One of the most inconvenient things about changing to an anti-inflammatory diet a couple of years ago is not being able to enjoy the chili, soups, and other delicious tomato-based, potato-ful comfort foods my family enjoys during the fall and winter. It’s not fair to the rest of the family to eliminate those favorite dishes from their diet too. Tonight, feeling creative and not really wanting to make two different dinners, my husband and I decided to create a stew that I could eat; no tomatoes, potatoes, peppers. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to write it down so I can share it with you. It was so tasty, we will be adding it to our regular comfort food repertoire!
A word about ingredients used: We used pearled barley, so this is not a gluten-free recipe. This makes a large batch in the crockpot. I’m all about freezing leftovers for quick meals later on. I used veggies we had from our garden, except for the green beans. I think using what you have on hand that’s fresh is the way to go…have fun experimenting!
Tomato-less, Potato-less Beef Stew
1/2 c flour
Olive oil to coat skillet
1 1/2 lbs. beef stew meat
5 1/2 c beef broth
2 small white onions, chopped
2 c (1/2 small) butternut squash, diced into 1” pieces
1/2 c celery, chopped
12 oz. frozen green beans
1T minced garlic
3 carrots, sliced into coins
1c pearled barley, uncooked
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 t thyme
1 t fennel seeds
1/2 t coriander
Place flour and stew meat in gallon ziploc bag. Shake to coat, adding more flour if necessary.
Add stew meat to lightly oiled non-stick skillet and brown. Remove from skillet and add to crockpot.
Add remaining ingredients to crockpot. Cook 3-6 hours. Before serving, remove bay leaves and salt and pepper to taste.
I hope you enjoy this stew as much as we did, my first time publishing my own recipe! We loved how the squash and barley made the stew creamy and rich. No one missed the tomatoes or potatoes. The spices added just the right amount of highlight to make all the flavors come together.
If you make my stew, please come back and comment. I’d love to know if you liked it, tried substitutions, etc.
My journey back to cycling since my hemorrhagic stroke (a brain bleed, not clot-related) has not gone like I had imagined it. When I was in the first few months of my recovery, I looked ahead to the end of Summer 2013 and figured I would be riding 65-mile day tours just like I had at the end of Summer 2012. But my body has not recovered exactly like that. This reality has forced me to analyze my attitudes about goals and what they really mean to me.
The first time I got on a bicycle after the stroke was about five months into my recovery. My left leg was still pretty wobbly, and I knew I wasn’t ready for my road bike. I ventured out on my old hardtail mountain bike, with my husband and son in tow. Everything felt marginally okay, until I had to stop. I put my leg down to stop, and it crumpled up underneath me. I realized that my body and my bad leg did not remember how to stop. It’s hard to explain, but my muscles didn’t know what to do. Although I knew in my head how to stop, knew what it felt like and could envision it, I had to start over from square one like a child riding her bike for the first time. I learned to think through the stop from start to finish, step by step. It wasn’t easy, and it took a lot of practice. Time passed, and finally I was ready to try clipping in on my road bike. I spent over an hour starting and stopping in my back yard on the grass, so I could fall without getting hurt (which I did a lot). Finally, I was starting to get it again, awkward as I was. My long-term goal of just going out for a ride was waylaid by this whole start-and-stop problem that I didn’t expect.
Last summer I was a 42-year old, in the best physical condition of my life, enjoying my 6th year as a recreational road cyclist. Multi-day tours with mileage averaging 60-80 miles, day tours of at least 65 miles, and training rides of 20-30 miles were my norm until the stroke. I even finished my first century two summers ago and planned on doing more. These are humble accomplishments in the cycling world, for sure. But to go from that state of physical condition to where I am now has been a dramatic adjustment. I really had to change how I envisioned my recovery. ‘Out’ was the unrealistic goal of riding the 65-mile Tour of The Moon my husband and I had enjoyed so much in October 2012, or most of my other favorite summer tours. ‘In’ was the goal of completing a ride without falling on my mountain bike. Next goal was getting back on the road bike. Next was completing a training ride without falling, and so on. Right now I’m up to about 35 miles on my road bike, no falls and getting more and more confident with starts and stops. My last riding goal for the summer is to simply participate in the Venus de Miles Colorado for the sixth time. I won’t be able to do century or metric century as in years past, but I can still ride it. Small goals, small victories.
I’ve gone through most of life with big goals, and not ever had a problem with how I’d set them or attained them. If I worked hard enough, I reached them. This time though, I don’t have total control over how my body is healing. I can only work very hard and let time do the rest. We’ve all had failures and have to learn how to deal with them in our own way. Failure doesn’t have to become a reality, though, when goals are just a little smaller. Reaching those small goals is just as satisfying as reaching the large ones; the important thing is to keep moving forward.
Keep moving forward.
Keep moving forward.
Those three words are what have kept me grounded throughout this entire recovery. Those three words are what reassure me that no matter how small my goal might seem, it’s worthwhile and fulfilling to reach it. No matter how little a step forward might seem, it’s still further along than before. Whatever your goal was or is, try not to dwell on looking back or worrying about the far-ahead future. Step by step, small accomplishment at a time, you will get to where you need to be. Just keep moving forward.
“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.”
I’ve been meaning to tackle this subject for several months on this blog. And the further in time I move away from “it”, the less I want to talk about it anymore. “It” is becoming a bad memory. The “it” is part of my life though, so I still need to process it and respect where I am now. You see, nearly 8 months ago to the day, on December 11, 2012, I had a stroke. It nearly killed me. This is my story.
