April 2016 - Vitanova

The Ride of My Life – Catherine Brubaker’s Story

Catherine Brubaker had what she thought was the perfect life—the relationship, the homes, the trips, the degrees, the money—until she and her (then) partner were attacked and she was left with a lifelong brain injury. But through permanent trauma came healing of the soul and a calling to help others to find their way out of the darkness of brain injury. 

The long and the short of it is, I thought I had a successful life. I was in the financial services industry, had a long-term relationship, and had two homes, two cars, a boat, dogs, toys. My partner and I were in great shape. I was on the ski team, downhill skiing. I was really enjoying life and was at the peak—or what I thought to be the peak of my life. And then it was all taken away from me in an instant. On a weekend away with my partner, we were drugged and assaulted and left for dead. From the blood loss of the attack, I was left with an anoxic brain injury (lack of oxygen to the brain). I had a lot of amnesia and extreme difficulty with everything. The medical response wasn’t what it should have been at the time because there was no bleeding in the brain on the scans. The blood was already gone from my brain since I had bled so much from the attack, so no one noticed the brain injury, and I was too confused to tell them anything accurately. But, they knew there was a problem. I had obvious issues with my heart rate. It was down to 38, and no one could explain why. I had a lot of confusion, and it was clear within three days that I had a big problem, but no one knew what that problem was. I was left to pick up the pieces of my life.

Now, instead of focusing on the attack, my focus is on my recovery. It’s been a big part of my journey of healing to let go of the assault. For a long time, I was stuck in the lack of justice. I had a lot of anger. When you have a brain injury and you lose everything, including your ability to walk, talk, shower, feed yourself, and other things, you get mad. After being competent and having a master’s degree and a high IQ…and then here I am…I’m stuck in a wheelchair. It’s a huge shock. I had to go through all of the stages of grief while I was in rehab. Events began to come back as the amnesia lifted.

During rehab, we started strength testing, and the testing revealed there were some serious issues. I wasn’t able to stand up. My blood pressure would bottom out, and I would pass out. I was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, POTs. It’s a part of the dysautonomia—my autonomic system isn’t working correctly. My brain doesn’t have clear communication with my body. Then, my heart failed, so I had to get a pacemaker. My blood pressure bottoms out easily. My temperature doesn’t regulate, so I constantly have to add and remove layers of clothing. My body doesn’t hold onto salts and electrolytes, which is an ongoing issue, and I go in and out of episodes.

Adding to the issues I already had, while on my way home from having a pacemaker implanted to regulate my heart, I was in a head-on collision as the front passenger. That gave me a second traumatic brain injury—post-concussive syndrome—and landed me back in the hospital. I was an inpatient for about a month and outpatient after that for another month or so and then in rehab after that. That was about a year and half after the original brain injury, around 2012.

I’ll be very candid. I don’t think I have the most intense strength. After the second injury, I bottomed out. I lost my relationship and had to live with my mother, who was not in the best health. My life was packed into boxes, and I slept on the couch. Then, one morning, I found my mother passed away. At that point, I wanted to give up, but I saw the result of where my life could go if I did give up, the trajectory of my life if I were just going to lie in bed and do nothing. I could see it before my eyes—like a choice in front of me. That motivated me.

I discovered adaptive cycling in rehab and found that my blood doesn’t pool in my abdomen and legs when my legs are horizontal. So, I went searching for the best thing for me—a trike. Discovering a trike wasn’t by design or by plan. It was purely by accident; I just couldn’t balance a regular bike. When I went to the local bike shop to look for a trike, I was picturing an old lady’s bike with a bell and a basket! I didn’t know what to expect. At a bike shop online, I found the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It looks like a Batmobile, and it’s the fastest trike made in America. It took a month or so to get it delivered because it was fitted specifically to my size.

The day I got my trike was the day I got my freedom back. It changed my life. First, I rode it around the block, and then a bit farther, and then I rode to my grandmother’s house—from Tempe to Chandler, Arizona—and back. Now, I ride to live and I live to ride, every day.

If I don’t ride my trike, I have challenges with my digestive system, my blood pressure—everything. So, by cycling, I am forcing my digestive system to work. I’m forcing my body to heal. Forcing my blood pressure to work and really trying to heal it naturally, despite taking a ton of medicine for the neurological effects. I had to find a healthy way to get control and not be a shut-in anymore. After having a full life and then suddenly going to live with my mother and having the most exciting thing be senior discount day with my mom, well, that’s a stark contrast. Here I am, a person who has her master’s in leadership, and I was playing video games with 19-year-olds. And here I was in my bedroom I was in when I was two years old. Cycling allowed me to go from being a shut-in to reclaiming my freedom.

