Firing Up the Inner Gyroscope Once Again - Finding My Center in the Hospital
June 16, 2021
I am writing a book on how the philosophies that I learned during the time I have studied martial arts have guided me through some of the storms of life.
Last week, I found that I was living a new chapter.
After a break of a few years, I suddenly began coughing up blood on Friday, June 4. We're not talking about the type of coughing up blood that you see in the movies -- a fleck or two in a handkerchief.
When I cough up blood, it looks like someone was shotgunned in my sink. I put a picture up on a blog post around 2015. It was gross.
This began in 2009, after three laser ablation procedures on my heart, attempting to stop atrial fibrillation. Instead, the final procedure shut down my left pulmonary veins, so no oxygenated blood goes from my left lung to the heart.
How my body has survived the past 12 years, I have no idea, but it hasn't been easy, and it has made martial arts quite a challenge -- only one lung, coughing up blood occasionally, and, to add insult to injury, I developed exercise-induced asthma.
So after three days of coughing up blood, last Monday my pulmonologist told me to get a CT scan. I walked into the hospital, got the scan, and they told me I was to be admitted because of pulmonary embolism -- multiple blood clots in the left lung.
I'm not a doctor, but I know that a blood clot in the lung is not a good thing, and multiple blood clots would be a worse thing.
I was worried that a clot could break off, go to my brain, and cause me to lose my ability to think. If that happened, I would probably start wearing a MAGA hat, or I might start believing in the no-touch knockdown, or I might try to heal you with my qi -- crazy $#!+ like that.
Nancy rushed from work and met me at the ER. I was taken to a room on the sixth floor of Genesis East in Davenport, Iowa. An IV was put into my right arm and they started a Heparin drip. Heparin is a blood thinner.
I thought blood thinners dissolved blood clots but they don't. They keep the clots from getting bigger, and the clots are absorbed into the body over a period of weeks or months.
When Nancy left to go home that evening, a rainbow formed outside. Now, I don't read anything supernatural into that, but it was pretty cool. I don't consider it a message from God. Bruce Lee, maybe, but not God.
For the next five days, I was in the hospital. From the start, my goal was to make the nurses laugh. I am always their easiest and most low-maintenance patient.
But I am also a questioning patient. I don't leave my critical thinking skills at the door of the hospital. When a doctor or nurse says I need something, I ask questions.
One think I have learned over the years is this: you must be your own advocate, because doctors will make mistakes.
I don't want to give you the impression that I rolled through this without getting emotionally smacked around. It was a difficult week. I had been on a plateau for years without coughing up blood. I had a pacemaker installed a year ago and I have had other procedures, but I felt reasonably stable because I had not coughed up blood.
It was very difficult to find myself suddenly back in the hospital with a damned IV in my arm without Nancy.
But I held up pretty well, trying to remain centered and determined to get through it. Two days later, however, when I looked out my window and saw her walking across the parking lot to visit, the tears came, and when she entered the room, I hugged her and sobbed for a minute.
I am 68 years old, with one lung, an irregular heartbeat and a pacemaker, asthma, and I don't really think it gets better from here, does it? Seriously. I have survived and continued to pursue the internal martial arts for 12 years. My doctors have been amazed. And now this?
It also didn't help that they were coming in every six or 12 hours to draw blood. You want to talk about centering yourself? If you stick me with a needle, I don't like it. One of the worst things about the hospital is that they are constantly sticking me with needles.
That evening, I tried to keep it together when Nancy said goodnight to go home, and after she left I had a talk with myself. I stood up and did Zhan Zhuang with the IV hose dangling from my arm.
Just breathe. Focus on your Dantien. Sink your energy. Establish peng. Become aware of everything around you.
Remain centered, I reminded myself. Just calm down, find your center, find your determination. Let's get through this. You have been through it before, you can do it again.
Some people misunderstand the concept of being centered. They believe if you are centered, nothing bothers you. No matter what happens, you remain emotionally calm.
They are wrong. Being a human being means you will experience a range of emotions, and if you lean toward Eastern philosophies as I do, you will continue to experience a range of emotions. You can be knocked down emotionally. You can be insulted, you can be hurt, you can be angry.
It is okay to be knocked off-balance, but when you suffer a tragedy or crisis, and you look inside yourself for the tools to survive and cope, what do you find?
When you find yourself off-balance, do you look outside of yourself for help (gods, other people, drugs, alcohol) or do you cultivate the ability within yourself to get back up and regain your balance?
That is what the philosophies of the martial arts, which I first encountered while watching the "Kung Fu" TV show as a teenager, have taught me.
Standing in my room, focusing on my breathing, my Dantien, and realizing I am part of all things made me feel balanced again.
When you lie in a hospital bed without getting up, your strength leaves the body quickly, so I was taking walks a few times a day around the sixth floor, walking the circuit back to my room, and I noticed a lot of the doors had "Fall Risk" and other signs on them notifying nurses of various predicaments the patients were in.
I created my own sign and placed it on my door. "Tai Chi Risk: Patient prone to sudden calmness."
Within a few minutes of putting it on my door, there was a shift change and my night nurse, Adam, opened the door, laughed, gave the sign a thumbs up and walked away. Two or three other employees over the next few days laughed and commented on the sign.
I took a walk around the floor and told nurses I was the floor supervisor. They laughed. I cracked one-liners to lighten the mood. Dressed in my gown and rolling my IV stand, I told them, "I'm busting out of this joint." More laughter.
One evening on my walk, a frail, elderly woman was in her bed, looking to the hallway. I waved to her and said hello. She waved back and said, "Hi." Sometimes, the elderly are treated like pieces of meat in situations like this, but I know that, like me, they are wondering how the hell they got here. They are thinking, "I was just 18 a moment ago, it seems, and now look at this!" They deserve kindness and respect.
