The Joy in Tracheotomy: Lisa Hickey’s Absence

Lisa Hickey, CEO of the Good Men Project, talks about her recent adventures with Lyme Disease and what a forced leave of absence has taught her.

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It always starts so innocuously, doesn’t it?  A barely noticeable stiff neck, just something surely attributable to 17 hour days in front of a computer,  the life of a geeky internet CEO who sees no better way to spend a weekend than double- and triple-checking the strategic plan by testing multiple sets of metrics, comparing spreadsheet vs. spreadsheet and getting so good at Google real-time analytics that I could post a story and predict the number of visitors per hour.

So when the neckache started to spread to a headache and work became not quite as much fun, I felt the first twinge of worry. It was a very visual headache, like someone shooting a dart gun at the back of my head every 38 seconds.

♦◊♦

The fun part about building a business is building the systems that work together to continue growth at a predictable rate. A supernova —an ever-brighter, ever more visible entity that draws more and more strength to its core from whatever energy source is available.

At the core of every great business is a great idea. The idea behind The Good Men Project—our nucleus—was as good, as different, as disruptive as the best of them. “Spark an international conversation about what it means to be a good man” was the original vision of  founder Tom Matlack.

And so we talk. And hundreds, thousands and eventually millions join in the conversation. Talk about sex and relationships, fathers and sons, masculinity and gender, war and economics. I remember chatting with Jackie Summers about the fact that, after a particularly heated series on race and racism, we had throngs of racists and bigots coming out of the woodwork. “Why won’t you let us be racist?” they’d complain. For the first time since becoming CEO, it occurred to me someone might want to firebomb my car. Clearly we  were on to something. Jackie said to me, “You didn’t really think you could start a major conversation about men and goodness without changing the world, did you?”

 ♦◊♦

I spent a week navigating doctor schedules, insurance procedures. On Monday, realizing I’d need a both a brain MRI and neck MRI, to get treatment for what doctors suspected was a pinched nerve, I walked into the emergency room and refused to leave until I got them. There was some unexplained swelling, an edema, which prevented me from getting the treatment for the pinched nerve they had promised me.

I was pretty annoyed at that point. I just wanted to work without pain. I needed something to happen.

And it did.

Saturday parts of my face and neck went numb. Back to ER. They released me after extensive several teams of doctors still thought that the swelling was causing the nerves to pinch which was causing the numbness. I rationalized away with them that it was no big deal—“it’s just a little numb.” I could still work. Why worry?

Until Sunday morning, when I woke up, took a drink of water and couldn’t swallow it. This wasn’t a kind of “hard-to-swallow” that happens when you are trying to eat applesauce with a really bad sore throat. This was unable to swallow like the water would get halfway down my throat and suddenly explode. A doctor later told me “you weren’t swallowing the water, you were aspirating it.”

This time at ER, there was a newfound urgency in finding out exactly what was causing a complete meltdown. My voice was changing to an entirely different octave than usual. I couldn’t lift my arms. My face was becoming asymmetrical. A doctor took this funny looking tube thing that curled up around my head, up one nostril and out my mouth. When it was done the doctor said gravely “Your vocal chords are completely paralyzed.”

Finally a jovial neurologist came into the room and said the words that helped get to the bottom of what was going on: “We need to do a spinal tap.”

♦◊♦

For me, the greatest stress reliever in the world is hiking the highest mountain I can find. I’ve climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, The Rockies, The Swiss Alps, Death Valley. I’ve climbed every single trail on Mt Washington, sometimes climbing Mt. Jefferson and Washington both in the same day,

I know to take precautions against ticks. I wear high socks and long pants. I use bug spray, I check for ticks after every hike. I check for bites, know what a tick bite looks like, know to get it treated immediately.

So when the spinal tap showed Lyme parasites in the fluid that runs between the brain and the spinal column, it was a complete surprise to me as much as everyone. Lyme disease? Really?

As I saw how quickly my body was shutting down, I knew what was coming next: “We need to intubate you.” The doctors had started an aggressive course of antibiotics the minute they found out. But it couldn’t be quick enough to counteract the fact that my diaphragm did not want to breathe for me.

Later, they took the mouth tube out and did an actual tracheotomy. In the funny way the mind of a hospital patient works, while waiting for mine, I kept hearing construction sounds. Drill. Drill. Drill. Hammer, Hammer. Hammer. Pop. Pop. Pop. Had I suddenly arrived at a tracheotomy factory?

  ♦◊♦

I love being CEO of The Good Men Project. I think that what we are doing has profound and important implications. We’ve built something valuable: a community of people who want to talk about men and goodness.

As a CEO, I also relish the chance to tell our vision to anyone who would listen. Of the hundreds of doctors and nurses I saw, many wanted to know what I did, and I told them. Even if it meant I had to mouth the words, use hand signals, write it down, spell it out, or call it up on my phone.

