“Too blind to know your best
Hurrying through the forks without regrets
Different now, every step feels like a mile
All the lights seem to flash and pass you by
So hows it gonna be
When it all comes down, cycling trivialities”
– Jose Gonzalez
FROM SHOWER STOOL TO 5K AND MORE IN LESS THAN EIGHT WEEKS
Remember how frustrated I was trying to get back into shape after pregnancy? I was so happy to be done with that struggle to rebuild my strength, convinced that I would only get stronger and faster until I was winning local CrossFit Masters competitions in my 60s.
But life has a way of throwing wrenches – and I am far from the first to get hit. I have countless friends who have struggled to rebuild their strength after cancer, strokes, injuries, and other physical and emotional traumas. Knowing them and watching them over the years let me know that it was possible to recover from illness and get back to my formerly strong self.
The thing about Septic Shock is that there really is no manual or rulebook for recovery. For starters, it can be caused by so many different things, from an infected wound to appendicitis to meningitis. So people who have experienced it are also recovering from any number of other health problems, making recovery difficult to predict.
I was told countless times by doctors that if I were not as fit as I was, I may not have survived. That said, the mystery infection that led to it probably would be just as likely to happen no matter my age, shape, or condition. I compare it to being struck by lightening.
So after four days in the ICU and three days in the hospital, I was desperate to know the chances of running again before the sprouting summer months turned to miserable winter again. But, at that point, I couldn’t touch my toes – or even see them for the belly distension.
Once I was cognizant I started Googling “sepsis recovery.” Bad idea. Sepsis has a 50% fatality rate and most of the stories were about how to live with missing limbs, persistent migraines, and a general loss of life quality. Googling “sepsis + athlete” or “sepsis + crossfit” yielded nothing but stories of athletes who died of sepsis. It was grim.
So the following is my personal account of recovery in hopes that someone Googling may find some inspiration and hope that all is not lost. Of course I have to note, I am not a doctor, a coach, or any kind of medical professional. I am not suggesting or advising anything here. I’m just sharing my own personal experience as a relatively healthy and fit 36-year-old recovering from infectious colitis and septic shock.
WEEK ONE: After arriving home from the hospital I am still sleeping about 75% of the time. I still have pretty intense stomach pain off and on throughout the day. My appetite returns slowly, at first allowing only small portions and demanding massive amounts of fresh squeezed orange juice. I’m also reliant on Orgain Nutritional Shakes for much-needed protein (affiliate link here because this illness cost me money so I am OK with making a few bucks back). I start a solid regimen of probiotics, branched chain amino acids, and regular vitamins. I walk a few blocks everyday, which wears me out, but I know is necessary if I’m to get back to normalcy. I see my primary doctor and my bloodwork is totally funky. I pay an acupuncturist to come to my house for some Eastern recovery assistance. My pulses are weak and my chi is shit.
WEEK TWO: I’m awake more but still mostly resting and rarely leaving my bed apart from my daily walk. I am able to walk a child the 8-10 blocks round trip to school each day but that is about all I accomplish. My appetite is coming back and I am able to eat larger portions and a wider variety of foods. I still have stomach pain but it is less frequent. A friend takes me out of the house to a coffee shop for the first time where I am blissfully happy to feel like a person but a bit ill from the coffee which makes me sad. But the acupuncturist says my pulses are much stronger and my chi is improving. I still sleep about four hours a day in addition to 9-10 at night. I purchase a FitBit for no particular reason and learn that I am walking less than 5,000 steps per day and sleeping like a hibernating bear.
WEEK THREE: I see a gastroenterologist who is hopeful that I won’t have lasting stomach issues and that I will make a full recovery from the septic shock, though it will take time. I go to the gym just to feel what it is like to try to row. I row 1000 meters in 10 minutes, which is the speed of a tortoise. I don’t break a sweat or even feel like my body is moving. I just feel like I am being wheeled down a hill. Two days later I return to the gym and do a slow and easy 8 minute workout of rowing, light push presses, and squats.
I am able to start drinking coffee again without feeling ill which gives me energy in the morning but I pass out by noon and feel fatigued for the rest of the day. But my appetite is fully returned and I am ravenous, but only in the mood for certain foods and not able to go back to my normal eating schedule. I’m also not cooking, still enjoying the spoils of a wonderful meal train organized by friends. I end the week by hosting my daughter’s third birthday party in my home, which is exhausting, but feels like a landmark achievement. I wear lipstick and a dress and create a Pinterest-worthy table of cut-up fruits and vegetables in planters.
