Neither of my parents made it to age 60, although both came within a stone’s throw of reaching that milestone. In the fall of 2016, I came pretty close to carrying on the family tradition. Twice.
I’ve composed some form of those couple sentences in my head at least a dozen times. Do I finally tell my story, or don’t I? How and where do I describe it? Will sharing my darkest days on a professional and very public platform become my Jerry McGuire moment?
Admittedly, I tend to over-share on social media. I love posting photos of all the things that make me happy: my dogs, my husband’s fabulous cooking, my regular trips to New York City, the gorgeous atmospherics of the Lowcountry right outside my back door.
Social media has blurred the line between our professional and personal lives. No longer is it a deal-breaker if we hear a colleague’s dog barking in the background of a conference call. We can laugh at the professor whose toddler bursts into the room while the BBC is interviewing him. We’re on Facebook with our family, friends — current and from childhood or school and college, along with select colleagues and clients. We know who is celebrating a significant birthday or going through a rough patch. By the time we see these folks in person (if we ever do), we’re already clued in.
When I started getting sick, I decided to keep the news of my illness off Facebook and Twitter, despite my high visibility online up to that point. Once I was hospitalized, it wasn’t a conscious decision not to share; I was unable to use my iPhone beyond the occasional, brief phone call.
What began as a nasty ulcerative colitis flare was further complicated by a blood clot in my leg; an arterial thrombosis, to be exact. Had the doctors not amputated my lower right leg that evening, I would not have lived. Had the nurse decided to wait another hour to move me to a different hospital room about a week later, while I was recovering from my surgeries, I would have died from sepsis — I was unresponsive and in septic shock, had to be intubated, and was rushed into emergency surgery.
Five hazy months
I missed voting in the 2016 presidential election because I was in a Manhattan hospital on Election Day, so I share some responsibility for the outcome. While on a morphine drip, I was convinced there was something more to the relationship between Kanye and our newly elected president. I thought the nurse’s station at the ICU looked like the inside of a Sephora cosmetics store, which really had me confused.
All joking aside, I worked very hard not to become dependent on the oxy and fentanyl that kept me from feeling any physical or emotional pain.
I also missed two speaking opportunities — as a panelist at the Legal Marketing Association’s 2017 Annual Conference and a presenter at LMA’s Texas Think Tank Conference.
Learning from this experience
Obviously, I’ve decided to share what happened. Why? Because what I learned from this experience, and recovering from it, might help other people facing anything similar. That’s a big part of what social media is all about, at least in my book.
- I am strong. Lying in bed for months was anxiety-producing and depressing. There came a point when I told my husband that “I want to give up,” and in a singsong voice, let him know that I was “Done, done, done, done, done!” He explained that actually, there was “no plug to pull.” (That one took a while to sink in.)
- I am determined. As I began to take stock of my situation, I knew that I did not want to live the rest of my life in a wheelchair. To keep that from happening, I set goals. My primary goal was to walk unassisted by July 4, 2017. First, I concentrated on strengthening my upper body and doing arm exercises, with those colorful stretchy bands wrapped around my hospital bed. Another goal was to sit upright in a chair for increasingly longer periods. The doctors were ruthless and insisted I do this seemingly simple — but unbelievably painful — routine to prevent pneumonia. When I reached the point where I was no longer dependent on an IV for nutrition needs and could eat solid food, I was moved to a rehabilitation center in the Bronx for physical therapy. The facility was primarily a nursing home with a well-equipped PT center. Despite my apprehension (I was the youngest patient in the facility), the PT staff was phenomenal, and I often put in more hours than required. When I arrived in late April, I could not lift myself out of the wheelchair, much less walk. By the time I left in late May, I was able to use a walker so I could fly back to South Carolina with my husband. Here’s proof my having met my goal of walking unassisted, filmed the day before our nation’s holiday.
- All of my medical problems did not magically disappear. Other challenges have replaced the issues I once had. While in the hospital, I lost 26 pounds because I was not eating. This wasn’t due to the quality of the hospital’s food. It was because everything I tried to eat either had no flavor or tasted metallic, which I learned was probably a result of all the medication I was being prescribed. Once the doctors reduced my medications and took me off the IV-supplied nutritional supplement and Boost shakes, my appetite returned. The first meal I can say I truly enjoyed was a few bites of a cheeseburger and fries that my daughter brought to my hospital room from a nearby Moonstruck Diner. (Note: I’ve gained all the weight back, and then some — but I can live with that. Literally.)
