Cancer Stole My Friend Too Soon

My friend died last weekend. My heart is heavy. Christine was such a beautiful soul. Thoughtful, kind, warmhearted. Far too young to part already. She leaves behind 3 children - beautiful reflections of herself -whom I had the privilege of teaching.

Cancer crept up insidiously. She had shortness of breath. She felt run down.

Aren’t all dedicated teachers?

She left school one day for a doctor’s appointment; she never came back to class. Instead she went to war in the cancer ward. The diagnosis. The deception. The despair. The carnage. The crusade.

She fought her battle against leukemia so gallantly. After the first rounds of hospitalizations and chemotherapy, she went into remission. When cancer reared its ugly head again, she returned to battle. Her sister selflessly donated her bone marrow for a replacement. More hospitalizations. More isolation. More pain. More anxiety. More anguish.

How hard to believe you are getting better when your body weakens from the endless fight?

All that effort bought her a little more time before she succumbed to an infection that attacked her heart. Her heart. Her generous, loving heart.

Who among us has never lost a loved one to disease?

Cancer is especially cruel. It attacks the self. It can only be beat-sometimes just temporarily - by knocking out the immune system leaving the victim vulnerable to the very air breathed.

She left us with a bittersweet reminder we only have today. And treasured memories.

I have so many. She once baked my favorite carrot cake and brought it to our department meeting for my birthday. When I couldn’t drive, she picked me and took me to one of my retirement parties. Years later, wearing a knitted cap to hide her bald head, she swooped in to carry me off for coffee where we lamented our fight to survive.

After my brain surgery, I looked to her for inspiration. I saw how hard she fought with so much grace and dignity. I thought if she can prevail, so can I. And so we faced another day.

Until we didn’t.

Now she is no longer here. A good person gone too soon. I never had the chance to say goodbye.

She lent me books and lesson plans, shared smiles and stories, offered rides and meals. She gave me laughter and joy.

She brightened my days.

Now I mourn for her children, her husband, her sister, her parents, her colleagues and friends, all who feel her passing as an ache that will not subside.

I miss her already.

Rest in peace dear friend.

You left behind the best kind of legacy.

You were greatly loved.

I am turning 65, still alive and skiing again

After my car accident at age 25 doctors feared I’d never walk again, after brain surgery nearly 40 years later, they thought I would be lucky to use my limbs properly.

After countless hours of medical treatments, therapy and hard work, I cross-country skied again. I fell in love with the sport, inspired by my Scandinavians ancestors, who invented cross-country skiing centuries ago to circulate across mountains in winter. It reminds me of my forefathers born on the fjords in Northern Norway where reindeer run wild and Laplanders reign, where nature and its preservation is a God given right and obligation.

I was never an adept skier. I am even worse now. From a distance I look more like a wobbly stork than a Scandinavian savant. I huff and puff around each bend. I remove my skis when I can non longer duck waddle up the steep incline. My fear of falling defeats the fun of gliding downhill. I also take my skiis off to walk down any incline. At sharp bends at the end of slopes, I collapse sideways halfway down the slope. Better to fall gently, but awkwardly on my own terms, then crashing out of control.

I spend a lot of time putting on and taking off skiis. But that is the beauty of cross country. Everyone can go at their own pace.

When I moved to Switzerland, the land of ski, no one believed me when I told them, I don’t know how to ski. I have reached an age where I am afraid to try downhill, not so much due to my numerical age, but to my spinal age from years of abusing my body on a basketball court, a bike accident, a car accident left me ever feisty, yet fragile.

I can still remember the first time I went skiing with a teammate on the golf course of Illinois State University. I’ll never forget the wrath of my coach when I came to practice with a twisted knee after tumbling down the slope on the 9th hole.

Skiing for a DI basketball players may be taboo in Illinois, but not in Switzerland. The basketball season takes a back seat to ski season. When my star Swedish center insisted on hitting the slopes a week before our European championship, I went ballistic.

“Don’t worry Coach, “ she assured, patting me on the back, “I never get hurt. I was born on skiis. To me it is as natural as breathing.”

That maybe true for some Scandinavians, but to those ancestors of immigrants, it is still a challenge.

Yet, when I glide around another hairpin turn, my shoulders pull on poles propelling me forward, mountains whiz past in my peripheral vision, and I feel euphoric. As I weave through the fresh powder in forests full of snow sprinkled evergreen, I hear the call of a coyote and inhale the crisp, clear mountain air.

And I feel lucky to be alive.

