Chasing the Light: Donna Reincke

It was February of 2020 and I was sitting on the beach in Florida with Stu (my boyfriend of ten years), my dad, and my stepmom. This was a wonderful treat because in February at our home in Michigan, winter is brutal. Very cold temperatures, snow, ice, darkness, and not many sunny days. Every February for the last few years the two of us made it a point to go to Florida and visit my dad and stepmom, but also to get a nice sunny vacation away from our normal daily stress.

It had been an extra stressful time for us. My mother had passed away suddenly and we had been making frequent trips to Chicago every two or three weekends to work on cleaning out my mother's house. This was the house I grew up in, and she liked to save EVERYTHING. As you can imagine, cleaning out 30 something years' worth of stuff was a ton of work, and living in Michigan five hours away made it that much harder. Needless to say, Stu and I were very much looking forward to this vacation time in Florida. During the chaos of dealing with my mother’s estate, my regular running buddy, Pam, had also told me she was moving to California. This was not much of a surprise to me since I know she was looking to move out there, but in my mind her leaving while I was dealing with grief was terrible timing. To give me something to look forward to, I decided why not find a mountain race in California near where Pam was moving?! This was a great way for us to have future plans and make for another nice vacation trip. Pam was also excited to commit to the plans of running Broken Arrow 52k. This is where Rugged Running entered my world. As I was sitting on that beach, I was browsing around the internet looking at how to train for mountain courses. Running is not new to me, I have ran plenty of shorter distance races, a handful of marathons, and even a few 50k races, but mountains were a different story. I was thinking to myself, why did I agree (suggest) we do this? This course scares me, I have never been in the mountains, I have no experience with altitude, and to top it off it was my idea to sign up! Then I came upon a photo of Michele running through the mountains like it was no one's business, along with a link to her website. I thought this is perfect and she can for sure help get me ready for this scary mountain race!

I came home from Florida rested, refreshed, and ready to kickstart my new training regime with Rugged Running. Things started off good and I was excited to get serious about Broken Arrow. I was also excited that my mom's house was almost done being cleaned out. I finally felt like things were beginning to fall into place those next few weeks. Then guess what? Covid. Stay home orders. Race cancellations. Shelter in place. I thought, of course, this is happening. What more could happen? Little did I know this was just the beginning. Stu and I began adjusting to the “new normal” of social distancing, staying home, trying to find toilet paper...you know. I even participated in Rugged Running’s virtual race series! But it was just before Memorial Day where Stu said he did not feel right. He had a low fever, headaches, and felt really tired with no energy. We took him to the doctor and gave detailed information on his symptoms because they suspected he had covid. At that time, covid tests were new and hard to come by because there were not a lot available but finally they tested him. A few days later we got a call and the result was negative. Phew!! But two weeks later he still wasn’t feeling better. This time we went to the hospital where they decided to do another covid test. Another negative result. However, since the tests still weren’t very reliable and had a high rate of false negatives, they told us he probably had covid and to just stay home, quarantine, and take Tylenol/Motrin to help with his symptoms and fever. They didn’t know what else to tell us because covid was this new crazy virus. Stu kept resting. I moved into the guest room and wore a mask in our home so I wouldn’t get sick. I made sure to bring him food and his Tylenol, but things were not improving. Things got so bad he was laying in bed shaking violently and sweating, and he could not catch his breath even though he was laying down. His fever was up to 106! I knew we needed to go to the hospital again. It took everything he had to walk from the bedroom to the car, but once he got there I drove straight to the emergency room. The situation took a serious turn when we got there and long story short, they wheeled him away to the covid floor and I had no choice but to go home and wait for a call. Stu wouldn’t come home for months.

