Chapter 13: Troubleshooting: Dealing with Illness and Injuries

Chapter 13.

Troubleshooting: Dealing with Injuries and Illness


If you’re going through hell, keep going.

—Winston Churchill


And now we enter the “If I can do it, so can you” portion of the book.

Sometimes the body gets hurt or sick, and it needs rest. But sometimes people rest too much. They allow an injury or a chronic condition to stop them from living a full life, not understanding that pushing through discomfort to force a body to improve can actually force a body to improve. This doesn’t mean do something stupid, but most problems don’t get fixed while you’re horizontal.

I realize that inspirational stories aren’t a scientifically supported method of behavior change. The examples throughout this book provide context and anecdotal support for the science-based thesis we present. If inspirational stories alone could do the job, those who read the Chicken Soup for the Soul books would be the happiest, most successful and well-adjusted people on the planet. (I suppose I should mention I had two exercise-type stories published in those chicken soup books. Don’t hate.)

Anyway, it’s simple: you don’t fix your body lying in bed. I mean, if you have the flu and feel as if you’ve been hit by a truck, you need rest. And please don’t tell me about the color of your snot. But even if you have some lifelong debilitating condition, continual bed rest = downhill slide.

There’s good evidence to show that regular exercise and other healthy habits can improve your immunity, but it goes beyond that. One of exercise’s best contributions to dealing not just with illness but with injury is that it makes you stronger. If you’re weak, any kind of condition is going to kick your ass harder than if you’re strong. When you build a strong suit of armor down to your literal core, you can shrug off a host of maladies with much greater ease than if you’re a weak, sedentary blob.

There’s also the physical therapy aspect. If you’re broken, you need to make your body fix itself. I have much personal experience with this. And yes, I’m going to tell you about it.

Here are some stories of people who told me how exercise helped them recover from illness and injury. Plus there’s the one from me. Yes, I talk to myself.

Perhaps you can take motivation from learning about real people conquering physical adversity with physical fitness.


Montel Williams: Fighting a Delaying Action against Multiple Sclerosis

Emmy-winner Montel Williams is not your typical pot-smoking snowboarder.

In 1999 Williams was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and it hit him hard. After a downward slide to rock bottom, Williams decided to get his life back.

“The doctor said I’d be in a wheelchair in four years, and I just wanted to quit,” Williams told me. “I almost took my own life; the depression lasted about seven months. But now I’m looking to live instead of looking to die.”

At a certain point, Montel felt the need to go against doctor’s orders.

“Despite what the doctor said, I should have continued working out with weights,” he said. “I abruptly stopped doing that on his recommendation, and from 2000 to 2006 I wasn’t training that hard. It was much more callisthenic. I finally realized I needed to start pushing the muscles. From 2006, I’ve been learning more and more from physiologists at Canyon Ranch in Arizona to deal with the loss of muscle mass.”

And he’s staying out of the wheelchair. Williams also credits exercise, a diet high in raw vegetables and his participation in an experimental treatment out of the University of Wisconsin that electrically stimulates the brain via the tongue to help it create new neural pathways.

This determination—and the results it garnered—allowed him to return to a sport he loves. Soon after we spoke he was off to go helicopter snowboarding in Alaska.

And the pot? That’s not while on the slopes. Montel is a champion of its medical use; he found it to be of great benefit for mitigating lower-extremity pain and reducing leg spasticity while sleeping.


Kris McParland: Throwing Lupus for a Loop

Kris McParland, 45, is a corporate manager and mother of two in Nanaimo, British Columbia. We went to high school together. She is very pretty.

In 2008, she was diagnosed with lupus, a systemic autoimmune disease.

“The challenge for me was overwhelming fatigue and pain,” she told me. “I wasn’t on any treatment, just pain control. I wasn’t able to walk because of the arthritis in my feet. I went through a three-month process of just trying to get out of bed, and I had to take a sick leave from my career.”

Faced with life in a wheelchair, she found a good rheumatologist who put her on the right medication, which kick-started her return to mobility. “I was able to get physical again, but you go through cycles of flare-remission and it becomes very easy to take a day off and it snowballs quickly. I had to make a deal with myself that I have to work out even on bad days. I realize that the first five minutes are going to be hell, but then you break through that and kick in the reward system.” She says this reward from exercise is far greater than any reward from sitting on the couch and watching TV.

“Exercise is absolutely making the remissions longer, the flare-ups less intense. It’s helping to hold my lupus at bay. I feel better if I move.”

She was doing aerobic workouts, then started with a trainer to push her with weightlifting to strengthen her body. “This has made the lupus better to the point where I’ve been able to cut my medication in half. It’s been better for not just my body but my spirit as well. I’m back to where I was pre-diagnosis.”


Tony Sekullich: Sweating Away the Diabetes

In 2012, I wrote an article for my Chicago Tribune column about using exercise to combat type 2 diabetes. Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic and Dr. Tim Church of the Pennington Biomedical Research Center both told me the same thing: exercise is by far the most important factor in reversing this disease. Take your meds and cut back on sugar, but you must exercise.

