My Camino story started fall of last year when I randomly ran across Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Grey’s Facebook post advertising a fully supported 117K hike on the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain the fall of 2019 for people with physical challenges. My eyes became really wide and a grin from ear to ear appeared. My body was in great shape from all the walking and recovery from my 2017 spine surgery. I was back to athlete status and really desired a big challenge after being down for over a decade. On top of that, I had gotten my passport years ago to travel out of the country but when my spine fell apart so did those plans. So here was an awesome opportunity to finally wipe the dust off of the passport and set some big adventurous goals. I clicked onto the I’ll Push You website and the more I read the more I was jumping around in my chair yelling, “I wanna go!” I filled out the application right away because the website said they were only accepting seven people for the trip. I was praying I had gotten the application done in time. A few weeks later they sent an email saying they had over one hundred people apply so they would be interviewing everyone via video chat to see who would fit into the group the best. I set up my time and kept asking the universe to make all the stars align.
In the meantime, I decided to watch the I’ll Push You movie Justin and Patrick made about their pilgrimage on the Camino to get a better idea of what I was getting myself into. Their journey inspired them to create this group trip. I highly recommend watching if you like those movies that give you all the feels and leave you inspired to kick some ass. A bit of the back story… Justin contracted a rare disease that has been slowly paralyzing him and he really wanted to hike the Camino before his health would not allow him so his best friend Patrick decided he was going to push him the whole way in a device similar to a rickshaw. They completed all 500 miles of the Camino, even over the Pyrenees Mountains. It’s an astonishing story. One of the things I did not realize before watching it was the community that you build on the trail. I became even more stoked. I had been focusing so much on recovering myself from spine surgery over the last few years I felt a loss of connection and community. The more I found out about the Camino hike, the more reasons I had for wanting to go.
On the day of the interview I prettied myself up figuring I would use everything I had to charm these guys into giving me a spot. Justin and Patrick popped up on my screen and I had so much energy, I could hardly speak. When I did, I felt like I was talking 1,000 miles per hour. They were great, we seemed to hit it off talking about graphic design, recovery, walking, neurokenetic therapies, concerns and why I wanted to go to Spain.
When I hung up I was even more inspired. They had told me they would make their decision in two weeks. Uhhh, the suspense was killing me. On the day they were notifying everyone, I sat in front of my computer refreshing my email over and over. Then there it was, the email from I’ll Push You. I read the first few lines and my arms shot up in the air as I let out a big woooo hooo!! I was picked to go! I made the cut! The stars had aligned and my fast chatter had made sense to them!
I started spreading the good news and had this fire in my belly and heart that I had not felt for a very long time. It felt empowering, it felt like I was unstoppable.
I started spreading the good news and had this fire in my belly and heart that I had not felt for a very long time. It felt empowering, it felt like I was unstoppable. Then came December. I went back east to visit my family for the holidays and things did not go well. There was a lot of unnecessary drama and at that time I found it hard not to let it effect my mental state. I was upset, eating terribly, not resting or sleeping and stressed out. I woke up one day feeling like I had caught the flu. A few days later I was not feeling any better and noticed some blood blisters had formed on my knee. I woke up the next morning with a 105º fever and my right leg was doubled in size. That’s when I realized that this was not the flu. I asked my parents to bring me to the hospital. There I found out I had contracted MRSA around some hardware that was installed into my leg when I had previously broken my femur. The MRSA had also spread into my blood. I was septic so they had to administer IV antibiotics for ten days before they would let me get on a plane back to California to see the surgeon who had installed the hardware. When I got back to California, to my surprise, it took another several days of trying to contact the surgeon’s team to schedule an appointment and surgery to take out the infected hardware. Meanwhile, the IV antibiotics were not keeping ahead of the infection and my leg started to swell up again. My fever started creeping up to high levels again so I just drove myself to the ER. I figured that way they had no choice but to deal with me, no more waiting around for scheduling.
The infection was worse than they had anticipated. The surgeon went in and took out the plate but had to leave the rod in my bone for stability. They cleaned out what was damaged and waited to see if that would clear the infection. It didn’t. They went back in to cut out all the infected bone and tissue two more times. Still the infection remained active and kept eating away at my leg. At that point, the doctor came in and told me he needed to start talking to me about amputation. My head exploded. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it. Here I was on top of the world last month and now I was having a conversation about having my leg removed. How did I get here? I kept telling the doctor, “Amputation is not an option because I am hiking the Camino in fall.” He kept telling me, “You have to let that go, there was no way you will make it to the Camino even in a best case scenario.” I have heard these doom and gloom predictions before and just kept telling myself, “They don’t know you, they don’t know what you are capable of, you have beat the odds so many times.” So I told the surgeon, “You have to save my leg.” He said, “I don’t know if I can get the infection under control.” I said, “Well I need my leg so you have to try harder.” He then agreed to go back in and get really aggressive but warned,” It could cause permanent damage to the tissue and your bone might not grow back.” I replied, “If the alternative is chopping off my leg then what do I have to loose?” So he agreed to keep trying to clean out the leg as long as my insurance would cover it. He went in two more times for a total of five surgeries over six weeks. He started using an antibiotic powder inside my leg and also put me on an oral antibiotic on top of the IV antibiotic. The combination of the infection and all the meds was making me unbelievably sick. I had stuff projecting out of every orifice but it worked. The inflammation levels in my blood finally started going down and the last culture they took from my leg came up negative. It worked, thank God it worked. But they warned the chances of the MRSA coming back were really high because they could not take the rod out and the bacteria liked to hide inside metal.
My head exploded. I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it. Here I was on top of the world last month and now I was having a conversation about having my leg removed.
