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October 18, 2008

Erika's journey to the stage

Here is an inspirational story about Erika, who lost over 90 lbs, fought through many surgeries, unsusual diagnosis' and was told she could not do it. Here are her words and a few photos of her journey....

I grew up in a virtually unknown rural town in upstate New York called Otisco, 15 miles south of Syracuse. My family was a hearty farming one, and thrived on fattening foods laden with carbs to fuel the long working days in the fields. When my parents divorced, my father Eric found himself a single father with three young kids. he ebcame so downtrodden with the responsibilities of being a full time parent and a worker, that food was limited to anything fast food. I gained a lot of weight all the way through high school, despite the fact that I was an athlete. The trend of unhealthy eating continued well into college; a pre-med Biology major has little choice but to forgoe sleep and live on whatever the vending machines in the dorms offer.

My outlook and lifestyle would change almost overnight when I moved to Seattle, where my husband (then fiancee) had moved six months before when he was offered a job with Boeing after he graduated from RPI. beforehand he and I shared a common lifestyle, but when I arrived to my new home on New Year's day of 2006, I was immediately struck by how healthy he seemed. His enthusiam for fitness was so contagious thay my first meal on the west coast was a protein shake. It was only a matter of days before Andrew and I began discussing the possibility of me competing. It would take a lot of work and dedication but I decided to try for it, even maintaining a (mostly) clean wedding and honeymoon.

In August of 2006, eleven weeks into contest prep, I woke up jaundiced and nearly stricken immobile with abdominal pain. I wasn't overly surprised: I had suffered from chronic abdominal pain, bloating, vomiting and inretractable nausea since early childhood. My family had labeled me as a hypochondriac, and because we hadn't had medical insurance, left it at that. Now, many years later, I knew I had to finally address the problem.

originally I figured that the worst case scenario was a need to have my gallbladder removed, and that I could possibly postpone the operation until after my contest. So you can imagine the terror I felt the day when I was told I had severe life-threatening defects in my digestive system that would most certainly kill me if left untreated any longer.

I was strong and atheltic looking: I had lost body fat, could run 5k without breaking a sweat. so how on earth could this be possible? It felt so surreal that I barely believed it until I was being put under on the operating table.

On Halloween, 2006 I had four simultaneous surgeries. I had a third of my colon removed, and the remainder of it tied to my backbone. My small intestine, which had collapsed and tangled with the large one, was lifted back up and secured with titanium stents. I also had my gallbladder removed, as I had initially suspected as needing to be

two days after the oepration, tied down with catheters, drainage tubes, oxygen, IVs, and an epidural, I began doing hundreds of reps with my small 3 lb running weights. The next day I began doing slow laps with a walker around the post-op wing of Northwest Hospital.

I had been told by my surgeon that I could be looking at a three month hospital stay because surgery performed on digestive organs can shut them down in a condition called post oeprative paralytic ileus. if this was the case, I would gave to have more surgery to have a feeding tube placed in, as well as a colostomy.

Amazingly, my intestines "woke up" and four days later found myself ordering oats and protein shakes from the hospital cafeteria. In a record time for someone with my kind of operation, I was discharged one week later.

At home I continued to walk small laps around my neighborhood, and two weeks after my operation, was beginning to be able to do 10-20 minute walks without using my walker. I suddenly felt pride towards my strength as it occured to me that my activity levels were better, with over 300 staples in my abdomen, than the average American.

The surgery, unfrotunately, was met with unseen complications. I had a very rare blood disorer called antiphospholipid syndrome, which caused me to clot in my hepatic portal vein, depriving my liver of blood flow. Immediately I was put on a very potent anticoagulant (blood thinner) called Coumadin.

Coumadin heavily disrupted my lfiestyle, as I warned to not undertake any activity that could cause bleeding. Favorite pastimes such as skiing, skating, scuba diving, and heavy lifting were eradicated from my daily life. Even without taking these risks I was hospitalized several times for internal bleeding. Still, I continued to stay as active as I could, occasionally cutting a run short due to severe nose bleeds.

Also, the cause of my collapsed GI tract was pinpointed: I had a condition called gastroparesis: a chronic and debilitating paralysis of the stomach that is incredibly difficult to treat, as the vagus nerve tends to not respond favorably to medications. For me, the heavy load of food that remainded undigested in my stomach put such an undue amount of stress on the rest of my digestive tract that everything caved in, spiraling in an undignified heap on my pelvic floor. In order to prevent the same thing from happening again, I was placed on a low residue (low fiber) diet, which heavily conflicted with the diet I was supposed to be on in order to compete in figure.

When I asked my gastroenterologist about the possibility of competing she said "It might not happen for you. For you, losing weight might be nearly impossible" This is because I "superabsorb" calories from my food, do to food being present in my system far longer than a normal person.

so now I HAVE to do it. I'm the type of person who needs adversity to flourish. I do things best when I'm told I can't do them. I do things the most bravely when I'm terrefied of them, and impossible is not an answer.

so the point of this new journal is to document an "impossible" journey to the stage. It is both for other people who might benefit from my story, but also for me to look back on to learn and grow from my own challenges.

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