"I hope you get out of here soon," I told her.
"I hope you do, too," she said.
Doctors were waiting for my Coumadin level to increase before they released me. Coumadin is a risk for me because of my history of coughing up blood since my pulmonary veins closed in 2009. With thinner blood, the risk of bleeding is a real possibility.
I practiced tai chi one day in my room, in my gown with the IV hose dangling off my arm. Do you know how hard it is to do "Lazy About Tying the Coat" without getting tangled in the hose or without pulling the needle out of your arm? I did it very, very carefully.
I kept myself in shape all my life, never took drugs and did martial arts, and all this has happened. We all have to play the hand we are dealt, and if we are lucky enough to grow old, something is going to get us in the end. How we handle it is a test of our character and a test of our belief system.
By Saturday, the doctor decided to release me because the Coumadin level was high enough and it was on the way up. It would be where we wanted it by Sunday, and he told me to go in and get checked on Monday.
I got home Saturday afternoon. The entire time I was in that hospital room, I realized how we sometimes take little moments for granted. What I most wanted was to be with Nancy in our basement with the dogs, sipping wine and watching the big screen. Well, I should word that differently. The dogs won't be sipping wine and watching the big screen, Nancy and I will.
I try not to take any moments for granted. But they slip by us anyway. They are here and they are gone. The moments pass and the weeks, months and years pass. Suddenly, we find ourselves in a place where all we want is to get one of those moments back.
I do not believe we encounter anything negative after death. If you subscribe to philosophical Taoism, death is the unknown, so there is no point worrying about it. But what makes sense to me is that we return to the same place we were in before we were born; a state of complete peace.
If you remember, on the day we were born, none of us had any complaints about where we had been.
So I don't worry about dying. However, I am not in a hurry to get there. I have too much to enjoy -- Nancy, my daughters and grandchildren, my friends, the internal martial arts and my students, Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy movies, and every single moment of this life. As long as you don't stick me with a needle. I don't care for that, but I have found that I can bear it if I focus on my breathing and my Dantien.
How can you truly appreciate the good moments of life without the bad moments? It's all part of the journey. Enjoy the journey.
Remain centered, my friends.
-- by Ken Gullette
Thanks for letting us know how you are doing. Things like what you are experiencing are not fun. I know somewhat about what you are doing. You might find this a bit humorous and help you recover faster.
First, you are just a youngster at 68. Now, in less than 2 months I’ll be 80. Plus, about 5/6 years ago I fell through the roof of our carport. About 2 years ago I had a stroke, got dizzy and fell on my left shoulder bone. Leaving my left side numbish. Also, hit my head. So what, you might say. Well, now I think it’s time you had a real challenge. A 1 out of three push hands contest. You’ll like this part…
Because of your condition at present I’ll give you the first two rounds, win the third one, for 1 win takes all. And I won’t complain about your age and youthful inexperience. In addition, I’ll give you free lifetime push hand lessons. Then we’ll explain my martial arts training began when you were just 2 years old and was too much for you. And I’ll explain how humble a student you are to let me win.
True tai chi humility from both of us. Oh, we could probably take this act to tv.
Ok, all joking aside, get well my friend !!!… we have lots more to do,
Posted by: Bob Petry | June 16, 2021 at 06:28 PM
Bob, that's a wonderful offer. I'll consult my lawyer. If he advises me to do it, I'll get a new lawyer, then I'll consult my doctor. We could take it on the road. :)
Posted by: Ken Gullette | June 16, 2021 at 07:46 PM
Great to hear that you are out of hospital. A few months ago I was with my wife as she laboured to give birth to our first child. Suddenly something changed and we were rushed into the operating theatre and i began to get scared...but then I could hear your voice from the podcast, "remain centered at all times", I centered myself and was able to continue to support my wife...Thank You...
Posted by: Andrew Hall | June 17, 2021 at 12:51 AM
Andrew, it makes me very happy and a bit awed that you remembered something I said at a moment of crisis and it helped you. That is always my goal, but it's wonderful to hear this. I hope everything turned out well for you, your wife and the baby. Thank you for letting me know.
Posted by: Ken Gullette | June 17, 2021 at 05:59 AM
Ken - first of all thank goodness you're home and still cracking out the jokes, and the wine bottles... I'm in awe of your focus and determination and take great inspiration from it. Like you, I've used my internal arts "tools" at really bad moments in my life - caring for my mum when she was dying of cancer, being made redundant (great opportunity by the way...) lots of things that attacked my centre. But I always remembered my tai chi, my Zhang Zhuang and it gets you through. My teacher always says "you have the tools - use them." Couldn't agree more with you about the bad times - the bad moments and feelings don't go away, but you endure, you carry on and you seek the opportunities. You're a real martial artist and a credit to your art. Love your blogs, newsletters and your website. Sending nothing but positive thoughts your way for you, your wife and family. Stay well and thank you for your dedication.
Posted by: Jim Ward | June 18, 2021 at 03:06 PM
Thanks for this blog post. Hoping lots of healing energy finds its way to you!
Posted by: Lily DeYoung | June 18, 2021 at 03:57 PM
Ken you are a constant inspiration.
You warm my heart.
Posted by: Richard Sterne | June 19, 2021 at 09:23 AM
Sifu Ken! Thank you for sharing both your pains and victories. Your ability to work your will even when the Fates seem dead set against you is inspiring and empowering. Happy healing to you!
Posted by: Ando Mierzwa | June 21, 2021 at 07:19 AM