Welcome to The Healing Journey Project: Renewal and Transformation Through Kung Fu. This site is intended to catalog my journey as I recover from combat injuries sustained while in Iraq in 2008. As such, I would like to take a little bit of time to discuss the genesis of this project and share with you what I look to gain, and what Kung Fu has already given me. In a word however, what I look to gain and what I have been given is “hope.”
The Back Ground
On September 30, 2008 while on a combat patrol in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq, The LAV-25 I was commanding sustained a direct hit from an IED. That day would become the most important of my life. It may be hard to comprehend how the fraction of a second in which an electrical circuit was activated by a simple, rudimentary switch allowing current to be transferred from a tiny 9 volt battery, to a detonator initiating the explosion of 120 mm mortar round would in an instant change my life forever… but, it may be the best thing that ever happened to me.
After the blast, I stayed “in country” with my Battalion for another two and a half months. I knew I was beginning to have serious problems as the result of a concussion from that blast but for a time I rationalized symptoms as something other than what they were. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving my Marines. I also felt ashamed and humiliated at suffering any symptoms. I felt I should be stronger than that. Ultimately I would be medically evacuated (Medivac’d) from theater, diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) as well as various nerve damages and spinal cord injuries to include multiple herniated disks.
I harbored intense hatred both for the people who had injured me as well as the people who had medivac’d me. I had paranoia’s, which at times may have been well founded, of people thinking I was a faker or that I had exaggerated the symptoms for attention or to get out of trouble. Those issue’s of hatred and paranoia combined with chronic and at times excruciating pain took their toll. Eventually I was on a cocktail of nine different medications, I was putting on weight and I had no hope for my own future. So obviously, the road to recognizing that September 30th, 2008 is the most important day of my life was a long one.
In May of 2009, I found the fork in that road which would set me on the path to a fuller recovery. Of course had there not been specific stimulus already I never would have been receptive to following that path. The most important stimulus, and the one that allowed me to want to recover for means other than simply getting “back to the fight” and “getting even” was that my wife and I had recently found out we were going to be parents, I didn’t want a child growing up around a father that harbored hatred for anyone. I also had been transferred from my battalion to the Wounded Warrior Battalion – West at Camp Pendleton, California. Through treatment and mentorship there I was encouraged to seek means by which to make a fuller recovery. Mostly though through the support and encouragement of my wife, I was able to metaphorically (and on some mornings quite literally) rise to my feet and though unsteadily, take my first steps towards a life independent of pain, hatred, fear, guilt, paranoia and reliance on medications and other people.
I now refer to May 2009 as the time when I made a “choice to recover.” That choice led me through the doors of a small Kung Fu academy. Shen Martial Arts in Oceanside, Ca. There, practioners of the art are brothers in Kung Fu and Shen is more like a genuine family than any school or organization I have ever seen or been a part of, save the Marines I led in combat and combat operations. Over time, my Sifu, Mario Figueroa would become more than my teacher. My Sifu is now my friend and mentor. He has encouraged me and developed more than simple fighting skills he has inspired me to accomplish things which I wouldn’t have even dreamed of. For example, thanks to my Sifu’s encouragement, I am a published author. A few months ago I was required to run a physical fitness test, which for a perfect score of 300 points a Marine must complete 20 pull-ups, 100 crunches in 2 minutes or less and run 3 miles in 18:00 minutes. Thanks to Sifu’s rigid training regimen, I ran a score of 289 completing the 20 pull-ups and the 100 crunches and I ran the 3 miles in 19:50 flat.
The Recovery Triad
By January 2010, I had realized that there were three things I was doing regularly that were keeping the symptoms of my injury at bay. I had to sleep, I had to diet appropriately and I had to exercise which I was doing through Kung Fu. Provided I did those three things I would suffer significantly less but I also realized it was a delicate house of cards and if any element fell out of place, the whole house came crashing down. I noticed that any time I had a relapse of symptoms it was difficult to over come taking days or even weeks to reduce symptoms.
In an effort to prevent relapses, I began attempting to regiment my lifestyle. Part of this I had already been doing as due to the memory problems and cognitive processing deficits associated with a brain injury I was forced to develop coping mechanisms. For instance everything I own has a very specific place where it belongs, if I don’t put something in its place… good luck finding it. For some people that maybe isn’t a good example, the old “I lose my keys all the time, everybody does it, no big deal” rationalization. Imagine that being the case for EVERYTHING you own.
