Caution - this story contains an image that might be disturbing.
On November 2nd, I was lying in a hospital bed with tubes down my throat -- on a respirator -- and watching TV through a haze of sedation that relaxed me so that I wouldn't gag and choke on the tubes. I had entered the hospital on October 19th, thinking I was having a 2-hour procedure that would fix a bleeding airway. I had been coughing up blood since February and the residual blood in the lungs made breathing a real challenge.
My kung-fu practice had been seriously affected throughout 2009, but I had no idea -- and neither did my doctors -- that I was losing the function of my left lung because the pulmonary veins going to the heart were closing down. They discovered this at the Cleveland Clinic, but when they tried to open the veins, they accidentally pierced my heart. They led Nancy to believe a couple of times that there was a good possibility I wouldn't make it out alive.
On November 2, I discovered that I was unable to walk. I had lost so much muscle and strength lying in a hospital bed -- sedated out of my mind -- that the weight loss I had been experiencing all year picked up steam and took most of my muscle with it.
I was so weak, I couldn't get up to go to the toilet, so they had to bring it to me. It was degrading and shocking. I had always been in great condition.
So I was lying there wondering what the future would bring for kung-fu, and I thought about a plan to get back in shape. Every spring, my friend John Morrow holds a tournament, and I decided at that time that -- little by little -- I would use the next few months to regain my strength and compete in the tournament.
I still didn't realize I had lost the function of my left lung -- that no oxygenated blood is going from the left lung to the heart. And my right diaphragm was still paralyzed. So I was trying to breathe with not even one completely functioning lung. But my goal was set. If I could compete at Morrow's tournament, it would represent at least some type of a comeback.
I got home November 6th, weighing 158 pounds -- 50 pounds lighter than 10 months previously -- and so weak, I sat on the couch and in a chair for a week, trying to build up enough strength to walk down to my basement office. I couldn't breathe well and I was still coughing up blood every day. A little blood seemed to stay in the airways after these incidents, and it made breathing very difficult. There were times that I couldn't walk from the couch to the kitchen without stopping to rest.
I was alarmed that I was still coughing up blood. The photo at left (showing the bathroom sink) shows the aftermath of one incident -- and 85% had gone down the drain when this photo was taken. I called the pulmonologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
"Ken," he said, "you will probably cough up blood the rest of your life. If we went in to fix it again, it might trigger a fatal bleeding event."
At this point, I didn't think I could live more than a few more months. But I was sure going to try, because I wanted to get to that tournament in May.
During the next few weeks:
- I tried acupuncture, visiting a popular acupuncturist from China - a former neurologist. Walking from my car into the office was very difficult. After acupuncture treatments, I began coughing up blood twice a day instead of just once. I thought I only had a few months to live at that point. I canceled the acupuncture treatments.
- I was able to do 2 crunches without completely running out of oxygen.
- I could barely use 10-pound dumbells for bicep curls.
- I couldn't do standing stake meditation for more than 15 seconds without my legs wanting to buckle.
- The first time I tried to to a push-up, I couldn't.
- After Nancy and I started going to the fitness center, it was weeks before I could do one chin-up. I would just hang from the bar, no strength to pull up. It was shocking.
One day in early December, I felt the bubbles in my chest that announced that I was going to cough up blood. I immediately went into the standing stake position, dropped my weight, calmed myself, and put my mind on my dan t'ien. I tried to completely relax. I only coughed up a little blood that day -- not as much as usual. I had done chi kung before during these episodes, but today I felt up against the wall, as if my life was in danger.
The next day, I felt the bubbles in my chest again and immediately went into chi kung mode. Total relaxation, dropping my energy -- and only a streak of blood came up. Later that day it happened again -- bubbles in my chest. I went into chi kung mode and no blood came up at all.
That was early December. I haven't coughed up blood since -- today is May 11th.
