Monday, October 29, 2018

Two Years Ago Today

Two years ago today, I was a witness to something so powerful, I will never forget it.

I've never told this story. I have never felt like it was my story to tell. It's a story of absolutely life-altering, catastrophic pain. But not my pain. Someone else's.

Still, two years later, this experience stays with me. I am realizing it always will. I think some good could come from telling it - as long as I'm extremely clear that I'm under no impression this is in any way about ME. I was merely an empathetic bystander.

A few years ago, I got a call from my dad while I was at work. It was (is) unusual for him to call me during work hours, so I know it's important if he's calling. I answered the phone and he explained that his co-worker's new grandbaby had just been born! I know, this seems pretty random. Let me step back for a minute and give some background.

My dad worked with this guy for quite a few years. They were friends. This guy's son worked for a company that I dealt with through work. And, that son was married to a young lady who happened to be a friend of my cousin. (Gotta love small town life.) We had met them a couple of times in passing, but didn't really know them at all.

I remembered, a few months prior to this phone call, my dad mentioning that his co-worker's son and daughter-in-law were expecting their first baby after trying to start a family for a while. I think he knew that I would relate to them on some level since we also struggled to have a family. He wasn't wrong. I would ask every so often how they were doing. I saw the expectant mom's interactions with my cousin on Facebook and every time I saw her growing belly, my heart would tingle a little. I was so happy for them.

Infertility is one of those things you simply can't understand if you haven't been through it. It's hard and it's uncomfortable and a lot of people don't talk about it because they think it's shameful or awkward. They aren't really wrong either. So I guess I always felt some kind of connection to these people, but I doubt they even knew that. We didn't really even know each other.

So, when my dad called that day to tell me the baby had been born, I wanted to be excited... but I detected something in his voice. Something wasn't quite right. He explained that when the baby was born, the doctors quickly discovered she had Spina Bifida. (This is basically a birth defect wherein the spine and spinal cord don't develop correctly.) Their baby was born with a hole in her spinal cord that was actually open to the outside of her body. I knew very little about Spina Bifida before this phone call, but I quickly did some research. I realized that they were going to need help dealing with this.

Baby A went almost immediately into surgery to place a shunt to help keep pressure from building up around her brain due to the spinal cord defect. My heart was breaking for these people and I just wanted so badly to do something - anything - to help somehow and make them feel less alone.

Not knowing what else to do, I messaged A's dad on Facebook and I asked if they would approve of me starting a GoFundMe to raise some money to help with their medical bills and time they'd undoubtedly miss from work dealing with this unexpected issue. (Babies are expensive even when they don't have any problems, so I couldn't even imagine what this was going to cost.) He was a little taken aback, but agreed to allow me to do this for them.

Over the next couple of months, that GoFundMe made something like $5000 to help them take their minds off bills and work so they could focus on their beautiful baby girl. Baby A stole many people's hearts right from the day she was born! Her parents expressed gratitude for my help many times over (which I assured them was unnecessary!), the three of us became Facebook friends and got to know each other better. We still never really hung out, but I felt like we had a bond going forward.

Thanks to Facebook, I got to watch that baby, despite the odds being firmly against her, learn to roll over, sit, crawl and even walk! Her loving parents made sure she had everything she needed to beat those odds. She had little braces for her feet and a special walker to help her get around and be independent. Most importantly, she was enveloped in love and support from many sides. I suspect this is why she also had a grin that could light up an entire room. Her future was so bright. I couldn't wait to see what she would accomplish and what other obstacles she would knock down.

When A was two, I got a random Facebook notification. I will never forget that I was standing in line at Target on my lunch hour. It said something about A needing prayers. I opened the app and saw the post from A's mom - something about her baby girl fighting for her life. My heart sank and it felt like all the blood rushed out the bottoms of my feet right there in the checkout line. Tears filled my eyes and my heart seized. I didn't know what was going on, but it was not good at all.

I'm still not entirely sure what the series of events was that led up to this day two years ago that I talked about at the beginning of this post. All I know is that Baby A ended up being medevac'd from their small town to the larger one (where I live now) and that she was in the pediatric ICU of the local hospital. She was in a coma. I reached out to her parents to offer my support and see if there was anything I could do. They were, I'm sure, completely overwhelmed and bombarded, and I didn't hear too much back, understandably. I just wanted them to know I was here if they needed me.

