Mysteries of Health

Mysteries of Health

by Doug Bowen-Bailey

This post comes in part as a way for me to explain my health issues  – in part for me to process what it means to heal from such physical discomfort – in part because I am just enjoying the practice of writing.

Health is a strange thing.  One minute you can be feeling fit as a fiddle.  The next minute you are waking up just as your are about to crash on your bicycle – the impact changing the entire left side of your body.

As I write, it has been a week since this happened to me.  I had gone out on a short bike ride, somewhere in the 35-40 mile range. I realize that puts me in a minority of people who would call this a short bike ride, but I am someone who when I got a new bike this past month took it out on a 108 mile test ride.

So, it is a bit perplexing to me that as I gently rode home, definitely having worked, but not at all feeling over-worked, I lost consciousness while turning on to Kent Road.   Fortunately, there was no traffic and as I hit the pavement, it was just my bike and me.  A woman who lived a house down the street saw me crash and hurried out to help me as I crawled to the side of the road with my bike.  She picked up my glasses and my phone which had skittered out of my pocket.

As I gathered my wits and tried to catch my breath, a friend of Holly’s pulled up in a mini-van with a bike rack and offered me a ride home.  Normally, my stubborn streak would have turned down a ride, but I think the crash knocked some sense in to me.  I tried to help lift the bike on to the rack, but it was pretty clear that my left side was useless.

After a shower and some quick calories, a trip to urgent care got me started on figuring my physical ailments.  Severe bruising on my left hip, contusions on my face, hands and legs, and most significantly, possible broken ribs.  The physician’s assistant who I saw explained that I could get x-rays if I wanted to satisfy my curiosity, but it wouldn’t change the treatment.  So, I opted to get home sooner.  (Holly wishes I would have gotten the x-rays so she could know how many ribs I broke or didn’t.)

The next day, the more significant search for truth began.  A visit to Dr. Schwartz and a panel of blood tests didn’t provide any definitive answers so I have more blood work scheduled along with an echocardiogram of my heart for next week.

Lessons on Ability

Having broken (or at least badly bruised) ribs has given me some new insight on what it means to live with a physical disability.  While mine is a temporary situation and I don’t claim to have any expertise, it does make me appreciate the statement all of us really only experience ability on a limited basis.  Being in  pain has made me slow down my movements.  In addition, it requires a lot more of my mental energy to figure out how to move my hands and body like I wants them to do.

It also made me so much more appreciative of universal design.  Ramps, door openers, and elevators are all accommodations that I have more appreciation for in the midst of my recovery.

Mental and Physical Health in Parenting

I have also been struck by how much my emotional state has been tied to my physical status.    On Sunday, two days after the crash, I awoke feeling like I had taken several steps back in my recovery.  (Perhaps I can blame it on Ghostbusters being too funny and laughing too much the night before.) I spent Sunday trying to restrain myself, but also thinking about all of the questions marks regarding what I wanted to do.  On the coming Tuesday, Holly and I had a camping permit to go to Stockton Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.  We were planning to kayak out to visit our daughter, Sylvie, who is working for five weeks on Outer Island with a wilderness crew for the Conservation Corps of Minnesota.  Our initial plan was to kayak out to Stockton on Tuesday (about 14 miles) and then kayak out the 10 miles to visit Sylvie’s crew on the southern part of our island.

I just listened to a podcast from NPR’s Hidden Brain that looked at the negative effects of having back-up plans and how they make you less likely to follow through on your original goals.  So, with apologies to Shankar Vendatham, we came up with with a Plan B.  Our friend, Lisa Brown, committed to go with Holly and did a test paddle on Sunday.  We explored options and discovered that we could get a ride on a boat out to Stockton Island with our kayak and all our stuff.  The cost went way up, but it made it possible for Lisa and Holly to get to Stockton Island without having to kayak, important both in terms of the not having to expend the energy and not having the packing limits of fitting everything into a small boat.  The remaining question was whether or not I would go.

I spent most of Monday riding an emotional roller coaster set to a soundtrack of the Clash’s “Should I stay or should I go?”  I was trying to get some of the tasks done that I needed to, and it was hard to put my mind to translating an ASL lecture into an English essay, dealing with the finances of the Cross-Cultural Alliance of Duluth, and invoicing for my business.  My physical state just didn’t give me the mental space to focus well.

On the other hand, it was hard to think of sending Holly and Lisa off and spending 3 days at home alone – wondering about how the trip was going.  (This may come as a shock to those who know me, but I am not good at sitting still.)  By the end of the day, I made the call that I was going – and spent my evening helping Holly collect all our equipment and packing so that we could leave at 5:30 am to pick up Lisa and catch our boat ride to Stockton Island.

