the day. I couldn’t lie down and I couldn’t sit up right. Every position I got into was painful. Walking up stairs was a disaster, bathing was impossible, breathing, eating–every single day was a waking hell.
Doctors aren’t too sure how exactly I got sick with 3 intense illnesses all at the same time. It is believed that it was caused from the immune suppressors I had been taking for the past 10 years for my PSC. That may be the doctor’s beliefs, but I believe that I manifested my entire experience. No one just “gets sick.” There are reasons, and the reasons are very important.
Before getting sick, I was a self-absorbed, workout obsessed, selfish, and immature girl who was living a huge lie. I preached all this stuff about self-love but I hated the person I was. I couldn’t think properly, was too hard on myself, couldn’t make a decision to save my life, and honestly, I just took everything way too seriously.
I once believed that I deserved my pain, for overworking my body and not resting.
Well, I no longer believe this. Yes, I did treat my body very poorly this past fall, and there are many things I would do differently now. But I only know this because of my experience. I whole heartedly believe that it was necessary for me to get sick and I will be forever grateful. I am grateful for getting sick at an early age with a chronic illness because I think that experience greatly prepared me for this one. Although completely different illnesses, I experienced many of the same symptoms, endured many of the same medical tests, and felt many of the same emotions.
No, it’s not over. I am still very much in recovery. I still see a doctor multiple times a month for checkups. My body is not as strong as it once was, but would you like to know something special?
My spirit is brighter than it has ever been in my entire life.
I am so proud of how far I’ve come, how much I’ve learned, and how brave and purely resilient I have become. I have been through something that has shown me how wonderful life is. I have learned so many important lessons; I can’t even begin to write about them, for there are far too many. But I can tell you that my favourite realization may be this one: My body is not a machine, it is a temple, and it is home. And I will never, ever disrespect it again.
And you, whoever you are that is reading this, I’d like to give you one big hug. If you’ve ever experienced a traumatic illness, or are going through a recovery process, I believe that both you and I are going to be okay. We are not our diseases. We are not numbers on a medical report, or any sort of statistic. We have been given an opportunity that most people don’t get. We have a second chance to live a better life. And for that, I think we’re incredibly lucky.