“I’ll be out of here in no time,” I told the doctor. “And no, not in a wheelchair! I’ll use the walker for the first two weeks and a cane for the next two weeks, but then it’s back to walking on my own.”
“Well,” he said, reaching out to grip my shoulder with an empathetic squeeze, his tone more patronizing than anything else, “It’s good to have a positive attitude.”
It was obvious what he really thought — that I was either naive or delusional. It’s hard to blame him, in hindsight; I was projected to be in the hospital for a full 12 weeks. Who would have believed that I would leave after just three days?
This all started nearly 20 years ago. I had suffered with back pain for years, but now, it was keeping me up at night. The lack of sleep was starting to get to me — I was tired all day and becoming an emotional wreck. I have always been that pillar of stability for my large family, the one that everyone could count on. Now, I was completely losing it mentally, emotionally, and physically. Something was wrong with my health, severely wrong, and I had no idea what it was. And no, this is not a hidden advertisement for the newest device or drug! It’s simply my story.
First came the chronic pain in my muscles and back that grew to be so excruciating that I was lucky to get two hours of sleep a night for those last couple of years. It all culminated into 24/7 pain at a level of 10 on a scale of 1-10. Then, slowly, I lost the ability to walk without falling, and then the ability to walk at all.
Three years of misdiagnosis as herniated discs (which I did have but wasn’t the real problem) until I got the “good news” that one of my doctors was finally able to tell me what was wrong. The bad news was the diagnosis itself: a massive tumor growing inside three of my vertebrae, compressing the spinal cord in what was literally a death grip. If I fell the wrong way, they said, coughed, sneezed, or even turned my head too sharply, I could be dead from a severed spinal cord. The only option? Surgery. But, they suggested that there was only a small chance of even surviving the intricate neurosurgery — and no chance of recovery.
If I wanted to live — and certainly I wanted to get out of the wheelchair I was now in — it seemed I had no choice. Even with the surgery, I was told, I would require extensive physical therapy and never walk again. Spinal cord damage and nerve damage, I was told, was permanent and irreversible. And that, believe it or not, was the bright side. Because of the tumor’s location and the delicate nature of the operation, there was no guarantee I’d even make it through the surgery. It was fifty-fifty at best, the surgeon uncomfortably explained. In other words, I could say no to surgery and almost certainly die in the very near future; or, I could say yes to surgery and maybe stay alive for longer, even if I couldn’t walk for the rest of my days.
My life has always been an adventure. I had already done more in my first 40 years than most would do in two lifetimes! But, I didn’t want my story to be over. I wanted to live the rest of the story. I was married with six children and had multiple business associates and friends who counted on me. For all those reasons, it was an easy choice to have the operation. But for those very same reasons, I didn’t want to have it right away. With the odds I’d been given, I wanted to make sure my affairs were in order, my children’s futures were insured, and my liabilities were taken care of. I also wanted to spend time with the people I loved — just in case.
When I finally made it to the hospital for the surgery that was eventually scheduled, my pain was off the charts. I had accumulated huge amounts of fluid in my extremities. My skin was stretched to the point of cracking, and my circulation and breathing were impaired. Meanwhile, the doctor scheduled to operate on me that late Sunday night was instead caught up in a seven-hour emergency surgery to repair the fractured skull of a motorcycle accident victim. When they had finished, he came to explain that I now had another difficult choice to make: go ahead with the operation despite an exhausted surgical staff or wait until morning for the next shift to arrive.
I would have waited … if not for the fact that I had already been told I may not make it through the night. So, I decided to put my trust in the doctors and nurses present, and though I knew it was risky, I had to simply know in my heart that it was the right thing to do and not worry.
As I mentioned before, I left the hospital just three days later, despite a prognosis of a 12-week inpatient rehabilitation (and at least a year more of outpatient). Two weeks passed, and I made the switch from a walker to a cane. Two more weeks, and I got rid of the cane. I had managed to do in a single month what I was told it would be impossible to ever do again — to walk 100% on my own.
Many people to whom I’ve told my story have had the same response: How?
How did I defy expectations so dramatically? How did I recover so quickly? How did I manage the incredible pain or the complete uncertainty, both of which defined the period of time immediately before and after the operation? What about spinal cord damage and nerve damage being permanent and irreversible?
Am I extra blessed? Superhuman? Do I even know the answers?
The truth? At least part of the answer is that I simply decided. I had the choice of accepting the diagnosis I’d been told was so certain by the “expert doctors” or I could make my own decision about my life and my future. I chose the latter.
Maybe I was just lucky? Maybe I had enough people praying for me? Maybe I was that one in a million exception? Maybe I had access to world-class healthcare? The funny thing is, I do know why I was so fortunate to have this amazing recovery. And while it is certainly a combination of all of the above, there is much more to it.
First, I have spent much of my life in search of answers — knowledge. I read, I listen to tapes, I constantly research things so that I am not in the position of having to believe what I am told. I never automatically defer to the “experts.” I evaluate what I read, hear, or research myself. I don’t take anything at face value; I seek to understand. Knowledge is a very powerful thing. To know why something is the way that it is is the first step in solving it.
The second part of the puzzle is a direct and definite decision. I was not going to die, period. Decision. I also decided that I was not going to be crippled for the rest of my life and that the doctor would remove the tumor and I would walk. Period. There was never a moment that I allowed myself to doubt that I would walk again. I never agreed with the hand the doctors said I had been dealt. Upon waking up post-op, I looked over at my mother by my bedside, pointed at my toes, and I told her, “Watch this,” and I promptly wiggled my toes. It shouldn’t have been possible.
The decisions I’d made so far had been tough, but paid off. This one was easier. So I decided. I decided there was no way I would spend three months in the hospital, and there was no way I wouldn’t walk again. People tried to tell me those weren’t my decisions to make, but I didn’t listen — I was working too hard on recovering and deciding my own reality.
It isn’t really that easy most of the time, right? You certainly can’t just “decide” that you’re going to win the lottery or that you’re four inches taller or that someone likes you if they don’t. But if it’s something you can do — even if other people think you can’t — then it’s probably something you can decide. And that’s the first step. Then, follow up that decision with unyielding determination, and do whatever it takes to make your decision reality.