In July 1999, my life changed forever. I was 19.
I had been having a sore throat and a terrible cough to the point where I was having trouble breathing. I visited the CLSC (a local government health clinic) and was diagnosed as having anxiety. I was told, “you just need to learn to relax more”, and sent home. What the doctor on site hadn’t diagnosed was that I had actually developed double pneumonia, bronchiolitis (something usually only affecting children) and was coughing up blood. I also began urinating blood as my kidneys were beginning to fail. My body was shutting down.
Just two days later, I have a vague memory of crawling to the phone and knocking it off the hook to dial 911. I had started coughing to the point where I could no longer catch my breath, let alone speak. I muttered the words, “can’t breathe…” to the dispatcher, but it’s all I could muster. Paramedics and fire trucks arrived as first responders and broke open the door. There was no fire, only my lungs enduring respiratory failure.
I woke up one month later from an induced coma, during which I had been hooked up to a life support machine. Doctors still had no idea what was wrong with me. Dozens of tests, experimental chemotherapy and rest had not concluded much, but I started to be able to breathe on my own and was eventally removed from the ventilator.
One week later, I was finally diagnosed with Good Pasture’s Syndrome; an autoimmune disease that affects one in a million people, that attacks the lungs and can involve a kidney transplant. Thankfully, my kidneys were miraculously spared. Once they realized what was wrong with me, I was treated with plasmapherisis, rounds of blood plasma transfusions to remove the antibodies in my system which had been causing my illness. As I continued to heal, the sedatives were reduced and the real work began.
I had lost 50 pounds, couldn’t eat, sit up, or go to the bathroom on my own. For weeks after the coma I lived with two chest intubations to drain my lungs. Out of fear and confusion from being initially highly medicated weeks prior, I literally pulled the first one out of my lungs. To this day I still have permanent nerve damage in my chest.
I had to use a wheelchair, then learn how to walk again through countless sessions of physiotherapy and with the help of a front wheeled walker. Finally, after two full months in the hospital, I was given a walking cane and said goodbye to the incredible staff at the Royal Victoria Hospital.
I was given a second chance at life, but inside I felt defeated. I had lost chunks of my hair from the chemo and my face was swollen from the cortical steroids. I was so thin and weak that I was afraid to leave the house for months. Spending extra time with loving family and friends allowed me to see the scope of how this affected everyone around me. My mom and best friends stuck by my side everyday and put the missing pieces of my life back together from when I was on life support. Hearing that at one uncertain point, the closest people in my life were emotionally preparing they may have to say goodbye forever, to this day still haunts me.
Psychologically, I had to re-evaluate my life, begin the healing process and wrap my head around what had happened to me. While in my coma, the doctors told my family that after surviving this, I will lead a normal life, but that I may never be able to run for a bus or walk up a flight of stairs without becoming winded. After a year of recovery, my life soon returned to a ‘new’ normal.
Unfortunately, this is not where my journey with yoga began…
Despite everything I had been through, I quickly resumed a pack-a-day smoking habit and returned to my new office job; the grind of working a 50-hour week. At the same time, I got a modeling contract with an agency and began living off coffee, cigarettes and late nights.
When I look back on that time now, I realize how young I had been, and that my priorities hadn’t yet sorted themselves out. I also believe that I was unconsciously resisting the reality of what had actually transpired in the preceding years.
At the age of 26, I had developed pleurisy in my lungs and they were beginning to collapse again. I was back in an ambulance. This time I realized that it was my fault. I had been given this second chance at life… and I blew it. I was told that if I didn’t make drastic changes in my life, I may end up living with an oxygen tank by the time I was 30.
This is where my journey with yoga began.
At first, I was so nervous, having never done any real exercise before in my adulthood. I was the type of person who skipped gym class as often as possible. So, diving in head first, awkward and shy, I committed to 4-5 days of yoga per week and fell in love with it for the rest of my life! Doctors asked me what I was doing and whatever it was, that I should keep up the good work. I had never really tried to excel or push my personal physical athletic boundaries before. But just a year later, I was a yoga teacher and had left my day job.
Having healed through my yoga practice, I then realized what I was capable of. This realization opened the door for me to cross-train with other modalities over the years. I began running and completed my first 5km race, then a 10km race, and then a few half marathons. Crossing a finish line still gives me tears of joy, as I wasn’t supposed to be able to do any of this! I am now scheduled for my second Triathlon in August 2016. As it turns out, I’m good at swimming and biking too…who knew!?! While I’m not very fast (I’ve even finished last!) I always finish what I start. Although, for me, I believe that I have won because I can put so many things behind me now and keep moving forward.
When I look back, I believe that the three most important things I learned from this challenging time in my life are:
1. That I am doing and will continue to do everything in my power not to end up on a life support machine, in a wheelchair or use a walking cane again. I will keep my immunity and strength up through nutrition and hard work;
2. That my goals are redefined, i.e.:
a) I want to lead a happy, simple, SLOW, but active life. I don’t care how fast I can race, I’m still in awe that I can move; and
b) I want to be able to carry my own groceries until I’m 99 years old. If the universe or genetics have another plan that is out of my hands, then I’m ok with that, but in the meantime, if we have two working legs we should use them (because my students in wheelchairs at the hospital and the seniors I teach with limited abilities work equally hard);
3. That we have to re-frame and re-phrase the stories we tell ourselves, and even some of the stories that others tell for us. Those doctors and nurses took excellent care of me, but if I had listened to everything that they told me, I may never have tried running because they had told me it may not be possible (I believe they cared deeply and were simply wanting to give me clear expectations and not false hopes). I never thought I would ever consider myself an athlete today, but here I am.
I have taught yoga for almost 10 years now. I offer a regular practice to those of all abilities. I also enjoy introducing stronger and challenging postures to all levels of yoga because I find that it’s exciting to work with a sense of possibility. Through modifications of the postures and by offering various assessments and steps to achieve a challenging posture, this allows us to continue the process. We get stronger, build discipline and face what needs work. Ultimately, we challenge commonly held beliefs about what we think is possible or not. This work happens inside and outside the class. For many of us, simply making the time and showing up to practice is enough of a challenge, sometimes staying longer in a posture or respecting one’s limits are another. My goal is to make the yoga learning process more accessible throughout this process and bridge these gaps.
I’m equally passionate about customizing the learning process in yoga and incorporating modifications to make yoga accessible to everyone. I teach Chair Yoga to seniors and people living with limited mobility because I will never forget what it was like to lose the ability to walk.
Now, as a yoga teacher, 17 years after my respiratory failure, having gone from being in a coma living off a ventilator, to re-learning how to walk, to finishing a triathlon, do I believe that you can hold Chair Pose or Plank a little longer than you think you can? You bet I do. My job is to help you believe you can too. Imagine what else is possible…