Never mind that an hour later, my muscles will lock up from the pain of fibromyalgia. Knots will form in shoulders. My neck, hips and low back will ache. Knifes will stab my knees every step I take. I will lie flat - a hot water bottle on my upper back and ice packs on my knees - and close my eyes. I see a sheer, jagged mountain peek pointing toward turquoise skies, icicles hanging from the rooftops of red shuttered wooden chalets in an incredibly beautiful tableau of whiteness. I am blessed to be here in the land of mountains and water where the skies meet the heavens in Switzerland.

Fixing A Crooked Spine, Fighting Chronic Pain

After a 5 hour brain surgery, 6 weeks of hopitalization and 15 months of therapy, I started over again retraining my muscle memory to better spine aligment. Swiss neurosurgeons successfully treated my major brain injury, but had no clue how to help me with my back. Fifteen months later, due to COVID constraints, I was finally allowed to enter the USA. I began intensive therapy to treat injury my body incurred in that bad, bad fall that cracked my skull.

I began treatment with Dr. David Draeger, my guru, a gifted chiropractor in northern Wisconsin. A full set of back x-ray revealed what could not be seen with naked eye, but helped clarify why I couldn’t walk without pain between my shoulder blades, low back, right hip, knee, and heel.

Dr. Dave worked with me to ameliorate bilateral shoulder impingement, scapula dysfunction, rib dislocation, compressed thoracic disks on top of a longstanding chronic low back pain. Chiropractic adjustments included a half dozen on the wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles and heels. The physical manipulation helped restore mobility to joints whose motion was restricted by tissue injury caused by a traumatic event.

“I feel awful,” I complained to him.

“No wonder,” Dr. Dave said. “We are restructuring your skeletal system.”

To move forward, I had to go backwards, and forgo any swimming, guitar playing, blog writing, and movements with my arms. Then step by step, I retrained my muscle memory by walking.

Determined to keep moving, I resorted to water walking. I’d wade out above my waist up to neck in the cold lake and pace back and forth out beyond our raft. While the water iced my muscles, the tranquil view of the lake and woods inspired me and an eagle soaring overhead rooted me on.

Additional therapy with Dr. D, included a combination of intense treatments; electrical impulse therapy to help break up scar tissue, high intensity heat therapy and AtlasPROfilax therapy to improve posture and shoulder alignment and help alleviate chronic pain.

AtlasPROfilax, a neuromuscular massage technique, which applies vibro pressure and massages the short neck muscles, remains an effective way to treat C1 (atlas) cervical vertebra. Unfortunately, although developed in 1995 by a Swiss Doctor, René C. Schümperli, I am unable to find a practitioner in the part of Switzerland where we live.

High Intensity Laser Therapy (HILT) delivers healing light energy to the cells of the body that penetrates through bone, soft tissue, and muscle. HILT can reduce pain, minimize swelling, soften scar tissue, and reset the chronic pain cycle – all while healing damaged tissues at the cellular level.

None of this is a quick fix. It requires a long term commitment and a dedicated doctor. Willingness to accept pain as part of the healing process and acknowledging my own role in recovery is paramount.

Recovery became a team effort. I followed Dr. D’s orders to the letter and did whatever was possible to build strength within parameters he set. Restoring good posture required retraining muscle memory one step at a time.

Dr. Dave credits his older brother, Curt, with encouraging him to enter the chiropractor profession and with teaching him new techniques. Known for working with elite Olympian athletes and Greenbay Packer football stars, Dr. Curt also worked with physicists to develop the latest generation of high intensity lasers that are much stronger and penetrate tissue at deeper levels.

Dr. Dave’s clinic is tucked away deep in the Northwoods of Wisconsin at Eagle River. There he is surrounded by a loyal, hardworking staff and technicians creating a formidable team who exemplify his belief in helping people by trying to accommodate every patient in his overbooked schedule.

Dr. Dave is not only a gifted healer with a warm, engaging, positive personality, but his genuine desire to help people is second to none. I know of no other doctor who makes house calls. Once, he showed up at our summer cabin in the woods, popped out his portable table and adjusted the entire family. For free.

To Dr. Dave, chiropractic care in not just a career, it’s a calling. He makes the world a better place by helping alleviate pain and inspiring hope one spine at a time.

Finding a New Path – Beginning Again

The past 6 months have been a blur of pain, disappointment, anxiety, uncertainty and ongoing rehabilitation. I have been off line, out of touch, and unable to write due to doctors orders. I had to refrain from using my upper body while retraining muscle memory.

I am lost. Unbalanced mentally and physically.