That’s how I met Dan Zimmerman. Dan and I literally ran into each other on the bike path on our adaptive tricycles. He had suffered a stroke, so the right side of his body doesn’t function properly. When he spoke, his speech was delayed like mine. We had something in common—we were both coming back from tragedy—and we were complete strangers. Then, he showed me a card. On the back of this card was a plan to cycle across the United States. I wanted to do this! I saw this as my way to a different life.

 

When I rode across the country with Dan, we started as complete strangers and ended up with the most beautiful experience two human beings can have as survivors. We were 20 inches off the ground and in complete silence, reclaiming our lives and seeing the most beautiful parts of the country and meeting people of all walks of life. It’s not the impression you get of the U.S. that you get from seeing it on CNN. There were so many beautiful people along the way.

I have a certain language that I have been developing for this next ride, called Sea to Sea, which we launch on June 4 in Anacortes, Washington. I call it our Road to Recovery. I invite the city mayors and leadership to help celebrate our milestones. And on pit stops along the way, I ask survivors to join us.

Somebody once told me, “That’s a fantastic journey you made, but not everyone is going to have that opportunity.” Which made me think, “What can we do about that?” I had an opportunity to go to the Ellen show because someone I knew bought tickets. And the show we attended was called the 12 days of Christmas. I was blown away to discover that on that show, she was giving away trikes! And also a $500 gift card to Kohl’s and a $250 Visa card. I took those cards and I found the same trike on sale at Kohl’s. I ordered them so they’d come right in time for an event.

22 for 22 is an event to help war veterans. A lot of brain injury survivors are returning from the war and they don’t have solutions to their problems. An average of 22 veterans take their lives every day through suicide as a result of brain injury and PTSD. I gave one of my trikes away at that event to the son of a veteran (and brain injury survivor) who got on my trike and loved it.

I needed to find another trike recipient, so I contacted the BIAAZ (Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona) and asked them to identify another candidate. It was through that contact that I discovered that BIAAZ had resources I didn’t even know existed. They have a 360 gym for disabled people, a return-to-work program, and many more programs and resources for survivors. I would imagine that a lot of survivors don’t even know those resources exist. When I’m in the Facebook groups—and that’s where a lot of survivors are—they’re all talking to each other, but I don’t think they’re familiar with those resources. When I gave those trikes away, the survivors came flooding to my Facebook page. “I want one!” “I want one!” “Where’s my trike?” I was overwhelmed. I felt such a responsibility to make it possible to give trikes to riders.

One of the results of my journey was realizing that I found my voice on my ride. And part of the challenge was also realizing that even though I could cross the country on my trike, I would still need a wheelchair to get through the airport. People don’t understand the challenges I have with organization or short-term memory loss or overstimulation or fatigue, and I recognized that a conversation needed to happen. I knew that I needed to start with that conversation. Dan and I partnered again. He has a nonprofit called Spokes Fighting Strokes, spokesfightingstrokes.org, and my nonprofit is Hope for Trauma, hopefortrauma.org. The vision for Hope for Trauma is to have a national conversation about brain injury and the challenges that survivors have.

I can’t take credit for this work. It really takes a village; it’s not just me. My community was behind me to support me in my very first ride. I needed to gather a bunch of friends to go on my ride. Some of these people didn’t even know me that well. They held fundraisers and opened their homes—families and churches. I knew I could write to these people and they would support me. So I did. And they sent checks. And I used those funds to go on a trip that changed my life.

But again, it’s about teamwork and about people coming together. It’s a miracle when other people do in-kind donations when they hear an inspiring story and they want to help and they want to contribute. They want to contribute a banner or a table or a tablecloth or Internet services—anything. Help along the road, it’s all done by in-kind donations. It’s all done by caring people everywhere.

I don’t think things happen by chance anymore. I believe that was God’s hand. I think that God had a plan for me. Sometimes, you think you’re successful in your own way, and you think you’re living the life you’re supposed to with money and things, but really, you’re kind of in a hamster wheel, just existing.

My father had a true servant-leadership style. That was his legacy, and that’s what I inherited from him, and I want to honor him for that. He left a clear path for me. Serving others is very fulfilling for me, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this is my purpose now. I’ve never known my path this clearly before. This is my most important job.

Staring Down Cancer – Lesley Draper’s Rebirth

Lesley Draper was just going about her everyday life as an escrow officer for a title company when she felt a breast lump while doing her usual self-exam in the shower one day. After going through surgery, chemo and radiation, she appreciates life on a level she never did before. Now, she lives for today and takes much better care of herself because she has seen how fragile life can be.