I prayed so hard for A and so many other people did, too. Facebook blew up with messages of love and support for A and her parents. I wanted so badly to do something, to show support somehow, but I had no idea how. I didn't want to just show up at the hospital and make them feel as if they needed to let me into their private crisis or entertain me. I felt that I would be intruding or imposing.

So, like most others who knew them, I waited. And I compulsively checked Facebook, hoping for a post about a miraculous recovery. That post never came.

A couple of days later, on October 29th, a mutual friend of mine and A's parents' was coming to the big city and asked me if I wanted to go with her to the hospital to visit Baby A and her parents. I was so relieved and glad she reached out! We met at the hospital that morning and made our way to the pediatric unit. We weren't sure exactly what we were walking into, but we wanted to offer some love and support.

What followed plays in my mind like a movie I wish never needed to be made. It turned out we were arriving something like five minutes after the doctors informed A's parents that she was about to be declared brain dead. They were running one more set of tests first, but that was to be finished within the hour.

We walked into the middle of her parents trying to come to grips with the fact their daughter was, though still breathing, already gone. Both of their mothers were there, along with my two friends and I, in a small family waiting room just down the hall from the room where A lay, still in a coma, being kept alive only by machines.

I don't know how long we were there. Maybe an hour or two. All I can remember is sitting with, crying with, and holding these two beautiful, strong, amazing people as they processed this. The first time I ever hugged A's dad was on this day. He crumbled in my arms, as anyone would. I held this young mother in my arms - all of us did - and tried to comfort her through heart-wrenching, body-wracking sobs that can only come from this kind of pain. The kind of pain no person should ever have to experience, ever.

I am a very emotional person. Emotions and expressions of emotion are well within my comfort zone. But I have never had a front seat to emotion this raw and powerful. The best way I can think of to describe it was almost primal. My heart was absolutely breaking.

We all cried. We told stories about A and what an amazing little girl she was. We tried to assure her parents that they had given her a better life than anyone could have imagined for her, and that she knew she was loved beyond measure. There were moments we all sat in silence, just at a total loss for words. We laughed a little bit about funny things A had said or done.

I was there when two hospital social workers came to inquire about organ donation. I sat with Baby A's mother as she began to fill out paperwork to donate her two-year-old's organs. She was so incredibly brave and strong - they both were. That's who they are. In their moment of completely devastating loss, they chose to endure even further discomfort to help others. They said that is what A would have wanted. We told them she got that kind and giving spirit from the two of them. We meant it.

Eventually, the time came for Baby A's parents to return to her bedside to be with her as those machines were unplugged. We said some very tearful goodbyes and tried our hardest to make sure they knew we would be thinking of them and praying for them constantly. I remember her mother, during our last hug that morning, whispering in my ear, "please just pray we survive this." I didn't think that my heart could break any further, but it did.

As we all left that waiting room, A's mom told my friend and I to go home and hug our little boys tightly. We promised we would.

Dave and Aidan had dropped me off at the hospital and left to run an errand while I was visiting. When I got back to the lobby, I summoned Dave via text. He headed back toward the hospital to pick me up. It was chilly and raining that morning. I sat down on a bench outside, beneath a canopy, near the front door of the entrance. I wanted to be outside in the rain, where I could feel nature near me.

I could not make the tears stop. Even with strangers walking by. I couldn't stop. I became restless. I couldn't stop thinking about what was happening upstairs and how badly I wanted to do something to fix all of this. Sitting still was no longer an option, so I began to pace in front of that hospital entrance. All I could think about was that baby, and her family, and how completely unfair all of this was. And how I would feel if I were in their shoes. I felt like my heart was in a million pieces, so I could not even fathom how they must feel. I hoped to never feel that myself, then felt selfish and guilty for even thinking that.

And I cried harder. I wanted to pick up my baby boy, who was then six, and put him in a bubble where nothing could ever harm him.

At some point I noticed an elderly woman approaching me. I tried not to make eye contact. I kept thinking what a mess I must look like. I figured she must think I was crazy, or a crackhead or something. (Hey, I wasn't so rational at this point.) She walked right up to me, looked me right in the face like your grandmother does when she really wants you to hear what she is saying.

She said to me, "sweetheart, I don't know what has happened, but can I hug you and say a prayer for you?"

I accepted that hug from a stranger. I needed it. I asked her instead to pray for my friends who were saying goodbye to their baby daughter upstairs. She wiped away her own tears and she said a beautiful prayer. She hugged me again and she went on her way into the hospital. My heart relaxed just a tiny bit.