My sister will remind me I have been in an existential crisis since age 13, but this time I am really floundering. The parameters measuring my identity disappeared. Studies by Bruce Feiler in his book “Life is in the Transitions, Mastering Change at Any Age,” upended previous beliefs that defined age in stages as popularized by Gail Sheehy 1970s best seller “Passages.”

Transitions never existed in a linear, set pattern, but our chaotic lives are more like a kaleidoscope of constant change. We go through 20 or more transitions in a lifetime and major ones every 3 to 4 years.

For stability we all need to have at least one of three things.

  • Purpose
  • Connection
  • Community

I lack all three. My purpose used to be teaching, coaching, writing, raising a family. My basketball teams and family were my connections; the international school was my community. But my children outgrew me, as they should, I retired from teaching/coaching and my family remains 4,000 miles away.

This summer, though I was so grateful to see loved ones, I felt as displaced as ever, at odds with my body, emotions running rampant due to the lingering after effects of brain injury.

As with any long term recovery process, setbacks, disappointments and false starts prevailed.

The skills I once performed effortlessly disappeared. I relearned how to do things for myself - drive long distances, pack the car, buy groceries, fill the tank, mow the lawn.

Finding a New PathI have been working so hard to recover from traumatic brain injury after a bad fall that wreaked as much havoc with my spine as it did my brain. Once stateside, I spent 6 months, moving between families’ homes in Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin and underwent intensive therapy for my back and shoulders.

Back track 9 months. Last April, we sold our house outside Geneva Switzerland and bought a place in St. Cergue in the Jura Mountains. The only problem - the new virtual house was not built yet. No worries, realtors assured us only a few months delay. Further snafus in building means we will remain without fixed domicile for another year.

Finding a New PathMid January we returned to Switzerland and landed back in time in our “Heidi hut.” a rented, rustic chalet, chiseled out of the mountainside and heated only by wood burning stove.

I feel completely uprooted, a stranger in my body, living in a foreign place, surrounded by people I don’t know.

Without a permanent address it is hard to feel grounded.

During my lowest point, at age 26 after my career ending car accident abroad, I thought I had nothing left to give, but I never gave up believing and went on to teach and coach and raise a family. In retrospect, I can see that I still had a lot left to offer and learn from others.

But now what?

This time around, in a later stage of my life without a real home, our rootlessness existence makes it so much harder to reinvent myself, accept my limited options and admit my loss of autonomy.

Yet, every morning when I throw open the shutters, the sun sparkles over the snow-covered mountain top daring me to step out the door on the next adventure.Finding a New Path

So here we go…

“One day at a time…remember all that lies behind you,
Believe in all that lies ahead”

Tools to Help Ease Bad Back Pain

For the past 55 years I have lived with back pain and I could write a book on how to cope since I have tried every self help tool available.

As a teenager, my right leg went numb from a herniated disk. In 1978 the standard treatment for ruptured disks was traction and surgery, but I argued my way out of the hospital, refused the knife and began chiropractic treatment.

I will swear my life on the benefit of chiropractic care, which has kept me mobile in spite of slipped lumbar disks, compressed dorsal disks, 2 whiplash injuries and the combined trauma of a professional basketball career, a car crash, a bike accident and a ski wipeout.

Chiropractic therapy, a team endeavor, requires the patient’s investment in following recommended strengthening and stretching exercises and a healthy diet. I advocate the physical therapist and chiropractor’s belief that one should exercise to help maintain health.

But in addition to keeping active to help ease the ache, I tried every gadget on the market.

Back pain is so universal, you may be interested in some of the tools I use.

The Thera Cane, a simple, inexpensive device is a hard cane with nodules that can be used to self-massage trigger points.

The Wet Vest allowed me to run again, but not on land. The vest that looks a bit like a life jacket keeps you afloat in deep water so that you can run without back or joint pain. http://www.hydrofit.com/wet-vest-ii/

The Swiss ball, a large, heavy-duty inflatable ball with a diameter of 18 to 30 inches can used for various exercises to strengthen and stretch muscles.

The heat lamp may be an old fashioned remedy, but lying under an infra-red lamp helps muscles relax.

My chiropractic memory foam sleep pillow allows me to rest with neck support and my body pillow gives leg support and helps me maintain proper alignment during the night. The only drawback is that with all the pillows, there may no longer be enough room for your partner.

Massage of any kind helps. I even have my own (used) massage table, however it only works well if you can actually enlist another person to give you the massage.

