How Jiu-Jitsu Actually Saved My Life While I Was Dying

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The feeding tube was made of yellow rubber. It was pliable but stiff, like a stale gummi worm left outside its bag too long. A man in scrubs named Dickie was explaining how he’d snake it into my left nostril, down my throat, through my stomach, and into the start of my small intestine where it would ooze a slurry of calories into my bowel. The tube needed to bypass my airway en route to the guts, meaning I’d have to swallow the hose as it made the journey down my throat. I’d be awake and unmedicated for the experience since it’s impossible for sedated people to swallow on command.

My blood pressure surged as Dickie spoke, signaling my anxiety by setting off the heart monitor wired to my chest. Dickie serenely turned the electronic alarm down—apparently his monologue often made still-coherent adults feel they’d mainlined adrenaline.

“Any thoughts or questions?” he asked when finished detailing how I’d have the full “face-hugger-from-Alien” experience. I considered my answer.

“You’re the first guy to be so direct about swallowing,” I said, because my way of handling life threatening organ failure is to make immature jokes to people in charge of my survival. Fight gym habits like that have a way of following me into less jocular settings.

And thank god they do. Because without them I’d be dead. 

As Dickie lubed the tube, I reverted to another habit learned at fight gyms: box breathing.

One of the first things I learned in jiu-jitsu was how my breath could control my heart rate, and how much MORE pain/discomfort humans can endure if they’re controlling their breath. The more rigid and tense I am on the mats, the more adrenaline and cortisol I allow to hijack my nervous system, and the more likely I am to hurt or get hurt. 

This lesson seemed relevant as the yellow tube end hovered near my nose holes.

When Your Body Submits Itself…Don’t Tap

By the time Dickie was bedside with his greased up tube in January of 2017, I had been slowly dying for a few months. A weird drug-resistant kidney infection had kicked the nightmare off in August. My bladder up and quit mid-shift a few weeks later. (Note: If you think being smashed by the spazz sucks, try having a tube up your urethra.) My intestines went next. By January I was 89lbs, scarily low even for a 5’1”, 33-year-old former strawweight. I’d been unable to eat more than a few bites of food per day without excruciating pain accompanied by a nightmarish creaking noise, like a decrepit pirate ship sinking in a squall, coming from my abdomen. 

The free falling weight loss and inability to eat, piss, or **** led to my being flown out of New Orleans—where doctors’ diagnoses ranged from “have you tried drinking Boost” to “it must be an eating disorder,” because health care in America blames whatever doctors don’t understand on the patient and then sends a bill for $50,000—to fancypants Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. I was eventually diagnosed there with intestinal failure, pelvic floor dyssynergia, and idiopathic CIPO (Chronic Intestinal Pseudo Obstruction), side effects of a connective tissue disorder called EDS (Ehler-Danlos Syndrome) I’d apparently been born with without knowing. 

Step One of that diagnosis was Dickie placing my feeding tube, and me channeling Rickson-Gracie-in-a-waterfall to get through it. 

I’m not going to lie—having an NG tube placed sucks. It’s painful, and nothing prepares anyone for the sensation of an object worming itself deep into your body. The pseudo-obstruction in my bowel made the experience especially miserable, blocking the tube’s path. Dickie had to stop and restart four times, concern visible on his face.

As he did, I laid back against the stiff pillow and closed my eyes like during flow rolls. I lengthened the exhales and paced inhales. The urge to cry dissolved. And then something weird started happening.

The Benefits of Practicing Dying

We talk a lot in BJJ about “simulating murder.” The flip side of that is how many times per session we practice dying.

As I lay there in the hospital, I noticed how much the urge to puke was like the times I almost threw up during warmups but didn’t. The scraping at the back of my throat was ten times less miserable than being Ezekiel choked. I felt like passing out, but my vision didn’t start vignetting to black like when I’m actually blacking out in my gi.

And I observed with amusement that as horrifying as it was to be wasting away with a tube inching into my bowel, it was still MORE COMFORTABLE than being mounted and collar choked in a sweat-soaked gi on a summer day by a 200lb. caveman pressuring down on my ribs. It was less painful than being calf sliced by my coach, who has shins made from barbed wire. It was less painful than all three times I’ve hyperextended my elbow, because EDS means my ligaments are super weak and also my armbar defense is one of the worst in IBJJF history.