When Dave and Aidan showed up minutes later, I flung Aidan's door open and I stood there in the rain, hugging my baby and crying, for a long time. He didn't understand what was wrong. I don't remember what I told him. I just remember I didn't want to let go. Of course I eventually did, but I remember I was extra protective of him for some time after that.

I will never forget this day. I will never forget Baby A. I will never forget her parents - both their intense love and support for her, and their utter devastation at losing her. My feeling of helplessness and sadness in trying to comfort them, and feeling totally inadequate at it.

None of us knows when something unexpected could happen. All we can do is to try to appreciate every day, every moment, especially with our children. They might drive us crazy sometimes, but there are people in this world who would do anything to have those hassles again. I try to honor Baby A's memory as much as I can. I think of her so often. Her life was important and meaningful and worthwhile. And I won't let her be forgotten.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

[Long One] Pilgrimage Back to Paleo... Again...

My house smells like apples, cinnamon, and butter. It is divine. Thought you should know.

The rest of that story though? It's long. I could start by telling you my back, legs and feet hurt from spending literally half my Sunday in the kitchen.

Why, praytell, did I spend half my Sunday in the kitchen?

Well, I'm going to tell you. I know, you were worried there for a minute that I wasn't going to share with you. HA... I crack me up.

The beginning of this story actually takes place almost 18 months ago. I don't think I ever told it here, because, you know, five years of writer's block. (Insert heavy sigh.) In a nutshell though, after always having normal bloodwork, I had a routine checkup done and the numbers came back, well, not great. They weren't terrible either, but the sudden change scared me.

Going back a bit further, I was diagnosed with PCOS when I was 28. (If you don't know about PCOS, please read up on it. There's a link there for you. It's the leading cause of infertility among American women, but it's not just a 'fertility disorder.' It is a whole-body problem and it can be serious. An estimated 10-20% of American women have it and many don't even know.)

One of the things you hear about PCOS if you're paying attention to it is that over half of women with this condition will have diabetes by age 40. I had no intentions of being one of those, though. I never had a bad A1C test, nor elevated insulin when I had bloodwork done. True, I have always carried extra weight in my belly, which is classic in insulin resistance (a huge precursor to type 2 diabetes), but I guess I just chalked that up to the way I'm built.

Then I had bloodwork two months before my 40th birthday.

Crash and burn!

I was stunned and horrified to learn that my A1C value was 7.6.


If you are fortunate enough to have no idea what an A1C is, it's a blood test that basically reveals what your average blood sugar has been over the past three months. This is pretty important because high blood sugar causes a whole bunch of problems which can make life unpleasant and shorten it at the same time. We're talking about heart attack, stroke, blindness, and those are just the big ones.

Obviously, this is not something I want to have. So when I learned my A1C result put me well into diabetes territory, I fully freaked out. Somewhere in my brain, a spark happened that quickly turned into an inferno. Noooooo way. Diabetes is not going to be part of my life. Nope. Not like this. I'm not going to let this run me over.

I had a long conversation with my doctor. I informed her I didn't want meds (which of course was her first go-to solution to this problem) and I intended to fix this myself. I asked her not to diagnose me yet. I told her I don't even want that word in my chart. She agreed to give me 3 months to make changes and then re-check to see how I was doing. She encouraged me and said she believed I could. That helped a lot.

Fueled by indescribable determination, the next day, I put myself on a paleo diet. I had actually been reading The 21-Day Sugar Detox before this even happened, after a friend went through that program and told everyone who would listen how much better she felt. I wanted to try it, but it was a bit daunting and frankly, I was procrastinating because I wasn't sure I could do it.

Enter the 7.6 A1C. I took that to heart and I started a sugar detox the very next day. Truth is, I knew what I needed to do. I just hadn't wanted to do it. But this new fire in my belly (see what I did there?) was impossible to ignore.

The first day of my detox was May 7, 2017. I did not cheat even one tiny bit. No sugar (aside from traces in no-sugar-added sauces, and a few green apples), no grains of any kind, no dairy. No exceptions. In my 21-day detox, I lost 11 pounds, but I felt like I lost 25. I felt so much better! I was a lot less bloated (though I had no idea I even WAS bloated before that), my moods and energy had leveled out a lot, and I was sleeping better. My pants were baggy. My doctor had asked me to start monitoring my blood sugar a few times a week. Even those readings had improved in just three weeks.