I call the Bemer, a magnetic therapy device, my magic carpet. This mat made of a pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) was designed to increase microcirculation and boost the blood flow which benefits the body’s cardiac system, regenerative abilities and mental acuity. The mat is attached to an electronic device that looks like a digital alarm clock. It's supposed to heal everything from your headache to your cat's depression (no kidding) by using a low magnetic field. Improvement of microcirculation and reducing fatigue have so far been confirmed, but I am not convinced.

Ice and hot packs, the ancient standby, can be alternated for acute injury. Hot baths in Epsom salts can be used at home for good old fashioned backaches. But if you have access to thermal baths with jacuzzi or any kind of water jets you can get even greater relief.

My Everstyl reclining chair, made by a French company specializing in ergonomic furniture, was designed to give proper support to the back. This deluxe lounge chair has multi positions including a full recline which alleviates pressure on the lumbar spine.

The Inversion Table is my new favorite. By hanging on a table upside down, gravity takes the weight off the vertebrae and disks.

A yoga mat is a must for stretching; it works best if used several times a day because the older you get the faster everything tightens up.

The Theragun, my husbands new favorite toy, is a percussive therapy device creating vibrations to offer a powerful deep muscle treatment.

As part of chiropractic care, I have tried TENS, massage, computerized traction and high intensity laser.

I also had a go with acupuncture, cupping, reflexology and sophrology, but I will save the explanation for my next post.

Am I totally pain free? No, but I am still upright, mobile and tracking 10,000 steps a day.

Second Chance – One Year Anniversary Changes My Perspective

On the 1st year anniversary of my second life, I wonder where am I now? I still feel lost. A year ago, I remember standing in our living room, turning to my husband to ask a question, and then face planting on our tile floor.

Days later, I woke up in a hospital thrashing against my bed rail and shrieking “Let me out! What am I doing here?”

Second ChanceMy head hurt, my face hurt, my right side hurt. One side of my head was shaved. I reached up and traced the scar dissecting my skull from my forehead to my earlobe.

On the telephone, my husband tried to explain why my head was sliced open in a 5 hour surgery and why no one, not even him, was allowed to visit me due to the COVID pandemic.

And so began a long year filled with fear, self-doubt and hopelessness.

Recovery required a team effort - a neurologist, physical therapist, speech therapist, neuropsychiatrist, rheumatologist, chiropractor and psychiatrist.

But my front line family care team kept me going day to day.

At the same time 4,000 miles away, my 89-year-old dad fought a daily battle to keep moving.

Recently, he was released from the hospital after a series of health crises that created the perfect storm. Wearing a special therapeutic boot for an infected toe, he walked off balance, leading to sciatica. Unable to sleep due to excruciating pain, the combination of pain meds and lack of sleep led to hallucinations.

I relived my accident in hearing about his. Ever the coach, in his delusions, he called out, “Keep hustling team!” And shot a wadded up pillow at a wastebasket. Ever the athlete, in mine, I blamed the nurses for hiding my basketball shoes and stealing my uniform making late for the big game.

Second ChanceWith my daughter, nieces, siblings and dear mom, helping him regain mobility and self care, my determined dad learned how to push out of his chair and walk unassisted again. Just like I once I relearned how to tie my shoes, grasp utensils, and button my shirt.

When I got out of hospital, I couldn't walk 60 yards without sitting down, now I walk 6 miles a day.Second Chance

At first, I was so frustrated. I couldn’t grip my guitar and play chords with my left hand. My left arm hung limp like dead weight. Then Gerald told me about Melody Gardot, an American jazz singer, who was hit by a car while riding her bike at age 19.

She suffered severe brain injury, broke her back and pelvis and could no longer sit to play the piano, so she taught herself to play guitar lying in her hospital bed. Like me, hypersensitive to light, Gardot, still wears dark glasses too.

Without a voice, no longer able to sing, she hummed. Unable to remember words, she wrote them down. Eventually she composed and performed again.

After my accident, intubation during surgery and hours with a speech therapist, my voice was a whisper. On long distance phone calls, I asked my daughter to sing with me like she did when she was a child.

Inspired by Gardot’s story I picked up my old guitar, practiced in 5, 10, 15 minutes increments and hummed too. I dreamed of being able to strum and sing around a campfire with family this summer at Summit Lake.

Thinking about my dad and remembering my own accident, I am reminded of our vulnerability. No one knows how much time we have left. Or how long we will retain our capabilities.

The human condition is humbling.

Life offers no guarantees. Will I ever recover completely? Maybe not.

I may never drive again or ride a bike, but I can still play a song, type a blog, read a book, walk a mile and cherish a new day.