December 10 was an unremarkable day. I worked, we cooked dinner, the kids did their homework etc., and everyone went to bed. I remember that I had a bit of an upset stomach later in the evening, so I had a finger of wine before retiring for the night. Sometimes that settles my stomach. However in the night, I woke up and knew I was going to vomit. I went to the bathroom and proceeded to have severe vomiting and diarrhea spells every hour or so. I was miserable. I couldn’t figure out why I was sick; food poisoning didn’t make sense and the flu doesn’t come on that quick. In the morning, my husband wanted to stay home with me (I must’ve looked pretty bad) but I shrugged him off and told him I’d be fine. He had just left for work when I felt another wave coming on, so I got out of bed to go to the bathroom. I stumbled when I walked. “Wow,” I thought, “I must really be dehydrated.” I barely made it to the stool and couldn’t get myself positioned on it correctly. I called to my teenage daughter, who was getting ready for school, and asked her to call her Dad after all and tell him I was too dehydrated to sit up straight. In just another minute, literally, my left side started to collapse. My arm, which I was using to brace myself up, went out from under me. I slipped off the toilet onto the floor. What in the hell was happening? I called out to my daughter again, my voice barely above a whisper. “Call 911.” As I lay there waiting for help, I felt myself lose control of my body. My left arm curled up into a fetal position and I couldn’t move anything on my left side. And although I was going in and out of consciousness or sleep, one of the two, I was completely lucid. I never had any kind of headache throughout the ordeal.
The rest of December 11 is a blur, but I remember bits and pieces of it. I remember being loaded on an ambulance gurney and how cold it was outside, and thinking; “All these cars going by headed to the school…who will see me this way?” (yes, apparently my vanity was still intact). I remember the EMT in the ambulance saying “possible stroke” on the telephone, speaking to the ER on the other end. I remember getting the T-shirt I had slept in cut off. I remember the helicopter ride to Denver, having many IV’s poked in me, and not being able to move. I remember being so very tired.
I think I had every possible test in the world over the course of the next 10 days I spent in a Denver hospital. Four days in ICU and another six days on the neurological floor didn’t yield many answers for us or for the doctors. What they knew was I had a hemorrhagic stroke, with a pool of blood that spanned nearly the entire length of the top of my head from front to back, on the right side. According to the University Hospital of New Jersey, 37.5% of hemmorhagic stroke results in death, compared to 7.6% of ischemic stroke. Additionally, there is more than a 50% fatality rate with subarachnoid hemorrhage, like I had, and 25% of women die within a year of their first stroke. Another 25% will have another stroke within 5 years.1 Great statistics for a 42-year old, previously healthy Mom!
But I am not one that has ever fit very well into categories. I never did as a child, a teen, a young mother. Sometimes not fitting in was a painful thing you know? But this time I think it’s fine. I’m not going to be a statistic.
In this way, I haven’t really fit the mold of a stroke patient. I recovered too fast. I was motivated to get out of the physical rehab unit where I spent 2 1/2 more weeks away from my precious family. I was nice to my nursing staff, although a few of them thought I was unfriendly because I couldn’t smile at first. But within a couple of weeks, movement started to come back. I wanted my life back, and I worked hard to achieve that.
One of my most vivid memories from my time in the acute rehab unit (ARU) was the night I first regained movement in my left hand. I had a hospital bracelet on my right arm that said “Fall Risk”, and it kept sticking to the hairs on my arm. It was making me insane. The sheer annoyance of having that stick to my arm and not be able to simply move it with my other hand was incredibly frustrating. I would wake up in the night, what seemed like every hour but was probably not that often, and would strain and think about moving my left hand so hard it was exhausting. The “thinking” part of movement was a new thing to me, and my physical therapists continually reminded me to actually think about the movement I wanted to make, even if the movement wasn’t happening. It was all about re-establishing the brain processes that had been damaged. So I continued this process through the night; wake, feel the bracelet pulling my arm hairs, strain and try to move my left finger to loosen it, fail, become incredibly exhausted, fall asleep again. Sometime close to morning, I did it. I had the slightest movement of my index finger, and I moved that dang bracelet. That opened the floodgate to more hand and finger movement the next day. My nurses were amazed.
That’s how this whole journey back to healing has been. A struggle for awhile, a breakthrough, and a whole new aspect of my life regained. On January 7, 2013, I went home. I could barely walk, but I managed to be discharged without a wheelchair accompanying me. Just a walker. Within two weeks, I had ditched the walker and used a cane for a week, then I ditched that too. I kept doing physical therapy for months, and I’m not through recovering yet. I still have deficiencies I’m hoping will recover with time. I am easily fatigued, my short term memory is spotty, and I have difficulty concentrating sometimes. Physically, I continue to make strides, but my balance is bad, my left leg sometimes gives out when I ride my bike, and my shoulder isn’t working right after a bad fall in April. But I won’t give up. I’m not going to fit into those statistics. I’m strong, I watched my son graduate from high school in June, and I can stand in my living room and give my lovely daughter a hug with both arms. Nothing makes you appreciate the simple, beautiful things in life more than having them almost taken away.
After extensive testing over several months, with my last MRI in February, the doctors were unable to find the source of my bleed. They suspected an AVM (arteriovenous malformation), which is basically a flawed blood vessel as the cause of the bleed. But they can’t find it anywhere, so I will not need surgery. The last neurologist I saw told me my chances of having a recurrence were less than 1%. I was elated, then that night as the news settled in, I cried.
One other interesting thing about this whole experience was my lack of emotion throughout the ordeal. People ask me, “Weren’t you scared?” but I wasn’t – I simply didn’t feel anything. Maybe I was in denial as a way of coping, maybe it was something happening in my brain. I don’t know and probably never will. But there was one time when I was still in the hospital in Denver, that “it” got to me. My dear, sweet husband and I had a little time alone together. There were no visitors, doctors or nurses coming in and out, just quiet. He was able to open up to me about what he had been going through. He told me how he asked to stay on the helicopter deck and was allowed to watch the helicopter take me from our local hospital to Denver. He told me how he watched it leave and wondered if he would see me again. At that point in time, he wasn’t sure. I pictured him standing there, in his warm red winter coat, watching as three medical professionals and a flying metal transport took his wife away. Everything hit home. I won’t be that statistic. “It” won’t define me. And baby, I’ll always come back home.
While this is much more limited than the amazing Canon EFS 18-200 Zoom that I have on my camera, sometimes it’s all I have with me on outings. After all, lugging around my big camera everywhere I go is not practical.
With the popularity of Flickr, Instagram, and other photo sharing sites, everyone can be a photographer and share their expressions. But what about the quality?