Fortunately for me, my wife is brilliant and is seemingly psychic. Weird things happen around my house now, milk ends up in the cupboard, dog food ends up in cereal bowls, laundry detergent ends up going into the washer multiple times… for the same load. Basically, I end up misplacing things frequently or due to short term memory problems, I end up doing the same things over and over. Not long back as I was heading out the door to work my wife called from the back room “Do you have your wallet?” I responded that yes I did it was in my back pocket. Her response, “that’s a sock, check the coffee table!”
I hi-lite these issues to demonstrate that for me, regimentation of my life is an issue that needs specific coping mechanisms or else I can end up lost pretty quickly. As I began to learn more about what regimentation would mean as it pertained to keeping symptoms at bay and thus reducing pain levels I realized there was a certain degree of planning and organization that needed to occur in order for me to maintain the trinity of sleep, diet and Kung Fu. This recognition led me to the creation of my Recovery Triad model consisting of three external and three internal imperatives.
The Internal Imperatives are those things which I do inwardly that impact my ability to affect the External Imperatives. If I am engaged actively in the External Imperatives, the Internal Imperatives are much easier to maintain.
The final two Imperative’s, “Be a Participating Patient” and “Choose to Recover” complete the Internal Imperatives because as has been demonstrated, outside stressor’s to an already fragile system can cause catastrophic effect. Some of the simplest issues can cause my system to breakdown, thus condemning me to pain. The act of being a participating patient doesn’t just mean going to doctor’s appointments and taking medications. It means being an active member and often the leading member of your recovery team. If a doctor gives you a diagnosis you need to research what that diagnosis means. If you were complaining of symptoms X, Y, and Z and your diagnosis only treats symptom Y, then you need to reconvene with your doctor and find out why. Often times early in my treatment I was frustrated and angry because I would discover that there was something that should have been treated earlier than it was, I felt that I should just be able to describe my symptoms to a doctor and they ought to be smart enough to figure out what’s wrong. As is the case in all communication, what you say, and what the intended recipient hears are not always the same thing. Be a participating patient.
Choosing to Recover sounds like a simple one time decision and then your on the right path. Nothing could be further from the truth. I made an initial choice sure, but now choosing to recover is a daily activity and can be a minute by minute issue at times. I can choose to have a big plate full of chili cheese fries at lunch (which lets face who doesn’t need to do that now and again and it can be important to let yourself indulge) or I can choose to recover and have a bowl of cottage cheese or a salad, or maybe just the fries without the chili. None-the-less it’s a choice to recover. On a given day were I may be suffering a bit more pain I can choose to forgo a workout or I can choose to recover and do a light workout for even a few minutes and then see how I feel… nine times out of ten, I feel better. Choosing to recover is not as easy as it sounds, there are times where it can be really difficult to make or even know what the right choice is based on how I might be feeling.
The Internal Imperatives support the External and allow them to, when properly combined with the internal, enhance my quality of life profoundly. When the External Imperatives have momentum, this whole system is easy to maintain. As that cycle of Diet impacting Kung Fu which impacts sleep which combined impact the need for fuel and thus proper diet again breaks down the effect is, as I have said, catastrophic.
Sleep is the most difficult imperative to moderate and there is a certain level of acceptance that outside issues may interfere with my ability to sleep and I have to simply account for that potential. I can influence the probability of restful sleep though through the proper use of the other imperatives. Diet is also difficult to moderate due to the rigors placed on time for the modern American family combined with the availability and ease of unhealthy foods. However through, organization and disciplined choices whether at home or a restaurant diet can be appropriately coordinated. Additionally cheating a little here and there on diet has far less drastic consequences then cheating on sleep or a workout. However, if I let that diet aspect slip for long enough, diet can over time have some of the most severe consequences. Finally there is Kung Fu. It is the easiest of all the Imperatives to ensure occurs; it offers the greatest success in impacting the other Imperatives and is obviously the most relaxing and fun of all the Imperatives. If the Recovery Triad is the doorway to a better quality of life then Kung Fu is the key.