The trick with broken ribs is that there really aren’t any physical limitations that are placed on you externally.  I asked at the urgent care if there is anything I shouldn’t do, and the response I got was that my body would tell me.  So in many ways, the rate of my healing is dependent on how effective I am at listening to my body.

Lisa and Holly agreed to take me along on the condition that I would hold back from the physical stuff.  I was welcome to tell them what to do (though they were also welcome to ignore my advice.)  Well, my holding back on the physical stuff lasted for the drive to Bayfield.  As soon as we arrived to the dock and started unloading in the rain, Holly parked our car and Lisa and I started carrying our packs the length of the dock to the boat. We jealously watched the other parties who had arrived before us using the two-wheeled carts provided by the city.  Lisa helped me get the packs on because inserting my left arm was tricky – but after that I was good, even if Lisa doubted me.

Doug, Lisa and Holly standing on the Ashland Bayfield ExpressOn the hour boat ride to Stockton Island, I had one dark moment when I realized that we forgot to bring my cable for charging my phone.  I had brought a solar panel and a cook stove with a USB charging port to be able to keep my phone alive for the time I planned to spend alone at camp while Lisa and Holly spent Wednesday visiting Sylvie’s crew.  I had plans to write blogs, read books on my phone, and listen to podcasts.   All of that depended on my phone not running out of juice.  So, I had a little dip on my emotional roller coaster as I contemplated a day with less to do.

It turns out my worries were for nought (as they usually are.)  After Holly and Lisa had a wonderful afternoon exploring the sea caves, I talked Holly into going with me for a paddle.  We had calm seas as we paddled around Presque Isle, a peninsula that juts off the island to go over to the singing sands of Julian Bay’s beach.  Almost 20 sailboats were moored there for the night.  All in all, quite picturesque.  The paddling wasn’t too painful and made me think that it was possible to make the 20 mile round trip to Outer Island.

Upon arriving back at camp,  I was then faced with the choice of which pain did I want to avoid:  the physical pain of paddling most of the day or the emotional pain of giving up a chance to see Sylvie and her crew.  The parent in me won out over the patient and so the next morning, Holly and I set off on the amazingly calm waters of Lake Superior.  The first 45 minutes of our paddle were with Stockton Island on our left.  We didn’t spend time exploring the sea caves but we did marvel at the expansiveness of the Lake.  It really is a gift to live on this body of water.

It’s about a 3 mile crossing between Stockton and Outer Island so we settled in to the rhythm of kayaking.  The flash of paddles, the drip of water, the land in front of us slowing coming more into focus.  Outer Island’s southern tip is a sand spit that reaches out almost a half a mile into the main body of the lake.  We were shooting for the western side because our map showed the campsites there.  We had talked with Sylvie on Saturday and she said they were moving to the southern tip of the island – starting with the project of making their own camp site.  We figured we would arrive, find the trail that they were working on, and get the chance to deliver our care package to her crew.  Holly and Doug on a beach on Outer Island.

We were wrong.

After pulling up on the beach, we trekked through sand dunes for about 20 minutes before coming upon a trail.  Emboldened, we loaded up our packs and started off.  Within about 10 minutes, we had found an established campsite (with vault toilet and locker to keep food from the bears.)  The trail continued on for about 30 yards before getting lost in the brambles and downed trees.  After 10 minutes of looking for a further trail and shouting for the crew, we headed back to the kayak to paddle around the eastern side of the spit to see if we could find the entry for the new campsite and trail.  (Holly wanted to leave the food in the food locker thinking that we could get a message to the crew to go pick it up, but I wasn’t sure and talked her out of it.)

We paddled two miles up the shoreline and couldn’t find them.  Interestingly, we experienced a mirage, seeing people wearing a rust t-shirt in the form of a dying balsam tree.  On the way back, we saw someone walking at the campsite we saw earlier.  Our paddling rate increased significantly as we raced to the shore, but it turned out to be another kayaker who was just taking a break en route to another campsite.  The crossing back to Stockton was a little more tricky asmy ribs started acting up.  I wonder how much of my physical pain was tied to my loss of hope in not finding Sylvie.

We made it back to Stockton Island and were able to connect with the ranger, Grady.  He radioed to find out information about the location of the crew.  (We had made feeble attempts at this prior to going, but we didn’t realize how important it would be have very specific details for finding them.)  Now we were motivated and Grady was very accommodating.  Through a series of calls, we got connected to the maintenance worker who spent the day with the crew.  We learned that we were 200 yards from the entry point to their campsite when we were at the other campsite.  The crew had tried to mark it for us by hanging a rainbow bandana, but we sure didn’t see it.  (Holly was right that we could have left the food in the campsite’s locker.)