I don’t think most iPhone photos are gallery or even print-worthy in terms of pixel and grain, but that doesn’t make them worthless. Their value is the image they captured, the feelings they evoke, the sometimes unique composition obtained that can’t be replicated with a traditional format.
In that spirit, I’d like to share a few of my favorite iPhone photos I’ve taken recently. They are fun and forever fill the gap between not having a camera at all and having my 35mm setup with me on a shoot. All of these photos can be found on my Instagram, username wyochick. Because they’ve been on Instagram, the images posted here are smaller and the pixel quality is degraded. Even so, I think they make an impression. Enjoy.
This is a wind farm just out of town where I live. It was particularly stormy the day we drove by. I took this through the windshield of the moving car. I love the contrast of it, even if it is grainy.
Here’s my cat, Lucy. She was enjoying the tall grass one morning before we mowed the lawn. I love this picture because I was able to put my phone right on the ground at her level and snap this. If I had taken the time to try that with my Canon, she probably would’ve moved or run off.
Weather conditions change fast in Wyoming, so when I woke up one morning and saw how the wind hadn’t blown the snow off the branches yet, I grabbed my nearby phone and captured it.
This is my darling daughter and our other cat, Duke. She was ready for a concert and picked him up because they both had “matching” outfits. Getting this cat to hold still for a minute and look into the camera at the same time as her was indeed a rare catch. A fun photo.
The iPhone does a beautiful job with close-up work, in my experience. Here are some strawberry blossoms from my garden.
While driving in the mountain in Colorado, a large group of people pulled off the side of the road told me there was probably something interesting to look at. So I stopped as well and was treated with a great viewing of a herd of Big Horn Mountain Sheep on the cliff wall next to the highway. This was zoomed all the way in on my phone, but it captures the regal posture that makes this male so impressive.
I was out in a field walking our dog at sunset, and these pretty yellow flowers caught my attention. Again, being able to put the iPhone right on the ground allowed me to get a unique angle with the sun in the background.
Ok, this photo is the only one of the bunch that isn’t on Instagram, but I love having been able to get a shot of our sweet dog, Emma. She is another animal of ours that doesn’t stay still for long.
I believe the iPhone’s versatility, options, and small size make it a fun addition to my photography efforts. Have you had luck capturing unique images with your phone’s camera?
One of the most crucial parts of any kind of intensive workout is hydration. But sometimes water just isn’t enough, and most sports drinks are full of sugar, food colorings, and other yucky additives. Are there any healthy alternatives you ask? Why yes, in fact, let me introduce you to the wonders of…
Coconut water? When I tell people about my new favorite hydration drink, I get a lot of reactions. I get; “really?”, or “yuck!”, or maybe “I’ll have to try that”. My two riding friends have even made faces at the very mention of it. Some people like the flavor, some people don’t. But I’d like to tell you more about it and why I love it.
Coconut water is chock full of potassium, to begin with. According to the Vita Coco website, which is a brand that I frequently purchase at my favorite grocery store, an 8.5 fl oz. container of coconut water contains 1030mg of potassium1! By comparison, a banana has roughly 300mg.2 According to a fact sheet I found through the Colorado State University Extension, potassium helps regulate the balance of water in the body. “Low potassium can cause muscle cramping and cardiovascular irregularities”.2 That sounds a little scary! But anyone who has been on a day-long ride in the heat will tell you how energizing it is to eat bananas along with other healthy snack choices like nuts, pretzels, (protein and sodium) and other fruits. Coconut water is also full of electrolytes, but it has a low sodium content. So if you’re losing a lot of body water via perspiration, it’s important that you’re also replacing that lost sodium3.
There are all kinds of claims on the internet about the wonders of coconut water. Apparently a lot of celebrities are all drinking it now too; it’s become a trend. It supposedly cures Diabetes, some cancers, the list goes on. Personally, I’ve yet to run across any product – natural or man-made – that’s a miracle cure. Here’s what I do know: Coconut water is natural. In my quest to clean up my diet and eat/drink simpler, more
whole foods, coconut water beats manufactured sports drinks by a mile. There are no additives of any kind. Several brands offer flavor varieties, which consists of coconut water plus fruit puree like mango, peach, or tangerine, for example. Our bodies know exactly what how to process ingredients like that! To further prove my point, read these ingredients lists:
Vita Coco Coconut water ingredients: Coconut water, Ascorbic Acid (vitamin C)1
“I don’t want to go”, I thought. I had a million excuses running through my mind. “…this week has been too stressful…my teenager has been hard to get along with…been up too late helping my daughter with her 4H projects for the County Fair…stood too long in line today and my back is killing me…have to get up at 4:30 am and I’m exhausted…” The list kept getting longer the more I let my stress envelop me. I really, really did not want to ride that day. But I had paid my entry fee, and my friend would be picking me up at 5:30 am. No turning back.
Reluctantly, I got my act and my gear together. My friend and I arrived in Waverly, CO, just after sunrise on a gorgeous Sunday morning. I went through my little routine of getting my bike and gear ready, without really thinking about it. I was just on auto-pilot. My mind continued to race about things I needed to get done when I got home, the activities to get ready for the next week, the worries of a mom of a teenage boy. The accumulated stress and fatigue weighed on me as if I were a cartoon character holding two pieces of broken bridge together so the cartoon car could pass, but I tried not to let it show.
Around 7 am, we were ready to ride. There were a few of us at the side of the road, just hanging around. The ride people had said they would have an organized start at 7 am, but there didn’t seem to be anything happening. I was chomping at the bit, already worried about when we’d finish the 72-mile ride because I needed to get home. I asked my friend, “Are you ready to go?” and she said yes, so I clipped in.
I took one pedal stroke, then another. The air was crisp with the promise of a warm day ahead. Another stroke, and- that’s when it happened- a crack.
It was a crack in the cement shell of stress that was encasing me.
Another turn, faster this time, muscles warming. Ka-chunk! A large piece of the shell fell away.
My mind awakens, and another huge chunk breaks free, crash!. Pedaling faster…more pieces falling behind me…breaking free…FREE!