In 2013, I was in the shower and I felt a lump while doing my breast exam, which I wasn’t good about doing regularly. I felt a lump and I thought it felt weird. I tried to ignore it, but then I thought it was best to get it checked out, so I went to my doc. She thought it just felt like a cyst, which relieved me a little bit, but she set me up for a mammogram to be sure. When nothing showed up on the mammogram, it was an eye-opening experience for me because I learned that about 50% of women have tumors that do not show up because they have very dense breast tissue. Everyone thinks the mammogram is the end-all-be-all of tests, but it’s really not.

Since my doctor knew something was there because she could feel it, she scheduled an MRI, which showed several spots, so I was scheduled for a biopsy. From the biopsy, they determined the spots were cancerous—which really threw me for a loop because it’s really one of those things I just never really thought about. Other people get that, not me. I was on the overweight side, but I felt I was really active and I didn’t eat a lot of junk food, didn’t drink a lot, didn’t smoke, and felt like I was doing all the right things. But, I had to face that I actually had cancer.

Within three weeks after the biopsy, my doctor and I went through all of the options and decided that since there were a couple of tumors that were pretty deep into the tissue, it was obvious we were going to have to remove the breast. I had really large breasts, and I didn’t want to just get rid of one, so I decided to have a full double mastectomy and then have my breasts reconstructed. They also found that the cancer was in one of my lymph nodes, so I also had to go through chemo every three weeks for six or seven sessions.

The chemo was worse than the surgery itself. I didn’t want to eat because everything tasted terrible, so I wouldn’t eat, and I’d lose 10 pounds. Then, I’d finally feel better and start to eat again, which made me gain the 10 back plus five more. So, it was this frustrating back-and-forth game of weight loss and gain, which was hard on me, too. Just when I started feeling normal again, I’d have to go back and do it again. I now have a lot of sympathy for people who have to go through chemo because that was the worst part of the whole experience.

After the chemo, I had to do radiation treatments, which was every day for five weeks. That wasn’t as bad as the surgery and chemo, though. They say that if you go through chemo, radiation is easy, but if you don’t go through chemo, radiation will be much harder. I needed some other surgeries after that for reconstruction, so it wasn’t just smooth sailing after that. It was still a process.

Though it was a difficult process for me, I think it’s even harder on the family and friends who are caring for those with cancer. I gained a deep appreciation and understanding for the caretakers. It’s very hard on them. My significant other at the time and my sister helped with so many things throughout the process. Linda, my ex, helped me sit up and get out of bed after surgery, emptied my breast drains, changed bandages, brought me food and drinks when I didn’t want to eat and kept track of a multitude of meds, just to name a few. Both Lisa and Linda went to every chemo treatment,  all the doctor’s appointments and  provided me with much needed emotional support and so much more. I’m extremely grateful for their support and love. The person going through the cancer is getting all of the attention, and the caretakers—who are working so hard to help their loved ones heal—don’t have that same emotional support, even though they are also going through a huge ordeal.

My friends and family really didn’t want to share with me how scared they were, how concerned. My sister, Lisa, said that the day I had the mastectomy, she walked outside of the hospital and was just screaming and crying outside all by herself and yelling at God. When she was with me, she was always strong and supportive and didn’t show that fear to me. You really find out who the true friends and supporters are in your life. I found some important friends through this process, and it made me appreciate my friends and family so much more.

I have a story that so far, I’ve only told Lisa. When I came out of my mastectomy surgery, and I was in the recovery room and semi-conscious, it looked like fairy dust was floating around me. I remember trying to reach at it. I wondered if I was dreaming it, but it felt real. And right then it hit me: The fairy dust was everyone’s prayers around me. I could feel everyone around me, supporting me, encircling me, and it was such a great feeling. I felt so safe and so protected. I really didn’t feel any fear.

After going through this, I knew I needed to live my life differently. I looked at areas of my life that I could improve on. Doing things differently daily. A lot of it was about alleviating stress in my life. I still have a stressful job, but never again am I going to go back to what I was doing before and working the super long hours. I just told myself that I wouldn’t do that to myself again. Stress was the only factor that I could think of that caused the cancer. I know there are genetic factors, but I didn’t have any history of it in my family. It just came down to stress—working too much, taking on too much, eating crappy because I was tired and overworked. The majority of the time, I tried to eat pretty well, but that didn’t always happen with the hours I was working.

