This month marks the 25th anniversary of an incident that forever shaped my outlook on life. And it seems fitting to repost this essay in the middle of Holy Week, a time for reflection, faith, and gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The piece was previously published on Medium. I added some photos I took while residing in Toledo, Ohio, during the late 1990s.
My arms and legs stopped working on a gray April day in 1997. I was lying on the carpet in the hallway of my sister’s second-floor condominium in Toledo, Ohio, staring up at the eggshell-colored ceiling, unable to move.
I was living with my sister at the time and working at a news/talk radio station in the city. On that Saturday I was alone in the house, as my sister, Lisa, had left to run errands and attend a couple of social events. I had stayed behind, watching an early season Detroit Tigers game on television and doing some laundry.
Over the course of the day I became weaker and weaker; I fell several times but was able to get on my feet again — until late in the afternoon when I could no longer move my arms or legs.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Toledo, Ohio. Photo by Francis DiClemente.
I felt relieved when I heard my sister’s keys jangling as she opened the door. She was startled when she walked into the kitchen and saw me sprawled out in the hallway. “What are you doing on the floor?” she asked.
After I explained what had happened, she picked up the phone to dial 911. I asked her not to call, to wait and see if I could recover on my own. “No, you can’t move,” she said.
“I’m calling the ambulance.”
Paramedics came and took me away, carrying the stretcher down the stairs to the parking lot. They measured my vitals and asked me questions about my medical history. I should have been frightened by my unexplained weakness, but oddly I wasn’t. I knew I hadn’t suffered a head or spinal cord injury; I also hadn’t lost consciousness. I suspected a chemical imbalance had caused my paralysis.
The ambulance pulled out of the condo parking lot and sped down the road, and I remember looking out the back window and watching dark tree limbs and streetlights pass by as we made our way to the hospital.
Trees in Toledo. Photo by Francis DiClemente.
When we arrived, a male ER doctor with dark hair, a mustache and a swarthy complexion examined me. An EKG and head CT both came back normal. I still couldn’t stand up, and the doctor kept looking at me and rubbing his chin, appearing flummoxed by my condition. But he soon discovered the cause, as blood tests revealed extremely low potassium levels. The doctor order an IV potassium drip, and my arms and legs rebounded a short time later. I was still weak but could now move my limbs. I lifted my legs from the bed and raised my arms overhead, comforted that my limbs no longer felt like dead weight.
I was admitted to the hospital, as the doctors sought to determine the underlying condition that had caused the potassium levels to drop; they also wanted to rule out any neuromuscular disorders.
The following day a male doctor with a beard performed a test using electrodes to measure electrical activity in my muscles. My endocrinologist also visited me in the hospital and did some medical research on my condition. He later diagnosed me with hypokalemic periodic paralysis, a genetic disorder that he said was unrelated to my hypopituitarism, which I had been diagnosed with at age 15 after having surgery to remove a pituitary tumor.
I stayed in the hospital for about a week while the staff continued to monitor my heart rhythm and electrolyte levels. A physical therapist also worked with me to do some exercises to rebuild muscle strength.
I was discharged on a bright spring day. Stepping outside and heading to my sister’s car parked in front of the hospital, my legs did not fold under me; I realized they could now support my bodyweight. And I rejoiced in being able to walk forward, to execute the simple motion of putting one foot in front of the other. No one had to carry me to the car.
And I took stock of my life in that instant and counted my blessings. My family cared about me, I had a place to live and a full-time job with health coverage (although my radio salary was low at the time).
More importantly, I had survived my medical ordeal with just a couple of instructions to follow — to modify my diet and take daily potassium supplements to compensate for my condition. I did not need surgery, and I was grateful that the outcome had not been a more serious disease like multiple sclerosis or ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
This theme has echoed throughout my life. I have faced numerous health crises, and after each one I have reevaluated and recalibrated my priorities.
Since my initial brain tumor was excised at age 15, I’ve had two follow-up surgeries to remove remnants, along with two rounds of Gamma Knife radiosurgery with a goal of preventing regrowth. Today I am not tumor free — the craniopharyngioma still resides in my head, affecting my vision. But for now, the doctors are observing the tumor and have decided no surgery or radiation is needed.
In waking up from my both my second surgery in 1988 and my third in 2011, I remember the dim glow of fluorescent lights overhead and the sound of beeping machines in the surgical intensive care units. In both cases, in the instant when I came back to consciousness, my head felt woozy and everything appeared fuzzy; it was as if gobs of Vaseline had been smeared across both eyelids and I couldn’t see clearly.
A nurse or doctor would stand over me and ask me a series of questions. “What’s your name?” “Do you know where you are?” “Can you tell me the date?” “Who is the President of the United States?”
And in being able to respond verbally and answer the questions correctly, I would realize I had survived the surgery with my health seemingly intact; my brain worked and I could speak and form sentences. And in my post-surgical haze I would feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
Toledo warehouse. Photo by Francis DiClemente.
But here’s the problem. Each time after leaving the hospital, I could not sustain that feeling of gratitude beyond a few days. I would get caught up again in the daily struggles of life, and my “attitude of gratitude” would slip away.
I am now aware of this flaw in me. I recognize that in the pursuit of a better job, a bigger house, a newer car and a richer bank account, I forget to be thankful for the essentials I’ve been given — oxygen to breathe, clean drinking water, food in the fridge, safe shelter, a loving family and the ability to walk, talk, and think. I forget how easily these things can be taken away.
I need to preserve in my mind the freeing power of gratitude, because gratitude puts the focus on being thankful for what you already have, and sharing some of it, as opposed to seeking what you lack.
I need to stop looking around and asking myself, “What else?” or “What more?” Instead, I must try to be content with my life as it is, at this very moment, and be able to say, “This is plenty. This is more than enough.”