At this point, I was on a roll! I was feeling so much better that I actually didn't want to stop. I shifted from my sugar detox program right over toward paleo. My lovely and brilliant cousin, Sonja, told me to look up Chris Kresser and read his book, The Paleo Cure. Mr. Kresser's story is fascinating, and this book? Well, let me just say...


This book explains, with just enough science to be credible yet in terms simple enough for even laymen to understand, why grains and sugar are dietary enemy #1 for so many of us. I'll give you a hint: a lot of this has to do with inflammation. I know, I know, especially the older folks among us insist they grew up on grains like wheat, oats and corn and they are FINE! Well, sure. But here's the thing: the grains we are eating now (as a society) are not the same grains we were eating 50 years ago. They are, in many cases, an entirely different organism. It's literally not the same food. The two can't even be compared.

The determination from my horror at my bloodwork results carrying me through the detox, but then the fact I was feeling so much better picked up where that left off. This book definitely held me up during this transition, which could have been really difficult otherwise. Suddenly I really understood WHY eating this way was best for my body, not just to keep the doctor off my case. Who wouldn't want to do what is best for their body, especially when the payoff is tangible within days or weeks and lasts as long as you behave yourself?!

By July, I had added a little bit of dairy back into my diet to see how I did with it. I can't help it, I love cheese. I didn't notice any negative effects, so I slowly incorporated it back in. By August, I was down about 22 pounds (not bad in 3 months with no crazy weight loss gimmicks).

I also had my follow-up bloodwork done in August. I was stunned at the results in just 3.5 months. Changing nothing but my diet and without supplements or crazy crash diets, my A1C dropped from 7.6 to 5.9!! Even my doctor was shocked. She congratulated me, genuinely overjoyed that I had not only taken the initiative, but been successful, with no meds.

Around this same time, our family went through something fairly traumatic, and I can see now that is where I started very gradually losing my grip on my eating habits. I didn't see it at the time. In October, we suffered another personal loss, this one even worse. It was actually a pretty terrible year in some ways.

At my lowest point last fall, I had lost 30 pounds. But by Thanksgiving, I had fallen at least halfway off the wagon and gained a few pounds back. But only a few, and you know, those suckers sneak up on you when you aren't looking. Sugar is a very addictive substance - some studies indicate it is harder to quit than heroin - so once I let it back in, all progress stopped and I started moving backwards. I just couldn't really tell. Or maybe I was just choosing not to pay attention because that would mean getting back on the wagon, and I was too busy comforting myself with crappy food. (That's not easy to admit, by the way.) It is such an addiction, in every sense of the word.

Unfortunately, I'm the kind of person who takes a long time to climb back on when I've fallen off, at least with some things. By this past spring, I had gained back over 20 of the 30 pounds I had lost. I felt defeated, frustrated, and hopeless. Much like the way the pounds creep back on when you aren't looking, other things creep back, too. Like bloating, and joint pain, and mood swings, and energy peaks and valleys.

In August of this year, I was at the doctor for a cold or something, and she noticed my annual bloodwork was due. My stomach sank. I knew that A1C was going to be back up. I hoped it wasn't higher than the one that started all of this. Actually, I didn't even want to know what it was. But I had no choice.

By this time, I had gained all of that weight back as well as all the issues that go with it. And I had started having some depression alongside my already irritating anxiety. I didn't even realize that's what it was until recently. It actually got pretty bad. But when you're in it, you can't always see out of it, and that's what happened. Between feeling physically cruddy and all the difficult stuff we've been through in the last year, I just started losing hope and ambition.

When the results of that blood test popped up in the app on my phone, I cringed. I opened the report with one eye closed, I guess hoping whatever I saw would only be half as bad that way?

Yep. Back up to 6.9.

I cried (again). Instead of immediately feeling determined and motivated, I felt angry. Angry that my body, thanks to PCOS, is extra sensitive to these things and doesn't work right. Angry that I had made such amazing progress and then just let go of all of it. Angry that it's so much harder for me to manage my weight and my health than for others. I had a hard time forcing myself to get back on the program. I was having trouble seeing the point. (I know that sounds ridiculous, there are so many good reasons, but... anxiety and depression are jerks and sometimes they stand in front of you so that you can't see what should be clear and obvious.)

I had the same conversation with the doctor again. Actually, this is a different doctor in the same clinic. I explained what happened and why, and I asked her for three months to get back on track. She agreed and wished me luck.