All the worries, the thoughts, the list of to-do’s, the excuses not to ride; they are all erased. The negatives are replaced with the peaceful bliss of a morning view of the Rockies, a cool breeze, and the simple rhythm of my cadence.
The effect of riding on my psyche has never been so obvious to me as right at that moment. The perfect stress relief.
This posting begins what I hope will be a series of short articles about the new things I’m learning regarding nutrition since my injury (see Injury) When I was seeking help for my back problems, I had no idea that my healing process would so radically involve my diet. The very first thing I learned from my chiropractor/nutritionist was that inflammation was most likely a large cause of my arthritis and degenerative disc pain in my back. This was earth-shattering news to me. I had to find out more.
Inflammation is something that occurs in everyone’s body- it’s our body’s response to injury, infection, and irritation. “Acute inflammation is needed to help heal acute trauma, abrasions, broken bones, or acute invasion of a foreign substance…The body reacts immediately to acute trauma by increasing substances in the body that stimulate swelling, redness, pain, and heat.” (Black, 2006, p.12) The problem begins when inflammation becomes chronic. Chronic inflammation, which may have a variety of causes, actually harms tissues and cells by continually “attacking” them and breaking them down, even if no infection or acute trauma exists. Continued research is now showing that chronic inflammation is associated with many diseases including diabetes, bronchitis and asthma (something else I have!). In fact, “any disease ending in ‘itis’ refers to an inflammatory condition.” (Appleton, 2005, p.5). Anti-inflammatory drugs are commonly used to treat such pain. Most of us are familiar with or have used NSAIDs such as Aleve, Motrin, or Tylenol. These drugs treat the symptoms and relieve pain, but they do not eliminate the source of the pain, which should be our ultimate goal. For more than a year, I had been taking a prescription NSAID to ease my arthritis back pain, thinking I was doing a good thing for my body. In fact, by not treating the cause of my back pain and only treating the symptom, I was only masking the problem. The first and easiest thing I needed to do to treat the inflammation in my body was to change my diet. One of the primary changes I was about to learn was the necessity of eliminating the consumption of nightshades.
Nightshades? I had never heard this term before. Nightshade vegetables are part of the Solanaceae family of flowering plants, some of which can be toxic. I was surprised to learn that two of my very favorite vegetables- and vegetables that are found in a large array of foods- might actually be causing me harm. These nightshade vegetables produce alkaloids such as solanine, which causes inflammation when not digested in the intestine (Appleton, 2005, p.117). Research has shown that removal of these veggies can reduce inflammation and thereby promote healing. These vegetables include:
red and green peppers
So with a sad sigh, I bid adieu to potato chips, freshly sliced tomatoes in a light vinaigrette, and salsa, among other favorites. The Great Experiment was about to begin.
I wasn’t sure if this tactic would really work- after all, I was still recovering from my injury and still had pain every day. A couple of months later, I happened to eat some guacamole which contained chunks of tomatoes. I thought it would be OK, since the amount of tomatoes was small. But several hours later, I found myself on the throne with a gassy case of diarrhea, and the tomatoes expelled completely undigested. Sorry for the details, but it was my body’s way of saying “do not even put that in me again!” A few weeks later, while on a bike tour, I was faced with eating a breakfast egg casserole made with hash browns. I hadn’t eaten any potatoes in such a long time, and there were no other options for breakfast. I ate the casserole, and by evening I was in such pain that I broke down and took 800mg of Motrin for relief. The pain subsided, but remained mildly and persistently present for a couple of days afterward. Why did these foods affect me now, when I was eating them all the time before I got hurt with no obvious effect?
The answer is, as I’ve cleaned up my diet, my body is healing in ways that it couldn’t before. So ingesting these foods that actually have been “toxic” to me all along are more easily identifiable now. The lack of nightshades are only one way my diet is different now. As I continue to read, learn, and monitor my food intake, I’m finding other foods I am sensitive to. More on those foods and ingredients in my next post.
If you have an inflammatory condition, I recommend trying to eliminate nightshades from your diet. There is no guarantee it will work, but give it a couple of weeks and see if you notice a difference. You’ve got nothing to lose.
Appleton, N., PhD. (2005). Stopping Inflammation: Relieving the Cause of Degenerative Diseases. Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers.
Black, J., N.D. (2006). The Anti-Inflammation Diet and Recipe Book. Alameda, CA: Hunter House Books.
The 39th year of my life was really one of the best I’ve ever had. I felt amazing, was the most active I’d ever been in my life, my marriage was incredible, the kids were doing fantastic in school and out. It was the whole package. I turned 40 in December 2009, and thought, “Hey… this isn’t so bad! If 39 was that awesome, 40 is going to be….”
The year started off innocently enough, until March 5 rolled around. There was nothing special about this day. Mark was up early and off to work. The kids went through their morning routines as usual and were off to school. I settled in to my workday at the computer with a cup of coffee and the pets napping nearby. I had been dealing with a strange cough for a couple of weeks- not cold or allergies, and it would come and go. I hadn’t really thought anything of it. Early in the afternoon though, I started coughing again. I got up for something, and while leaning over my desk, I coughed. I felt a sharp pinch in my back. I wasn’t too alarmed, over the years my bad back has caused me pain now and again, and I thought I had simply twisted a muscle funny. I straightened up and began to walk around, but the pain was not going away like it would with a muscle pull. I decided to lay down and nap a little, since it was hurting so much. When I woke up a short time later, I needed to get up and use the facilities. Only problem was, I couldn’t get up. What was going on? The pain in my back was getting pretty intense now, and I was getting scared. I managed to roll myself off the bed and onto all fours, and crawl into the bathroom. I couldn’t get onto the toilet, and I couldn’t back out of the bathroom: I was stuck. Crying now, I finally let my arms go and flopped to the floor. My cell phone, which I had with me, was dead. My son had just gotten home from school, but he was outside. I had to wait for someone to find me, and I was in trouble. After about 1 1/2 hours on the floor in the bathroom, my daughter came home from volleyball practice. I was so relieved to hear her come in. The slightest move sent me through the roof in excruciating pain and I was desperate for help. Weakly, I called to her and told her to call 911. This would be the first of three trips to the hospital.
