Notes From The Recovery
By Jamie Bussin
In the past few months I’ve written and discussed my recent health scare at length. And when I did, the focus was on the trauma (emergency surgery to fix a perforated colon gone septic), the cause of the trauma (diverticulitis…not colon cancer) and how my fitness prepared me for the worst and perhaps saved my life. Less glamorous (is that even the right word?) but no less important was what happened after the surgery, my recovery.
The road to recovery is not linear. There are triumphs and there are setbacks. And the notion of recovery is edified by both the starting point (the trauma) and perceived end result – in this case, happily, a prognosis of full recovery. But it’s also a lot more complicated than that. Emergency surgery was “Point A”. But I spent over two weeks in the hospital, with more tubes running out of me than I imagined possible. I ran high fevers daily, despite being on “the strongest antibiotics known to man”. And that resulted in more testing…and more laparoscopic procedures to facilitate my exit from North York General.
You could say that my path to recovery started in post-op. But you could also say that the worst place to recover from surgery is a hospital. I think I averaged three hours of sleep a day. When I was finally discharged, after my 2.5 week stay, I had lost 25 pounds. Most of it was muscle mass. And I wasn’t just trying to get my life back on track, I knew that I was going to have to come back to the hospital at some point as I had more surgery ahead of me.
When you have a burst colon like I did, they don’t just patch it up and mop up the mess. Part of my colon was removed and I was given a “temporary” colostomy. Doctors rarely speak in absolutes. I was told that my prognosis was 100% recovery (so “Point B”). But when I would have the surgery to reverse the colostomy was less certain – dependent on the speed of my recovery. Six months? Eight months? A year? Part of me thought that it might never happen.
So recovery, for me, meant that my body needed to heal sufficiently to undergo further surgery. And in order for that to happen I needed to build my strength back – get my weight back through building muscle, getting rest, learn how to cope with and tend to the colostomy and prepare myself for the coming surgery, while all the while getting back to publishing the magazine and hosting the talk show, and of course being present as a husband, father, son etc.
My first week back at home, I was still losing weight – I love food, but it hurt just to eat. I was someone who spent hours exercising, but I could barely walk to the end of the block. When I looked in the mirror, I was a shell of myself, someone I didn’t recognize. I am very good at conceptualizing, formulating plans and manifestation. But at my lowest, I was struggling to accept that I would ever reach Point B.
Usually, the articles in this series focus on advice from the experts. And there will be a little of that, here. But journeys to recovery are personal – so allow me to give you some of my insight. Here is what I’ve learned, that might be of value to you.
The Fundamental Connectedness of All Things: It is this simple. All aspects of your health are connected. What you eat (or don’t eat) gives you the energy to move. Your ability to move – the strength, the balance, the breath – expending that energy creates not only necessity, but also the ability to rest. The rest aids in the healing. And the process of healing, the tangible gains, however small they may seem, gives you the purpose and the belief that you will recover. And, of course the support from those who love and care about you, is crucial. But you need all of it.
Determination: I assure you, positivity is not my default position. …But when the chips are down, I’m at my best. I am a determined person. So I did everything within my power to get “healthy”. My lack of effort would not be the reason for any delay in recovery. As soon as I could, I walked outdoors. No matter the weather, with the goal of walking further and faster – even when that goal was something as rudimentary as walking to the stop sign at the end of my street. Whatever I had to do to get healthier; movement, exercise, eating right, sleep etc. I did so with purpose, with my goal in mind at all times.
Humility: Also not a strength of mine. When my surgeon gave me the go-ahead to exercise, I was told to go slow and in particular not use heavy weights at first. I was determined (see above) to build back the muscle mass I had lost. My first “work-out” was humbling. Pre-surgery I used 35 lb weights. That day I struggled with 5 and 8 lb weights. I couldn’t complete one push-up, when mere weeks earlier I could do a 100. In the midst of trying to build my muscle back, it was as if I’d never exercised at all. I reasoned that while my muscles weren’t at full strength, my muscle memory from years of exercise might aid in my progress. A plan, that rehab expert Stacy Irvine endorsed in episode #276 of the talk show. So I decided to try to do the exercises I’d done before (the lunges, the squats etc.) in the manner I’d done before (the reps, the sets, the timing), but starting with low weights and building up over time. But that understanding and acceptance that I had to relearn how to exercise, was crucial to my recovery.
Accepting Setbacks: But of course I pushed too hard. Even though I started slowly (and with light weights) and got the go-ahead from my doctors to exercise, I managed to develop a parastomal hernia. A colostomy necessitates a breach of your stomach muscles, and so it is logical that the risk of further tearing of the muscle, previously compromised, is increased. It would have been nice to be warned in advance of that distinct possibility by my doctors. I would have worn the supporting belt I do now, from day one of exercising. Unfortunately, I learned the hard (and very painful) way what happens when you do lift and twist without adequate support. A pause in workouts to wait for the custom belt fitting, and a restart at lower weights and I was back on my way.
Appreciation: My illness put everyone around me out. Naomi not only worked (at her very busy job) and continued to do all the things she does around the house, she picked up my slack and helped me get better. That is a lot. I’m not great at asking for help. I found myself in the uncomfortable position of needing a lot of help whether I liked it or not. And so I became more accepting of whatever assistance I was being offered. That support, from Naomi and my family, from my friends who walked with me and my co-workers who facilitated my easier return back to work was appreciated. I am grateful. And I came to learn that it’s okay to ask for help when you need it. Recovery is not a solo project.
Self-Advocacy: It’s been suggested to me that on some level I enjoy confrontation. I’m not sure that’s true, but I acknowledge that I’m not afraid of confrontation and I’m comfortable being assertive. Of course as a commercial litigator and a son (grandson and spouse) of a lawyer, I come by my advocacy skills naturally and professionally. But it’s an entirely different matter when you’re advocating for yourself. We have a wonderful health system in Canada, which isn’t perfect. There are gaps and holes and there are limited resources. I’ve been fully supported by the medical practitioners I’ve met during this health journey. But in order to navigate recovery you have to be prepared to stand up for, and assert, yourself. As co-founder of CanPrev and cancer survivor, Tanya Salituro and I recently discussed in Episode #291; It’s up to you to educate yourself, organize yourself, communicate effectively (and of course politely) on your own behalf.
Mental Stamina: If everything I’ve outlined above seems like a lot, you’re right it is. Particularly if you’re already diminished because of illness. When you’re lying awake in the hospital at 3:00am, running a fever, the negative thoughts creep in. At times I worried more about my mental health than my physical health. As soon as you think that you don’t have what it takes to recover, you’re on your way to not recovering. To that end I tried to employ the techniques recommended by mindfulness expert, and frequent Tonic Talk Show guest, Tracey Soghrati. In one of our earliest conversations, in episode #55, we discussed how to tolerate “not knowing” when in distress. Distress Tolerance has 3 key steps: Being observant of your body and mind within the distressful situation, notice without doing anything about it. Then describe your observations – which gives you the opportunity to pause. And then “let go” of the visceral response to your observation which allows you to form a measured response.
PS Now that you’ve read this article you should know that I already had my colostomy reversal surgery (in early August), weeks (if not months) ahead of schedule, and I am now in the home stretch to reaching Point B.
Jamie Bussin is the Publisher of The Tonic Magazine and Host of The Tonic Talk Show/Podcast…who sincerely hopes that he never has to rehab again