Take it away Sarah!
My story is a long one—but there are points along the way if you’ll stick with me. I am 50 years old and healthier than I have been since age 22. Here’s the scoop. I was a performance major in college, a singer who spent hours rehearsing in dance studios, having to dance and sing at the same time in full voice to play leads in musical theater—I invite you to try that 14-hour physical day if you don’t think it’s a workout. I was in great shape. And in those days, I ate ‘”clean” for the wrong reason---if you don’t fit into the cute little costume, you don’t get the part. (at least a fortunate side effect was good health) After college, I got married and kept it strong, being nationally certified to teach full-out jump-up-and-down aerobics back when we thought that was healthy. One day, God blessed me with a pregnancy. Then...after teaching 11 aerobic classes one week, I was strangely unable to get out of bed one day. With the pregnancy (and who knows what other reason), my digestive system went awry, and I spent those nine months trying to save the baby. He was a healthy boy (you’ll hear about him later), and I was an unhealthy post-pregnancy mom. I was never “right” again, and could never eat well without major nausea issues, anemia, some level of malnutrition. Though the docs said I would be unlikely to have another successful pregnancy, God blessed me again, boy number 2. When these boys were 10 and 7 years old, I was pretty fed up with bad health, and had visited many physicians, none of whom had good answers for me. (I will mention here that my husband is a physician, and I have great faith in the medical community, and have had access to some of the best along the way—no knocking docs here,I was just a tough case). Finally in 2001, a gastric surgeon at UVA suggested we take a drastic approach, as he felt the problem was with the way food moved through my intestine. Thus, I had what the general pubic regards as gastric bypass surgery—yes, the kind of surgery that you read about 300-400 pound folks having, but not for weight loss in my case, for re-routing my digestive system. I was indeed overweight, like 99% of our population, though we had trouble reasoning why, since I ate so little and was sick so much. However, apparently this surgery was truly it. In 2001, I got my life back. The surgery was a success—I was able to once again live like a “normal” person, to eat (with dietary restrictions and nutritional concerns due to my different anatomy) and have faith that food was not going to be my daily enemy. This was when I began coming back to life with a passion for nutrition like never before. I had no choice—I HAD to get enough protein in every day, I HAD to look at every calorie as fuel, I HAD to stay hydrated, but it became a positive challenge to do so, and I loved it, I have to say. I won’t lie, it made it a little easier that, say, ice cream actually makes me sick...but what a feeling of power to be able to choose something else and know it was good for me, AND also to know that, with my belief that “everything in moderation” can be viable, it IS okay to have 1 tablespoon of ice cream every so often. If all of America only ate 1 tablespoon of ice cream, guess what? Ice cream would still be delicious, we would still enjoy it and we could still be healthy. There’s the rub. We’re not eating 1 TBSP of ice cream... okay back to the story:
About 5 years after my surgery, I was ready for the next phase, to get back to that feeling of physical strength that at that point seemed so far away in the past. I know five years seems like a long time, but I am honest in saying it took me a while to get over “losing” 10 years of my life to feeling crappy 24/7. Not that I never exercised, but I never seemed to gain anything from it other than the natural feel-good pheromones that are nice, but nothing permanent. A couple of friends who were already way ahead in the strength game (you may know them...) encouraged me to challenge myself to a 6-week boot camp they would put me through. They about killed me, and I smiled all the way through gritted teeth. I told them every day, “I will never be your fittest, strongest candidate, but I WILL NOT GIVE UP.” I distinctly remember one day, running on the treadmill with Trainer Man (our beloved Johnny BadAss) standing over me, dialing up the speed. I kept saying, “I’m gonna fall! I’m gonna fall!” and he just smiled at me, turned it up higher and said, “and the ground is right there under you, and you’ll get back up”—and I didn’t fall. On my last day, when he made me bearcrawl around the track field for an hour in the rain, I knew it was only the beginning.
From there, I started taking yoga classes, thinking my dance background would play in and help with some toning. Little did I know where that road would take me. The type of yoga I practice (and now teach) is based on 3 major principles: strength, balance and flexibility, along with proper spinal alignment. I have certainly spent my time lifting weights, but never have I felt so challenged as to lift my own body weight (I am not a teeny tiny yoga chick) and hold it in any number of strengthening poses—somehow to me, this was more real than lifting a barbell. I think this is something every person has to define for himself—how most effectively one can do “weight work”, and my best recommendation would be to try some different things and find what YOU find is your most intriguing challenge that you can keep mounting. When you get to that point of feeling not just “okay, I did my reps/laps/push-ups for today , so I’m done”, but rather, “Yeah, I killed that! What can I do tomorrow??!!”, THAT’s when you’ve found the workout that you’re gonna keep doing and LOVING. So, long story short on the yoga thing, my quads, my abs, my arms, my upper back, my core front and back (and it IS front AND back people, not just abs!) are stronger than they have ever been in my life. I will likely never have the strength that your favorite trainer has—she’s a beast!! BUT, I will brag that I continue to amaze my own boys (now very large and strong 21 and 24 years old men) with what I can do though they are almost a foot taller than I am. What 50-year-old mom doesn’t love THAT??? And who knew that even with the the old lady arm flab, I actually have a visible bicep!! I will say that even since the old aerobic days, I still also believe in strong cardio work. My settled-in program consists of a few days a week alternating a 5k fast walk/jog and a certain set up steps that I like to lap to total just under 3,000 steps per 45-min workout. Okay, now, I have to throw this in here just for good measure, and yes, to brag...whenever I run into a friend I haven’t seen for a few months, they undoubtedly say, “OMG, what are you doing with yourself, you look like a million bucks and you are glowing!” No lie, I hear it all the time, and while that is NOT my purpose here, ain’t gonna lie, it’s nice to hear----but better to FEEL!!
