Stacie Switzer – A Mother’s Day Story of Love, Courage and Choices
by SCTA Volunteer Joanne Glosser Jaeger
Home City: I was born and raised in a small farm town in Ohio. I currently reside in the Chicago area.
Occupation: I am an attorney with a pharmaceutical company called Takeda Pharmaceuticals North America. Takeda is a top-notch company with talented people. I enjoy my work and that makes getting up in the morning a lot easier!
Family: I have the most fantastic family. My parents, whom I love dearly, both live in Ohio. My husband, Michael, is my unsung hero. I cannot imagine my life without him. His unconditional love caried me in those early weeks and months after surgery when I could do nothing for myself. My daughter, Madelyn “Maddie”, completes my life. Maddie turned two in early April. She is this tiny ball of fire with my independence and will coupled with Mike’s disposition. She can turn a miserable day upside-down with her infectious laugh and goofy antics. Maddie appreciates the ordinary things in life that we adults tend to take for granted. I love spending time watching her explore the world in genuine amazement. A beautiful blue sky. A flower. A “choo-choo” train. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She provides Mike and I with great balance and perspective.
Hobbies/Interests: This is a great question. I have so many interests and not enough time in the day. I spend the majority of my free time training and spending time with my family. I enjoy yoga and eastern philosophy. I love the outdoors and hiking. I prefer the mountains over the beach. I love a good book on a rainy day. I enjoy traveling and experiencing cultures. I love my friends. I appreciate good food and wine. I love Ohio State football (especially after a good win over Michigan). And then there is this embarrassing addiction to American Idol…
How did you get interested in running? I participated in highly competitive gymnastics for nearly 14 years. I started when I was three, so competition was engrained in my brain from an early
age. Once I “retired” from gymnastics, I needed something to fill that void. I started out running shorter distances (5K, 10K). Long distance running came about as a way of coping with the death of my only sibling during law school. Between working full time and attending law school at night, the only time I had to process my brother’s death was during a running session. 5 miles turned to 8 miles. 8 miles turned to 12 miles. And so on. The next thing you know I was lined up at the start of my first marathon (26.2 miles). I was hooked. Once I had a few marathons under my belt, I needed another challenge. New challenges led to triathlon (swim/bike/run). This summer will be my first triathlon since my surgery.
Have you always ran competitively? I don’t like to call myself competitive. I don’t participate to win. I race because I can. I suppose I compete with myself because each time I race, I push to improve my own times. If I happen to do well enough to place — even better! Now that I am recovering from this extremely invasive surgery for intradmedullary spinal cord tumor (c2-c6), I am fortunate that exercise and diet are a way that I can effectively manage pain without medication. Even with pain management as a great motivator, it sometimes takes a goal like an upcoming race to get me out of bed at 4:45 in the morning in order to run/cycle/swim before heading to the office.
Other philosophies? A quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost sums it up for me: “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” I believe the power of the mind can be underestimated. I believe that our attitudes toward circumstances directly affect outcomes. I also believe life consists of choices. Choices as to what we put in our bodies. Choices as to the people with whom we spend our time. We also have choices as to the manner in which we react to the challenges placed in our paths. I go to great lengths not to choose the path in which I let a circumstance get the best of me. And when I make a wrong turn, it is always an opportunity to learn.
I have to admit that there is a clear division in my life. There is the life I had before the spinal cord tumor. And there is the life after the spinal cord tumor. Prior to the surgery for my spinal cord tumor, I was an avid runner and triathlete. People would often ask me why I do it. “Because I can”, was my predictable response. I treasured my health and the fact that I was given a body that allowed me to participate.