After a myriad of heavy painkillers and muscle relaxants at the hospital, the pain became manageable. An MRI showed that I had torn a disc in my back. The disc fluid had leaked out, I learned, which is toxic to the body when not contained inside the disc itself. The damaged disc was already compressed from years of degenerative arthritis, something I’ve had since I was a child. I was in a pretty sorry state in my fortieth year.
Six weeks after my initial injury, my conditioned had worsened to the point that I could not even lay down in bed. I was sleeping sitting up in the recliner. I was in constant pain. I had seen a succession of doctors and specialists. The only good news I received was that I was not a candidate for back surgery. I received a cortisone shot in my back which was completely ineffective. I was on Oxycontin, Percocet, Neurontin, plus a powerful muscle relaxer (all at the same time) that still barely controlled my pain and spasms. I went from being an extremely active mom and road cyclist to needing help walking to the bathroom and sitting on the toilet. I couldn’t work, I was losing a lot of weight (and it wasn’t in a good way), and my mental state was deteriorating. Dressing myself or getting up from the recliner unassisted were considered huge victories. I cried a lot because I didn’t know what to do or how to control the pain. During my next two hopeless trips to the hospital, when the spasms were so bad that I could not move, I literally begged the ER doctors to find out what was causing my pain. They responded with a complete lack of compassion. They treated me as though I was one of their many patients who comes to the ER looking for a fix. I’m sorry they have to deal with these people, but I was not one of them. They had given up on me, so I gave up on them. This turned out to be the beginning of my recovery: I needed to take my health into my own hands.
I want to share my story with you because my life has changed. I cannot deny that physically, I am different now. My back, which has always been my achilles heel, is a little more vulnerable now. After all the negative hospital and doctor experiences, I have a very different perspective about modern medicine. My health awareness and desire for knowledge has been awakened. In fact, through several months of physical therapy and chiropractic and nutritional care from an extremely talented Chiropractor, I am close to cresting the top of this steep recovery road I’ve been climbing. I’m hoping to share my journey with you through blogging about nutritional discoveries, cycling milestones, and health breakthroughs. I’m quite determined to be reborn from this physical nightmare I’ve been living and make the most of the rest of my fortieth year. I hope you will join me.
This is a piece I wrote for Pastor Billy Graff, of University Baptist Church in Galveston, Texas, where I volunteered with three other friends after Hurricane Ike in 2009. Doesn’t have a thing to do with cycling, but I wanted to post it here anyway. Enjoy.
August 28, 2005. That horrible day, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, spreading death and destruction that left our country and the people of the Gulf Coast reeling for years. The effects of this storm have reached into almost every facet imaginable; a shift in the dynamic of Gulf Coast demographics, economy, and spirit. That storm also had an unlikely and unplanned effect on a small, diverse group of people who lived thousands of miles away in Cheyenne, Wyoming. This is the story of our group; and how we ended up dropping our sleeping bags and tool belts at the feet of Pastor Billy Graff of Galveston, Texas five years later.
Cheyenne, Wyoming is home to three Catholic parishes as part of the Diocese of Cheyenne, which encompasses the entire, sparsely populated state of Wyoming. My name is Denise; I attend Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Cheyenne. I was nearly 35 years old when Katrina hit. I was a married mom to two grade-school aged children, working as an aide to a special needs student at my children’s elementary school. About 8 months or so after the storm, I went to Mass with my family and heard an announcement for a mission group that was forming. Our Pastor wanted to send a group to New Orleans to assist with the cleanup/rebuilding. The instant I heard the announcement, I knew it was a call from God for me to go.
There we were; a group of 11 people who were all taking a step away from our lives for a week to travel with each other-complete strangers- to New Orleans in April 2006. We had no idea what we were getting into, really. We knew we weren’t going to be doing any “glory work” (as the New Orleans volunteer organizers came to call the arduous task of gutting homes), but that was alright. Instead, we were assigned two tasks by our organizers at Catholic Charities in New Orleans. One was to paint apartments at a building for the low-income elderly so they could move back in. The other task was to clean an abandoned school for the Sisters of the Holy Family, since their school, St. Mary’s Academy, was flooded in the storm and they were desperately trying to re-open. We had an incredible week filled with the Holy Spirit. We left feeling we had received much more than we had given; we cultivated friendships with each other, created lasting friendships with people we met in New Orleans, experienced a whole new love of Southern culture and hospitality, and, for me, cemented the knowledge that this trip wasn’t going to be my last.
2007 rolled around, and it turns out that I was not the only person who felt the strong pull to go back to the Gulf Coast. Our group was smaller, but just as determined. This time, we pulled together our own resources and traveled without the monetary support of our Parish. We worked for the Diocese of Biloxi, Office of Long-Term Recovery, in Biloxi, Mississippi. They sent us to nearby Gulfport for the week, where we worked on the recently gutted Clark family home. Their family became dear to us, another friendship we’d never forget. In 2008, with another slightly smaller group traveling on our own, we returned to Mississippi again and spent another week working all along the Gulfport/Biloxi coastline. We didn’t return home without visiting our friends the Clark’s, and some of our friends in New Orleans.
In the spring of 2009, I received a call from my friend, Mike. I had met Mike on our first trip to New Orleans, and although we come from different times in life, he is very dear to me. He calls me a “girl”, because a “lady” is someone who is older than him, he laughingly tells me. Mike is retired from a career as a mechanic in the oil fields of Wyoming and all over the US. That career turned him into one of the truly toughest, physically hardest-working men I know. He’s also quite funny, easy-going, has an incredibly strong faith, and stands about a foot shorter than me. Mike called me that day and said, “So, you and that other girl planning another trip for us?”
“That other girl” would be my darling friend, Virginia. Virginia is ten years my senior, but I’ve got 10 inches on her in height. One of our first conversations was at the New Orleans Airport on our way home from our first mission trip. She came and sat next to me and said, “You know, I didn’t think I was going to like you.” I replied, “You know, I didn’t think I was going to like you, either.” We both laughed, and began our new friendship on the spot. I called Virginia after talking to Mike the same day and asked her, “So, where should we go?”
