Thursday, February 16, 2012

Spirituality has helped to Overcome Cystic Fibrosis

Below is a guest article from one of my readers. Jenna is a recent college graduate who shares my interest in English. I love how this blog can be a vehicle for others to share their motivational ideas, dreams, and life stories so that others can learn to better cope with chronic diseases. Thank you Jenna for your submission.

It’s a very tall order to try and find some spiritual guidance and inspiration, when you’re living with diseases, such as pericardial mesothelioma, that affect a person’s quality of life. But for many people who live with the condition known as Cystic Fibrosis, learning to live with the condition simply by coping with it isn’t quite enough.

Many individuals who are diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, not only learn to cope with the disease, also turn to faith, religion, and spirituality as part of their way to face down the disease each and every day. These individuals, who are diagnosed with this condition, use faith as a way to find some meaning to their lives.

Seeking faith through spirituality is one way an individual is able to go beyond one’s personal self, while finding meaning in the idea that maybe there is something beyond the material aspect of our everyday life. Another effective method that individuals can use to help with coping with the effects of Cystic Fibrosis is meditation.

The effects of meditation on a person’s mental well being and overall health have been well documented in several case studies, and the results are that meditation along with other spiritual pursuits such as just simply communing with nature or doing some type of artistic work can help someone with the disease find a path to better health.

We often forget or in many cases ignore the effects that our mental health can have over our physical wellbeing. Depression and anxiety are major cause factors in our body’s overall physical health.

Many times in life we forget about our faith, as our lives become too busy with the pursuit of all things material. Unfortunately sometimes it takes something devastating to happen before we understand the importance that faith can play in our overall outlook on life and how we choose to deal with a disease such as Cystic Fibrosis.

By Jenna Walters

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Attack Challenges but Know Your Limits...or Friends: The Best Motivation

I had trouble titling this blog, so I gave it two titles. I hope you don't mind.

My earliest memories involve family, friends, and doctors educating me on the importance of keeping up with my medications and therapy along with staying fit and active. This is sound advice for anyone, but for a person with a chronic illness, following this advice means the difference between spending long bouts in a hospital bed and spending weeks living life free of being hospitalized. I am very fortunate to have been instilled with a great work ethic and motivation to stay healthy. Until recently, I prided myself on having the outlook that I am capable of doing anything that anyone else can do--Cystic Fibrosis be damned. This outlook faded quickly the day I geared up for Loveland, Ohio's Amazing Race.

Before getting into the story of my overestimation of myself, tragic downfall, and self-realization--similar to Aristotle's tragic hero but without the noble birth part--I believe it relevant to detail some of what Loveland's Amazing Race entails. It is a long day of fun-filled, competitive activities that only light-hearted yet sadistic minds could create. Activities like moving a bowling ball through an obstacle course with a fire hose or filling a barrel of water using a bucket brigade or sliding down a 20-foot hill into a pool of mud without spilling your cup of water are just a few of the ridiculous challenges that must be completed along a several mile stretch that a team must run, walk, bike, and swim. Looking at the list of events and the distance that must be travelled, my teammate, Justin and I thought, "Heck, we got this!"

And we might have had that until I developed a severe lung infection two weeks prior to the start of the race. I had to be placed on inhaled antibiotics for one month. I considered bowing out of the race, but Justin and friends convinced me otherwise. "We'll take it slow and see how you feel," Justin encouraged, "Come on; it'll be fun." I decided to give it a go, but I underestimated Justin's competitive drive, and I overestimated by damaged lungs' ability to cope with nearly three hours of intense physical activity. I kept up with Justin for the first ten minutes of the race, and then I felt my lungs tighten and my strength dissipate.

Never before did I feel like I let someone down as I took break after break while Justin peddled his bike nearly a mile ahead of me, maybe in hopes of motivating me to put forth that extra effort. Several minutes behind Justin, I would arrive at each event gasping for air and barely able to complete the challenge. After dragging behind for over half the race, I detected Justin's competitive spirit transition from what appeared to be disappointment into a spirit of motivation. This race was nothing like U.S. Marines carrying a wounded comrade miles to safety, but it was as close to that experience as I have ever come.

I was in no danger (except for being on the brink of passing out), and Justin was under no obligation to stick by my side as we painfully watched other competitors, including his wife and my fiance, pass us by. Sympathetic words of motivation pushed me to dig deep, to conquer my lungs' inability to expand. I stopped trying to take deep breaths and started to take short, choppy breaths. This irregular breathing pattern created a pain in my chest, but Justin was there to help me push through it. "I'll help you up if you fall down; I'll carry you if you can't run; I'll pull you if you can't swim," encouraged Justin, "but if you want to quit, we can quit."

