Real People, Real Illness, Real Living: Meet 4 People Who Are Triumphing In Spite of Their Chronic IllnessNone By Kwabena "Bobo" Blankson, M.D.
I'd like to share four profiles of individuals I’ve encountered during my 20 years in and around the medical field. I’ve changed names and details to protect their identities, but the common thread is that these individuals have faced chronic illness and thrived. They chose happiness; they chose to be defined by their values and their strengths. It wasn’t always easy, but their journeys have been an inspiration to me, and I hope they will be to you, too. I hope that you’ll find a part of your own story in theirs, and that you’ll find comfort, peace, and the power to persevere.
Ken, who had an illustrious career in the Air Force and CIA, developed Parkinson’s disease in his early 70s. For this brilliant man with impressive credentials, Parkinson’s had humbled him. Sometimes he had trouble simply putting one foot in front of the other. He often needed help with simple daily tasks like using the bathroom, or showering. The Parkinson’s disease medication side effects made food taste bad and intensified his sleep dysfunction and nightmares. But then Ken remembered how to live courageously. He taught himself how to enjoy food and wine (in moderation) again. With help, he traveled to Europe and relived pleasant memories, bravely walking down cobblestone streets, up and down rolling hills. He wrote a book about his life and spoke at local events about his time in the intelligence community and military. When he died, he left a legacy—through his writings, his children, and the lives of those he touched.
Mary had struggled with her eating disorder for over a decade. It started in middle school—when her weight got down to 90 pounds and she was hospitalized, she still didn’t think she had a problem. After years of being in and out of hospitals and outpatient treatment programs, Mary finally began to live courageously. She started to live her life based on her values. She openly received helped from her medical team—primary care doctors, psychiatrists, therapists, dieticians. She went to college and grad school, weathered the ups and dows, and now lives a life full of meaning. She’s married and ready to start a family. She still has her bad days. But those days don’t own her. And neither does anorexia. Not anymore.
Max is only 17 years old. And it only took a few months for inflammatory bowel disease to wreck his entire life. His stomach was a mess. He always felt like he had to use the bathroom. And while those painful stomach grumblings made it hard to focus at school, it was the urgency to run to the toilet that made it near impossible to hang out with friends, sit in a classroom for more than 20 minutes, or feel like playing sports or riding a bike. The doctors taking care of Max hadn’t figured out how to make these symptoms better. His frustration grew, a cloud of depression hovering over him. But then he decided to live again, in spite of his illness. He stopped viewing ulcerative colitis as a stress, but as a challenge, a way to improve himself. He found medicine that improved his mood, a therapist that gave him the opportunity to explore his feelings and hone his strengths. And eventually, he remembered what it was like to be a teenager. He began hanging out with his friends again. He found comfort in being outdoors. And even if he can’t reach his dream of joining the military, he has made other audacious, inspiring goals for himself. Today, he lives a joy-filled life.
Sarah hadn’t always felt this way. What did she have to complain about? She grew up in a safe neighborhood, had two loving parents, attended a great high school. She was popular, had friends, but something wasn’t right. She just couldn’t shake the growing feeling of despair in her gut. The feeling that life wasn’t worth living, that something bad was going to happen to her. And the feelings continued to eat her up inside. The cutting began, but that didn’t help her feel any better either. She tried medicine, and it helped, a little. But it wasn’t enough. She needed to change her life. So she started exercising more regularly and meditating every morning. She found people willing to listen to her, people who had similar experiences and made it to the other side. She started to scan her world for the positives, being grateful for even the simple things. She began to give more of herself, volunteering, helping others in need. And you know what she found? Herself. She found out who she really was. And the anxiety and depression lifted. Now she helps other young adults like herself. A few months ago, the depression seemed to come back. But it didn’t faze Sarah the way it had in the beginning. This time she had the tools and social support to fight back, to face it head on. So she wakes up every morning and embraces all that she is, all that she hopes to be. And she continues to help others, just like herself.