Virginia and I talked about all the places in need. We could do a lot of very hard, manual labor, so we felt our skills could really be put to good use. After some discussion and prayer, we emailed our group of fellow mission friends and asked who wanted to go with us to Galveston, Texas.
This latest mission trip was destined to be the smallest group yet: Mike, Virginia, me, and our wonderful friend, Terry. Terry is also retired, after a long career with the State of Wyoming in service to the low-income families and children of our state. Terry is not one to sit idle in his retirement, so he formed a non-profit organization called WYFHOP to assist low-income working families in purchasing their first homes. I have come to know Terry well since our first mission trip; and not only is he a treasured friend of mine, but I have a deep respect for his intellect, his undying call to help the poor, his faith, and his Canadian sense of humor.
On June 21, 2009, our little group arrived at the University Baptist Church (UBC) in Galveston, Texas. We had known for a few weeks that this trip would be different than the others. The Catholic NGO’s we were familiar with were not operating in the Galveston area, despite the fact that Hurricane Ike had caused so much damage to the island the year before. Virginia had contacted iNetConnect, which was operated out of UBC. They would provide us our housing and meals for our week of work, and they were happy to have us. They didn’t even care that we were Catholic! We arrived on what seemed like a “hot” day to us for mid-June. Our cold-acclimated Wyoming skin broke out into an instant sweat the second we walked out of the air-conditioned Houston Airport; and it would be worse than that for the entire week.
We arrived at UBC after office hours, so Michael, the caretaker, was first to greet us. He showed us where we could sit inside while we waited for our contact to arrive. After she gave us a quick orientation, we stepped out of the main facility and into the trailer that would be our quarters for the next week. There, we were greeted by 50… yes, 50, roommates. They were from a Baptist Church in Kentucky. They had come as whole families; moms, dads, and children; ready to do physical and spiritual work in Galveston that week. After finding us exactly four of the last bunks available (was this destiny or what?), we settled in.
The next morning, after breakfast with the Kentuckians and quick prayer to ourselves, we met Pastor Billy in the Sanctuary with about 200 other iNetConnect volunteers. I immediately liked Billy Graff. He meant business- and he was filled with the Spirit while doing it. It was Virginia who represented our group and took her turn to go talk to him and get our week’s assignment. We usually send her to do these things; she’s from Jersey and knows how to talk to people (!). Just because Virginia and I were middle-age women, and the other two in our group were retired men, it was agreed that we wanted to do hard labor. No sir, don’t give us painting and mopping floors if there’s framing and drywall to be done. We wanted to work. And Pastor Billy obliged.
We arrived at our assigned worksite on K Street about midmorning. The Texas heat was ramping up already, and we were in for a near 100 degree day…not counting the humidity. Standing before us was a charming, pink two story home with some windows missing and a dead lawn. Despite its sixties-style aluminum siding and aluminum rock-look skirting, one could tell it was an older home; majestic in height and narrow in width. We were told that the home had been gutted, but that was it. There was no plumbing (therefore no access to water), and the presence of electricity was questionable. The first thing we did was ask the elderly next door neighbor if we could plug in to her home and use her hose for water, but she politely refused; citing the high cost. I really didn’t blame her. While all this was going on, we met the home’s only current resident; Ginny. She was an old yellow lab that lived in the cool strip of shaded dirt next to the house. She barked with some vigorous conviction. The home was unlocked and we took our first tour. It was AMAZING. I could see, even though almost all the flooring was removed, the walls were dark, old bare studs, and the steep stairway was broken and damaged, that this house still had life in it. We carefully walked the first floor, where our steps were calculated as we stepped from joist to joist, feeling a little airborne about two feet above the dirt hard pack below. I decided I just had to go upstairs. I carefully navigated the wobbly railing and battered steps, finding two large bedrooms and a bathroom at the top. Again, even upstairs the flooring had been removed, leaving the bare joists. A wrong step would mean plummeting through the first floor ceiling and onto the grid work of joists and flooring below. I thought to myself, “Really, Lord? This is where you want us to be? Whatever Your reason…this is really cool!” Pastor Billy arrived soon after we toured ourselves and began the enormous task of getting us organized. Because we had flown to Houston and driven to Galveston in a rental car, we could not bring much more than our tool belts with us. We had nothing, and it was going to be up to Billy to get us tools and supplies. But first, we had to figure out where to start.
We learned that the home belonged to Miss Pearlie, and Ginny was her dog (Ginny warmed right up when we learned her name and began talking to her.). Miss Pearlie was an elderly woman whose insurance didn’t even come close to covering the damage to her home, which is located in the older part of Galveston, near the seawall. By the time Miss Pearlie had been allowed to return to the island several weeks after Ike hit, the entire inside of her home was rotted with mold. Another group before us had gutted the home, and found a nasty surprise underneath: termites. The termites had severely damaged many supporting beams and joists on the first floor, and had even worked their way to the upstairs. That’s why all the flooring was gone. The more we looked around, the more we realized the extent of the damage. The bearing beams supporting the house, many of the floor joists, and lots of the exterior 2×4’s would have to be replaced and stabilized before plumbing and electricity could even begin. I leaned against a kitchen wall and the whole wall leaned with me. We decided to focus on these problems downstairs. The four of us. God wasn’t kidding when he answered our prayer for meaningful work.
We spent the rest of the first day finding rakes and shovels in the garage and setting about to cleaning up our work area and stacking leftover debris near the curb. Billy spent the rest of the day on the phone I think, ordering supplies and tools for us, as well as for the other groups that were dispersed around the island. We drank ourselves through an entire case of water, and were quickly growing fond of our battered shelter. After all, it was shady inside. And there was a hint of cool air coming up from the dirt. About 4:30 or so, we’d reached our physical limits with the heat. Day One completed.
