August 23, 2016

I’d rather be skating than dreaming

Ice skating saved my life. I was introduced to the sport when my mom took me to watch my cousin compete. I was four years old. Soon after I took my first steps on the ice, and I never wanted to take my skates off. I didn’t, until doctors told me I had to.

I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at eight years old. It attacks quickly with signs of severe fatigue and bruising. I went from ice skating five hours per day, five days per week to barely five minutes, and the slightest fall caused the largest bruise. I don’t know how long it would have taken my parents to recognize the signs had it not been for ice skating. But really, does it matter? I’m alive. What does matter is that ice skating continues to be my savior in a myriad of ways.

My treatment protocol kept me in the hospital and isolated for weeks, and blood transfusions happened regularly. However, my life still revolved around ice skating and cancer was getting in the way of me reaching my dreams. Early in my treatment I suffered brain damage and was in a coma for about one month. Afterwards I needed rehabilitation to learn to walk again. I didn’t care about walking. All I wanted to do was skate.

My team of doctors gave me a firm “no.” I suffered from severe neuropathy so they didn’t believe I would be able to skate anyway. Then they saw the picture I drew for the Courageous Kids calendar, a calendar filled with 12 pictures drawn by kids in prolonged hospital stays.

Elizabeth drawing“I’d rather be skating than dreaming” was the caption. Doctors’ main concern was my extremely low platelet count, despite the constant transfusions, which meant that if I fell and hit my head, an uncontrollable brain bleed would occur. They said, “OK,” but vehemently told me to wear a helmet.

It turned out that I could skate better than I could walk. Physical therapists and doctors were mystified and dumfounded. I didn’t need rehabilitation. They needed to record me skating and try to understand what was happening. I don’t think I was wearing a helmet in the video. I valiantly competed for two years in subzero temperatures without a hat or hair. While most kids would have been petrified to be outside with a baldhead, ice skating didn’t allow cancer break my spirit.

Eventually I learned how to walk again. I completed treatment in two years and two months and lived a relatively normal life for five years. Each day started and ended with skating, with school in between, and in the evening I returned home for homework and dinner and sleep.  I did well in school and increased skating levels fairly regularly. I battled constantly with fatigue and neuropathy and headaches and seizures, along with a host of short and long-term effects of chemotherapy. I was taught how to scan my body regularly for abnormalities. I thought I knew everything that might be thrown my way.

I wasn’t taught to scan my brain for post-traumatic stress disorder. When I was diagnosed with cancer, doctors consoled my parents saying “Don’t worry, you will see your daughter graduate from high school.” What they didn’t mention was that she might be graduating with PTSD. As it turned out, cancer did break my spirit. Suddenly passion burned out of my body. Ice skating no longer filled my heart with joy, and I turned to a psychologist for help.

When I arrived at George Washington University, I stopped going to therapy and dove into my pre-med requirements. Once I moved on from skating, I realized how badly my body hurt from an unfortunate combination of cancer survivor and figure skater aches and pains. My anxiety level was through the roof and in the middle of a sport psychology class, I experienced my first panic attack. Several days later my academic advisor noticed that I couldn’t stop shaking my leg and suggested I take a yoga class for a semester.

I laughed but took her advice because I didn’t see the harm. I began practicing yoga twice a week and immersed myself in classes like personal health and wellness, exercise psychology, medical anthropology, and preventive and integrative medicine. My focus evolved from western medicine to natural and traditional healing approaches. I introduced exercise and nutrition to childhood cancer survivors, yoga to socially disadvantaged populations, and resiliency training to those deployed into demanding environments. I learned about cultures that viewed epilepsy and flashbacks as blessings. I began to see my health conditions in a new light. I realized I had the power to take back control of my life by applying the skills I was teaching to others to myself.

And my life began to change.

I graduated from GW with a BS in Exercise Science and immediately moved to New York to start a Master’s in Public Health program at Columbia University. I started the program only to realize I wasn’t ready to take on the rigor. I needed to understand yoga and exercise more deeply to help myself before I could better learn how to help others.

That year I became a 500 hour registered yoga teacher and personal trainer. To this day, ice skating continues to move my spirit. In yoga, the poses and exercises that I found most transformative were those that mimicked aspects of figure skating.  And, I finally recognized that figure skating was my form of meditation and, for four years, a major piece of self-care was missing. I went on to complete my MPH program at Columbia with a newfound systematic approach to design health interventions for people with chronic disease. All of my worlds coalesced and my path became clear. I was on the hook to teach others how to take control of their bodies to increase their quality of life.

Through countless hours of self-work, I accepted my body and its chronic conditions as limits that I had to work within. I strengthened the weak muscles that caused the aches and pains and moved my body in ways to minimize long-term side effects of chemotherapy without working so hard a seizure would occur. I live a mindful, balanced life, which allows me to live in moderation. I eat and move and breathe and meditate in ways that allow me to thrive.

Don’t get me wrong. There are days I want to rebel against my body, but I’ve learned it’s wasted energy. All of our bodies are beautiful, with or without chronic health conditions, and we have the power to heal ourselves as best we can. Far too often we forget to work on ourselves because we don’t know how. Nobody has ever taken the time to educate us, give us the skills, or provide a safe space for us to practice or learn. That’s what I’m here to do.