My second chance in life and lessons learned
Today is the day I consider my second birthday. It marks 2 different stages of my life, a rebirth of sorts, a story of survival, transformation and healing.
Exactly 7 years ago I became extremely sick and almost lost my life due to a severe infection that developed as a side effect of immunosuppressant drugs I was taking for Crohn’s disease. This stealthy infection grew in my liver without obvious symptoms, until I developed trouble breathing and was rushed to the hospital. During an emergency surgery on April 5, 2013, doctors discovered with shock that my liver had an abscess the size of a baseball. They told my husband that without that life saving surgery I would've had 24 hours left to live, as sepsis was imminent, and my survival chances were very low. I spent 11 days in the hospital on IV antibiotics, not knowing whether I’d make it. I kept praying for healing, and I know that many people were praying for me, which I’m incredibly grateful for.
It was a slow and difficult road to recovery, with a lot of uncertainty and struggle. At my lowest point post-surgery I weighed a measly 92lb and had many side effects from steroids, including really puffy cheeks. For a long while I didn’t know what would happen, whether I’d recover or not, what to do to help me heal. I knew I did not want to follow the same immunosuppressant medication protocol again, and that was the only thing doctors could offer to “manage” my symptoms. This is how my journey into functional medicine and holistic nutrition began, the journey that has brought a lot of growth, learning and healing.
My own path is the reason I speak up so much about nutrition, alternative medicine, patient advocacy, and being informed and proactive. There are a few lessons I learned along the way that I’d like to share with others:
1. Don’t ignore your body’s signals, address issues early on. I didn’t become extremely sick overnight, this problem was brewing for years. However, I chose to ignore the signals my body was sending because … insert any excuse in the book you can think off – don’t have time, it’s not a big deal right now, other issues are more pressing, what I’m experiencing is normal, etc. Instead I did what I thought I had to do to continue life as usual – increasingly relied on coffee, 5 hour energy drinks, Advil, high carb food on the go. I continued this downward spiral until I crashed. Badly. I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self to take my health issues more seriously to avoid all the suffering I had to go through. Since I can’t do that, at least I can try and share that with others, hoping my experience can help someone else. The old saying "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is true. Listen to your body, recognize its cues, make changes in your life before serious disease becomes a reality.
2. Address the root causes of disease, don’t just focus on eliminating symptoms. Our bodies are very smart, and they send us signals for a reason. Taking a pill to suppress the symptom is a short term fix that may work for our convenience, but it does not address the underlying issues. Why was my immune system so overactive that it kept attacking itself over and over again? I had to dive in deep and figure out the answers, addressing them one by one. A good functional medicine practitioner can help find out which factors may be causing your symptoms – whether it’s vitamin and mineral deficiencies, hidden toxin accumulation, chronic stress, stealth infections, old trauma, food allergies and sensitivities, and many others. As root causes are addressed and eliminated, the body continues to heal and recover. Sustainable healing means improving your health in a way that you won't need that pill at all anymore.
3. When you want to achieve true healing, patience is important. 7 years into this healing journey I am very happy with my progress so far, but I’m not done just yet. Someone once said that it takes a long time for our bodies to develop sickness, so we should expect healing to take just as long, too. I’m not talking about the kind of improvement that comes from taking a pill that provides temporary relief. I’m talking about the body gradually recovering when it’s given the proper resources, when triggers are removed, when the pill will no longer be needed. It’s possible to achieve that kind of healing. Just give your body patience and love.
4. When navigating modern healthcare – be your own advocate. I was told that immunosuppressant medications were the only way to “manage” my disease symptoms, that addressing underlying issues, such as diet, inflammation, hidden allergies, deficiencies, etc. was unnecessary. I initially believed that doctors know better and I should just follow their advice. Actually, we should ask questions. What does my diagnosis really mean? Can you explain these test results to me? Is this medication necessary for me right now? What are the side effects? Do benefits outweigh the risks? Are there safer non-medication alternatives? What lifestyle and dietary modifications can be helpful? If your doctor is reluctant to answer these questions – seek second opinion, ask an expert, do your own research. The main point is, you need to be responsible for your own health and make informed and empowered choices with the help of a knowledgeable medical provider who is willing to address your concerns and inquiries.
5. Think outside the box when necessary. I learned the hard way the dark side of suppressing the immune system and treating symptoms and not the cause of the disease, as well as not questioning medications and their side effects. As I was recovering, doctors had no alternative but to offer a combination of the same immunosuppressants to treat my disease. There had to be another way of getting better, I thought. That’s when I started learning more about nutrition, lifestyle changes, alternative and functional medicine - a very different approach to healing. There is a wealth of knowledge out there that gives hope to anyone interested in healing. It’s not a miracle, it’s a lot of hard work and a long process, but it’s possible to heal and feel well without harsh pharmaceuticals. Western medicine doesn’t have all the answers. There is a lot of wisdom in other healing modalities.
6. Evaluate your priorities and appreciate what you have. We spend so much time rushing through life that we forget what an awesome privilege it is to breathe, to see, to live, to love. How many things stress us out on a daily basis but won’t matter a year from now? What do we spend most of our energy on? Who do we spend most of our time with? Also, life is too short to be fake. Be real, you’re one of a kind, after all. It doesn’t matter what others think. If we all learn to respect each other’s authenticity the world will be more beautiful, don’t you think? Most importantly, don’t you ever skip a chance to hug your children and loved ones and tell them you love them. We only have each other for a finite amount of time. Don’t take any day for granted. Live and appreciate today. Take care of yourselves today. We are not guaranteed a tomorrow. Every day is a gift we receive when we open our eyes in the morning, and that's the most important lesson of all.