The next three days we worked as hard as we could in that home. It would take an entire book in itself to recall all the stories, laughs, and adventures we had. Who said construction was dull? But here are a few of our highlights:
I believe it was the second day, when a tiny, thin older woman came up the front steps. She was the owner, Miss Pearlie, and I was thrilled to meet her. She had a personality and strength that defied her petite physical frame. She was well into her eighth decade, and I could tell that not many things had held her down in all those years. Miss Pearlie was matter-of-fact when we asked her questions about how she wanted things repaired, where kitchen cabinets would be located, where she wanted new closets, and what kind of doors and flooring she wanted. I took all her requests and drafted out a humble floor plan on a sheet of paper we found somewhere, so the groups after us would know what she wanted. But the best
part was the hope we brought her. She reacted to our presence and progress just as others had whom we’d met and worked for on previous missions. It is one of the most humbling experiences in the world to give someone the gift of hope. When you do something for someone, with selflessness, your simple act is transformed into the work of God’s Hands. “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8) How often do we have an experience like that and are privileged enough to see the end result? That’s what’s humbling. The power of what we were doing for her went way beyond the air hammer and saws. Wow, if only we had more time to spend with her! We saw her several times that week; because we learned she came every day to feed and water Ginny, who was not allowed in her small temporary apartment. To me, Miss Pearlie was as lovely as her name suggested.
Michael, the caretaker at the church, was a fellow who thrived on being busy and completing tasks quickly and thoroughly. His quirky personality was a little hard to get used to, but Pastor Billy has a place and a job for everyone. I deeply admire that Billy takes Jesus’ call for us to open our arms and hearts to everyone quite literally. So we did our best to keep Michael happy and not get in his way. One day, he came with a delivery of extremely large and heavy interlocking floor decking/subflooring, which we would be using once the floor joists were all repaired. Unfortunately, the decking was the wrong thickness, and it would need to be returned to Home Depot, on the other side of the island. Michael had no time or patience to re-order his tasks for the day, so after a couple of phone calls, we were told we’d have to unload the decking anyway, then re-load it in the trailer again later the same day to be exchanged. Not a great solution, considering the amount of work in the heat and the weight of these behemoths. They were easily 500 lbs. apiece, if not more (okay, it only felt like 500 pounds, they were probably 100 pounds or less). But we swallowed our grumbling and got to work unloading the decking. It was late morning, we were in the sun, and the heat was really getting to us. Billy had sent over two college boys that day, so with extra hands we all took turns and started pulling out the sheets, one person on each side, with Michael directing us. After a couple of sheets, Michael noticed that Virginia and I were carrying the sheets by ourselves, the two women. He stopped for a second to watch us- and gave us the best compliment of the week: “Wow” he said, “You are a couple of sturdy ladies!” His rare compliment broke the tension, and everyone had a good laugh. Virginia and me- well, we had to agree, of course. There’s not much we dislike more than when men add us to the familiar ‘women-aren’t-strong-or-skilled-enough-to-do-construction’ stereotype! I think we endeared ourselves to Michael that day, and likewise. Thanks, Michael.
The College Boys
Billy sent us two separate groups of college boys to help us work. Both groups were from the region, visiting Galveston for Spring Break to lend a hand. The first group consisted of four boys, two whose names I don’t remember, plus Jason and Duffy. Jason and Duffy worked with me, Virginia, and Mike on the ongoing beam and floor joist repairs. They had never handled power tools before, but they were quick and eager learners. I’m not entirely sure of what they thought of us “girls”, but they were willing to do what we asked of them. All four boys worked so hard, and with such unrelenting enthusiasm, that we actually joined them in begging their youth leader to let them stay another day. He let them come back one more day, and we were grateful. With eight of us, our work was progressing at a much faster pace. I won’t forget those boys, and the young, determined, attitude they brought with them into the house like a cool, refreshing breeze. I like to think that God sent us those boys as a gift, a gift that we passed on to Miss Pearlie by being able to get so much more work done.
The second pair of college boys were also on Spring Break, but were a little overwhelmed, I think, by the level of work we were doing at the house. They came dressed in much too nice clothes, and seemed nervous around us. Their cell phones were out often, and they weren’t as willing to take instruction. They were nice kids and all, just very different from the first group. The turning point of our day came late in the afternoon, when we got a call from Billy telling us that Michael would not have time to come back and pick up the floor decking that day, and we would have to move it inside the house so it wouldn’t be stolen overnight. And the only place in the house it could go was… upstairs. Oh, my. This was going to be a challenge. Terry had been battling a little heat exhaustion that afternoon, so he wasn’t up to carrying the decking. There was no way that Mike would be able to maneuver the stairs with his bum leg. That left me and Virginia, and the two college boys. We got the boys moving and they started up the stairs with the first sheet. But, through lack of experience I think, they were unable to figure out how to maneuver the large decking up the stairs. They got stuck about halfway up, and were unsure on how to proceed. We didn’t want to them to get hurt, so Virginia and I wiggled our way up the crowded steps and took over. We had to physically show them how to lift and carry the sheets, lift them over the railing at the top of the stairs, and then lay them down on the bare floor joists in the bedroom. It just wasn’t going well. We quickly decided to get the boys to just bring the sheets into the house as far as the stairs, and Virginia and I would take each sheet the rest of the way up. It was absolutely the most brutal physical work we did that week, between the weight and size of the decking, the stifling heat upstairs, and our difference in height. But we got the job done, and managed to refrain from grumbling (out loud) at the boys for their lack of initiative and help. We did complain a bit to Billy and Jeff after work, and Jeff had an interesting story to tell us. He had been talking with the two boys’ leader after they left our worksite, and apparently Virginia and I left quite an impression on them. They didn’t mention us getting a little cranky about them not working, which was what I was worried about. No, they had praise for us and commented that we had ‘outworked’ them. Huh. I learned a little lesson about perspective. A person never knows what their example is teaching others. It might not be what you think, and it might be something positive from a bad experience. I pray that those boys learned a little bit about hard work that day. It would be a good thing that will serve them well in their future.
