By Elisa Zied
As Ella Fitzgerald has sung, “Into each life some rain must fall.” But sometimes, seemingly out of nowhere, people experience a downpour that rocks their world like nothing else. Although I’ve never personally experienced a truly debilitating health issue (knock on wood), just six months ago, my mother went through three surgeries during a five-week stay in a hospital and rehab following an unexpected brain aneurysm bleed. I even wrote about my experience helping her recover while still caring for myself. I’m happy to report that despite persistent fatigue and the fact that she doesn’t always feel quite like herself, my mother is living her life, enjoying her work creating a big, beautiful musical based on the life of Liberace, and spending quality time with friends and family – especially her two grandsons.
My mother’s incident and how she handled it, both initially and throughout her recovery, taught me so much. She was an excellent patient who seldom pitied herself and instead relied on hard work and humor – even about her partially shaved head – to recover physically and emotionally. Her experience also helped me connect with two women in their 40s – Helen, 46, a corporate officer at a Fortune 500 company, and Sally Freedman, 41, a banker, both based in New York – who each went through incidents similar to my mother with grace and dignity. Like my mother, they’ve worked hard to turn what they’ve been through into experiences that have helped them grow and inspire others along the way.
None of us ever knows what tomorrow will bring. Of course, the two amazing women I had the pleasure of interviewing never anticipated they’d confront serious health challenges, especially at relatively young ages. But instead of allowing their experiences to ruin them, they’ve done just the opposite, choosing instead to learn and grow from them as well as use them to further challenge themselves. I hope that after reading my interview with them below, you’ll be inspired to live life to its fullest and to nurture your brain, body and mind with good food, fitness, connection and purpose no matter what curve balls get thrown at or around you.
Describe your eating and fitness habits and overall lifestyle before your incident:
Helen: Before the incident, I was generally pretty healthy. I was never a smoker and am a lightweight when it comes to alcohol. However, I could have led a healthier lifestyle. I generally slept only five or six hours a night, did very little exercise and left much to be desired as it relates to my eating habits – my diet was high in carbs and fried food, and low in fruits and vegetables. As a result, while I wasn’t really overweight, I had gained more than 10 pounds over the past eight years. Regardless though, I was never concerned about my health, easily passing the tests at every physical checkup. Except for one issue – migraines. Last September, I finally saw a neurologist who prescribed pain medicine. He told me to let him know if it didn’t help or if the migraines became more frequent. As it turned out, I had one on January 17, six days before a massive headache led me to the hospital.
Sally: Before my incident, I was in the best shape of my life. In 2013, I spent most of the year training for my lifelong dream of completing an Ironman. During the peak of my training, I exercised two to five hours a day, eating an organic, gluten-free diet, and feeling great. On August 18, 2013, I completed the Ironman Mont Tremblant – my most amazing feat in my career as an amateur athlete. Aside from the Ironman, I had always competed in various races. I’ve been active since I was young, following the fantastic examples of my parents, all of whom are marathoners. Although I still struggle with my eating, most experts would agree that my diet is quite healthy, even when I’m not training for a race. In fact, I had a health screening in October 2013, and the nurse told me that she hadn’t seen such strong results in many people. She said, “You must eat flax seeds everyday!” Who doesn’t?! My blood pressure was low (as usual), and I was feeling amazing. I had absolutely no symptoms to presage what was to come.
What exactly happened to you?
Helen: On January 23, I went to meet friends for dinner. When I entered the restaurant, I immediately experienced a massive headache. It felt like a cloud of black heat had dropped on my entire head. When I stepped out for air, I fainted and was taken to an emergency room at a local hospital. The doctors came to the conclusion that I had a brain aneurysm that ruptured, and decided to do an endovascular coiling treatment. But when they realized the shape of my aneurysm would make coiling impossible, they performed a craniotomy and clipped the aneurysm instead. I was in the hospital for 11 days, including 10 days in the intensive care unit. During a follow-up appointment, my neurosurgeon determined that my left-side weakness and overall discomfort and pain were an issue, and immediately readmitted me to the ICU. It turned out I was having vasospasms, which could be very dangerous. I remained in the hospital for another 12 days.
Sally: In November 2013, I had a bout of vertigo that ended up saving my life. I still joke that it was my nana shaking me from the after life to get me to a doctor. I was briefly hospitalized overnight and quickly recovered. At my mother’s urging, I followed up with an ENT specialist to avoid a recurrence. The doctor ordered an MRI of my ears. Because I was feeling so much better, I was tempted to cancel it until a friend urged me to go. I grudgingly got the MRI. Although the results were supposed to take 24 to 48 hours, that afternoon I received a voicemail from the ENT urging me to go see a neurologist immediately. When I got to the neurologist – the one I had seen in the hospital when I had vertigo, I was told that I had a large but unruptured cerebral aneurysm. Remaining calm, I followed her orders to get a CT angiogram and see a neurosurgeon as soon as possible. Right before Thanksgiving, we set the date for a craniotomy for his first open date, Christmas Eve, 2013. On December 23, 2013, I had a preoperative endovascular angiogram. The next day, I literally walked myself into the operating room (as the hospital was understaffed due to the holiday). I was later told that during surgery, my heart rate become uncomfortably low. My surgeon then told the anesthesiologist, “Don’t worry, she’s an Ironman.” After two days, I left the hospital.
How has your recovery been, and what are some of the lessons you’ve learned during that time?
