“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities—I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

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This is a story about two feet, but to truly tell the tale I need to start elsewhere.

In November 2011, I hurt my knee. I was working at The California Aggie , the student run newspaper at my undergraduate college, The University of California Davis. I  was the Photography Editor when the famed pepper-spray incident occurred. I got a lot of recognition for a photo I took (The Guardian, US News, The New York Times among other publications ) but the sudden nationwide interest in our small paper also brought on a lot of stress. I postponed a study abroad trip I had planned to Spain so I could stick it out at The Aggie.

To deal with stress, I run. This was especially true before I  began to climb regularly. I was logging close to 60 miles a week. The knee pain came suddenly and swiftly. I did what one normally does when they experience their first injury, I went to a number of physical therapists and I tried to return gradually to running. Long story short, nothing helped. I took up swimming and devoted myself completely to physical therapy and recovery. Yet, eight months later, the pain persisted. No one really knew what it was, and so my naive brain convinced myself I would not be able to run again. I focused on my upcoming study abroad trip- I would leave in August and spend a year abroad in Spain. At the end of July, I took a short trip to Oregon with my dad. I remember hiking around the Columbia River Gorge and going to Smith Rock State Park for the first time, ogling up at the climbers and one day hoping to return (I had started climbing in 2010 and was still a beginner). I remember icing my knee every night after even short hikes.

The day after we came back I awoke to a funny sensation in my right foot. Something didn’t feel right, but I was not quick to panic. However, as the day progressed the sinking feeling in my gut became stronger; I knew something was truly wrong. The next day the pain was intolerable. Standing for more than a minute or two induced a burning sensation; walking was even worse.

I was a veteran injury-guru now, though. I knew what to do. I tried to stay off my feet as much as possible. I sat on my couch and watched the Beijing Olympics. My spirit was better some days, but my symptoms continually got worse. The pain came on more quickly and I couldn’t find relief unless I spent at least an hour laying down. Then the pain started in my left foot, too. I was 21, with a very achy knee and two feet that wouldn’t even let me stand in line at the store, walk my dog around the block, wear tight shoes, wash the dishes or push the clutch in my car without horrible, terrible persistent pain the likes of which I hadn’t experienced beforehand. I didn’t care about running anymore, I just wanted a return to normalcy.

I want you to imagine what life would be like if the bottoms of both of your feet felt like they were on fire every time you put any pressure on them. It is extremely, extremely debilitating. I remember watching my very old neighbors do their routine, early morning walks. You can imagine how I felt; I was 21 and couldn’t even keep up with them. I was jealous, sad, and couldn’t stop the feelings of self-doubt that flooded my mind.

I postponed my trip to Spain again (to January this time) and took the quarter off at UC Davis, where I was studying Conversation Biology and Spanish, to stay at home with my parents and put all of my energy into figuring out what was wrong with me.

I swam every day for hours and hours. My shoulders ached but I kept swimming. The pool was the only place I could go where I didn’t feel injured. Getting out would return me to reality so I stayed in for as long as I could bear it. I progressed quickly. I didn’t know how to do the freestyle before but soon I would swim for miles in the pool, back and forth, back and forth. The monotony was almost soothing. I remember the comments of the usual swimmers, telling me how strong I clearly was. While they were trying to be nice, their comments cut deeply. I wasn’t strong. My body was broken. I was weak. I deleted all of my social media accounts- Facebook and Instagram at the time- because I could not stand witnessing the constant progression of everyone else’s seemingly normal lives. It seemed like a lot of people were playing the part of me a lot better than I would ever be able to again. I stopped talking to a lot of people and became a recluse. I read and wrote voraciously. I re-took up the piano and the guitar, going to lessons with old instructors from years past. Anything to get my mind off the pain.
But, all of this was secondary to the absurd amount of doctor’s appointments I went to.