Turns out Stu needed emergency open-heart surgery the very next day! Doctors still had not figured out what was happening to him exactly but they knew if they did not do the operation he would not survive another day. They couldn’t assure the surgery would even solve the problem. I was in shock and panicking. They put Stu on the ventilator and performed the surgery. And although the actual surgery went well, he was still extremely sick and was not recovering, in fact, he was digressing. He was kept on the ventilator, and now dialysis too because his kidneys and liver were shutting down. Visiting him at the ICU every day was heartbreaking and scary. I didn’t know if he was ever going to wake up or get better. It seemed like every day I got to the hospital I just got more bad news and he had more and more complications. Running is something I have loved and done for a long part of my life, but right now it was on my back burner. Anyone knows going through something like this brings on worry and stress but something not many people talk about is what happens if you are working? Will you lose your job? How do you get paid? How do you get time off? What about all of the bills? Since Stu and I aren’t married, it was extremely hard for me to take care of these things. Getting leave paperwork together for both of us was an absolute nightmare not to mention the financial changes this brought on. Stu was not conscious, all of it fell on me. During this time I tried to remember to stop and take deep breaths, or if I was irritated enough, would go jump rope for 5 or 10 minutes when I needed a break! 19 negative covid tests later, turns out Stu never had covid. He had bad luck and contracted an extremely rare bacterial infection that attacked his heart valves and got into his blood. We will probably never know how he got this infection but all he needed this whole time was antibiotics! Unfortunately, his symptoms were almost identical to those of covid. Talk about extra bad timing...but now we had a treatment plan and hopes of getting Stu off the ventilator. I surely didn’t know this, but when you are put on a ventilator your body becomes very weak and the longer you are on it, the harder it is to bounce back. Stu had no strength at all. He lost 60 pounds, not in a good way. He had to relearn how to talk, use his hands, move, walk, stand, get out of bed, go to the bathroom, eat, everything. He could not do any of those things. Those things I took for granted and did not even think about. I tried to use that as motivation to at least squeeze a run a couple of days a week even though I really didn’t feel like it, but it was good to try and help clear my head. It was at those moments I really realized how lucky I am that I CAN run.

As Stu started inpatient rehab a couple of weeks later, I was so proud of him that he was slowly beginning to regain some independence. That horrifying month in the ICU was finally behind us. He still was not able to walk or stand up but we knew it would be his next big milestone in his recovery. Ah yes, progress! Until I looked out his hospital room window...There were police cars all over and my car was lodged out of the parking space I parked in. What the hell? I went down to see what happened. As I walked up the fire department was prying the hood of my new car open and smoke was pouring out everywhere. There were fluids and car pieces all over the place. I was so confused but clearly, my car had been hit hard head-on and was not drivable. Evidentially, a 97-year-old lady was trying to park in the space in front of my car but got the gas and brake pedals mixed up as well as drive and reverse. She hit my car so hard the airbags went off in addition to hitting 4 other parked cars. Did I dare ask myself what else could go wrong in my life?! At this point, I was feeling pretty bad. I was still grieving the loss of my mother while dealing with Stu almost dying and being temporarily handicapped, and now having an undrivable car, all in a matter of months through the midst of the covid pandemic. This is not what I wanted my life to be like. These were not the plans for this year. I should have been running in the mountains with Pam but instead, I was in a hospital every day watching the person I love suffer. I felt completely lost. Now driving a sporty rental car to Stu’s rehab every day, we were hopeful he would be able to come home soon since I was learning how to help him for when that time came. Watching him and others around him go through what they had to each day just to live and do simple tasks, it really resonated with me that I had a lot to be grateful for. Even if I wasn’t training for a race, I could and was still running. Even if my new car was destroyed, I could still drive. All of those people living at the rehab center, including Stu, probably wished they had my current “problems” and they never gave up. Doing Michele’s gratitude challenge daily helped get my mind more focused and helped me to get out there and run. That is what is so great about Rugged Running, it is more than just running, everything ties together and the support is absolutely amazing. By this time it was almost Labor Day when at last the day came for Stu to come home. He could not drive and had to use a walker, so I knew this was going to be an adjustment for both of us. But now the clock was ticking and our moving day was approaching. As if we hadn’t been through enough already, we planned on moving to our new house before all of this happened. With Stu still having major physical limitations, we knew it was going to be difficult, and moving sucks as it is. It was stressful and not ideal timing, but it got done and was actually great strength training in disguise lol. Sometimes I wonder how he ever got through everything. But he told me when you are put in a situation you just have to go through it. It wasn't a choice. And when it comes down to it, you don’t know what you are capable of. This is so true! Being the person on the other side of his illness and watching everything happen, I just went through it too. It wasn’t a choice. And although it was not easy, I kept it moving.

Today Stu is almost living life as we were when we were sitting on that beach in Florida. If I am being honest, I don’t know how I held it together last year, but I do believe 2020 was a ton of good mental training for me even during the worst moments. There are so many simple “I cans” that we forget or little things we take for granted because we are so focused on the negative or stressful things. This experience has really opened my eyes and humbled us both. Broken Arrow is canceled again this year, and so yes, what else can happen? Truth is, things are always going to happen. But whatever else this year will bring, I know that I can choose to make the most of it no matter the circumstances, and go through it by being strong, having gratitude, and enjoying things I can do. Keep running! I can, and you CAN!

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