Helen: When I was readmitted to the hospital, my view on my illness definitely changed. Whereas before I felt pretty strong and almost cavalier about getting better and resuming my life, during my second hospitalization I began to worry that I’d have longer lasting effects or perhaps even deficits. I started to be scared about whether I could fully recover. Subsequently, I became much more diligent about asking questions, being my own advocate, and pushing back if I had concerns. I also realized that in order to get my strength back and resume my normal activities, I’d need to be disciplined and patient. After my release, I spent six weeks at home, accompanied by really close friends and family seemingly 24/7! Against my nature (I prefer to be independent and not bother anyone), I accepted their physical and emotional help. I realized that it would take some time to get back to normal, even though I wanted specifics from the medical team, such as a timetable and milestones. Ultimately I learned to accept my doctor’s advice: “Your body will tell you what it can do.” While frustrating, I realized that I’d experience significant fatigue after a short walk or even reading for a period of time. I began physical and occupational therapy, which provided me structure as well as some discipline. On April 1, I returned to work part time, and was back full time by the end of the month. Sleeping remains a challenge, and I still often relive part of my experience. Something like the sound of an ambulance going by can trigger a reminder. It still often feels like this happened to someone else, and I’m experiencing it by observation. But then reality sets back in. Although I am still searching for what I should take away from the experience, I view the incident as an opportunity to rethink my life overall, to adjust to my new normal by incorporating more healthful food, fitness and sleep habits and to try to be a better person to those I care about.
Sally: Right before I was released from the hospital, my doctor encouraged me, saying that I was doing well, and that I should walk as much as I’d like, and to stay ahead of the pain with my pain medication. I don’t think he expected me to be walking miles just days after my surgery, but doing so really helped me. I took Tylenol as needed and was careful not to get an infection. By the end of January, I was up to walking 10 miles daily. By February, I was back to running. I also suffered from fatigue that lasted through June. During my recovery, I learned how important it is to listen to your doctor and to not be afraid to ask questions no matter how silly they sound to you. I knew exactly what to expect with my recovery, because my doctor walked me through every step of it ahead of time. He warned me about the fatigue, about listening to my body. Even though he warned me against going back to work too early, I was still surprised to endure the fatigue months later.
Where are you now in terms of your health habits?
Helen: After losing some weight during my three-week hospital stay, I used this as a starting point to improve my overall fitness as part of my recovery. I began by making some simple changes – eating somewhat better and incorporating exercise in some form into my routine. I suppose this is the benefit from having a low bar pre-incident! I now include fruits and vegetables in my daily diet; for example, I often have fruit, yogurt, nuts and honey instead of a buttered bagel for breakfast. I have salad or soup for lunch instead of a sandwich and chips. However, I eat what I want for dinner, although I often have fish and chicken instead of red meat. Perhaps most importantly, I have gone back to the gym. My regimen started with speed walking and eventually became running on the treadmill. I now also walk home from work when I can – roughly a two-mile distance. As a result, I have been able to shed about 10 pounds and feel much more fit overall. As a self-diagnosed couch potato, probably my biggest accomplishment has been completing my first 5K ever. It was an event supporting the Valerie Center, an organization that provides critical care for children with cancer and rare blood disorders. I wanted to participate because of a family member who relies on their excellent services and support, and also because a good friend encouraged me to run it with her. I ran the 5K in 33 minutes and helped the team raise more than $34,000 collectively. I was so proud to complete it and to be part of such an amazing event!
Sally: I’m still a bit slow versus my preoperative pace, but I’m working, sleeping, running, swimming, biking, skiing, hiking, lifting and hopefully will be sky-diving soon. I gained some weight from the steroids I had to take, but to be honest, my compulsive behavior to eat all the treats that visitors brought me contributed to that as well. Overall though, I’ve had a great recovery. And I’ve been training for a half Ironman that’ll be in Austria on August 31, 2014. I still can’t believe I’m going to do it!
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Any final thoughts about what you’ve experienced and how it has impacted your current outlook on life?
Helen: I’ve realized how fortunate I was before the illness and still am. One of my friends had said to me, “Life is not a Lifetime movie. You had a pretty happy existence before. Just because of what happened doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you will be a different person, with all these negative things to change.” So while I have moments of self-pity, I know that ultimately I control my outlook on life. So I’m trying to focus on and accentuate the positives, set new goals for myself, and overcome selected fears. I still struggle to let go of the “small stuff,” and I don’t walk around “smelling the roses,” but I do tell those I care about how much I love them and how thankful I am for their aid and support during both my illness and recovery. I still hope to find an overarching “purpose” to it all, but until then, I make do by achieving smaller milestones.
Sally: I’m so lucky to have found the aneurysm, since I was asymptomatic. I also credit my strong health prior to surgery for my quick recovery. Mostly, I’m grateful to have had great doctors and nurses who did the hard work and supported my recovery. I’m not sure if there’s some bigger meaning that I should derive from the experience, but I know I’m lucky in so many ways: lucky to have found the aneurysm before a potentially deadly rupture, lucky to have access to the finest care, but most of all lucky to have the best support system with wonderful family and friends. From all of this I learned that no matter what happens health-wise, we can use a terribly invasive procedure or health hurdle as a positive experience in our lives to make us stronger physically and emotionally. I also think it’s very important to be proactive about your health: to take care of your body through diet and exercise to prepare for inevitable health hurdles later in life. It’s also important to be proactive with your care. You never know if one proactive move you make will help you detect a health challenge early. It’s important not to fear information, but to face it. It just might save your life – and what a great life it is!
Elisa Zied, MS, RDN, CDN, is the founder and president of Zied Health Communications, LLC, based in New York City. She’s an award-winning registered dietitian, nutritionist and author of the new book “Younger Next Week,” along with three other books, including “Nutrition At Your Fingertips.” A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, Zied inspires others to make more healthful food choices and find enjoyable ways to “move it or lose it” through writing, public speaking and media appearances. She writes the twice-weekly blog, The Scoop on Food, for Parents.com. You can connect with her on Twitter (@elisazied) and through her websitewww.elisazied.com.