By 4:30 pm, we were in camp trying to decide our options, going well beyond Plan B.  We thought about setting off to paddle back to Outer Island – meaning it would be a 50 mile day.  (The National Park Service recommends not planning to paddle over 15 miles in a day.)  It would have meant paddling home in the dark – and no time for a good dinner.  If it were up to me, I would have probably gone with that plan. The sense of possibility suddenly made my ribs feel better.  Fortunately, Holly and Lisa had a bit more wisdom and we looked for  Plan C.  We walked down to the dock to see if any of the power boats there would be willing to take us.  Although we got some consideration, no luck on that front.  Some people didn’t have the time or gas to make it there and back to Bayfield.  Others didn’t want to give up their spot on the dock.

Fortunately, Holly was able to get a cell phone signal and make a call to the company that was picking us up with a water taxi the next morning and we re-arranged our timing.  Strong winds were predicted to arrive by 11 am.  So, for an extra $100, we scheduled an 8:30 am pickup with the added trip of going to see Sylvie and drop off our care package.  As a bonus, this meant that Lisa was also able to go with us.

Water taxi - white powerboat on Lake SuperiorThe next morning, Holly and Grady (our friendly ranger) radioed and talked to the CCM crew to let them know we would be there by 9 am.  At a little after 8 am, our water taxi arrived – driven by Marty.  We climbed on and Marty roared off to the north, trying to go as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of the winds blowing up. So, instead of a two hour paddle, we were there in just over 20 minutes.  Unfortunately, the winds were coming out of the east so we were very vulnerable to being blown onto the rocks on shore.  We eventually spotted the bandana hanging in a downed pine just as Sylvie came running down from the camp site with her crew leader, Sam, and another corps member.  They watched, I think with some humor, as Holly jumped off the back of the boat and swam to the front of the boat to pick up the dry bag containing all of our goodies.  (Food, newspaper clippings about what is going on the world, and most importantly, two copies of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child so they could do a choral reading of the play around the camp fire.)  As she walked in the pack, Marty’s blood pressure was rising with the winds.  “I don’t like this,” he kept saying. “We need to get out of here.”  So, Sylvie got to ask me how my ribs were, say hello to Lisa, and get a wet hug from Holly, before we were back in the boat and headed south to Bayfield.  The whole exchange didn’t last longer than 5 minutes, but it was worth it.  My physical pain was balanced out by the emotional comfort of seeing that smile on Sylvie’s face.  (We definitely look forward to hearing more from Sylvie about how her crew processed the whirlwind of our drop-off.)

That trip didn’t clear up the questions of my health.  I still have to get my heart checked out.  I still have difficulty sleeping for more than an hour at a time.  I also developed a Morel-Lavallée lesion (essentially an internal blister filled with fluid) on my left hip that shakes like Santa’s bowl full of jelly.  Yet I feel like I am in a much better space because I have tended to my emotional health.  It makes me think back to high school when I heard a bit of grandmotherly wisdom from Larry Long, a folk singer who we brought down to do a concert and presentation at our school. “You can live a week without food, days without water, 6 minutes without air, but you can’t live moment without hope.”

Life, of course, is more complicated than that and I have spent some moments without hope.  But my trip to the Apostle Islands reinforced for me the wisdom that in physical rehabilitation, you can’t ignore the emotional component. Seeing Sylvie (even if just for 5 minutes) was as helpful for me as my regime of ibuprofen.  I still have to go get the echocardiogram of the anatomy of my heart, but I know that my metaphysical heart is as healthy as ever.

Follow-Up (8/15)

I just talked with my doctor about the echocardiogram.  It has raised as many questions as it has provided answers.  Possible enlargement of my right ventricle which could be a sign of I just talked with my doctor about echocardiogram results for me.  Some suspicion that i might have an enlarged right ventricle – possible a sign of Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia, an inherited condition that is an issue for a lot of young athletes who have sudden cardiac arrest.  (Not sure how young I am anymore, but worth getting checked out.  I will do a follow-up appointment with a cardiologist – and potentially have a cardiac MRI to take a little better look at my heart.)  So, the search for some more information goes on… and I try to heal my ribs and keep myself in check from getting carried away on a bike ride.  I did back out of doing the Heck Epic, a two day extravaganza of a gravel bike ride  – but I also rode three hours solo this morning – including a stretch on Mission Creek single track trail that is, shall we say, a bit off the beaten track.  So, I guess when it comes to the activities of my pre-frontal cortex, you win some and you lose some.

A View from the Saddle