WEEK FOUR: I try running for the first time. I run 400 meters at about a 12/minute mile (I usually run a 9:30/mile). My legs feel like jelly and seem confused by this movement. I start creating short and easy workouts for myself – 10-12 minutes of body weight and light weight movements mixed with short runs and rowing. I try pull-ups with a lighter band each day, but feel no where near getting my strict pull up back so I set a goal of month’s end. There are certain exercises I categorize into later phases: I am not ready for wall balls, burpees, or jump rope as they would gas me too much so I put them into “Phase Two.” I put barbell lifting into “Phase Three.” Later that week I challenge myself to run one mile. My pace is 11:30 and my legs literally can not move any faster. I have a flashback to three years prior when I went for my first run after having my daughter and ran at a similarly slow pace. I know this is all temporary. That same day I have the energy to pick up my kids from school for the first time since getting sick. The next day I feel feisty and go for a 1.5 mile run – 10:20/mile. I’m improving already.
But the next day, despite only taking a morning walk, I’m feeling particularly exhausted and fatigued and sleep for most of the afternoon. I feel extremely frustrated not knowing how long this exhaustion will be a part of my daily life. When will I be able to make actual plans again for meetings or brunch or even a trip to the park? In the midst of my bad day I stumble upon an actual sepsis recovery story from a Crossfitting mother! It says she is now doing well and even competing again so I immediately stalk her out and find comfort and strength in her very similar story. I know that these days will eventually pass, but some days it is just harder to be patient.
WEEK FIVE: It is exactly one month since I was admitted to the ICU and I am feeling very pleased with my recovery. My achilles tendon feels extremely sore, which is common when returning to running after a long rest. So I put running on hold for a few days. However, I feel ready for my first “phase two exercise” — burpees. I design my own 15-minute workout which includes rowing, V-ups, and sets of five burpees. I complete six rounds and feel great – this is my longest workout to date. Two days later, I do a strict chin up and a 12 minute workout RX. I finish out the week with a two mile run at a 10-minute-mile. I still have to take afternoon naps and feel fatigued later in the day, but I am making the most of my morning energy.
I bring back another “phase two” movement and do a WOD with 30 lightish wall balls. Even though I know I’m doing well considering where I’ve been, I have moments of frustration. I can’t do a strict ring row. I can’t do a kipping pull up. I feel like I’ve hit a plateau of 12 minute workouts and 90 minute naps. But I push those negative thoughts away and press on.
The next day I test out my double unders. I knock out a quick set of five and put the rope away satisfied. I check out the whiteboard and see a workout with a whole bunch of “21-15-9” rep schemes including burpees. I tell the trainer I am probably not physically and certainly not mentally ready for that one. He immediately suggests slightly altering the rep scheme to “15-10-5.” I’m fine with that and finish with the rest of the group at around 20 minutes. The class finishes with some core work and it’s the first full class I am able to complete. And then I go home and pass out for almost three hours.
My husband tells me I am flying too close to the sun – and on this day he is definitely correct. But I’m also afraid to fly too close to the water and waste away. I wish I had some magic formula to tell me just how hard to push and when to hold back.
I continue to modify the workouts on the whiteboard. Burpee box jumps become push ups and step ups. I try to listen to my body and not push too hard, and make sure I take enough rest days. Sometimes when I am running and see everyone else three blocks ahead of me I feel frustrated. But then I tell myself that I am lucky to be running at all – that I need to be grateful that my legs can move and my heart is beating.
I finish off the week by dipping my toe into “Phase Three:” heavy lifting. I work up to an 80# clean and 85# push press and 85# bench press which are 80-85% of my 100# maxes. Totally respectable.
I start the week by running 5K at a 10-minute-mile. That’s only 15-30 seconds per mile off my average so I am pleased. I also have a crazy thought cross my mind for the very first time, “Maybe I could work up to a half marathon?” Or maybe the Sepsis is just making me crazy.
I do a 30-minute variation on a “Hero WOD.” I take an entire Intensity class and do almost everything RX. I even get back by hand stand push up (two AbMats which it always was). I also decide that I no longer choose to nap. Nope! I’m gonna power through the day with three cups of coffee and be pretty damn close to fine.
WEEK EIGHT: I almost never nap now, but occasionally lay down for a 20-minute rest. I am barely modifying my workouts, doing most things at my old capacity, save for a few tricks I need a bit more time to build up to. While I know it will be several months before I start hitting personal records again, I feel strong and essentially “normal.” I get tired after a long day of running around, but, quite frankly, I always did. I am basically myself again.
I’ve written this post for anyone who is going through an illness or injury and feels like they will never get back to “normal.” Especially for anyone Googling about recoveries and finding nothing but bad news. It IS possible to come back – more than once if you have to. It might take longer or shorter than you expect, but don’t listen to other people’s grim stories. Everyone is different. And if you are taking good care of your body now, it will be there for you when you really need it.
Other good articles on returning to fitness after illness or injury:
I personally believe my infectious colitis and resulting Sepsis was due to poor gut health, exacerbated by heavy doses of antibiotics and steroids for sinus and respiratory infections. Below is a helpful resource on gut health, offering a huge variety of tools to help you on your path to improving yours. Disclosure: It is an affiliate link.