Everyone got it. Everyone had something to add to the conversation. One nurse: “You know, I think about this with my son. We all want him to grow into a ‘fine upstanding young man.’ That’s the goal, right? But how? What does that mean anymore?” Another: “I work with a lot of men who are dying. And they are angry. Really angry. I wish there was a way to get through to them.” A male doctor, obviously completely comfortable in his own skin said simply: “I like being a man. That is good.”

And a funny thing happened to our scalable business model when I got a tracheotomy. It got stronger. Teams of people who currently hadn’t known each other before started working together. When people couldn’t turn to me, they found some else to help figure it out.

All those connection points we’ve been building, all the networks we were putting in place, our team stepped in and made them stronger. Led by Editor in Chief Noah Brand and Senior Editor Joanna Schroeder, they didn’t miss a beat.

The entire staff used this as opportunity to further learn how to scale.

♦◊♦

It is two days after my tracheotomy, and my first day at a rehab where I need to go to regain muscle strength and learn to breath on my own again. My own personal connections are being strengthened as well—my two awesome sisters came to visit and we bonded like we were teens again. My son and one of my daughters have now come to visit me. My daughter has brought in the new Taylor Swift song for me, and Shannon does the most amazing rendition of what’s sure to be a next pop hit. My son and I are talking frankly and fearlessly about everything from his job to his girlfriend. He calls up The Good Men Project on the laptop to show me how well it is doing in my absence.

There is no place I’d rather be then right there in that moment. Not despite everything—because of it.

For those that don’t know joys in tracheotomies, perhaps don’t know where to look.

 

Photo—Tracheotomy tube placement from Shutterstock

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Lisa Hickey

Lisa Hickey is CEO of Good Men Media Inc. and publisher of the Good Men Project. "I like to create things that capture the imagination of the general public and become part of the popular culture for years to come." Connect with her on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Glad to hear you came out, more or less, okay.
    Lyme disease is not the only reason you might need a trake. Accidents far from ER are a possibility. Worth reviewing how to do one with a pocket knife.
    I used to know. Got to catch up.

  2. Corey Wright says:

    http://underourskin.com/
    Sorry that happened to you. I when to high school with Joanna and also have Lyme. You should check out the movie above.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Corey, I didn’t know you have Lyme, I’m so sorry to hear that. Thanks for sharing the vid and also the Funny or Die one you posted about yesterday—I shared it on the blog this morning. Lots of healing to you, as well!

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Thanks Corey! I will check out the movie as soon as I get a little more bandwidth (both physically and internetently). Good look with your own course of the disease.

  3. Carl Pettit says:

    Lisa,

    You wrote about an extremely scary experience, yet brought a ton of warmth and humor to your very personal story. The fact that you posted the trailer to the movie Spinal Tap when talking about your own real life spinal tap speaks volumes. Hopefully you will be able to work without pain very soon. I wish you a speedy recovery, and am glad that even in a time of immense crisis, you’re still building positive relationships, and holding onto a sweet sense of humor, which you showed us with The Joys in Tracheotomies

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Thanks so much Carl. It’s funny, even before I wrote a word of the post, I knew I wanted to include a bit of the video. It was just too bizarre! They hadn’t crossed my mind for like over 30 years — until I needed my own personal Spinal Tap.

      Appreciate the kind words. Am working without pain right now — just now talking or breathing on my own. But hey, progress is progress! Every day I get a little more strength.

  4. much love, lisa. much love and resolve.

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      backatcha John cave osborne. I’ve always appreciated your unflinching look at being a father of five (triplets included). All the best.

  5. Mark Ellis says:

    Lisa: A CEO yes, but with the soul of an artist, I’ve always sensed that. Please get well soon.

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Thanks Mark. It’s funny — when like 13 or 14, people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up. And I’d timidly say the word “artist”. And to a person they would reply with the exact same words” “Oh no you don’t. You’ll just end up starving in an attic somewhere.” So I got a math scholarship, and then a career in advertising. And then it was “Aha! This IS art!” It’s so great.

      Thanks for all your posts, and being brave enough to talk about some of the really controversial topics head on as well.

  6. FlyingKal says:

    I’ve had the Lyme Disease, although the severity and the speed of progression was very far from what you’ve had to endure.
    I wish you all the best, and thank a lucky star that you got to see some competent doctors.

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Thanks FlyingKal. Hope your own Lyme disease is under control. You’re write, it was the speed of progression that was breathaking (literally). Wishing you well.

  7. What an ordeal, Lisa – and you found all the good in in it. That kind of strength will get you through. Thinking of you.

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Thanks Suzanne. Appreciate the kind words, the good thoughts, and all you’ve written for us in the past.

  8. John Hickey says:

    Keep fighting mom! You are such a strong person and I am so inspired from what you have had to go through. There is light at the end of the tunnel and you have a great support staff of people who care for you.

