Circling the Drain

June 27th 2008

Forgive me for being serious just this once. Thankfully, it doesn't happen often. I'm not normally prone to a lot of touchy-feely romanticizing about spiritual matters that are largely the self-serving inventions of people to whom concepts like "evidence" and "science" are regarded with suspicion. The way I look at it, anybody who believes in homeopathy, astrology, oxygenated water or wheat grass deserves to get swindled.

But one thing I've come to believe in strongly — because the evidence for it is overwhelming — is the mind-body connection and the extraordinary degree to which the mental can affect the physical. The examples are legion and there's no sense repeating the oft-told stories, so I'd just like to throw in another one that might have some relevance in the endurance sports world.

Last Thanksgiving my wife Cherie wrote a piece about her father for her monthly column on the BioBuilde Website . Glenn is 96, and Cherie spoke movingly about how he still rode his bike every day, rain or shine, even though he lives in western Washington, where there's plenty of rain and little shine.

A few months after that article came out, Glenn was taken off his blood thinning medication so he could undergo cataract surgery. (That was so he could keep his driver's license, if you can believe that.) Somehow, he wasn't informed of the risks of going off the med or what signs to watch for. So a few days later when he developed a pain in his leg, he did what came natural: sucked it up and tried to ignore it. What he didn't know was that he'd developed clots that were blocking the flow of blood in his leg. Eventually the pain got too bad and he let someone know. Surgeons had to open his leg pretty much from top to bottom to get at the clots, but the damage to muscle tissue from all of those hours with no blood flow was irreversible.

Glenn spent three weeks in the hospital, looked after by Cherie's brother Larry, who lives just a few blocks from Glenn. We got several reports a day from Larry, and didn't know from minute to minute whether Glenn would live or die. The assault on his aging body was just too much. Eventually he was cleared to enter a rehab facility, and was transferred the same day Larry had to leave the country for five weeks, which meant that it was Cherie's turn to manage the situation.
Larry was familiar with the rehab facility and warned us to be prepared. "It's full of people who are just circling the drain," was how he put it (Larry has a way of cutting to the heart of a matter quickly) and, harsh as that metaphor was, it was apt. I went up there the day Glenn was moved in, and walking those halls was depressing as hell. Not only did the patients look like the only thing they had to look forward to was the last rites, the staff treated them the same way. And it was hard to blame them.

Glenn looked awful. He could barely hold his head up or keep his eyes open. He sat in a wheelchair, drooling and nodding off frequently, and it was all he could do to bring a spoonful of Jell-o to his mouth. How he was managing to stay alive was beyond me. I learned a lot those first couple of days, about DNR instructions and euphemisms like "keeping him comfortable," and how wills and probate were administered in the state of Washington. Glenn was definitely circling the drain.

Until a force of nature named Cherie Gruenfeld hit town a few days later. Now, if you don't know Cherie, let me tell you that she is the sweetest-natured human being you'd ever want to meet. She doesn't have a mean bone in her body nor an enemy in the world. I mean that literally. She would no more cause another human being a moment's misery than jump off a cliff.

Which makes you wonder why the people running the rehab clinic were ready to kill her.

She touched down like a tornado and said, "You will not treat my father like he's waiting to die!" She got him up and dressed, she dragged the physical therapist down to his room and demanded a plan, she went to meals with him and practically stuffed food into his mouth.

"You're going to kill him," they said. "It's too much. Trust us, we've been there many times."
"You think he's going to die anyway," she shot back, "so what's there to lose?"

I'm going to make a very long story very short. As of this writing, Glenn is back in his own apartment, completely on his own except for meals that are provided for all the residents. He voluntarily gave up his driver's license, but he's learned how to ride the bus. Cherie went up to visit a few weeks ago, and asked Glenn if he wanted to try to get on a stationary bike.

"What the hell are you talking about?" he said. "I've been out riding my regular bike!"

So this guy who was circling the drain has his life back. He's not quite at the same level as before — the shock of the episode was too severe — but he's on his own, getting fitter every day and still enjoying a bourbon before dinner every night. He even had a follow-up skin graft last week and weathered it beautifully, whereas a few weeks ago the doctors were afraid to perform the procedure because they weren't sure he could take it.

In her recent book about Ironman, Cherie wrote, "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're probably right." I used to think that was a somewhat treacly sentiment but now I look at it as one of the truest things I've ever heard. What gets people up Everest or through an Ironman or past the speed of sound or running a sub-four minute mile is the unshakable belief that it's possible and the willingness to put your life on the line to prove it.

I've always wondered what it is that truly separates the champions from the merely good. Is it genes? Discipline? Hard work, competitive drive, the ability to withstand pain? Probably all of those things, in various combinations. But what I'm coming to believe more and more is that the most important thing is an almost delusional conviction that the highest goals are not only possible, but inevitable. When Kobe launches a three-pointer at the buzzer with his team down by two, he isn't hoping it's going to go in. He knows it is. Even if he's missed his last five attempts, there's not a doubt in his mind that this one will make it. It's why champions always want the ball in the clutch and are never afraid of looking bad.

Which brings us back to Cherie's father. Cherie isn't a faith healer and there were no miracles involved. What she brought to the table was an attitude adjustment. "We can assume he's as good as dead, or we can assume he's going to get better." Admittedly, Glenn had a few things going for him that made it easier than for most folks: He's always been incredibly disciplined and fiercely determined, and all he needed to channel those strengths in a productive direction was somebody to convince him that it would pay off.

He also needed someone to convince the people responsible for his day-to-day care that it would pay off, and that was a much tougher job. Candidly, I don't know if they bought into it at first, but they sure behaved as though they did, because the last thing they needed was The Beast getting up in their faces if they lapsed into treating the old man like a goner. It was a lot easier to just follow her plan, and if he keeled over in the process, well, it would be her fault, not theirs.

The best part of the experience for Cherie, not counting getting her father back in her life, was the look on the faces of the residents and staff when Glenn stood up and walked out of the rehab center under his own power. I like to think that a few of them were inspired by the sight. Maybe some of the staff won't be so quick to write off patients in the future, having seen first hand that attitude can play more of a role in recovery than any particular therapeutic modality. Maybe some of the patients will stop seeing themselves as "circling the drain" and come to believe that there can be more to their lives than staving off pain until they die.
The sub-four-minute mile was once thought to be impossible. It was finally achieved by someone who was convinced it could be done. Now it's not even news when high schoolers do it. Climbing Everest was another impossibility, but two weeks ago a 76-year old made it to the top. Thomas Edison tried over a thousand substances before he hit on tungsten to make an electric light, keeping at it because he was dead convinced something would work and he'd eventually figure it out.

It doesn't always work. People die attempting foolhardy feats, and some waste their entire lives in pursuit of the unattainable. Sometimes it's hard to know what's really possible and what isn't.
But of one thing I’m fairly certain: Attitude really is everything.

Not a new sentiment, I know. But it's one worth repeating, especially if you or someone you love is circling the drain.