His words resonated through my mind. "No. Just give me a minute," I gasped as Justin waited, hands on his knees, watching me struggle to find a breathing pattern that didn't send jolts of pain throughout my exhausted body. I saw a different Justin that day, and I haven't seen that Justin since that day. He still has no mercy on the basketball court, hasn't stopped asking me to run a full marathon with him, and he doesn't talk about helping me to complete The Amazing Race. He doesn't treat me like a "CF kid" as coaches and players have done throughout middle and high school. He made me realize that I could finish that race. And we did finish: 31st place in our division.

Justin and I at the finish line of Loveland's Amazing Race 2010
After that race, two questions worked their way into my psyche: Am I at times overconfident about my physical abilities? And can anything signficant ever be accomplished without a friend's encouragement? I believe the answer to the first question is that one must be confident; otherwise, nobody would challenge themselves. In regards to the second question, the answer is a resounding, "No!" So, surround yourself with people who won't just tell you to keep going, but people who truly believe you can.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Is It in the Cards?

According to a 2008 study from the CF Foundation Patient Registry, the median life expectancy for a person with Cystic Fibrosis is 37.4 years of age. I'm 29.2 years old. I don't want to live life like the last few grains of sand are about to slide into the bottom bulb of my hourglass as Tim McGraw suggests in his song "Live Like You Were Dying." Nor do I want to live life as if tomorrow is a guarantee. I find myself basking in-between these two outlooks. Allow me to explain.

If I pursued every dream and every goal as if I had a finite period of time to accomplish these things, then there would be very little enjoyment in each experience. My life would be one large checklist. Who wants that? (Now, I’m not dismissing the importance of checklists; they're great for things like groceries and holiday shopping, but they are simply not ideal in regards to life events).  The opposite school of thought would then be to live life recklessly with no regrets as Hinder’s Austin Winkler sings about in “The Best Is Yet to Come.” Though little responsibility sounds appealing, I personally would regret missing out on conquered challenges and achieved goals. In fact, I would regret my lack of achievements. This is not to take away from Mr. Winkler’s achievements; he achieved rock stardom and has affected millions of lives with his lyrics. I am a teacher. I have positively impacted thousands of lives with my guidance, experiences, and compassion...maybe more with this blog.

The other side of the coin suggests that I should live my life as if I don’t have a disease and take my unlimited days for granted. Well, that just sounds foolish and unwise, yet we all do this. Have you ever said or thought, “I’ll get to that tomorrow.” What if there was no tomorrow? I guess you just won’t get to that thing…right? I will leave you with this final thought and comparison.

I like to think that I play my hand in life like Maverick (Mel Gibson) plays his final hand of poker in Maverick (1994). He allows the last card to lay face down and makes his bet while believing that card is the card he needs: the ace of spades. I’m the type who doesn’t like to look at my cards. I simply believe that the card I need is going to be there. Whether that card takes the form of another birthday celebration or a short trip to the grocery store with my lovely fiancĂ©, I neither want to plan for it or expect it to happen; I just believe it will happen. That does not mean that I don't play the odds. I do what I can to maintain my health by staying active, keeping on top of colds, and following doctors' orders, but I do not allow my opponent to bluff me out of living my life. Who knew, other than Phil Hellmuth, that one could create an extended metaphor of life using five-card stud? Go me!


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ignorance Is Hardly Bliss

"Ignorance is bliss." Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) so casually states while enjoying a luscious bite of digital steak in 1999's blockbuster hit The Matrix. Despite having the knowledge that the world in which he was living was a utopia designed by human-hungry machines, Cypher's words have stuck with me. If I just pretend like I don't have a disease, then maybe I won't have to deal with all that having Cystic Fibrosis entails. That idea works well in theory, but if George Bailey (James Stewart) taught us anything from one of my all-time favorites It's a Wonderful Life (1946), it is that life is difficult, and a person must face and own his demons, which will make him a better individual.

Riding high through high school because everyone knew that I had Cystic Fibrosis and they were okay with that, made college an eye-opening experience. It was in college where I developed relationships with adult motives. When a significant other and I would begin to talk about the future, she would reply, "What future? You can't have kids, and if you could, would you live long enough to help raise them?" Good question. That is something that my ignorant mind never had to deal with in high school. I did not think about that aspect of the future. I was more focused on college graduation and finding a career. The truth is, that girl's concerns were legitimate. I didn't have the answers for her, and we inevitably parted ways. This scenario played out multiple times before I met my current fiance.