Today, I look at life more positively. Lisa is big into this, too, so she pushes me to be positive. She doesn’t like to allow negativity into her life. I try to alleviate stress, walk my dogs, and relax as much as possible. My daily routines have shifted. Even before I put my feet on the ground in the morning, I say, “Thank you God for this day.” And my days are filled with the “I ams.” “I am strong.” “I am courageous.” “I am healthy.” I even say my mantras on my way to the bathroom at work, and I constantly look for new ones to say to myself. That’s really helping me.

I also look at other aspects of my life that I can improve on, not just exercise. I’m working on eliminating sugar and I don’t eat meat. I’m more consistent with walking and being healthy. I take vitamin D and vitamin E because that really helps my bones. But, I’m not obsessive about taking or doing any one thing. I just try to keep balance in my life now.

I noticed I was really starting to beat myself up, telling myself I was weak and I should be this or that. But, I’m still building my strength. The surgeries took a lot out of me. I still have a lot of numbness, and everything feels strange. Even just exercising feels strange. It’s like starting over with everything, and I have to not beat myself because I’m not able to do certain things and I’m not as strong as I was. Now, I just don’t go there. So what if I can’t do it perfectly? Just start and go slowly. And that’s hard when you’re a competitive person like I am. I felt I needed to keep up. I liked being the older person in the workout class who was keeping up with the younger kids. That always felt good. But now, I just have to accept that I really am the older person! It’s just a matter of getting over what people think of me. That’s a huge part of it. Just do what you can do. Be who you are. Don’t compare yourself to other people. Gradually, I just started to feel better about everything through this process.

I don’t feel like I’ve done anything really special. I see all the women who go through this all of the time, and I feel I just had to get through it and do what I had to do. I don’t feel like it was anything great. But, my sister told me it really was a huge thing I went through. Growing up, she used to tell me I was a wimp and make fun of me (teasingly) because even brushing my hair would hurt. But when I went through this, she told me that even though she used to make fun of me, she thinks I’m the strongest person she knows. That blew my mind. I don’t necessarily think that about myself, but hearing her say that really makes me appreciate what I’ve been through. Maybe I really am stronger than I think I am.

Just recently, I had yet another PET scan. It was clear, so I’m now three years out—from stage three cancer to cancer free!

Changing Course – How Pepique Stout Cleaned Up His Act

Pepique Stout embodies the typical American male. He ate mostly fast food and a lot of meat, drank too much, smoked pot and cigarettes, and his life and health were spiraling out of control. Then, one day, he decided to quit drinking and smoking, and that led to a path of eliminating all “crap” and becoming a vegan. Now, he’s healthier and happier than he’s ever been, and he has the blood tests to prove it.

My story of how I changed my life began with drinking. The first major health change I made was five years ago. I quit drinking, smoking pot and cigarettes all on the same day. That was intense. I went through intense biological changes after that. It proved to be too much to handle all at once, and I fell into a depression. I went to a Western medicine doctor who put me on antidepressants, which I stayed on for about six to seven months. As I progressed through AA and really started to find myself and find my spiritual strength and become more aware of what was important to me, I realized I didn’t need the antidepressants anymore. And furthermore, they scared me. The side effects caused me to get cravings that made me want to up my dosage. And I was getting brain zaps in my eyes every time I moved my eyes. So, I stopped the drug. I wanted it out of my body. At that point, I was freaked out by anything foreign in my body, and I took a very firm stance to not do anything like that at all. When I was going through my first divorce, I went back to smoking cigarettes, which was after about six months of not smoking, and that lasted for about six months. I quit cigarettes again on the same day I quit alcohol a year earlier. So now, my alcohol quit date and cigarette quit date are exactly one year apart on the same day. I now have four years without cigarettes and five without alcohol.

I was also eating a lot of fast food back then. I was driving a truck for my job and eating badly. I was a carnivore of the highest sort. I never really anticipated making any changes in that area. I didn’t feel I needed to make any dietary changes. I just accepted all the health risks of eating that way. It was just the way I was. After pushing forward with this clean quest (no drugs, alcohol or smoking), I started watching documentaries here and there, and gaining knowledge about the health industry and started taking a little better care of myself. But really, I didn’t change a whole lot as far as diet and exercise. I had a physical job, so I just put effort into that.

