How to Heal Yourself

Survival strategies for coping with a health crisis. 

It was day eight of a brutal weeklong battle with a stomach bug, or so I thought. Wobbling to my feet, I wondered: “One more day of trying to eat, or the ER?” While my brain debated, my body shifted into autopilot, and I was suddenly dialing an Uber to take me to the emergency room one block from my New York City apartment. As the driver chattered on his phone, I remember woozily thinking, “$8 for that short trip! Twenty-four hours later, I would find out that $8 Uber ride saved my life.

Meanwhile, I was ensconced in the ER, hooked up to a hydrating IV and prepped for an unexpected CAT scan. Another surprise was the news that I’d need surgery at another, larger hospital. Next up, that night, a first, hopefully last, (non) bucket list experience: barreling through the streets of my city in an ambulance, sirens blaring. Bumping along, I flashed back to all the times I’d seen cars block howling ambulances and thought, “Move! What if it was your loved one onboard!!” Incredibly, this time it was me.

The real shock came the next morning, when my surgeon filled me in. “You must be a very strong lady. It’s a miracle you’re alive. You had diverticulitis and a perforated colon. Most people survive with this condition one to two days. You had it for eight,” he explained in his lilting, soothing Greek accent. My level of physical fitness (high) and extra holiday pounds (10) helped saved my life.

According to the Mayo Clinic, diverticulosis occurs when small, bulging pouches (diverticula) develop in your digestive tract. When one or more of these pouches become inflamed or infected, the condition is called diverticulitis. Diverticula are common in adults over 40, but only a small percentage develop diverticulitis, especially a serious case necessitating surgery. (The numbers are higher in the U.S., according to my doc, because of the meat-heavy Western diet.) Nobody can answer what caused the perforation in my case. The colon seems to be like a tire: it wears out with use, and who really knows why it blows when it blows?

Flashing back to the week of wobbling weakly around my apartment, I shuddered. “You must also have a very high tolerance for pain.” My surgeon and his team removed almost a foot of damaged colon and an abscess the size of a fist. I was left with a colostomy bag and an eight-inch incision. An otherwise healthy 56 year old, I haven’t had surgery since my 1972 tonsillectomy, take no medication, ride a bike to work every day and eat a healthy diet. Now: Blam! I was flat on my back for nine days in the critical care unit, both arms hooked up to beeping machines.

I had to take an unpaid leave of absence from teaching and walk around with a colostomy bag for three months. Terrible times were inevitable, but there were surprising pluses. I found untapped strength and endurance. Friends came through in unbelievable ways, dropping their families, jobs and spouses to bring me food, do my laundry, anything I needed. It was It’s a Wonderful Life in real time. Redecorating my apartment at my friends’ urging became a productive, diverting project. My body’s healing power inspired awe, even when it felt like an alien’s. Here is the strategy and tips that worked for me.

It’s been an emotional roller coaster, but five months later, I’m getting back to normal, working and cycling every day, and revamping my diet with help from a nutritionist. Moving forward, I have to do all I can to prevent recurrence. Until now, I may have kidded myself that my diet is truly “healthy.” Many more veggies and fruits will be on my menu. And I will try to remember to thank my body every day for getting me through this.

Healing Therapies

It was important for me to find natural ways to heal. Here are some strategies and tips that worked.

Distraction
Never was the ability to entertain and calm myself so important. Among the most soothing diversions: classical music, which I never appreciated until now, as well as pop anthems (I danced around my apartment to Sia’s “Unstoppable”). Plus all kinds of books (The Underground Railroad, Andy Cohen’s Superficial) and magazines (US, Vanity Fair, Vogue).On TV, comedies and nature shows were my speed, and I couldn’t watch anything more serious than a Real Housewives reunion. Light, goofy comedies like Miss Congeniality and Malibu’s Most Wanted hit the perfect pitch when I stumbled upon them on cable.

Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy was a rejuvenating, relaxing blessing. I ordered essential oils online and concocted spray combos, like orange, peppermint and rosemary, to help with nausea, perk me up or calm me down.

Going Inward
Patience, never one of my virtues, became a survival essential. I needed another operation three months later to reattach my colon. In the interim, I had to breathe and stay calm and quiet when I’d normally react and argue, deflecting nervous Nellies and second-guessers, like those who doubted my doctors’ prescribed low-fiber diet, by saying things like, “Are you sure you should eat rice? I thought it was binding!”










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Kathryn Bonn
Kathryn Bonn

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