The first podiatrist told me it was plantar fasciitis and prescribed orthotics. The second and third ones did, too. All these doctors saw was a young, otherwise healthy former runner and so they jumped to conclusions without any consideration as to my symptoms or my history. Any runner has heard of and seen someone deal with plantar fasciitis;  it is a nasty ailment of the heel. The symptoms, though, did not match mine at all. I knew it wasn’t PF, but I gave in to their suggestions and treatments because I didn’t know what else to do. The orthopedist told me it would just “go away.” Another doctor told me I needed to “sleep more.” I spent almost a thousand dollars on a massage therapist, trying to see if trigger point therapy could help until she exasperatedly told me to stop coming, that she didn’t want to see me waste my money anymore when she clearly couldn’t help. I went to countless acupuncture offices and even to a Vietnamese healer that my father insisted I see. He told me I needed to drink more cold water and that (after a solid 30 seconds of him floating his hands above my body) I could start running on grass the next day. When it clearly didn’t work, and I called him back, his receptionist told me that he was going to practice “remote healing” and that I wouldn’t feel anything. I hung up.  I felt like people were treating my injury like a joke. I felt like I couldn’t express just how badly it hurt to anyone else. The cycle of appointments was exhausting. Go to a doctor who prescribes a test. Wait two weeks for the test. Make another appointment to discuss the test. One test a time. Rinse and repeat. I changed my diet, I tried random supplements, I scoured the depths of the internet for anything.  The normal psychological side effects that any active person feels when their sport is stripped away from them- what I was dealing with in the thick of my knee injury- felt like it would be heaven to me now.

The worst thing, the most dreadful, most painful, most frustrating part was not knowing what the cause was. I fell into a deep, deep depression. I slept 12-14 hours a day and cut off contact to almost everyone.

I wrote a lot during that period of my life. Here’s an excerpt of one of my more cheery posts

“…by the end of the day my mind is exhausted trying to keep up with all of the thoughts I conjure up about what is wrong with me and when or if I will get better. What will my future be like and how will it compare to my past. The thoughts rush and rush through my head the way I feel my blood rush after a hard run. The thing is, really I don’t do much all day. Externally I feel lazy. Inside my head, though, I’m running a race every day. By ten o’clock everything starts to recede back and I lose myself between the pages of a book, in another world. But when I read a paragraph of someone doing, well pretty much anything- shopping, standing, running, playing; the thoughts creep up again and clench my mind like a bird’s talons as no matter how hard I try to flee, the unavoidable thought of “you can’t do this. you can’t be happy, really.” catches up.”

10 October 2012

When months passed and nothing helped, the diagnoses became more serious. I saw some rheumatologists who tested me for all kind of autoimmune disorders, from Lupus to Celiac. One doctor ordered a very painful test in which electric shocks were sent through the nerves of my feet. Everything really hit home when I went to a neurologist, a very capable, smart and kind woman, who did a basic neurology exam on me. I closed my eyes and would ask me where she was touching me, was it cold or hot, was it gentle or not. I passed with flying colors. I passed every test with flying colors. I seemed perfectly healthy. I so desperately wanted to completely fail a test. I wanted them to find some deep flaw in my body so I could at least explain what was going on.

The neurologist told me I might have idiopathic nerve damage, which is fancy speak for saying “something is wrong with your nerves but we don’t know what.” She told me that she could give me a low dosage version of the same drugs that are prescribed for schizophrenia. I declined, but I almost accepted.

January, when I was supposed to take off for Spain, was nearing. I knew I wouldn’t even be able to make it to the security gate. I started to seriously consider that this might be my new reality. Chronic, unyielding, inexplicable pain. A sedentary life. The thought was overwhelming.

Around early November I began to see Dr. Amol Saxena, a renowned podiatrist. He did the usual tests and all came back positive. He finally ordered an MRI- which I had wanted since the beginning but which no doctor would prescribe. I drove myself to the appointment to discuss the results- my parents had driven me everywhere else because it hurt to drive – adamant in my need to be alone when Dr. Saxena might tell me what I feared most- that the MRI was normal.

The MRI was, indeed, normal. I was fighting hard to not break down in front of this doctor when he suggested one last test. He told me it was invasive and asked if I wanted to do it now. “Of course I want to do it now” I bluntly said. I wasn’t about to wait for two weeks to take another test. Besides, I figured it would be normal.