Okay now comes the clincher. Remember that baby boy that started all this mess? He was getting married on July 20, 2013, 10 hours away from my home. For a year, I have been the most excited mom around, and any mom can understand. So, Sunday night, July 7, after a couple of days of feeling rather strange, I was attacked by my intestines once again. 6am Monday July 8 my husband has me in the ER, and after several tests, they decide they have to do emergency surgery. Somehow, part of my intestine had twisted, incarcerated itself, and died. I was on the edge of being in a septic situation that would have been hard to come back from. So the surgeons went in quickly and removed what had to come out, which indeed saved my life. However, here at the local hospital, we have excellent GI surgeons, but they are not bariatric surgeons, such as my guy at UVA, who can rearrange the plumbing—so they really couldn’t put me back together. I was going to have to be transferred by ambulance that night to UVA with a surgical wound left open, for my original surgeon to be able to try to fix me. Unfortunately one of the major issues is that my body does not react well to narcotics. As they dosed me to load me up, the narcotic they gave me put me into respiratory failure; I stopped breathing for a full minute and then breathed only 4 times the second minute. They were able to give me two shots of another medication to counteract the narcotics (this is what they do to try to save overdose patients who mostly die of respiratory failure). HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO HEAR IN THIS PART OF THE STORY: The doctors, including my husband told me right then and there that if my heart were not as strong as it is, that respiratory arrest would have quickly become cardiac arrest and then...IF MY HEART WERE NOT AS STRONG AS IT IS, PEOPLE. 5 years ago I would have died on that table. Incidentally the docs told me afterwards that including kidney stones, childbirth, and heart attack, studies have shown that incarcerated bowel is indeed the worst pain humans experience (other than major wounds) and that folks often cannot retain consciousness through it. I wonder if I had not spent so much time pushing myself and learning to go that extra mile, how I would have handled that....note to self. Stamina ain’t nothing to sneeze at, and there’s only one way to get it.
Move on to UVA, next day, surgery #2. Long story short, my hero surgeon put me back together, God bless him. However, we’re talking a vertical incision from breastbone to pubic bone through every abdominal muscle. Let me remind you that it is now July 10, and I have a 10-hour trip to my son’s wedding in less than 10 days. Let me also remind you that I cannot take any narcotic pain medication, in fact nothing stronger than Tylenol. Throw in that I also didn’t react well to all the anesthesia of two surgeries (result major weakness and nausea) and I was rather a hurtin pup. Finally add on that my blood pressure was highly elevated with no clear cause, and nothing seemed to be bringing it down. HERE’S THE NEXT THING YOU NEED TO HEAR: My surgeon kept coming in and saying “Im not worried about your blood pressure---your heart is amazingly strong and you can take a couple days of this no problem.” Once again, a heart attack trying its best to happen but my heart wouldn’t have it!! NEXT BIG MESSAGE RIGHT HERE: In pain, with no abs to use, how in the world was I going go be able to get up, walk, keep from getting pneumonia, and above all, GET TO THAT WEDDING? I’ll tell you how---remember those strong quads, that strong back body, strong arms, strong upper back. This is what enabled me to even stand, to pull myself up, and to hold myself erect and walk. I know that sounds like no big deal—try lying flat in a bed, rolling over, sitting up, and then come to standing with NO use of your abs (and that’s not even including pain). You won’t be able to try this, because you can’t disengage your abs—but trust me, it ain’t easy. And without the strength of ALL these other muscles, it just wouldn’t happen.
Please hear me. It’s not about how much weight you can lift vs. your gym partner. It’s not about what the scale says (I have no clue what my weight is, and I don’t care). It’s not about what number is on the tag in your clothes. It’s not about how many compliments or dates or wolf whistles you get. I will even go so far as to say it’s not about how good you feel when you eat right and exercise. It is about being the strongest person YOU can be. IT IS YOUR VERY LIFE. If and when you face a serious challenge to your health—as can happen to anyone, especially as we all age, what’s going to save you? your size 2 dress? Your weight on the scale? The attention you have gotten from others? how many marathons you’ve completed? No. It is simpler than all that. STRENGTH, NUTRITION, HEART HEALTH, STAMINA as best YOU can pursue them. You can only improve in every way—where could the down side possibly be in that? I could have lost my life, and I am on my knees thankful to God that He watched over me every second. But the bottom line is, God gives you your life, and it’s up to YOU what road you choose to take it down. Never, Never, Never give up!!
I danced with my son at his wedding. Best day ever.