The catch-up

Living with severe persistent asthma, means always having to play “catch-up” in one form or another. Been there, done that…… over and over again.

I know the “catch-up” game well, I’ve played it most of my life. It goes like this; you train, plan or study hard for something, you get 3/4s through it, then your asthma gets crazy. You might wind up in the hospital, sometimes on life support. When the exacerbation finally calms down, you’re usually looking at several weeks of recovery. In the meantime, you’ve lost most, if not all, of the gains you made to that point. The challenge then becomes, mustering up the willpower and fortitude to play catch- up, or heaven forbid, start over from scratch. One can only hope that your goal will be achieved before being sidelined again by another NEXT attack. It’s always been that way with this disease.

It was 17 years and 2 months ago that I decided to put one foot in front of the other and say to hell with lung disease dictating what I could or could not do physically. I made a pledge to myself that I would do whatever it takes to accomplish a fitness goal, that only lung healthy people could hope to achieve. That goal was to complete a marathon. I knew it was physically impossible for me to run, but I could certainly walk. It was just a matter of building up the endurance required to complete the task. Well, 17 years later I find myself catching-up for the umpteenth time. Only my goal today is not to walk a marathon, it’s simply regained the physical strength and endurance I lost during the lengthy and on-going recovery from my spinal surgery.

Just like the frustration I experienced on those very first “lung” walks back in March of 2005, where I felt like I was gonna collapse after walking only a couple of blocks, these past few weeks have been an equal struggle. A combination of pain in my neck and shoulder muscles along with crappy breathing has made walking any significant distance unbearable at times. And just like then, I’ve had days when I ask myself, why the hell am I doing all this? Why am I torturing with exercise? The answer is, I push myself hard during the catch-up game because I don’t want to fall further behind. It’s not like Im getting any younger here, nor are my lungs. If I want to continue to live a semi active and fulfilling life, I need to maintain what little lung function I have left and fitness walking and exercise in general, has offered me that.

Well, this time I made a mistake with the catch-up. Having never undergone a major surgery before, I miscalculated what my body could handle in the post recovery period and the catch- up game actually backfired on me. Fearing that my recovery wasn’t progressing fast enough, I chose to begin Physical Therapy sessions at 4 weeks post-op instead of 6 weeks as recommended by my surgeon. In my over-zealousness to get back to normal, I over-did it with the PT exercises and ended up re-injuring the same muscles that were trying to heal from the surgery. I ended up with a grade II sprain/tear to the left upper part of the trapezius muscles. Trust me, when you injure that muscle, you can’t do much of anything that involves the movement of your head or arms without experiencing jolts of excruciating pain. It took me 4 weeks of doing nothing before that muscle started to heal, again. In other words, I had to an “anti”-catch up, something Im not used to.

I’m not sure which I hate the most, not being able to breath well or experiencing episodic deep searing pain, or both at the same time. Since I’ve dealt with breathlessness most of my life, I would probably rate pain as the worse of the two evils. Interestingly, just like when Im feeling really short of breath, when I added music to my walks, it diminished the sensation of discomfort. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel the pain, but somehow, it’s not as bothersome when I’m listening to music. The pain moved from the foreground to the background if you will. But I digress.

So, what does walking have to do with surgery on your neck and spine anyways, and why has this catch-up been so difficult. First of all, when they do (PCDF)surgery on your spine, they enter through the back of your neck and cut through a ton of muscle and other tissue in order to get to your spine. The biggest muscle they have to cut through is trapezius. If you remember your muscle anatomy, the trapezius muscle is huge covering most of your neck, shoulders and a good portion of your back. There’s also a lot of nerve fibers that run through that muscle. As healing progresses scar tissue develops. All of that takes time and until it does, all those areas hurt, especially when you’re moving around. I remember on those first couple of walks I was still wearing a hard C-collar to support my head. Boy, it was painful. Id also been bed ridden for a couple weeks, so my legs were weak as well. Having said that, walking is absolutely one of the best things you can do after this kind of surgery, or pretty much any surgery for that matter. It gets your blood pumping and forces you to take deep breaths which helps prevent atelectasis. From the first day after surgery, they will get you out of bed and walk you.

It’s now been 18 weeks since my surgery, and despite what seems like a painstakingly slow recovery with multiple catch-up cycles, both with my asthma and surgery, I’ve regained almost all of my pre-surgery stamina.In the process Ive also learned that it’s not only my shoulder muscles that have become weak, it’s also my arms. Even before this surgery, when it came to my fitness regimen, I really neglected my upper body. Walking is great, but it’s not going to give you stronger arms or shoulders which you’ll definitely need as you grow older. I promised myself Id work on that.

Now that I’m finally caught-up with this latest catch up, what’s next? Is there an unforeseen endurance event in my future? If I attempt to train for one, how many more catch-ups will I have to endure? I swore after completing my 10th full marathon back in 2014, I would never attempt another. Maybe I should set a goal for different type of physical adventure. One that doesn’t require as much intense physical preparation and therefore a lower risk for catch-ups. Instead of a race, maybe a longer trek, but at a much slower pace. Something like a pilgrimage walk. Perhaps the last 100kms of the Camino De Santiago in Spain or the Cammino San Vili that passes through the North of Italy? I wonder if my lungs could handle those local climates? Hmmmmm

One thing’s for sure, compared to when I first embarked on this Journey 17 years ago, I’ve learned that this old body can still handle just about anything I, this disease or any surgery throws at it. It has this uncanny ability to “catch-up”.

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