For over a decade, I exceled at over-packing my schedule. I spent the bulk of my day rehearsing with either Garrett + Moulton Productions or Robert Moses’ Kin, then off to an evening rehearsal with Printz Dance Project or RAWdance. Offstage, I took three-four dance classes a week, taught six Rhythm & Motion classes and worked as R&M’s Master Trainer. I never thought of, or referred to, my daily activities as work. It’s what I loved. Then, it was all gone – just like that.
In May 2012, I experienced a mysterious swelling in my right arm. I thought it was associated with tight muscles, or some other physical displacement in my body. Injuries come with the career, and like many dancers, I was a pro at not seeing a doctor right away. This, however, seemed more serious. My dear friend, Samantha Allen, urged me to see the Healthy Dancers’ Clinic at ODC. She contacted Kendall Alway, DPT, the Associate Director of the clinic.
After looking at my arm, Kendall quickly contacted Dr. Rick Coughlin MD, Medical Director of the Dancers’ Clinic, and set up an appointment for me to see experts at SF General Hospital. Knowing that I was gearing up to teach my class in 15 minutes Kendall sent me off with these words:
“This is important. If you become abnormally short of breath, or if you start to feel confused, stop your class and have someone take you to the emergency room right away.”
I knew that my situation was serious. With 40+ dancers waiting in the studio, I canceled my class for fear of what could have happened. The next day, I quickly learned that I made the right choice.
I had a venous thoracic outlet syndrome. The work I was doing at the time developed the muscles in my upper body in ways they never had before. Those muscles were compressing the subclavian vein, the main vein that runs from the upper chest cavity through the arm. An 11cm blood clot developed in my right shoulder. Emboli, broken pieces from the main clot, had traveled through my bloodstream and into both lungs. I was suffering a potentially life-threatening pulmonary embolism (PE). It was a serious situation, but other than a swollen arm, I appeared healthy. Had I danced another day, other emboli could have traveled to other parts of my body, leading to a much scarier fate – heart attack, stroke or perhaps death.
I underwent two surgeries – one to remove the 11cm clot in my shoulder, the other to reopen the compressed vein. Anti-coagulation treatment would remedy the clots in my lungs. Four months later, I underwent a final surgery, a first rib resection, to prevent any further compression of the subclavian vein. For five months, and under doctors’ orders, I was unable to dance, lift my right arm over my head, lift any object over 25 lbs, or get my heart rate above 120 bpm (a walk up a San Francisco hill was too much for me).) For five months, I was forced to live without physical activity.
For a dancer, an injury that takes you out of your body for any period of time brings an overwhelming series of emotions. I was heart-broken. So, what did I do over those five months? That’s not important, so I’ll spare those details. The real question is what did I learn? A lot.
I learned about staying positive. I was alive. I knew that I was going to get better and I was going to dance again… some day. I realized that there were people out there who endure injury and challenging times far more difficult than my own. After the initial shock of it all, seeing the bigger picture helped me stay in a more positive frame of mind. Things were going to be okay.
Some days, however, felt worse than others. I couldn’t bear another injection, pill, day of tasting blood in my mouth, or any other side effect from my anti-coagulation treatment. Post-surgery pains and sleepless nights were terrible. And, the headache of red tape from insurance companies was enough for everyone to go into a frenzy. I learned that it was okay to acknowledge what I was feeling and feel them. There was no reason to suppress my thoughts.
As people, if we can survive injury, bad break-ups, lost jobs, bad hair days and hundreds of other bothersome situations, we can certainly manage unmanaged thoughts. But first, we have to pay attention to them. For me, whether I was sad, mad or frustrated, acknowledging how I felt and letting me feel what I was feeling allowed for a more fluid and faster release.
Patience. With some of the above-mentioned difficulties being on the forefront of my world, other situations that once tested my patience became minor. Standing in line for my prescription for over an hour was no big deal; neither was sitting through Critical Mass demonstrations in downtown traffic. In the bigger picture, little inconveniences such as these, weren’t as bad as they seemed.
Slow and steady wins the race. My first dance class back was in late October 2012. My body had changed a lot in five months. I had gained almost 30 lbs, had very little muscle, low stamina and was working with a recovering heart and lungs. As much as I wanted to push hard to get strong, I learned that to do it right, I had to do it slowly. So, I committed to my heart and lungs first. That took a few months. From there, all the other parts fell into place. It took me nearly a year to feel like “my old self” again. Now, I feel better than ever, and more importantly, I know how to better take care of my body.
Continue life’s trajectory with gusto, commitment and conviction. I firmly held on to these beliefs even before my situation, but somehow, a second chance brought these ideas into crisper focus. As artists and teachers, the message behind our craft will be clearer. As people, it’s the only way that we can really, truly, let others see who we are. It also encourages others to do the same.
Now, in reading some of these thoughts, I risk coming across as one of “those people” who saw the light and were changed for the better. My response is, “Yes, I did.” Whether we choose to articulate it or not, we all go through varying degrees of difficult situations. Injury, break-up, accidents, job losses and yes, even bad hair days – they’re all learning experiences. If one person can benefit from another’s experience, why not share it?
In the time during my recovery and pending surgery, I scoured the web in hopes of finding information about another dancer or athlete who experienced a similar situation – someone whose story I could read, relate to and help re-assure me that everything was going to be OK (or not). I found no such person (at least not through months of countless Google searches).
So, here I am, as part of my second chance – I live, learn and share. You should, too.
This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of In Dance.