I’ve always been an extremely lucky person: luckiest person alive I say to anyone whom I can get to listen. Despite having physical challenges from birth, I also had great support from my family, especially my dad. When you’re a kid and you’re really different, you hear a lot of “CAN’T.” I heard that I couldn’t go to university or hold a job. But my dad was always there, saying that whatever I set my mind to, I could and would do. My dad also said that if you saw something that needed to change and you could do it, then you must. I believed my dad—still do.
As I got older and more aware, I realized that many people—probably more than not—didn’t have someone like my dad in their lives. They didn’t have someone to love, support, but also gently challenge them, to guide them to awaken their potential. I saw something that needed to change and, buoyed by my dad’s faith, believed that I could do something about it—and was thus entrusted to make it happen. So I DID go to university and DID get a job—as a teacher with the privilege of helping students realize their possibilities and achieve their dreams. I’m not a great teacher—not a font of knowledge or anything like that. But I am good at helping people discover their potential and encouraging them by gentle pushing and pulling to attain it. As my students say, I’m good at getting people to do things.
I teach and live in northern Maine, and incomparably beautiful place with beautiful, resilient people. With help and support, I’ve been able to carve out quite an independent life, taking care of my mom for 40 years and now living with my service dog, Saint.
A Gift Disguised as a Speed Bump
But in summer 2012, something was going wrong. I was having a lot of unusual pain in my gut, particularly after I ate. I thought that I must be allergic to some of the foods I was eating, so I eliminated more and more things from my diet. But the pain just intensified and became more frequent. By fall I was starting to miss work—something that I never do. I went to the emergency room a couple of times. When I went, the staff members would give me an EKG and assure me that it wasn’t my heart (which I knew). Then they would send me home. But I kept getting worse.
In mid-October, I went to school one evening to help my students conduct a focus group. While sitting there, the pain became intense. Although I am usually cold, I became drenched with sweat. I knew that I had to get home so I excused myself and managed to drive myself home. When I got there I lay on top of my bed, thinking that I would just rest a little. Every time that I tried to rise, the pain made me faint. This went on all night. The only thing that kept me alive was Saint. She kept reviving me by licking me and dropping my shoes on my head. Finally, by morning, I was alert enough to call a friend. When my friend arrived she took one look at me and rushed me to the hospital.
The doctors at the hospital did blood work and realized that I was experiencing massive internal bleeding. They put me in ICU and began to do tests. The next day I was back in my ICU room, resting after a test. I started to feel very sick, but was too weak to call for help. Fortunately, the monitors did that for me. Doctors and nurses came rushing in to find me vomiting blood and bleeding from my rectum and vagina. The medical staff looked terrified as they worked frantically, trying to save my life. They kept calling out my blood pressure, which was dropping, dropping. By this point I was in no pain. It was as though I were outside my body, watching what was happening. I wondered if this was it.
The medical staff got me stable enough to LifeFlight me to a major hospital. None of them thought that I would get off the plane alive. But once I was stable enough to go on the plane, I knew that I would be OK. At that point, I just didn’t know how long it would take to become me again.
BOOT CAMP: Digging Out of the Hole
Although I was alive, I had lost my ability to move and to speak. The doctors explained that it was not a stroke, but that I had lost so much blood (I needed 12 units of blood to even begin to function) that my system had had a huge shock. The doctors said that I could recover fully, but that it would take a lot of work. They weren’t wrong.
After a week in ICU, the doctors there said that I could go home. They said that I must have a lot of caregivers there. I had to try to explain, with very limited speech, that I had no care at home—I was the caregiver. I could not go home until I could again function at a high level.
So I went through boot camp rehab. My physical functions were the easiest to regain. Speech/cognition was much more challenging. It’s hard to advocate for intensive speech therapy when you can barely talk. The speech therapists have never worked with a communication professor before. They had to throw away the textbooks and invent new ways to work with me. Having to relearn how to talk was certainly one of the hardest—if not the hardest—things I have ever done.
I had a lot of help and support. And because of what I’d come from and through, I never doubted that I could do it. Regaining my speech and complex cognition was transforming.
I’d been so lucky. I’d been given the ultimate gift: a second chance. I needed to make the most of it. And much as I loved teaching, it was no longer enough. This experience had given me another gift: the gift to be able to look at situations in a different way, to see that nothing is stronger than the human spirit that can transcend it, that anything is possible if we share the opportunity with others.
BEYOND LIMITS: Awaken Your Potential isn’t about me. It never has and never will be. It found me because I was lucky enough to have a challenge. That challenge helped me look at things in a different way and see the opportunity in any situation. But an opportunity is only as good as our ability to share it with others. That’s what BEYOND LIMITS and its Appalachian Trail Adventure are all about. Our gift is to help people Awaken Their Potential and be Extraordinary.