Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Suddenly Celiac

Heather and I had just run the Pittsburgh marathon the day before and we were having lunch with her old college roommate whom she hadn’t seen in over 20 years. As we sat at Pamela’s Diner in Oakland enjoying potatoes lyonnaise and not enjoying really bad coffee, my sister mentioned having a strange lump in her throat but was afraid to go to a doctor. Both her roommate and I convinced her that she should go, that as scary as it might be to learn some potentially bad news, she wouldn’t get rid of this lump by pretending it didn’t exist. As if trying to change the subject, she reached into her oversized purse and asked, “Does anyone want any bacon or sausage?” Both her roommate and I half expected her to pull out a full plate of perfectly cooked breakfast meats from her handbag. It seemed she had everything in there. But she didn’t fool us. After a good laugh, we were back on track. The following week, my sister saw a doctor.

It turned out she had a disease called Celiac-Sprue. It is a genetic digestive disorder that prevents the small intestine from absorbing nutrients, and thus depletes the body’s ability to produce red blood cells. “Thank God,” Heather said, sighing with relief. It’s not cancer, which is what she had been afraid of. Earlier in the year, Heather had slipped and fallen in her garage and as she threw her arms back to break the fall, her wrist broke. Just snapped. After learning that her bones had weakened from not producing the red blood cells she needed, it all started making sense. No wonder, she thought. It was all related. A gluten-free diet was the cure. This meant that she was not allowed to consume any food item or product that contained wheat, barley, rye, malt, or oats. No more bread, no more pasta. No more pizza, cakes, cookies, or pies. No more beer. No more eating out at restaurants for fear of not using clean utensils or surfaces. The smallest of crumbs is enough to cause the body to produce antibodies that shut down the celia in the small intestine. No more batter-dipped, deep fried anything. No more burgers or even french fries if they use the same oils. Salad. She can have salad as long as they don’t put croutons on it. And she has to read the label on everything. Thankfully it’s a little easier these days as more and more people are being diagnosed as Celiacs. The law requires all ingredients to be listed and if a product contains any of the eight major allergens like wheat, soy, milk or tree nuts, it must be highlighted. I was baffled to find out that things like chicken stock and soy sauce contained wheat. Products containing ‘modified food starch’ are “questionable.” Best to just avoid those altogether. Which leaves out pretty much everything. Thank God for chocolate and ice cream. They’re still safe as long as they don’t have additives like cookie pieces or bits of cake in them.

My knee was taking forever to heal. After two stress fractures, constant shoulder and neck pain, simultaneous sprained ankles (that was fun,) stress edema and Iliotibial Band Syndrome, I was now having knee issues. Osteoarthritis, Patellar Tendonitis and Fat Pad Impingement from pushing back into child’s pose while I was stretching one day. It was always something. I struggled through two marathons, having no energy and feeling bloated with stomach cramps. I started to hate running. I’m not good at it anymore, I thought. Why all of a sudden am I performing so poorly, and why, for the love of God, am I always so fucking tired? I asked my doctor to check my thyroid levels again. Having had my thyroid irradiated 15 years prior due to Grave’s Disease, it had to be what was causing these issues, or at least what was causing me to feel so lethargic and sluggish all the time. It was like I’d been unplugged and wasn’t generating any power. I was constantly struggling to stay awake, head lolling to and fro with eyelids as heavy as garage doors slamming shut. “Your thyroid levels are fine,” my doctor told me. “But let’s do a full CBC panel and see if something else comes up.” A few days later, results indicated a low red blood cell count. Other tests were flagged as too high or too low. Without knowing their meaning, it was a clear indication that something was obviously wrong.

Low red blood cell count. Immediately, I thought of my sister. Could I have Celiac’s Disease, too? It is genetic, afterall, and it made sense. I emailed my doctor and told him of my sister. A biopsy was scheduled and the results came back, indicating that I had tested positive for Celiac’s Disease. It came as a huge relief and an utter disappointment. I’m going to be feeling better soon, but no more beer. No more beer ever again, I realized as my heart sank like a brick landing squarely with a thud in the bottom of my stomach. Last year friends had asked, “Would you rather give up ice cream or beer if you had to choose?” I can’t remember which I chose, but I never expected I’d ever have to give up either. They’d both been staples of my not so healthful diet. But I was about to learn what a beer-free life would be like. I could care less about the bread, pasta, and pizza to name just a few. It was definitely the beer I would miss and I was sorely disappointed. Oh, there are gluten-free options available, but they are expensive and not very good. As a true beer-lover, I could not settle for anything that tastes like the average watered-down Bud Light.

After only a few days of being gluten-free, I had actually begun to feel better. My stomach didn’t hurt and I had energy. I was happy. And strangely enough, my knee wasn’t bothering me that much. When I registered for the Boston Marathon, I was hopeful that my knee would have healed in time for the race, but by the time I had been cleared to start running again I’d had no time to train. The longest run I’d done was only ten miles. In order to run competitively, I needed at least two or three good twenty-milers under my belt, which didn’t happen. But I wanted my bib number and t-shirt, and I had already paid for the plane tickets, so my husband and I decided to go if for no other reason than to get away for a few days. Once we arrived in Boston, I was pretty sure I had made up my mind. The wheels began to turn. I had been clever enough to pack my running gear knowing I’d want to run at least once or twice while we were there. Just a small ten miler, and perhaps to see what Heartbreak Hill would be like. What’s the difference, I thought, if I do my long run from the start of the marathon in Hopkinton? “You’ll regret it,” my friends said. “You haven’t trained.” Like I needed the reminder. Ten miles is a far cry from 26.2. Despite everyone’s cautionary warnings, one thought continued to haunt me. When will I ever get this opportunity again? Since the Boston Athletic Association recently changed the qualification requirements, I might never get the chance again. I had to try. I promised my husband, who wholeheartedly supported me, albeit with reservations, that I would take it slow, and go only as far as I could. “I will carry my phone and call you if I need to quit.” Deal, he said.

The day was cold and a little rainy to start but as I headed to the starting line, the temperature rose to a brusque 55 degrees, and the sun poked through the overcast sky. Little by little the clouds broke apart to reveal the azure blue behind them. It was going to be a beautiful day.

Ten miles in, I called my husband.

“I feel great!” I told him, and he was thrilled. I kept going. Ten miles turned into the half, and the half turned into 15. By mile 18 I realized I’d only have two more miles before I reached the infamous Heartbreak Hill. I kept my promise of going slow, yet I was overwhelmed by the energy stores I still had left. The crowds energized me with their shouts of “You got this!” and “You’re doing great!” I felt like a rock star as they’d reached out to slap my hand as I ran past.

“Is this the hill?” I asked a spectator as I strode effortlessly up the incline. I was shocked at how easy it was. The famous hill where in the 1936 Boston Marathon, 2nd place runner, John Kelley overtook Ellison Brown, only to lose to Brown in the end, thus “breaking Kelley’s heart.” I reached the top of the hill knowing I had only 6.2 miles to go. There was no way I was quitting now. I’ve got this; my mantra was solid. It took me five hours and ten minutes to complete the 115th Boston Marathon on April 18th, 2011. I had only trained for ten miles, and still managed to finish with very little struggle. It wasn’t the running that I hated. It was the gluten. Goodbye, beer; it was nice knowing you. As far as I’m concerned, nothing tastes as good as I feel.

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