Somewhere along the way, before I met my second wife, I started smoking pot again. And since I’m an addict by nature (and I accept that about myself), I can’t do these things in moderation. I eventually become self-destructive. So, I decided to be totally sober all the time after my wife and I got married. Then, we decided to have a child, but we ran into infertility issues that were rooted in endometriosis. Through surgeries and miscarriages, it ultimately led us to find that there was no cure for our problem other than a dietary cure, which led us to investigate a vegan diet—no sugar, gluten or soy. That lifestyle was going to prove to be really difficult because a lot of the known vegan products on the market are soy based.

 

We were faced with a dilemma; does my wife cook three meals, for my wife, her daughter, and me, or do we all change and adopt a vegan diet? Prior to these changes, I had already decided to quit fast food. That was probably one of the more impactful changes that I made. I didn’t really feel that sluggish when the meat was from a good source, but I did feel bad when I ate fast food. But even eating meat from a good source, I still felt like I just wanted to take a nap or sit around and not do anything. It was kind of like a food coma. Once we took meat out of our diet and went headlong into the vegan diet, we did a lot of research to motivate us because her daughter and I didn’t want to make the change at first. We were just doing it for my wife. But then, the guilt factor kicked in because she was cooking the majority of our meals. I didn’t want to ask her to cook meat for us when she couldn’t eat it, so we made the decision as a family to go vegan. As it progressed, we really started to enjoy it and we began to educate ourselves. We’d watch food movies as a family, Forks Over Knives, Food, Inc., Farmageddon, and more. There is a wealth of knowledge on how to eat vegan, and it’s easily accessible these days. The Beautiful Truth was the most impactful of all the movies we watched. It’s amazing to see how deceived we’ve been by the FDA and the cancer drug societies and the like. Everything we need is already here. We don’t need to process it. It grows in the ground. Just go and find it. It’s a basic thing that we’ve all forgotten. We’ve been so deceived by the lies of the dairy industries and the meat industries that are trying to just make money, but they’re no better than the cigarette industry. They’re lying to us and telling us these things are necessary.

The vegetarian food industry is stuck on soy as the easy way to get protein. There’s a common misconception that you need some sort of protein source like processed soy or meat product to be healthy, which is just absolutely not true. There is more absorbable protein in some vegetables than there is in some steaks. Yes, granted, the meat products contain more protein when they’re sitting on your plate than the broccoli does, but when it goes through your body and you digest it, what come into your body and what goes out as waste, you will wind up with more absorbable protein from some of the vegetables than you ever will from eating meat. That’s the thing that the meat industry doesn’t tell you. They aren’t lying; you just aren’t absorbing much of the protein. When I eat a full plate of broccoli and kale and all these other intensely deep-green vegetables, the amount of nutrient that my body absorbs is above and beyond anything else I can get from dairy or meat or processed soy.

In addition to eating a vegan diet, supplements are a big deal to me. I eat a full breakfast and then I take supplements with a vegan shake. I have to make the exception when I eat out that I won’t always find non-GMO, but I do insist on organic whenever possible and vegan. Animal rights were not what drove me to become vegan. It’s the health factor. I tried it, I put it in my body, and I feel the difference, and that’s my marker…how I feel. I’m a big advocate of spices, too. They are therapy in your food, too. Turmeric and cayenne pepper I put into just about everything. There are a ton of good spices. Most of the Indian spices are really powerful. The spices themselves are almost more healthy than the food they’re on. And that’s also really overlooked by Americans. We’re a salt and pepper society. I’ve been exploring the culinary aspect of creating something that is not only delicious but also nourishes my body, and when I’m done eating it, I feel great.

I went to the doctor recently, thinking there was something wrong with me. It turned out that it was my recent second divorce that was causing my anxiety. The doctor ran all kinds of tests: heart, blood, lung x-rays—everything—trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Turns out, I’m the epitome of health! I didn’t have any deficiencies. Again, my diet was all I need to be healthy. Vitamin B12 and iron, which are common deficiencies in under-educated vegans, were perfect. When I first went into the doctor for the antidepressant, I was anemic and the doc put me on an iron supplement. And that’s when I was eating meat almost exclusively. So, that was an aha moment for me. Now, as a vegan, I have more iron absorption and I’m not anemic. I also do a lot of probiotics and supplementing to fill in the gaps, definitely, but they are all organic, seed-based for protein, and none of it is soy based. That’s what I find works best with my body. Western medicine, and my tests, proved that it’s working for me. Hydration is also a huge factor. I carry around a water bottle at all times.

This is a full-body growth experience that has led me to feeling healthy and stable and not depressed. All of that depression and anxiety was because I had too many of the things that shouldn’t be in my body and not enough of the things that should be there. By cleansing my body of all foreign crap and poisons (as I refer to alcohol and tobacco now) and sugar, I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been before.

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