Mind & Spirit

Have you overcome a health crisis?

By: Helen Racanelli

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

Have you overcome a health crisis?

By: Helen Racanelli
This story was originally titled "Tales of Triumph" in the June 2011 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

When it comes to our health, we're all hurdlers. Sure, we'd rather be walking or even jogging through life at a nice clip, but at some point hurdles will pop up as surely as in the track-and-field events of the Summer Olympics.

How did you overcome a serious health challenge? Share your story with fellow readers in out comment section below.

Hurdles come in all sizes
Some of those hurdles are set relatively low – losing those last five pounds, a cold that takes two weeks to get rid of – but other obstacles can stop us in our tracks: a stroke at a relatively young age, a chronic illness such as lupus or a crippling car accident.

These towering hurdles motivate some of us to jump higher than we ever thought we could. That's certainly the case for these go-getting individuals, who cleared seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve amazing health goals. Join us in being inspired by Doug, Luana and Marie-Lynn: three Canadians whose health milestones we celebrate here.

"I cycled 850 kilometres in seven days."
At the age of 49, Doug Querns suffered a stroke and subsequently spent three months in a North Vancouver hospital. After his discharge, the father of three challenged himself to cycle 850 kilometres as a way of raising money for rehabilitation equipment he wished had been there for him.

How he did it:
The night before Doug was to run a half-marathon, he snapped wide awake at 3 a.m. "I was unable to sit up and I couldn't move my left arm or leg. I woke up my wife, who called the ambulance," he wrote on candobiketour.blogspot.com, his blog about his experience. It was three months before he could walk again, and he needed a cane.

A former triathlete, Doug soon discovered that many stroke survivors need specialized exercise equipment, such as a treadmill harness to prevent falls or special cycling shoes and pedals. "This equipment enables people to challenge themselves toward improvement," he says.

So he decided to raise money for such equipment by cycling, an activity he'd always enjoyed. "A social worker at my outpatient facility helped me realize that although I couldn't maintain my balance anymore on a typical upright road bike, riding a recumbent tricycle was quite possible," he says.

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Doug's next goal: Learning to run again
Doug trained for a year, and in the summer of 2009 undertook his fund-raising cycling tour in British Columbia’s Kootenay mountain range. His "Can Do Bike Tour" raised $4,000 for the North Shore Stroke Recovery Centre in North Vancouver. "The bike tour was a huge step for me in regaining my self-confidence," he says. "Finishing 145 kilometres on the last day was an incredible feeling. It gave me back that 'can do' attitude I used to have."

Next on Doug's list is learning to run again, which his lack of balance makes difficult. "It is painful at the moment but I am hopeful that I will continue to improve," he says. "We may not have the power to determine what things happen to us, but we are given the power to control how we deal with those things. These challenges either stop you or they change you," Doug says.

Doug's winning strategies
• "Get involved with research studies if you're recovering from a disability. Joining a study meant I had access to an experienced neurophysiotherapist for free."
• "Surround yourself with positive people. What motivated me to improve was hearing how my fellow runners and triathletes were doing."

"I beat depression and kicked smoking."
Despite dealing with the painful, little understood disease lupus, Luana McDonald, 30, not only alleviated the depression that can come with a chronic illness, but also gave a 10-year smoking habit the heave-ho.

How she did it:
Luana, who lives with her husband and eight-year-old daughter in Peterborough, Ont., has battled lupus, an immune disease, since she was 17. "I had the typical lupus face rash and red welts on my arms. My doctor basically told me that I was allergic to the sun," she recalls.

So she took the evening shift at a local coffee shop and kept late hours. "I figured since I was a 'vampire' – meaning not allowed in the sun – I might as well stay up all night. I really felt sorry for myself." With the nocturnal hours and the constant joint pain caused by the illness came a mild case of depression.

Luana says that she never had an aha! moment when she knew exactly how to feel better, but attributes her mental-health improvement to building on small victories.

"Eventually I gave up the crappy attitude and spent more time awake in the daytime," she says.

Regular visits to lupus specialists led to a prescription for anti-inflammatories to alleviate joint pain, and topical steroids that calmed her rashes. Luana also took antidepressants and sought counselling over the years.

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Luana's drive to quit smoking
After the birth of a healthy daughter, she has added a steady workout routine of running on a treadmill several times each week at home and taking Aquafit classes at the local pool. She keeps at it despite suffering from some lupus symptoms, such as fatigue. "My motivation is simply that I feel good after exercising – tough and strong!"

As for smoking, "I tried quitting cold turkey and it wasn’t going well," she says. "I was sneaking cigarettes. So I took three days off work, got some Nicorette gum, stopped drinking coffee because I wanted a smoke whenever I drank it, and went online to a group for quitters first thing each morning, which was the hardest time for me."

Five years later, she's still smoke-free.

Luana's winning strategies:
• "I only listen to music when I’m running, so that makes it a treat for me."
• "Don't give up if you fall off the wagon. If you slip up for any amount of time, just suck up your pride and do it again."
• "Have a good relationship with your doctor. Keep appointments and come prepared with any questions. Be honest and don’t sugarcoat your concerns."

"I learned a Russian martial art."
Although her range of movement and ability to work full time were limited by a car accident, Marie- Lynn Richard learned a martial art called Systema and found fulfilling employment.

How she did it:
In a Berthierville, Que., parking lot in 2004, Marie-Lynn, then 33, shooed her young daughter away from the back of their parked car, where the tot had dropped a toy. As she stooped to pick it up, another car suddenly pinned Marie-Lynn between the vehicles. "All I could think about was how my tiny daughter almost got crushed to death," she recalls.

Marie-Lynn didn't break any bones, but she injured her back, and her C-section scar tore, resulting in crippling pain and post-traumatic stress disorder, rooted in her fear of being injured again. "My shaky hands and legs meant that I broke all my dishes one by one and constantly fell, reinjuring myself," she says. "By 2007, I was almost completely handicapped. The pain was so bad that I couldn’t concentrate," she says.

Determined to avoid strong painkillers ("I think pain medication is dangerous in the long run," she says), Marie-Lynn visited an osteopath and a chiropractor who helped improve her mobility enough to work again.

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Marie-Lynn take up martial arts
But the real turning point came two years ago when a friend introduced her to Systema, a Russian martial art that was used by Soviet-era military forces and features lightning-fast self-defence moves. Marie-Lynn was intrigued, and she thrilled to its challenge.

"It took me three months to make it through an entire class because my nervous system had become completely resistant to normal movement," she says. "I stuck with it because even though it was gruelling, I improved a little bit each time."

Now she's a regular at Club Nagaika, a Systema club in Montreal. "I can now stand [up] straight and have improved my Functional Movement System [a measuring system that identifies physical limitations in order to improve functional problems and track progress] by a whole point!" she says. It's also helped with her post-traumatic stress disorder. "Now I am on my way, after six months of Systema, to moving well, breathing well and no longer being fearful of the world," she says.

Today Marie-Lynn works full time as a web analyst, and counts cooking, sewing, knitting and dog-walking among her hobbies. "My constant need to do stuff is driving everyone around me, including my boss, completely mad. But I don't want to miss any opportunities that come my way," she says. "This year is going to be epic!"

Marie-Lynn's winning strategies:
• "I hosted a puppy from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals so I would be forced to go out three times a day to walk."
• "Invest in learning a new skill set: It can strengthen your confidence during difficult times."

Discover the power of positive thinking here.

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Mind & Spirit

Have you overcome a health crisis?