“Son-of-a-*****!” came out of my mouth before I had a chance to think. I had been helping Mike hammer in piece of decking over the new floor joists. It was a tricky cut piece, and he encouraged me to ‘get tough with it!’ So I did. I raised the hammer and brought it down with everything I had (and I’ve got some guns for a girl)…squarely on my left index finger. Now, I’ve had plenty of time with a hammer in my hand, so for me to miss like that was really embarrassing. Worse though, was the pain. I stood up and shook out my hand for a second, while Mike worriedly asked me if I was ok. He’d never heard me curse before! I assured him I was fine, and then bent down to try again. As I repositioned my hand, I noticed the blood flowing freely out of the finger of my work glove. I looked up at Mike and simply said, “I’ve got a problem.” Worked ceased, and my friends tended to my wound. I had hammered my finger right open, in a little crescent shape that matched the ball of the hammer, right through my work glove. It was a nasty, deep wound. We got the bleeding slowed and headed back to the church to get some first aid, and determine whether I needed a trip to the ER for stitches. When we arrived at the church, we were lucky that our Kentucky friend, Floyd, was there. He is an RN, and he gladly helped me. He examined and dressed my finger, and after a bit of a rest in the cool church dining room, we headed back to work. My finger was swollen, throbbing, and dressed with two butterfly closures and a heavy latex glove finger taped all over the top to keep it clean. I was ok though, I’m tough. There was something Floyd’s wife said to me while he dressed my finger that made me think. I had been so busy just working, working all week that her comment stopped me in my tracks. She said something to the effect, “You know, it’s the devil trying to stop your work.” Now I know people who would pooh-pooh this notion as being just a little too dramatic, but I entertained her idea. After all, we had a lot of obstacles thrown at us that week, most of which we had overcome with ease. It didn’t seem far-fetched to me that the devil might just try and throw a monkey wrench at us. “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.” (James 4:7-8) Whatever might have been in the works around us, I type this now and, looking down at the lumpy, pink scar on my slightly dislocated finger, I’m so thankful that we were cloaked with grace that week. There were so many things that could’ve gone wrong, but didn’t. My injury was just one more example of how our conviction to do God’s work was made right because we put our trust in Him.
Our only diversion from Miss Pearlie’s home came during one of Billy’s visits to our worksite. He’d had a call from a woman who needed just a small sheetrock patch done in her living room, and the unfinished task was nagging him. He thought Virginia and I would be the perfect two to run over to the house and get the job done. He called the woman to make sure she was home, and drove us over there. We got there and after a time, her daughter who lived in another house on the same lot finally let us in to her elderly mother’s small downstairs apartment. It was the most shocking dwelling I had ever stepped into. All the shades were pulled, and we were immediately greeted with the stench of old dirt and stale cigarettes. It took our eyes a minute to adjust to the darkness. It appeared to be a four room apartment; kitchen, small bath, living room, and bedroom. In the corner next to one dim lamp sat a nearly bald, elderly woman wearing oxygen and smoking a cigarette. She was cordial, but not really friendly. She showed us a hole in her living room wall, which had been created by a faulty window air conditioner that leaked water onto the sheetrock. The wetness had given way, and through an adjoining hole on the outside of the house, she told us how a large rat came in every day. The rat would scamper across her bare cement floor, hop up onto the kitchen table, and get into the cupboards to eat. Between the stench, darkness, filthy thick yellow grime covering every surface in the house, and the story she told us, I was getting nauseous and very eager to get out of there. I could tell Virginia was having similar thoughts, so we hurried to make the repair and get back outside into the fresh air. We talked with the old woman as we worked, and she warmed up after a bit, after she realized we knew what we were doing and were going to finish the job for her. Virginia went outside and even managed to scavenge enough material to patch the hole on the outside, too. No more rat. We bid our goodbyes and hurried away from that place to a street corner where we could call to be picked up. I left feeling angry and disappointed. Why had we traveled thousands of miles to make a repair the old woman’s grandson-in-law could’ve made months ago (the granddaughter watched us work for awhile and was bragging about all the tools her husband had). The old woman had made it clear that she had made a donation to UBC, so she expected something in return. I just couldn’t see how people were living like that, expecting handouts. I prayed about it and came to the conclusion that you know, Jesus didn’t like everyone He met, either. Just ask the flea market people in the temple. But He did offer salvation to everyone, regardless of who they were. It was not up to me to judge the old woman and her family. Just when I was feeling so good about what we were doing at Miss Pearlie’s house, God humbled me. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2) Lesson learned.
UBC is within walking distance of Galveston Beach. We have a long-standing tradition now, our little group, of going to the beach right after work. A couple of years ago you could spot us in our “Catholic Response Team” royal blue shirts, rolled up jeans, and discarded work boots sitting on a stretch of Biloxi Beach. This year, we enjoyed the same after-work breather. Our real discovery came when we drove east of Galveston Beach, onto a pretty deserted part of the island. Here we found East Beach. We had a view of the busy harbor, where freighters were lined up each day. Local people were fishing or picnicking, and it was never crowded. It was a wonderful respite between the days’ labor and the chaos of the evening church scene when all the Kentucky folk were back from their jobs. It was a time for reflection, visiting, quiet, and a cool breeze. We rolled up our jeans and waded in the shallow waters looking for hermit crabs. There’s really nothing quite like a simple pleasure shared with true friends. I can’t imagine a nicer way to end our work day.
Galveston, Texas will forever have a special place in my heart. I have been blessed with an incredible husband and children who support and encourage my week-long forays because they know how important it is to me to serve. Each trip has galvanized my faith in ways I never imagined, and my trip to Texas was no exception. Recently, we sent a ‘welcome home’ gift to Miss Pearlie, as I received word from Billy that she had returned home. She quickly responded with a thank you note and letter. Her words are precious. She wrote (in part),
“Through God all things are possible. If you have the faith and do believe in prayers; your prayers will be answered…God sent me a family of deep compassion when you all came into my life…There are no words in the dictionary that I could describe you all. The only thing that I can say is that I am very thankful to have met your family. I will never forget you all; and will keep you in my daily prayers…May God bless you all and may your compassion for others continue.”