"We'll face that bridge when we come to it," is her reply. We have already considered options such as in vitro fertilization or adoption. We still haven't come to that bridge, but it is on the horizon. It is difficult to watch a relationship fall apart because of your inadequacies. If your partner wants a family and you can't produce that, then like so many celebrity marriages, you testify irreconcilable differences and go your separate ways. For awhile, I wondered if that was how my life would turn out - lonely and bleak. Though I adore Edgar Allan Poe's writing, I didn't want to suffer the same end. I maintained my attainable goals and let the rest up to fate. Now, I'm proud to say fate has dealt a hand in my favor.

Although it's so easy to be ignorant, and far less painful, it is not a way of life as Cypher suggests. So, make like Montressor from Poe's "Cask of Amontillado" and confront your problems...just don't wall them up within the catacombs.


Sunday, January 30, 2011

How to Find Hope

Recently, a colleague approached me and said, "Do you mind if I ask you something personal?"

"Not at all," I replied with a puzzled tone.

"Well, a friend of mine just adopted a two-year-old boy with Cystic Fibrosis. What sort of things does she have to look forward to, and what kind of things should she be doing?"

Hours of conversation and years of experiences flashed through my mind, but I knew why my colleague was asking me this question, and I knew what answers she needed to hear. I could have said that there may be bouts of hospitalization. I could have said that there will be times when all she can do is cry. I could have said that there will be hours of insurance calls. But I didn't. Those are things that come with the territory of any illness that must be "dealt" with. What this friend of a young parent needed was hope.

"There are plenty of things she can do now to ensure a happy child down the road," I replied. Here are some of my suggestions:
  1. For the sanity of the family and the future relationships of the child, develop some networks of people in the same situation. Link them to this blog, visit any of the numerous websites I have listed at the bottom of the page, while in the waiting room, make friends with parents of CF children, and get involved with a local foundation. It's really nice to talk to parents who have been through everything already. Raising a CF child on your own is a monumental task that can take its toll on any family. I realize that doctors advise against CF patients mingling, but you cannot exchange colds and bacteria through the cell phone or the Web.
  2. Get your child involved with sports and activities. Since the lungs are one of the most important organs for a person with CF, it is vital that they get a ton of exercise from their early years and on. Teach the child that exercise is important for everyone, but necessary for their survival. If you instill this at a young age, you will be less likely to have a resistant couch potato years down the road.
  3. From being involved with sports and activities, children develop camaraderie and confidence, which is a key element in teenage survival. Parents want to be protective of their frail child; I understand this, but don't prevent a child from enjoying life because you are afraid that they might get hurt or break. I wish my mom and dad would have let me play football, but they thought that I was too small, so I played baseball instead. Not that I didn't love baseball, but most of my friends were playing peewee football and that created some dissonance between us.
  4. Teach your child that they are different. Don't allow them to feel ashamed, but do not force them into the spotlight. Allow the child to develop a confidence about their disorder at their own pace. I didn't want people to know about my CF until I was fifteen years old. While in restaurants, Mom would slyly slide me my enzymes to avoid any curious onlookers. She had the best intentions, but that made it more difficult for me to nonchalantly take my pills when Mom wasn't around.
  5. Finally, do not treat your child like they could keel over at any moment. Kids pick up on that type of behavior and begin to live like that. Don't be afraid to encourage and at times push your CF child. Many times I wanted to quit sports because coaches treated me differently, but Mom and Dad would not allow that to happen. I am a better and healthier person today because of their stoic motivation.
"Could I get your contact information and give it to her? I think she would really benefit from talking to someone who is doing so well with Cystic Fibrosis."

"You got a pen?"


Sunday, January 23, 2011

Being Different Is a Gift

I am often asked what it's like taking a handful of pills (pancreatic enzymes) while in public. "How do you deal with all the stares and smirks?" people ask. At first, I was embarrassed. When I was younger, I would manage to sneak away from a group of friends so that I could take my pills, or I would just not take my pills and deal with the horrendous stomach ache in a few hours when I got home. I was always afraid of being viewed as different because as an adolescent, different is bad. Now that I am an adult, I am still wary of people watching me take fifteen pills with a single swig of soda, and I wonder what they are thinking...drug addict...poor, dying man...contagious...unfortunate. I am none of those things. I am different. That is good, and I'm about to tell you why.

Living with a conscious knowledge that people are watching you and judging is a terrible and frustrating way to live. I made the decision, early in life, that I liked who I was and the hand I was dealt. Sometime around eighth or ninth grade, I stopped hiding my disease and making up lies about it and started accepting Cystic Fibrosis as a way of life. This was a shock to the people who thought they knew me best. "You take what every time you eat? What is a nebulizer? So that's why you miss school once in a while? Thickened mucus cells...eww." I received a lot of attention when I came out of the darkness. I began to prefer attention over secrecy. At my high school, I became the resident expert on diseases and the star of many a research paper.