- There are limits to how much and where I’ll share this experience. I am not doing a TED talk, despite the enthusiastic suggestion from a former law firm CMO. (Well, perhaps a podcast segment for NPR’s “The Moth.”)
- When people say they’re “going to pray for you,” they actually pray. A friend added my name to the service leaflet at Cathedral St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights. My sister, who is a congregational rabbi in The Rockaways, read my name aloud during the Mi Sheberach at Friday night services. Our housekeeper and her family prayed for me at her church in Beaufort, South Carolina. I don’t know if it made a difference, but just knowing about it was wonderful, and really helped my spirits.
- Gratitude is real. I learned that people genuinely do care and am so grateful for the love and care shown by my family and my close friends, who were with me around the clock. I’m especially happy to be here for my children, my husband, and my extended family. What was unexpected, but much appreciated, was the outpouring of support from my Legal Marketing Association colleagues. Here are just a few examples of how they came through:
- Lots of get well cards and personal visits, to the point the nurses began to wonder if I was someone famous. (My colleagues assure me I am.) When Terri Chytrowski happened to be visiting her firm’s office in DC, she took the train up to New York just to visit me. Bill Schroeder stopped by a few times, always with a warm hug and great conversations. While I was in the rehab center, John Rumely brought me New York’s finest deli sandwiches on more than one occasion.
- A Seamless Gift Card from the LMA NY Metro Chapter’s board of directors. This incredibly creative, thoughtful and useful gift allowed my family to have dinners delivered to our apartment after having spent the day with me in the hospital.
- Beautiful flowers on several occasions, personally delivered by Bernadette DeCelle. (I must ask her for the name of her florist!)
- An amazing luncheon box from Per Se, courtesy of Despina Kartson.
- Irreverence. Humor may not be the best medicine, but it sure helped me. My buddy Geoff Goldberg made references to Jack Sparrow and the other Pirates of the Caribbean.
- Super-consideration. I never saw Robert Algeri when he came by to visit, but I know he was there. That’s because he left his business card with my nurse rather than disturb me while I was sleeping.
- Support for the new life. As I have restarted my business, several LMA colleagues have made good on promises to be supportive. Perhaps you view those you work with as being somehow less important than our “real friends,” but so many of us are spending the better parts of our days with our work colleagues, either in the same office or virtually. We are sharing our lives more freely. If you are fortunate enough to work in an industry (like legal marketing) with good and caring people, chances are your colleagues are the ones who will come to your rescue in a crisis. Ideally, they will also go out of their way to make a horrible situation more bearable through random acts of kindness. That’s what they did for me. I no longer — if I ever did — make that distinction between colleagues and connections outside my work realm.
What can you learn from my experience?
There’s never a perfect time for a difficult conversation. It’s not a fun topic to think about, and perhaps you might disagree about the particulars … but if you suddenly were to become sick or were injured, would the person closest to you know your most important passwords — to unlock your phone and computer, contact your clients and colleagues, notify everyone who should know what’s going on? If your passwords aren’t saved in your browser, how will someone handle tasks like paying your bills, stopping monthly charges, and discontinuing services you won’t need while you’re hospitalized or recovering? We all need to put such critical information together now, including a medical power of attorney and a living will, because you never know when a medical crisis might strike. You don’t have to be elderly for something like this to happen.
It’s important to know the symptoms of arterial thrombosis. These are not as widely known as the classic symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. My symptoms were pins and needles that wouldn’t go away, no matter how many times I tried stomping my foot and walking around. Other symptoms I did not experience can include coldness, muscle spasms and lack of a pulse in an extremity. No matter what, an overwhelming feeling that “something just isn’t right” should never be ignored.
We’re often stronger than we realize. I had no idea what it might take to get through something like this, and would not have thought I could do it. There were many times when I thought I couldn’t. I’m still surprised that I did. My image of myself is very different — and much better — than when all of this began.
“Family” is an expansive concept. In a crisis like this, family expands to include friends, colleagues, clients, even employees. When you see everyone pulling for you, it picks you up and pulls you through. There are no words for how much that matters and what a difference it makes. All you can do is live up to what they expect of you, and find a way to pay it back somehow by doing something similar for someone else. I hope no one reading this has a similar experience to mine, but if you do, I hope you also have a similarly wonderful response from family and friends.
This post was originally published on LinkedIn on March 26, 2019.