It took me close to two months after that appointment to actually take the necessary steps to get better again. I just could not find the strength to put one foot in front of the other and let go of a source of comfort. Again, I know this makes no sense, but that's the point. That's the head game I'm up against with all of this. It's not as if I lack determination as a human being. This is just really dang hard.

I made one run at paleo again about a month ago and quickly backtracked the first time I had a tough day. Last weekend, I decided I was done with feeling like crap again, and I put myself back on the program, jumping in with both feet and hoping for the best.

And that brings us to the night I started this post. Last Sunday night. Waaayyyy up there, with the comment about the house smelling like apples and cinnamon. The house smelled so good because after eating sliced turkey rolled up with cream cheese for breakfast every morning for the last six months, I finally went back to my old standby breakfast from when I did paleo before: Apple Streusel Egg Muffins from the book Practical Paleo. (That's my food Bible, by the way. That book is a MUST if you want to attempt this. It's about half knowledge about the why/how, and half recipes. I also highly recommend Michelle Tam's books, starting with Nom Nom Paleo: Food For Humans.)

I spent half of last Sunday in the kitchen preparing those egg muffins for my breakfasts at work during the week. I cooked three lovely ribeye steaks and Mustard-Glazed Chicken Thighs (except I use skin-on chicken breasts instead) to alternate for lunches along with veggies. For my mid-morning snack, I decided to leave that alone for the first week. For months, I have been eating organic apple slices with peanut butter for my snack. (What can I say? I'm a creature of routine.) That snack is not exactly unhealthy, but it is carb-heavy, and peanuts are a no-no on paleo due to the fact they are legumes and that they have high carb content and high aflatoxins, which by the way are a known carcinogen.

I got rid of the few treats we still had in the house last Sunday. I was really feeling ready to tackle this and feel better again. Starting Monday morning, I went back to strict paleo (except that dang peanut butter). For the most part, I found it pretty darn easy. I did notice some mood swings and agitation on Tuesday and Wednesday, but then those mostly diminished.

Here's what surprised me this time, though. In just a few days back on paleo, I started feeling the benefits. It didn't take over a week this time. I've already lost at least an inch in my waist (judging by how my pants feel). I lost 5 pounds in the first 4 days, and already I noticed a LOT less overall puffiness and bloating. My stomach is noticeably smaller already. My joints don't hurt anymore and my intermittent lower back pain is totally gone! Again, I didn't even really notice these things creeping up on me, I guess I figured being fat and old comes with achy joints and back. But how about that? Remove grains, sugar, and dairy, and my body starts acting like it wants to be a fine tuned machine. Who knew?

Oh, yeah. I did. (Facepalm here.)

Friday night, because of a time crunch, I found myself in need of food and without any pre-made "safe" food from home. Kiddo and I ended up in a drive thru. I ordered a chicken sandwich, planning to just not eat the bread. Well, I forgot that the chicken breast was breaded, and I was surprised to find it was also covered in American "cheese." (Don't even get me started on that junk.) I took the bun off, picked the cheese off and ate the chicken, hoping for the best.

Within an hour, I started feeling the brain fog setting in. My stomach started to rebel. I just generally felt yucky. As I write this, it's 24 hours later, and today has been up and down. I think I am STILL feeling the aftereffects of one misstep. I really should have known better. Going from a 'normal' diet to paleo is already upsetting, initially, to the digestive system and I wasn't all the way through that. Then I dumped gasoline on top of that and lit a match.

But you know, that's the thing that helps keep me going even in weak moments. Sure, I could eat this (whatever), but I am going to feel gross for hours to days. Worth it? Not usually. I guess I needed to be reminded of that, too. Message received, loud and clear.

My body really likes clean food that's free of grains and sugar. And, I think, dairy.

Did I mention I really love cheese? I'm starting to think it doesn't really love me back. So I think I'll stay off of it for a while and see how things go. Hopefully I can get to a place where I can have cheese once in a blue moon without it causing problems. But I've read quite a few times that women with PCOS may be extra sensitive to inflammation caused by dairy. So it may just be best to take it off the table entirely.

Because this time I plan to make it. Long-term. I really have to put myself first in this and I really have to finally accept that my body is different than most and requires different treatment. Period. I want to eventually get past all the resentment about that and take care of it the way it deserves. If I don't, my life will be shorter than it should be, not to mention miserable. And my kid deserves better than that.

Please wish me luck. I really, really need it.