The Genesis of The Healing Journey Project
In the January/ February article of Kung Fu Tai Chi Magazine an article I wrote entitled A Healing Journey was published. In it, I described the circumstances of my injury, the therapeutic effects of Kung Fu and the balance I was restoring to my life. Writing the article proved to be therapeutic in and of its self. Later in May of 2010 I was attending the Developing Amazing Leaders Conference which was hosted by the US Paralympics in Colorado Springs Colorado. I found while at the conference that many of the issues I had wrestled with post injury were similar in many respects to issues that many people who have been changed through illness or injury deal with.
At one point in the conference participants broke into groups based on their region of the country and brainstormed ideas on how to offer better opportunities to disabled persons and enhance quality of life through the use of competitive or recreational sports or activities. At the end of the regional group session the entire conference reconvened in a lecture hall and each region presented their groups “mission statement” and an explanation of their intent and method to accomplish their mission.
As luck would have it, I was nominated (sort of on the spot) to present on behalf of my region to the conference. As I explained my regions intentions, I drew on my own experience in injury and recovery to demonstrate the effectiveness of our plan. It was the first time I had publicly discussed the Recovery Triad. It was received quite well by most which was encouraging. Equally as encouraging was the fact that when I fly I find that many of the painful symptoms of the brain injury return with a vengeance and the flight to Colorado Springs had been no different. I was experiencing severe vertigo and nausea, headaches, I’d lost my appetite and my ability to get restful sleep was non-existent. As frustrating as it was to be in that kind of pain again it was reassuring to know that my model was correct and that there are things I can do to mitigate those symptoms. The only draw back, all of those issues are qualitative and there is no real way to demonstrate quantitatively how much better your quality of life can be when you are living with mitigated vice megalithic pain.
A day or two after my presentation, I was sitting in a class at the conference an idea struck like a freight train. “Why not write a second article detailing Recovery Triad and its effectiveness?” I called my Sifu that afternoon. I was booming with ideas and excitement. Sifu Mario and I talked for at least an hour about the idea and we realized that demonstrating quantitatively the effects was critical and we had ideas on how to do it. On the one hand I already had in my medical record some quantitative data as it pertained to my vestibular function as well as the PFT score I mentioned earlier. Additionally we thought it would make sense to demonstrate quantitatively improvements in simple terms of physical health and fitness. This, we reasoned, could be done in terms of body mass index, flexibility, muscle size and density and aerobic and anaerobic capacity.
After I returned from my conference I was again away on a business and a short vacation almost immediately. During that time, my physical condition degraded further but my excitement to begin, what we were calling “the project” only grew. Sifu and I continued making plans and bouncing ideas off each other. Soon we realized that “the project” was too large to be encapsulated by just one article. The idea then bloomed into maintaining a blog to help track the project until it was ready to develop into an article, after all, we would need to first create a work out regimen, diet, and sleep plan in order to be able to track any changes at all not to mention assessing a baseline on which to improve.
Shortly we determined that by maintaining the blog, we would also be able to finally assign quantitative value to otherwise qualitative data. We thought of it along these lines: Doctors ask you “on a scale of 1 to 10, what is your pain level?” For years I’ve felt that’s an entirely subjective question, but none-the-less it is quantitative value on qualitative data. So we realized, all we need is a scale, and in the blog I can assign value to how I’m feeling. We can do it on pain levels, mood, quality of sleep vice just number of hours of sleep and so on. Finally the best part about blogging the results of our program: having made this effort public is particularly effective motivation. Its one thing to fail on a diet or workout program or dispose of new years resolutions privately in your own home, its an entirely different thing to fail in front of the whole world.
As Sifu built to web site, I had been spending time running a pilot version of “the program” to identify any short comings and especially to identify methods by which to correct or avoid external elements influencing the efficiency of our plan. Thus far the pilot run has proven to have been particularly wise. After weeks of planning and several days of pilot tests, I received an email from Sifu Mario:
Here it is:
Please check it out. We can make changes, but this is functional and ready to go. I just need to show you how to get in so you can begin blogging. Give me a call.
Opening that email proved to be like opening a gift. Seeing that Sifu Mario had given the site a name based on my article was truly humbling and gave what was simply and inanimately “the project” life.
How to follow The Healing Journey Project
On the pages of this website, you will find a calendar detailing what workout’s I’ll be doing and when, as well as testing dates, measurement dates and anything else of import. You will find pictures detailing my progress or just life in general. Links to articles I’ve written and of course a progress journal.