My husband, Mike, is also a runner. It is one of our many common bonds. We were married in an old abbey ruin in Scotland. We cycled the Scottish Highlands for our honeymoon. And we were thrilled to learn I was pregnant only a few months after the wedding. Once Maddie entered our lives, it was magical. Everything in our lives seemed so perfect. I was anxious to start training again having spent the previous 9 months feeling, and looking, like a beached whale. After a couple of weeks, I started to experience extreme muscle pain in my neck and shoulders. I attributed the pain to overtraining until I found myself in the emergency room unable to move my neck. An MRI revealed an extremely large mass inside of my spinal cord. The mass was located near the base of my brain and extended through my entire cervical spine. My spinal cord was expanded so significantly that the neurosurgeons on call could not believe I was walking. What was even more amazing was that aside from the muscle pain, I was neurologically intact.
Initially, I was told the mass was inoperable and that I would need to get my life in order. Mike and I tried to digest this reality only weeks after Maddie’s birth. I was only 33 years old. I was still a newlywed. I had a newborn to take care of. This was supposed to be a glorious time in our lives. After several neurosurgical consults, it was determined that the tumor was operable; however, surgery would come with very significant risks. I was told I would never run again. Due to the size and location of the tumor, I had a very real chance of paralysis from the neck down. If I had use of my legs, I would likely have to relearn how to walk. If I did nothing, the tumor would slowly and painfully take my life.
The moment I met Dr. Edward Mrkdichian, my neurosurgeon, I knew he was my guy. Why? Because Dr. Mrkdichian never one time said the word “never”.
On August 18, 2003, in a very delicate 6-hour procedure, Dr. Mrkdichian opened up my spinal cord and removed the bulk of the tumor. When I awoke after surgery, I was numb from my neck down. Despite the numbness, I was able to wiggle my fingers and toes – everything moved! Unfortunately, I lost all use of my right arm. I had very limited balance. Even so, the physical therapist got me up to walk on the third day. With assistance, I made it one time around the hospital unit. I beat the odds. I was one of the lucky ones. Maybe I would run again one day.
I was able to return home after a week in the hospital. Everything I would need was moved to the first floor of the house. I needed full-time care for the first 5-6 weeks. I had to relearn how to use my right arm. I had to relearn to walk. I had to relearn to write. I was unable to hold Maddie. Mike would prop her up beside me so I could spend time with her. In spite of my condition, I was determined to get better and reclaim my life again. I practiced walking on our deck next to a railing so I would not fall. I was soon able to walk Maddie in her stroller. Our walks got a little longer each time. I practiced balance exercises every chance I got. I did everything in my power to get better. I changed my diet. I utilized integrative/complementary medicine such as acupuncture, massage therapy and energy work. I spent a year and a half in physical and occupational therapy.
With a great deal of hard work, I have improved beyond all expectations. Although I am still somewhat numb in my hands and from my waist down, it does not affect my ability to function. My pain is effectively managed with diet and exercise. I regained all strength in the arm that was useless after surgery. I returned full-time to my work as an attorney. In late July 2004, I was examined by my neurosurgeon. With a smile, he told me I could start jogging. That night, Mike and Maddie (in a jogging stroller) joined me for my first official “run” after surgery. It was slow, it was clumsy and it was extremely short. But, I ran. And Mike and I cried tears of pure joy.
It has been 20 months since my surgery. Dr. Christine Villoch, a doctor that serves as a vital part of my recovery, gave me the thumbs-up to start training for a half marathon. In early April, she and I crossed the finish line of Capital City Classic Half Marathon in Columbus, Ohio. Mike, who completed the race ahead of us, was waiting at the finish line with baby Maddie. I hugged my family, grateful that Maddie will not remember me when I could do no more than look at her. Inspired that my husband stood by me without hesitation in the worst of times.
There will always be a division between my life before surgery for the spinal cord tumor and my life now. We come out different people – physically, mentally and spiritually. Our priorities and perspectives take on new meanings. These years and months of recovery are journeys that shape us as individuals. We have choices as to how we handle adversity. I decided that I was not going to let the card that was dealt break me. I am a very lucky and blessed person. I have hope and that carries me a long way. And if I can give just one individual who is facing a similar hurdle in their life an ounce of hope, then the last 20 months will have been worth it.
Last week a colleague asked what possessed me to get up in the morning and run 8 miles before I came into the office. “Because I can”, I said with a smile.