I was a war correspondent for NBC News, reaching heights in my career that I never dreamed possible. Every story was an amazing adventure. The front lines of the Persian Gulf War. Inside Afghanistan with the mujahideen during the Soviet occupation. Apartheid in South Africa. Drug wars in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. Being put in charge of Asia with a stunning home atop Victoria Peak in Hong Kong.
Somehow I managed to keep going despite a crack in my fifth lumbar vertebra from a fall… during a vacation of all things. Painkillers became my best friends, along with an extra glass of wine or two every night. After seven years, in 1993, the crack became a break. I hit the floor screaming and was soon medivacked from Asia to San Diego for spinal fusion-laminectomy surgery.
The surgery failed. I was declared permanently disabled. My identity was instantly gone. I was locked in a body brace and unable to sit up for a meal. Unbelievable pain. Pickled on even stronger meds. Even more wine at night. A free-fall into the abyss.
Despite a crumbling marriage, my first and only child, Morgan, was born. As I withdrew into depression, anger and fear, he became my only touchstone to the world. Six months later, I was diagnosed with Stage Four oropharangeal cancer metastasized throughout my lymphatic system. It was from exposure to depleted uranium used on American weapons in the Gulf War. I was told I had two years to live… at best. Morphine was added to my arsenal of drugs. To soothe my throat, stout beer replaced the wine. I often couldn’t speak. I ballooned up to 225 pounds, became even darker, and hit the bottom of the abyss.
As my son turned two, he finally became aware that his father was dying. One morning he came to me as I was lying flat on my back and said with tears, “Get up, Daddy!” Those three little words cracked something open in my heart. But how to get up? Days went by. The mantra Get Up Daddy flooded my mind. Finally, I decided to check into a hospital, detox off all the meds and alcohol, and die with dignity, showing my son that his daddy did all he could to pull it together before leaving the world.
After so many years of heavy medications, detox was the darkest night of the soul. Ten nights, actually. Heavy withdrawals. Tremors. Hot and cold flashes. Uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea. Complete insanity. When I finally crawled out of my hospital room, the pain was worse, my head was pounding, and I had no idea what to do next. That’s when the hospital invited me to join a small experimental program blending ancient eastern healing practices with modern, western holistic modalities. I jumped – or rather limped – at the chance, and soon I was on a journey into mind/body medicine.
One month into it, I began therapeutic Yoga. I don’t know why, but somehow I knew the very first day that Yoga was my path to healing. The cynical journalist still inside of me scoffed. My soul said otherwise, and fortunately my soul prevailed. Six weeks later, the clinic closed. Insurance companies refused to reimburse the cost. I went home and turned an office in my house into my healing room. I practiced 12-14 hours every day. Yoga postures. Pranayama. Visualization. Meditation. Veganism. Fasting. Ancient yogic purifications.
It worked. Two years later I was pain free and cancer free. I took 80 pounds off my body and began to climb rocks as a symbol of clawing my way out of the abyss. Under the guidance of Chris Rutgers of Outdoor Outreach, I climbed throughout Joshua Tree National Park. Then, on my 55th birthday, Chris led me up the face of Taquitz. It was a symbolic moment for me. Daddy got up.
I’m sharing this because I know the pain of being disabled. I was lucky to find a way out. For so many others, it just isn’t possible. On August 18th, my son, Morgan, and I will be going “over the edge,” rappelling down from the top of the Grand Hyatt on San Diego Bay, to support a charity called Kids Included Together (KIT). Many of the kids in KIT will have their disabilities for their entire lives… but we can help them feel included instead of left out, offering them opportunities to participate in recreational programs in ways they never dreamed possible, giving them hope, self-esteem and joy.
If you’d like to help, just click here and give what you can. Together, we can ease some pain, offer some hope and make a difference. If you live in San Diego, come to the Hyatt at 9am on Saturday, August 18th, and watch us rappel down!