The thunderstorm: What a torrential downpour taught me about putting one foot in front of the other

The day started out beautifully. My friends Shaun and Tina and I decided to take advantage of a sunny Saturday afternoon with a hike along Ontario’s Bruce Trail. We parked our cars at the trail access, laced up our boots, and headed out for a day of wandering through sun-dappled fields and forests.

A couple hours later, we agreed we had probably gone far enough and turned around to head back.

That’s when the weather changed. Fast. Ominous clouds rolled in, blotting out the blue skies we had been enjoying. The trees started to creak and sway as the wind whipped up. We picked up our pace, but even before the first thunderclap, we knew we wouldn’t be outrunning this storm.

It was a doozy.

We felt the first drops of rain while walking along the grassy edge of a farmer’s field. A moment later, we were drenched as the sky opened up and the torrential downpour began.

Soaked to the bone, kilometres from our vehicles, we pressed on through the howling wind. There was no sanctuary from the storm — nowhere to hide and no sense trying to wait it out, sopping wet as we already were.

The only option was to keep going; to put one squelchy foot in front of the other and hope the lightning bolts around us didn’t get any closer.

As we made our way in single file along the now-muddied trail, my mind flashed back to a few years earlier, when I was navigating a much different kind of storm.

It was October 2008, and I was in isolation at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto after the bone marrow transplant I received to treat my leukemia. The incredibly complex medical procedure boiled down to the doctors decimating my defective blood-producing cells with heavy-duty chemo and radiation. Once the crappy stuff was destroyed, they transplanted new stem cells from a healthy donor.

There were some risky and unpleasant consequences of the transplant. Until my new transplanted stem cells engrafted, I was left with virtually no immune system and prone to all manner of infection. Hence the isolation. A simple sneeze from a visitor could spell disaster.

With no immune system, the usually harmless bacteria in my mouth were able to take hold and do some damage.

Large sores formed on my tongue, and every breath I took filled me with excruciating pain. I couldn’t eat. I had a hard time talking. The nurses made me sleep with the head of the bed raised up so I wouldn’t choke on my massively swollen tongue.

When I saw Dr. Galal the next day, I begged him to do something about the mouth sores. He was, of course. I was being treated with antibiotics and a mouth rinse to speed recovery along, and they had my morphine jacked up as high as they safely could.

A warm and compassionate man, Dr. Galal looked at me and assured me that they were doing everything humanly possible. “The only thing I can do,” he said, “is promise you that you’ll be feeling much better when I see you again next week.”

In the midst of the pain that the medication barely seemed to touch, “tough it out” wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. But sure enough, in a few days time, the swelling went down and the sores started to shrink in response to the treatment. Slowly but surely, day-by-day, I eased off the morphine.

And when I saw Dr. Galal the next week during his rotation, I smiled at him and thanked him for keeping his promise.

Keep going

Like our walk through the woods or my mangled mouth, there are times in life when the only thing we can do is keep going. Caught in that thunderstorm with our cars still a long ways away, we just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Stuck in the hospital with a mouth full of sores, I just had to endure and wait for the medications to work their magic.

No matter who you are, we all face stretches of stormy weather in our lives that we have no choice but to go through — whether it’s a broken heart, a huge project at work or, yes, even a global pandemic.

Although there are challenges like these we simply can’t hurry along, I’ve found that there are always things we can do to make the storms more bearable. Below are some ideas that have helped me.

#1. Break it down

The hike back to the car was a long one. To make it more bearable, I made checkpoints in my head — old oak tree, foot bridge, boulder that looks like Gary Busey’s head. When you’re faced with an absurdly large problem, breaking it down into manageable chunks can keep it from overwhelming you. Set milestones for yourself and celebrate your successes along the way.

#2. Stay disciplined

The best strategies in the world won’t matter unless they’re backed up with hard work. Learn to say no if you’re feeling stretched. Download a focus app that blocks social media sites during the workday. Carve out time to do the homework your therapist gave you. Enlist a friend as your accountability buddy who you can check in with each week to discuss your goals and progress.

#3. Come up for air

That said, don’t be afraid to take a breather. Breaks allow you to regroup and recharge your mental, emotional and physical batteries. They’re an opportunity to check the map and think strategically. Whether it’s meditating, enjoying a little vacation or just turning off your brain for a couple hours to watch a mindless movie, balancing the “one-foot-in-front-of-the-other” grind with beneficial pause is crucial.

Life is full of unexpected rainstorms. But the secret isn’t to avoid or hide from them. Because there will be some you simply can’t outrun. No, the trick is to find ways to cope — to bring the right umbrella so you’re as prepared as you can be when those inevitable storms do roll in.

Bottom line: keep going.

The sun will shine again.

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Lessons learned from leukemia

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Cancer reminded me that life is the greatest teacher of all. The following stories share obstacle-busting lessons from some of life’s other awesome and absurd moments — from sleeping in a barn to multiple run-ins with Bill Clinton’s bodyguards to nearly driving a car off a cliff.