  9. Hang Pham says:

    Lisa,
    This is the first time I heard about Lyme disease and, through your narrative, its sounded incredibly interesting (until I looked it up). A positive attitude makes the world look different doesn’t it? I truly admire your drive and bravery; and it is such a refreshing experience looking at the world through your imaginative lens. I hope you will get well soon. Well, no, you need to get well soon to continue your mission of inspiring people!

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words Hang. And oh what a journey it’s been! Keep finding places for your own inspiring and creative writing!

  10. Ken Goldstein says:

    Lisa,

    You are forever an inspiration to us all. Wanna know if you changed the world? Look at all the comments here, the lives you touched, the people who care.

    ‘Tis but a scratch. Heal well, come back strong, show us the way.

    You are blessed with believers.

    Ken

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Thanks Ken! Healing well I know how to do. And it probably was a good way yo get back o the 20,000 foot vision. Thanks for all your great support, advice, columns and the times you’ve been a sounding board for business issues. All very much appreciated.

  11. Lisa, sorry to hear that a little tick left its gift of Lyme disease, I’m happy to hear you have transformed your calamity into a win as the brilliant CEO does.

    Please take all the rest you need. All this time to be not only your recovery, but a vacation.

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Thanks Owen! Yes, it’s turning into quite the vacation indeed!

      Luckily, work for me is simply what I love, so I am back to working when I can but just checking in with my body frequently and the second it needs rest, I rest.

  12. Wow, that’s no joke. I hope you have a speedy recovery! As someone who grew up in the country, I get a western blot every time I go to the doctor for a checkup. I think EVERYONE who is out in rural areas be they mountains or searching for a lost ball in the tall grass at a golf course should make it part of their regular checkup.

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Thanks Collin. Appreciate all your support of GMP and your great posts.

      Totally agree about testing, it should be a matter of course. In my case, what made it so difficult to diagnose was that not only were there now outwards signs, but it didn’t show up in a routine blood work up the first time I went into ER. So they had pretty much ruled it out until the spinal tap. Really kind of flukey. But almost no one has seen a case as severe as this. As one doctor pointed out, however “If you are going to get something really really bad, at least be glad when it can be cured with antibiotics.”

  13. wellokaythen says:

    Wishing you a speedy recovery.

    Boy, any excuse to lie around all day….

  14. Lisa Please take so much care! You write as beautifully as ever! We are sending you lots of love and best wishes form Down under in Australia. And you HAVE changed the world and give many a voice where some do not!!!

    • Lisa Hickey says:

      Thanks Jayneen. I have to say that when we first started these conversations, we knew many would be very difficult — that was our goal. But we didn’t realize how difficult. How do you talk about sexual abuse — especially against males — when it is so rarely talked about. It’s one of the things we’ve done that I’m most proud of. Good luck with your book, which is a gorgeous and engaging way to get the conversation about abuse started, and let’s continue to connect.

  15. John Anderson says:

    Sorry to hear about the lyme disease and wanted to wish you well.

  16. Lisa, can I get a mailing address for you? Max and I have something to send you! Hope every day is an improvement. Hugs, L.

  17. Christie Hartman says:

    Well said, Lisa. We’re pulling for you!

  18. Lisa, I only know that it took me a long time to be able to clarify my thoughts on my son’s life (including seeing him intubated.) That you can write about it so soon, amazes me, and yet it doesn’t. I am in awe of your strength and hope you feel better every day. Please write us an update when you can.

  19. Lisa, What a journey you are on. I’m convinced that people who are doing big things in the world are faced with big challenges. Your journey reminds me of one I went through a couple of years ago when a “pulled muscle” in my left leg turned out to actually be a massive blood clot that required emergency surgery, a small filter being placed in my Vena Cava to keep any future clots from killing me, blood thinners for life, and some very interesting lessons about how to help men (and the women who love them) deal with life in a stressed-out world, while staying alive and well. Journey on, my sister.

  20. Andrew Cotto says:

    Hi Lisa!

    I’m glad you’re doing OK. I really admire your perspective on things (not to mention the wonderful writing). Need some reading material? If so, send me an address and I’ll ship you my books.

    Love,

    Andrew

  21. Matthew Salesses says:

    Get well soon, Lisa!

  22. Hi L….well you know like i say……its been hard not having you around and always wondered since whenever i open up my gmail account the 1st person i meet online is you ALWAYS as such i have been worried but well at least now we have you back.From Kenya Africa with lots of love the girls women and i wish you a quick recovery..Hugs n kisses and so glad that we have you back…we will keep you in our prayers!Mo

Trackbacks

  1. [...] recently fought a battle with Lyme disease. It left me temporarily unable to breathe, to walk, to swallow or to lift my arms. My vocal chords [...]

  2. [...] was in the hospital waiting for my tracheotomy to happen. I was already on a breathing machine, “a vent” they called it — a breathing tube [...]

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