As bad as that hosptial moment was, I had been practicing dying for two full years prior. And the practice sessions were worse. This whole feeding tube thing was more comfortable by comparison.

Forty minutes later, Dickie finally got the tube where it needed to be. When I opened my eyes, he said, “That was amazing. I was sure we’d have to give up.” He asked where I learned to “meditate like that,” and I explained it had been a happy side effect of jiu-jitsu. 

“No other patient has ever stayed that calm during placement,” he told me. “We should teach everyone to do that.” Yeah, probably. But that’s a different editorial.

Sucking At Jiu-Jitsu Means Being Better At Living

That was just the first of thousands of times in my new life as a EDS/CIPO patient that jiu-jitsu lessons like breathing, persistence, and resilience were the difference between fighting on or falling apart. When that same feeding tube failed just days later, I got to practice meditative breathing again as a Hickman line—a catheter that feeds TPN calories into your goddamned heart through a hole in the chest was put in, again while I was awake.

Later an esteemed doctor told me I would never get off TPN or eat again, and I was able to ignore him…because once upon a time I could not execute a triangle, and then one day and 10,000 failed triangles later I could. What the hell did he and his weak, infinitely lockable wrists know anyway.

I even got to utilize some MMA when I stomp kicked a table across a lab after the hospital cancelled a test on me at the last minute for the third time. (It was a test that required a bowel prep to do. If you’ve ever done a bowel prep, aka “A Nuclear Colon Cleansing,” you know why doing multiple bowel preps for no reason warrants kicking a table. And they never cancelled on me again after I TKOed the furniture.)

It’s been over a year and a half since I was officially sprung from Cleveland Clinic. I’m back home and free of dangling tubes, still a little pale and always small but now a healthy weight. My organs have stopped failing and have decided to pissily limp along instead, which is a vast improvement. One day and spoonful at a time I’ve trained my body to eat some food again. I’ve learned that just like on that mats, daily pain is just a sensation and can often be ignored or worked through. And I’ve come to understand how to live well even with the limitations my particular body has, just as I’ve learned to maximize my tiny size and extreme flexibility on the mats.

I’ll never be cured—unless someone out there has $100,000 spare dollars for a stem cell transplant, in which pleeeease slide into my DMs—and, for now anyway, that’s pretty much okay. I’m so happy to still be training at life on a daily basis that I don’t mind not being a champion at it.

My specialist attributes much of that to “mental and physical toughness” cultivated by martial arts, which bothers me. Not because it isn’t true, but because he talks about this “toughness” like it’s Harry Potter level magic.

It’s not. It’s not magic, or even talent. Just hours, and hours, and hours of repetition and practice.

I’m not special. As a 5’1”, 115lb, disabled grappler with a gut made as sturdily as a wet balsa wood glider, there are rabid chipmunks more dangerous than I am. I will never win, or even qualify for, ADCC. I will never be invited to any fancy tournaments or given a sponsorship. If I ever perfectly execute a flying armbar it will be an accident. And given how often I’m too ill to train it could be a decade before I’ll have accrued enough mat time to get my purple belt, let alone my brown or black. But apparently sucking at jiu-jitsu means you can be kind of awesome at miserable **** like enduring pain, being patient, staying humble, and believing there’s a reason to stick with something that’s hard even when you’re not yet seeing results.

I’m grateful to have been educated by an art form that teaches resilience even more reliably than it teaches chokes. So much so that I’ll probably write about it again, when I’m less close to having a full-blown hospital PTSD flashback. In the meantime I’m going to meditate and then watch some tape while I sip a liquid meal, because I’m at that hateful phase in my blue belt evolution where I have some great moves but never get to use them because I keep walking into other people’s guards like a dumbass.

I can’t totally fix my organs, but I’d like to believe I can stop doing that.

1 COMMENT

  1. Hi Kimberly,
    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m a sufferer of Hirschsprungs which has lead to complications in motility and megacolon. The result is that I get flare ups where I am stuck drinking liquid meals and Peglyte to keep things moving for weeks on end. This has me wanting to do nothing but sleep.
    I’ve tried going to my gym during this time but its hard. I’ve also tried explaining it to my Instructor but I don’t think he gets it. Having to explain it to people just frustrates me because most people take for granted such routine body functions.

    Thanks again for sharing your story and providing me with inspiration and your courage to keep at it in both bjj and life’s challenges.

    Sid

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