Learning to walk

Imagine hanging with your buddies on a summer Saturday night and then rushing to the emergency room at 3 am with a fever three months after a bone marrow transplant.

Imagine you woke up one day and had no idea where you were.

Imagine you woke up and had no use of your body, no muscular control.

Imagine waking up in hospital, having no idea how you arrived there and no idea why you can’t move your body.

Imagine not being able to give your brother a high five, shake your dad’s hand or give your mom a hug.

Imagine you are 23 and learning to walk again.

It was one of the toughest physical challenges I have ever faced. At the age of 23 I did learn to walk again. And let me clarify, it wasn’t that I didn’t know how but more that my body had no strength to carry out the commands from my mind.

As I recovered from a bone marrow transplant three months earlier I was blind-sided with an infection in my Hickman Catheter and ended up in Intensive Care, on life-support, in a drug-induced coma and paralyzed for three and a half weeks. I was in the ICU for a month, most of which was spent in a coma, and when I woke up it was to a whole new world and a whole new batch of challenges.

I could hardly move. Lying in bed I remember running my arm up my body from my waist to my chest. My challenges were huge, both physical and mental.

I had no idea where I was and more specifically absolutely no memory of what had happened. Thanks to the massive amount and number of drugs I had received I was seriously mentally delayed and had very little capacity to grasp where I was yet let alone what I had been through.

I started with the basics: Where am I? What happened? I asked those questions consecutively for days until they were firmly planted in my head. I was later diagnosed with “ICU psychosis” which was caused by my lengthy stay in the Intensive Care Unit.

I left the ICU three days after waking and went to 4 North A, the Oncology floor of the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, NL. But after a few days there my mind wouldn’t allow me to stay. I was mentally and emotionally unable to stay in hospital. I was afraid and wouldn’t sleep. My new temporary twisted logic lead me to believing that if I went to sleep there was no good reason why I wouldn’t be asleep for another month. As in my mind the last time I went to sleep it was for a month and I woke up in really bad shape.

No explanations or reassurance from anyone could convince me otherwise.

Just a few days after moving to 4 North A I looked at my mom and said “I need to go home.” And with those words I opened up a can of “whoop ass” on the healthcare bureaucracy of the Healthcare Corporation of St. John’s. Three days later I would leave the hospital in a wheelchair, 100 per cent dependent on my family.

I left the hospital on a Friday and the day before we had a test-run to see if I was able to physically get in a wheelchair and then out of the hospital and into my dad’s van, or would I need an ambulance to get home. We got me in my dad’s van and the first place we went was to Signal Hill on what was an awesome beautiful sunny August afternoon. I have a fond vague memory of the trip. The next day I went home to my mom’s to continue my long road of recovery.

My rented hospital bed at home was the site of my first major rebuilding accomplishments. My rebuilding didn’t involve going to the gym, lifting weights or playing hockey as I had done my whole life. The first stages of my strength training used my electric back on the hospital bad and the rails on either side of me. I would raise myself half way up and then use my rails to pull myself upright. I did these pull-ups every day and eventually was able to lower my bed further and further down, pulling myself further and further up. Finally I was strong enough to hold myself in the up-right position.

I had this walker to help me get my stride. The damn thing was too small and I never liked it but it did help me get around the house a few times. But my focus was clear in those first weeks home from hospital: “Get back on your feet.”

And on September 20, 1999, just two and a half weeks after leaving the hospital, I pulled myself up and off my bed and then made a big five-step journey from my hospital bed to my couch. It was a moment of incredible triumph for me tempered with a harsh reality, as I ended by trip by sitting down on the couch and then found myself literally swallowed by its softness. I was trapped in the couch and had no strength to keep myself upright nor get back on my feet and make my way back to bed.

While I knew I had a long way to go to get back to basic physical functions on September 20, 1999 I made the first small but very significant steps towards restoring some of physical presence I had lost through my chemo, transplant and ICU experiences.

In 2000, the year RealTime Cancer was born, I decided to mark the anniversary of those first steps by climbing Signal Hill in St. John’s. I invited my friends and family and some email buddies to join me and on September 20, 2000 I along with 170 supporters climbed Signal Hill in the first RealTime Cancer Climb. It was one of those experiences you never forget. Since 2000, we have held the RealTime Cancer Climb with a growing group of supporters. The Climb has grown to other places as well through organized Climbs in places like Halifax, Nova Scotia and St. Anthony, Newfoundland. And perhaps the most unique part of this event is that individuals and smaller groups climb stairs, hills, and even mountains all around the world from Mt. Logan in Alberta Canada to Japan.

The Climb started as a way for me to mark the significance of getting back on my feet after the major challenges faced while in ICU. As we head into the fifth RealTime Cancer Climb it is important to note that this event is about so much more than the anniversary of me taking my first steps after leaving ICU. The Climb has always had at its core that “never give up spirit” and the true belief that “miracles happen every day” as when I was in ICU my Docs gave me less than a two per cent chance of ever leaving. But I left!

The Climb is about so much more than one guy’s cancer challenge, it is about tackling a challenge, either on your own or with a massive group of supporters. It is about representing loved ones who aren’t able to make the Climb right now due to effects of treatment. It is about remembering those who have faced a cancer challenge and are no longer physically with us. It is about connecting to this huge pool of positive energy that surrounds RealTime Cancer and helping us go forward to keep reminding people that love and support make a difference and all our challenges have opportunities contained within.

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