On December 15th, I returned to Cleveland Clinic and had a stent put in a cardiac artery that was 85% blocked (it wasn't discovered here in the Quad Cities despite numerous EKGs and echocardiograms). This time, a 2-hour procedure only took 2 hours and I was on the road home the next day.
I told my students that I wanted to resume teaching the first of the year. A few days before Christmas, I suddenly felt as if it was a little easier to breathe. I was still extremely weak and had no cardio, but the fact that I had stopped coughing up blood made a big difference.
Just after the start of 2010, my students and I began meeting and working out. My ability was limited, but I couldn't get back in shape until I forced myself. We practiced at John Morrow's Academy in Moline, and sometimes I had to stop 3 times to rest just trying to walk up his steps to the training floor.
Slowly, I began practicing again, guiding students, working on forms, trying to get through one form without having to stop to catch my breath. I continued to work on weight-training, to try and build back the muscle I had lost (my biceps were about a third the size they were 2 years ago and my legs looked like a super model's). I started putting on weight and so far, I've gained 24 pounds, a lot of that muscle.
In February, I decided to start seeing a chiropractor -- Dr. Michael Hahn at Crow Valley Chiropractic in Bettendorf. Within two weeks of treatment, I began breathing a little easier. I continued the chiro treatments. I figured that if something is hampering the phrenic nerve (which controls the diaphragm) perhaps chiropractic treatment would help. The diaphragm is still paralyzed, I believe, but my breathing has gradually gotten to the point where even with a paralyzed diaphragm, I could work on kung-fu even with 4/5 of one lung.
So I began working for the tournament on May 8th. I wanted to do Laojia Erlu -- Cannonfist -- and the Chen double broadsword form. There were times I couldn't get through Cannonfist without stopping -- oxygen deprived -- but I kept working, hoping to increase the capacity of my right lung. The right lung has three lobes. The left lung has only two. Even if the right lung is the only one working, perhaps I could increase the capacity, whether or not the diaphragm is working.
Within a couple of weeks of the tournament I was doing each form several times a day, always facing a different direction so I wouldn't become accustomed to any particular surroundings. I ditched Cannonfist -- I didn't want to be breathing like a freight train at the end of the form -- and decided to do the Chen 38 because -- even with fa-jing -- I could get through it fine.
The tournament rolled around and I have to admit -- for the first time in a long time, I was a little nervous. My students Chris Miller and Kim Kruse were there to compete, too -- Chris just got his black sash a week before, and Kim got her brown sash a week before.
We each won 1st place in our respective forms divisions, each of us doing the Chen 38. We each won 3rd place in weapons. Chris won 3rd in black belt sparring and Kim won 1st in brown belt women's sparring. I didn't spar (I wasn't about to test that yet).
The photo at left shows me doing the Chen 38 (the movement is The Cannon Right Overhead). Nancy was there to watch. She gets teary-eyed quite often when we talk about just how close I came to death 6 months ago. And we're both pretty amazed that I was able to pull this off -- the first-place finish is beside the point.
The moral of this story is the power of optimism, determination, and goal-setting. If you set a goal and work toward it -- push toward it even in the face of obstacles -- you can succeed. Some of my friends told me I was crazy to try, and some just laughed and said "You're too old for that."
But as I was lying in the Cleveland Clinic in a sedative haze, I couldn't accept the fact that this important part of my life -- the internal arts -- was over. It isn't possible as long as I'm breathing.
So what will the future bring? My next goal is to be able to get through the complete Cannonfist without feeling like I want to keel over. Then, I set my sights on Xinjia Erlu, one of the most athletic forms I've ever seen. I might have to do it in sections, with a breather in between, but that's okay. If this diaphragm ever kicks in again (and it might) that will just make it a little easier.
One step at a time, but all I have to do is fix my sights on the skills I want to improve, and then keep working. And that's all you have to do, too. Set a goal, decide what you have to do to reach that goal, and then go for it.