And that’s what Tony Sekullich, a 42-year-old television writer in Toronto, did. In 2011 he was feeling like a dog’s breakfast. He was lethargic, had a rapid heartbeat and couldn’t concentrate on his work. He went to the doctor and after blood work learned that his fasting blood glucose level was 310 mg/dL. This was way beyond the normal range of 72–108 mg/dL.

Like Church and Joyner, Tony’s doctor told him exercise was the critical component, and Sekullich took it to heart.

“I was so out of shape that at first I would go for only five-mile bike rides,” he said. His diet changed too, but not dramatically. He replaced soda with water, ate more fruit and ate less. He also started taking the drug Metformin.

“After a few weeks, I built up stamina on my bike and added in some swimming too,” said Sekulich. With the dietary changes and drug therapy, his fasting glucose had dropped a month later to 155 mg/dL, and the target for most patients with diabetes is below 126 mg/dL, so getting better. “My doctor was surprised I’d turned it around so fast.”

Sekulich kept up with the lifestyle change, adding more exercise—including starting a weightlifting regimen—and losing close to 20 pounds. After another four months his fasting glucose had dropped to 108 mg/dL—within the target range—and his Metformin dosage was cut in half. Six months later Tony saw his doctor again. “He said I now have it totally under control and he’s taking me off the Merformin completely and wants me to keep on top of it with diet and exercise alone.”


Lynn Leroux: Fighting Fibromyalgia

Fifty-three-year-old Lynn Leroux—one of my clients—was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in the early 1990s; she had been experiencing pain for 30 years. “I was getting extremely fatigued and couldn’t even do something simple like empty the dishwasher,” she told me. “I was just so tired all the time.”

“My husband [whom I know to be a fan of fitness—he’s the one who inspired me to quest for completing an Ironman triathlon] always pushed me to my limit,” she said. “The early years were really tough and I just had to push through it.” But she kept pushing, because she wanted to be able to go cycling with her husband and keep up.

At least that was her goal in the early years. “But now I push myself,” she told me.

More recently Lynn has taken up weightlifting. “It’s made a huge difference because it’s given me a lot of strength,” she said. “Now that I have some core strength I can do so much than I could before. I’m in a much better place now. The pain is still there, but I can do more and for much longer and more frequently because I’m stronger.”

Lynn experiences much less fatigue now that she’s started weightlifting, and she credits a weight loss goal with her most recent accomplishments. “It wasn’t just about fibromyalgia anymore,” Lynn told me. “There were definitely some vanity goals that helped as well. I didn’t like being overweight and I’ve lost 20 pounds and am only five pounds away from my goal.”


Jane Seymour: Pilates Lets Her Play

“I came to Hollywood in 1976 and discovered Pilates,” actor Jane Seymour told me. “At that time there would be about five people in the studio. It was Kate, Jackie and Farrah—the Charlie’s Angels—and Joan Collins and myself. We all knew each other. It was pretty amazing. That was before anyone knew about Pilates.”

And after she’d had surgery on her lower back for bulging discs, it was Pilates that returned her to health.

“Pilates is perfect for anyone who has had an injury,” Seymour said.
They use it for injured dancers. It’s about body alignment, core strength and flexibility. It’s an amazing workout.” She explained that she uses what’s called a “Gyrotonic machine, “which has pulleys and straps, and it’s almost like you’re churning milk. It’s fantastic for rotation of the spine … I absolutely credit this machine and Jeeny [Seymour’s Pilates instructor] to helping support my back. I work very hard on my core strength; it’s important for my body.” And it’s allowed her to stay active.

“I love to play golf, although it’s not necessarily a good movement with my back issues, but Pilates allows me to play.” And not just golf but rediscovering lost passions. Before becoming an actor Seymour danced with the Kirov ballet company. “One of the great joys in my life was doing Dancing with the Stars. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as well as one of the most fun and exciting. Dancing with a bad back at my age—and having to do it live—was huge. I loved learning that it was something I could still do. It brought back something into my life and made me realize how much I missed it.”


Marty Scott: The 320-Pound Runner

By itself, being over 300 pounds is neither an illness nor an injury, but it can prevent you from engaging in certain activities. Or can it?

Many say they’re too overweight to run, but that didn’t stop 42-year-old Marty Scott, a city planner and father of two in Chicago.

“I started out with just walking,” he told me. “The big issue was making time for it.” See? NOT his weight but TIME! He had a good attitude about his physical capabilities from the start.

“I would integrate short runs into these walks, and they got longer and longer. Then some friends suggested I do a 5K Thanksgiving Day race and it was a lot of fun and very motivating.”

Then he did a 10K race in 80 minutes, which isn’t so fast, but it’s much faster than a walking pace. Now he can run a 10K race in an hour, and that is running.

And he’s going farther too. Scott is up to eight-mile races. Eight-mile runs weighing 320 pounds. And now he’s working on the diet side to get his weight down. Running has been a life-changing catalyst for him.


Me: I Blame the Morphine

I’ve had low-back issues since high school. I’m pretty sure they started with me trying to show off how much I could deadlift in 10th-grade gym class while having no clue as to proper technique. I had flare-ups and issues on and off for years, until 2003, when things really blew up.

