Catching My Breath

September 27, 2010 at 7:49 PM (after chemo, Energy, Faith, friends) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Of course I didn’t sleep well on Saturday night. What with the day being exhausting and the nervousness about missing my flight and the excitement about First Descents finally being here, I maybe strung together three hours of sleep. Just the way to start four days of exhilarating physical exertion, right?

Our group of thirteen campers found each other at the baggage claim area of the Denver airport in two shifts with the help of the very enthusiastic camp director and EMT volunteer. By the time I rolled up, some of the campers had already nailed down their nicknames and were admonished to use them exclusively, but their first stabs at a name for me (“Starfish!” because of my earrings) didn’t feel right. I wanted a perfect fit; there is a chance I’ll be using this nickname for years, and just-okay wouldn’t do. I knew it would have to come up organically, so I waited.

First Descents camps assign everyone a nickname upon arrival to distinguish the camp experience from the real life that many of us would like to forget. Camp is the opportunity to rise above your definition of yourself as “cancer patient” or “cancer survivor” and simply to be the person you are that week. You don’t have to be anyone’s mom, kid, wife, husband, sister, friend, co-worker; just yourself, an incredible sense of freedom. Not to mention a really easy way to remember the names of twenty new people at once.

Six of us plus Patch, the FD EMT volunteer, made our way to the short-term parking lot and a rented van in which we’d ride the hour-and-a-half to Estes Park. I’m not sure where the immature urge came from, but my competitive-sibling gene forced me to shout, “SHOTGUN!” by the side of the van. Hey, if no one else was going to call it… The nickname was found. (And, when discovered later by members of my family, confirmed as unassailably perfect.)

The first night, following my well-deserved nap, included an up-to-the-minute personal medical review with the staff and medical team (during which I filled them in on my fevers, lungs, and failed clinical trial), a delicious vegan organic dinner with the other campers, staff, and guides, and trying to remember everyone’s names. After icebreaker games (flashbacks to freshman orientation) and a rundown of the next morning’s plans, everyone drifted off to bed.

Monday morning, excitement made it easy to wake up and get ready to go; my new gear was shiny-clean and primed for action, and the two-hour time difference meant I had even had a decent night’s sleep. The altitude was having an impact on my breathing, though – at 8,500 feet the atmosphere contains about 35% of the oxygen it does at sea level, and I huffed and puffed climbing a flight of stairs or completing a sentence. Being winded made me nervous about the rock-climbing: how much would I be able to do? Would my fitness level and push-ups training make any difference?

The training climbs were planned for a rock formation not far from the lodge, within walking distance (coolers of food and drinks! folding chairs!) from the parking area, and the campers scrambled up to the base, eager to get started and afraid of how we’d do. The gusty wind made it hard to hear the instructors’ careful lessons on knot-tying, belaying, and checking our gear – I found out we’d be belaying each other; somehow that made it more scary than if the instructors had been directly involved. I hadn’t grasped the importance of the trust between teammates, the one climbing up and the one keeping watch at the bottom – when I climbed, I was in control, even though the belayer was watching my every step and keeping me safe from falling. But once it came time to belay back down (to lean back at a 90-degree angle from the rock and hang by my harness from the rope and pulley controlled by my belayer on the ground) I was terrified. You want me to what? Walk backwards off this cliff hoping that my brand-new best friend is paying attention and holding on tight? All the 40 feet back to terra firma? Holy crap, what was I doing here?

BAM, the magnitude of where I was and what I was doing hit me. I was up on the side of a rock, in a city and state I’d never been to before, surrounded by people I’d only known for eighteen hours cheering me on and hanging my butt, literally, in the balance. Cancer patients put their trust in doctors, nurses, family members… people we’ve known for years, interviewed carefully, background-checked. Who were all these campers? Ultimately, I think it was this overwhelming unfamiliarity that helped me sink into the new, delicious abandon of trust, tip myself over the verge and bounce backwards to the ground.

The cheers and support of my new best friends made all the difference that day – they helped each of us to climb past our personal insecurities and to back down to earth again over and over. As we rooted each new climber to the top, as we spotted belayers and checked everyone’s gear before a new climb, our reliance on each other and our shared triumphs hitched us all to a common purpose that WASN’T cancer, and that felt really, really good.

After lunch in the sun I tried a tougher climb, but about halfway up the altitude and the fresh air and physical efforts conspired to stop me – other campers later spoke of watching me “hit the wall” on the side of the rock face – and I cried, “I’m done!”, belayed down and headed for my chair for a nap; I knew I was finished for the day. I dozed in my chair for an hour or so, then the concerned doctor gave me a ride back to the lodge and my bed around 2PM. As I slept more, my headache grew. I wanted to take some Tylenol to kill the headache (it couldn’t be dehydration, as I’d had about two quarts of water since we started climbing), but was feeling nauseous and knew I needed to eat first so I wouldn’t get sick. Vicious cycle – I dozed off and on for about two hours until Clover came to check on me and I asked her to get the doctor. Hack finally showed up and gave me some Zofran for the nausea and some Diamox for the altitude acclimation, and forced me to eat yogurt. The food helped me get down some Tylenol; that and some more napping wiped the headache clean. Turns out all that water is nothing for a day of exertion without some salt: should have been Gatorade and a bag of chips. Lesson learned.

By 6:30 I was able to get up and have dinner with the crew, and felt better enough to join the after-dinner “campfire” session to talk about the day and how much fun we each had had, and how proud we were of our accomplishments. And to enjoy the dynamic that was developing – the personalities were linking, meshing, overlapping, and we were getting comfortable enough together to start making fun of each other, the true test of friendship. Things were starting to get good. My addition to the evening’s observations was that FD staffers and volunteers are TOTALLY as cool as the hype I’ve heard about them – their enthusiasm was contagious from that first moment at the airport.

Next: Overestimating my abilities…

Photo courtesy: Wildflower

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