At this time I figured I should let Justin and Patrick know what was going on. It wasn’t fair for them to hold a space for me when I might not make it. They had plenty of healthy people who wanted to go. The deposit was due for the trip and I was not sure how my health was going to play out. Luckily they were super understanding and didn’t want to give up on me. They told me to take a few months to see where I was at before I made my final decision and I could hold off on the deposit.
After almost two months in the hospital I was sent home on IV and oral antibiotics. I struggled thru taking them over the next month and was finally taken off the IV. I was told I had to stay on the oral antibiotics for life which was hard. I had severe allergic reactions to them and they had given me skin rashes and sores all over my body. I had just went thru a life altering spine surgery a few years back where they thought I would not grow bone so I knew exactly what I needed to do to recover. I had beat the odds that time and grew bone where they thought I wouldn’t so I could do it again. I proceeded to boost my immune system with lots of self love, positive affirmations, nothing but anti-inflammatory foods, tons of water, lots of bone broth, supplements and as much movement as I could take. It was a long few months with a lot of down time but slowly I was able to sit up in my wheelchair a little more and was able to move my leg a little more without it swelling up.
In March I traveled to Portland to acquire an alternative therapy to the antibiotics called bacteriophages. They allowed me to stop taking the antibiotics that where making me sick and suppressing my immune system. Way back when before antibiotics, the medical community used bacteriophages to clear out bacterial infections like MRSA. They are a virus that seeks out and destroys the bad bacteria. They stay in your body for life with no side effects. They go dormant when there is no more bacteria and if the infection ever comes back, then the bacteriophages wake up again and will resume destroying it. They also impeccably clean out any infection from the bone better than any antibiotic can. Then the bone has a better chance of growing back. And they penetrate biofilms so they could get to any bacteria in the metal. Sounded like the prefect solution for my predicament. While in Portland I was staying with one of my oldest and dearest friends, Amie Zawacki. She is a travel junkie and I was able to persuade her to join me on the Camino trip!
By the beginning of April I decided nothing was going to hold me back from going to Spain. I was going to be fully recovered in time and would not accept anything less. I put the deposit down on the trip. I started outpatient physical therapy with Laura and Jeff at UC Davis to work on getting my range of motion back. I returned to neurokenetic pilates with James Crader at Evolved Body Studio to regain function and explore movement. I went for several follow up visits with the surgeon. Every visit he would be so shocked by how much my inflammation levels dropped and how much bone I was building. He kept telling me I was exceeding his expectations but he grimaced when I brough up Spain or walking. The more he told me, “No” the bigger that fire in my belly and heart got. The more he said, “You won’t” the more convinced I was that I was going to prove him wrong.
In June I started pushing my chair a few miles a few times a week, and continued with PT and pilates. I started seeing Alicia at ALC Massage Therapy on a regular basis for myofascial and neurokenetic body work to help break up the scar tissue and reclaim movement.
By July I was up to five miles a day a few more times a week. I started building my trail wheelchair with help from Ken and my long time sponsor, Tilte. At the end of July I had my blood drawn and my CRP, which measures inflammation, was at a .3 (normal is under 5). At the peak of the infection my CRP was near 400. The x-rays showed the bone had bridged everywhere that the surgeon wanted it to and was 80% filled in. He predicted it would be 100% by the end of September which is the exact time I will be touching down in Santiago to hike the Camino! The surgeon also cleared me to get up using a standing frame with 50% of my body weight on each leg. This was really exciting to me because it’s the first step in walking again!
August I was pushing eight to ten miles a day, seven days a week in my trail chair. I realized there was going to be 6,776 feet of climbing on the hike so I started climbing anything I could find in the flat lands of Sacramento; overpasses, parking garages, flood breaks. I even found an eight floor emergency exit ramp at the old UC Davis Hospital I’ve been climbing a few times a week. I also added in some strength training with Ben Alderman at Iron Mile Fitness to counter act all the pushing I was doing and to build up my endurance.
I didn’t realize that preparing for the hike was going to be a pilgrimage in itself. It has given me more strength, determination and confidence to push thru anything that holds me back.
Now I’m into September and feel back to athlete status. No signs of infection, leg is solid. I am training hard everyday and prepared to conquer my Camino with my upper body the least amount of help possible. I will be pushing my wheelchair 70+ miles with 6,776 feet of elevation and -7,317 feet of downhill over 6 days. There is an old tradition of collecting rocks to drop along your hike. The rocks represent your burdens or the things that weigh you down. I’ve got quite the pile collected from this past year and I’m ready to unload them! I didn’t realize that preparing for the hike was going to be a pilgrimage in itself. It has given me more strength, determination and confidence to push thru anything that holds me back. My daily pushes have given me opportunity to explore new places in Sacramento and beyond and time to reflect on the things that weigh me down and set me free. And it’s already given me a new community. I have an incredible team around me. They have encouraged rapid healing, strength and movement. It’s a big part of why I am where I am right now. I also meet people everywhere that have hiked the Camino or want too. I had no idea how extensive the Camino family is. There is a group of over 500 pilgrims in Sacramento. About 75-100 meet every month to do local hikes and they also host educational classes about everything Camino. The Sacramento Pilgrims have been so supportive of my journey and I have learned so much from them. They even gave me a traditional blessing with a shell to put on my backpack. It’s been quite a trip so far and the actual trip has not even started yet.
So please stay tuned, follow me on social media or subscribe below to receive notifications of my new blog posts. I only have a few more weeks before I take off for Spain, we start our hike on September 29th. I’ll be posting as much as I have the time and energy for.
Remember life will always put challenges in front of you, it’s how you deal with them that makes the difference. Face them fearless and head on, don’t let them beat you down and recoil in fear. Keep pushing through with all you have and you will reach your goals on the other side. Be relentless, if I can do it, you can do it.
As they say on the trail, Buen Camino!