I’d been working out for a decade at that point, and had to suffer through back pain during exercise. But in September 2003 I’d had a terrible cough that would not die. The constant hacking put my low back in further jeopardy, and when I bent over to hoist a full laundry basket from the floor I broke into another coughing fit, and my lower lumbar exploded. I collapsed to the floor and cried like a kid who’s had his Halloween candy stolen.

I could not walk. Tylenol 3 did nothing. After four days of continuous downhill slide, I was taken to the emergency room in a wheelchair. The first thing they did was give me a load of IV morphine, which took the edge off. I still screamed when they moved me from gurney to CT scanner, though.

The scan showed two bulging discs low in my lumbar vertebrae. Surgery was mentioned and I blurted out, “No [expletive] surgery!”

The doctor said I’d be in for a long rehab, which I said I could do. “Oh, and you can forget about any more weightlifting,” he said.

“Go [expletive] yourself,” I replied. I blame the morphine. Usually I’m nice to doctors, being married to one and all.

I went through a pile of Percocet over the next couple of weeks while regaining the ability to walk, then weaned down to Tylenol 3 while meeting with the physiotherapist for the Calgary Flames. Long story short, it was three months of mind-numbing torture. I needed the therapist for only three sessions to show me what to do, and then I spent that quarter of the year doing back rehabilitation and core-strengthening work to return to normal. By the time 2004 arrived, it was as if the blowout had never happened. In fact, my back was stronger than I could ever remember.

Now I can ski through moguls and off cliffs with reckless abandon. Now I can jump over fences or run down treacherous trails at high speeds. Now I can ride my road bike hunched over for hours. Now I can lift heavy weights without putting my back in jeopardy, no matter what that doctor said.

Sometimes you just need to err on the side of “go for it.”


Craig McArthur and Chris Frolek: The Kneed for Speed

Oh, man, I suck at puns.

Craig McArthur is my best friend. If I’m at a Rush concert, he’s there with me. And when we’re skiing the expert runs and stop to look over a perilous cliff and I say to him, “You first,” he goes first.

Did I mention that Craig has had six surgeries on his knee?

Dr. Mark Heard, the consulting physician for the Canadian Alpine Ski Team and Canadian Freestyle Ski Team, told me that the success rate for knee surgery “is in the 95 percent area” for all patients, from elite athletes to amateurs. “They generally return to the same level or higher after recovering from their reconstruction,” he said.

And yet many see it as a death knell for athleticism. But not Chris Frolek, a 35-year-old registered nurse in Calgary who was playing competitive tennis when he tore his ACL in a doubles match in 2008.

Like many facing a long rehab from an anterior cruciate ligament injury, Chris found that being off his game had a depressing effect. “I was feeling very down, but I did everything they told me to do,” he said. “Staying active by doing the stretching and exercises they gave me, along with lots of time on a stationary bike, had a positive effect on my mood.”

And he’s keeping his spirits up with ambitious recovery goals. “I want to get into the top 100 tennis players in Canada,” he told me. “I was on my way before the injury, and it’s a goal I haven’t given up on.” He also intends to do a full Ironman triathlon before he turns 50. Completing a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race and running a full marathon is not the ambition of a man who intends to let knee surgery slow him down.


Liz Claman: The Emmy Winner with a Twisted Spine

Liz Claman is an Emmy-winning anchor for Fox Business Network. She is also a marathoner and triathlete with scoliosis. A specialist said she’d never be an athlete and that running was out of the question.

Claman told me she obeyed the rules and didn’t do much for exercise throughout her life, “until I decided to break the rules. I wanted to be an athlete.” For her, wanting to become an athlete changed everything else.

“I was 38 and professionally feeling like I was in a rut, and I was too tired to change it,” she told me. “So I decided to work on the physical part instead. I decided that I could run the New York marathon to crack the shell that had grown around me,” she said. “I approached a trainer at my gym who completely inspired me. He said I could do anything I wanted, and we put a plan together.”

Claman said her hips always hurt on her runs, and she and her trainer came up with some stretches to compensate, but at the beginning of the New York marathon in 2005 she said, “I could feel pain in my hip after the first step, and I started to panic.” But she still finished the race, and she ran the whole way, with no stopping to walk.

“In every part of my life I was able to break those rules. Professionally my career has soared and I have to believe there is a connection. I have to wonder whether I’d have been able to advance professionally if I hadn’t if broken through the physical barriers first.”


Feel Free to Quote Me

I wrote an article about overcoming illness and injury for AOL long ago. A couple of years later a woman wrote to tell me about how one sentence in that article changed her life. She was able to fight against debilitating rheumatoid arthritis to reduce her pain, increase her energy levels and enjoy life a lot more by taking up exercising.

She quoted the article’s sentence in her email: “If you don’t conquer your illnesses and injuries, you allow them to conquer you.”

It isn’t Shakespeare, but it’s true. You may not cure yourself, but you can better your situation. You can make a stronger, healthier body that can deal with physical travails far easier.

You can conquer rather than be conquered.