Put most simply, the test involved sticking a humongous needle with a pressure gauge into the muscles of my foot.  The normal reading at rest should be ~4 mmHg. Evidently, mine measured near  20mmHg. He then had me walk around to induce the pain and re-took the measurement. The number sky-rocketed.  A visiting doctor studying under Dr. Saxena was there the entire time. She was very kind and clearly showed some level of compassion for what I was going through. I hadn’t ever really talked to her much, but as I was laying down she looked at me and asked: “it must be nice to finally know what it is.” I was tearing up and all I could blubber out was “yes.” In that moment I truly loved a stranger.

I was diagnosed with chronic compartment syndrome. When you exercise, your muscles swell up. The fascia that surrounds your muscles swells up too, to accommodate for the extra size. However, sometimes this pathway is interrupted. The fascia does not swell with the muscles. The pressure inside your “compartment” becomes extremely high, to the point where blood flow is impeded. Without blood, your muscles begin to die. Muscle death is extremely, extremely painful.

Dr. Saxena told me he sees around 1,200 people a year but has only ever treated compartment syndrome once every three years or so. He also said that if it had gone on much longer the best I could have hoped for would be the reality of constantly managing the pain for my entire life; even if they had eventually figured it out and performed the surgery needed to fix it, the nerves would be permanently damaged. The worst-case scenario would be an amputation of both of my feet.

Surgery was scheduled on November 18, 2012. I opted to do both feet at the same time since there was no way I could go to Spain if I did one at a time. The day of the surgery was the only day I could make an appointment to re-apply for my third visa application in Spain in less than a year. The guy at the office recognized me, “otra vez?” he asked. I hadn’t had any food or drink at all that day- you can’t eat or drink for 24 hours before surgery and I had an afternoon appointment- so I must have looked and sounded wretched when I responded. But, I was approved and had my third visa in my passport- the only one out of the three I used.

A few hours later I was in the doctor’s office prepping for surgery. The anesthesia literally didn’t kick in until I was in the operating room. To my left was a table with all of the instruments they were going to use. Everyone but me was standing up. I was laying down and was scared and nervous, happy and sad. The fluorescent light was so bright, and then it became very dark.

As far as foot surgeries go, this one is evidently very routine. Dr. Saxena made the same cut he does for his more complicated surgeries and then relieved the pressure in my feet and removed the dead muscle. The visiting doctor told me she had never seen so much muscle in feet before.

I woke up and was completely out of it, drugged up and useless. I had to be lifted to be put in the wheelchair and then again to be put in the car. I had to stay confined to the wheelchair for two weeks. My parents helped me do everything. Without swimming, I became restless. I coiled up ropes to tire out my shoulders and, to the disapproval of my parents, I wheeled around my neighborhood. In a temporary, rental hospital wheelchair every crack in the cement was like Mt. Kilimanjaro. The discomfort in my back was immense. Of course, two weeks doesn’t compare to a lifetime of being in a wheelchair, and my brief stint really made me respect those who have it a lot worse than I did. After I was able to stand up again, I had to be in two boots for two weeks.

I have to make a quick note here- if I did not have good health care (thanks to my parents) I likely would not have gotten very far in my search for a diagnosis. Good health care is literally life-changing, and it is no less than an injustice and a tragedy that so many in a first world country like the United States live without it. I also could never have gotten through any of this without the unyielding emotional and financial support of my parents

I was cautioned that the pain would take some time to go away. The task looming ahead was enormous- I had to ignore the looming threat that I was not cured, that I would have to regress back into a life that did not fulfill me while being emotionally and mentally challenged as I tried to start a new life abroad. I wore huge hiking boots during my first month there and probably got made fun of by the very stylish and beautiful Spaniards. I walked everywhere, though. Despite the pain, I walked and walked and walked. I rarely took the metro. I was told that walking would not cause more damage, it was up to the nerves to stop sending the pain signals, and that would surely happen- it would just take time. So I walked and explored my new city. I loved every moment of it.

I found a pool but still didn’t run. I started climbing again and immediately fell into an amazing crowd of strong Spanish climbers. I pushed my grade from 11a to 12a in a few months, almost all due to mental progress. What really surprised me was that this entire time my knee pain hadn’t gone away. It became more like background noise with my feet becoming the full focus of my attention, but it never got much better. After the surgery, the knee pain disappeared.