People did not view me as "the sick kid;" people viewed me as the kid who is a little bit different. I learned that different is only bad if you hide and deny your differences. If you celebrate your differences, everyone involved becomes educated and closer to you. Now, I never miss an opportunity to explain my disorder and its perils. Today, every one of my students has an in-depth knowledge of Cystic Fibrosis. They do not view their teacher as weak or weird; they view their teacher as a human being, a role model, who accepts challenges instead of running from them.

A student approaches: "Mr. Gibbons, I made brownies in foods lab today; do you have pills with you, or should I put this in some tupperware so you can take it home?"

From the back of the room, a different student shouts, "Hey Mr. G., if you have pills, you can take a drink of my water since you drank all of your Dr. Pepper."

Does that sound like an individual viewed as a contagious freak? If so, then that's perfectly fine with me. I used to not want to be treated differently because I was afraid of what others would think. Now, I want people to ask questions, and the ones who don't, well, it's their loss.

Embrace what you have been given. Cystic Fibrosis has shaped who I am, and I would not trade this disease to be "healthy." Healthy is a funny word; doctors use that word as a gauge for happiness and sadness. If they say that I am healthy, then my family is happy and I should be too. If they say I'm unhealthy, then everyone is concerned and I become a patient. Whether I'm using antibiotics for my recent lung infection or I'm sprinting down the basketball court without a single cough, I am happy. I am happy because I was born with a disease, and I learned that even though I can't always control my health, I refuse to allow this little, life-threatening, genetic disorder control me.


Sunday, January 16, 2011


I have been living with Cystic Fibrosis (CF) since I was two years old; I wasn't diagnosed until I was two years old. I guess that's when my whole world changed, but at two years old, my world was still beginning, so I didn't know the difference. In that, I believe that I am fortunate. I never knew what it was like to not get debilitating stomach aches after eating. I never knew what it was like to not have a cold go to my lungs and last for weeks or months. I never knew what it was like to not be treated differently. Using a breathing machine (nebulizer) twice a day, taking enzymes during every meal, having mom and dad rhythmically pound on my back and chest daily (chest pt's), and, most significant of all, people treating me like I was a fragile doll that could break at any moment, that is all I knew of life. That was life. I was a prisoner in Plato's allegorical cave.

I didn't realize that I was different from other kids until my first day of kindergarten; in a sense, I was allowed to venture into the light for the fist time. A teacher walked up to me and told me that it was time to go to the nurse's office to take my medicine. The other kids, being only five years old, didn't understand, which made it necessary for me to make up my own explanation for why I had to leave the lunch room every day and why I couldn't eat snacks during class unless I first went to the nurse.

For several years, I hid who I was and the disease that I carried. I was a pariah; I was a freak, an outcast, but I was only these things in my mind. I wanted desperately to be like every other kid. Eventually, the time came when kids figured things out, and after hiding my identity for nearly eight years, I owed my middle-school friends an explanation. It was an explanation that I had been giving adults for years. My friends did not understand the technical lingo of thickened mucus cells, a scarred pancreas, bacteria in my lungs, and losing too much salt. "It's like asthma but with stomach aches," I repeated to each friend. That explanation held the dogs off for the time being. I knew more questions would follow, but I would deal with that when the time came. For now, I was still normal in their eyes.

As years passed, friends found out that my life expectancy was eighteen years old, outdated information thanks to poor research skills on their part. Girlfriends turned away assuming that a future with me was a future of hospitals and loneliness. Bosses gave me fewer hours, not wanting my overworked body and impending demise on their consciences. Fears that my future was limited raced through my mind. Questions like: why try hard in school if I'll never see a career or even college graduation; why work hard in a relationship if I won't live long enough to raise my own children or even get married; why keep in touch with friends and family if my looming death is only going to cause them heartache; why, why, why?

Today, I am a twenty-nine year old high school English teacher with a Master's degree in literature. I am applying to graduate schools in order to pursue a PhD in composition and rhetoric and best of all, I am getting married to a wonderful woman on September 4, 2011. I have dozens of close friends and family located throughout the country. I don't have to rely on mom and dad; I'm making it on my own, taking care of myself. I am successful. My journey was long and harsh; my journey is not finished.

I am using this blog as an outlet and a source of hope for others who suffer from a chronic illness. Children and adults can benefit from my experiences and enduring hardships. I'm making it. So can you, so can your friends, so can your significant other. Please feel free to share your thoughts and reactions.