I’ll never forget the moment I knew that the pain had finally left. I went on a climbing trip to the South of Spain with my friend Jason. After five days of climbing in El Chorro we went to Madrid on our way back to Barcelona.

While walking around the streets of Madrid, eating as much as we could and trying to see as much as possible, my feet began to hurt.

But they didn’t burn. I didn’t feel the need to sit down immediately. They just ached. They ached in the way that your feet normally ache when you’ve walked for miles on old cobblestones.

My feet started hurting almost exactly six years ago; I took that trip to Oregon with my dad at the end of July, 2012.

What compelled me to write this now? Lately, I haven’t been the best version of myself. I’ve been struggling with my work and I have not been climbing well. I don’t feel strong and I don’t feel smart. Yet I am externalizing the high expectations of others. I got the NSF GRFP, I should be an uber-scientist. I sent To Bolt and Peace, I’m a crusher. The problem hasn’t been low self – esteem or confidence, it has been a combination of poor performance and my weakness in allowing the high expectations of others to get to me. I’ve felt fraudulent over the past month and I have felt sorry for myself.

A few days ago, I was booting up, getting ready to go climbing, when I saw the scars on my feet. I then realized it was the six-year anniversary of that dreadful morning after my trip to Oregon. The emotions that came with this journey came flooding back hard and fast. It knocked the breath out of me.  Instantly I felt like an ungrateful, whining, stupid person. It’s okay to complain about these “first world problems” but it’s always important to maintain perspective. Who cares if I’m not sending. I am lucky to be even able to walk to the crag let alone put on my absurdly tight climbing shoes and do what I can to push my body to its limits. I run all the time now. I’m definitely not logging 60 miles a week, but the running high is the same. Best of all, I don’t live with chronic pain.

I don’t wish that this never happened to me. The experience taught me pure gratitude, which is seldom learned and if it is it is only through true and prolonged struggle.  I discovered that life can change in an instant, for better or for worse. I know now how to enjoy what I have but to not let that stop me from being satisfied with the status “quo”; I will always fight to improve myself. A lot of people have told me that I try to do too much. That I’m too obsessed with climbing, for example. But, after this experience I cannot accept giving anything less than my entire self, giving less than all of my energy to living my life in the way that brings me the most joy and self-fulfillment.

Above all, I learned that everything I am going through today is a privilege. Being upset that I don’t feel strong or that my experiment (of my fully funded Ph.D.) failed are the smallest problems in the world. Of course, plenty of people have gone through experiences that are certainly many, many times worse than this. My parents, for instance, had to flee their only home when war and genocide broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

But, I went through something serious. Something no one could really help me with. So, my little problems now are so easy when compared to how hard I had to work in 2012 to never give up. To not stop going to the doctors. To keep on distracting myself with swimming and with writing. To fight the loneliness and self-doubt. To never let the thoughts of a lifetime of pain get stronger than the love I have for my body. To apply for the visa for the third time and to go to Spain despite having just had surgery. For ignoring the intense pain as I walked across San Francisco International airport with a huge backpack on. For having the courage to keep fighting.

If I can do all of that, I can do anything.

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

I’m standing on a stage
Of fear and self-doubt
It’s a hollow play
But they’ll clap anyway

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

You’re standing next to me
My mind holds the key

I’m living in an age
That calls darkness light
Though my language is dead
Still the shapes fill my head

I’m living in an age
Whose name I don’t know
Though the fear keeps me moving
Still my heart beats so slow

My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

My body is a cage
We take what we’re given
Just because you’ve forgotten
That don’t mean you’re forgiven

I’m living in an age
That screams my name at night
But when I get to the doorway
There’s no one in sight

I’m living in an age
That laughs when I’m dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key

You’re standing next to me
My mind holds the key

Set my spirit free
Set my spirit free
Set my body free
Set my body free

Set my spirit free
Set my body free

-The Arcade Fire

 

 

 

1 comment
  1. Dmitriy Litvak said:

    Bravo!!

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