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Back to Strength

After a major illness, trails were how I recovered | by Angelina Boulicault

When I woke up, I was in the ICU.

I had a serious chest infection. My left lung had collapsed, and my right lung was partially full of fluid. For a week, I’d been in a medically induced coma. When the doctors had attempted surgery to improve my condition, I lost so much blood that I needed a blood transfusion. And, under all of this stress, my only kidney was failing. I was breathing via a ventilator and was hooked up to countless tubes.

When I woke up, I felt like I hadn’t slept in a month and like I had been hit by a train. I ached all over. I was acutely aware of my diaphragm moving with each breath.

My very first day awake, a nurse asked if I was ready to start physical therapy. She said it was important to get moving since I had been completely sedentary for a week. That first day, I think I took about six steps. Then, I had to sit upright in a chair for 30 minutes. It was excruciating, and I wanted nothing more than to curl back up on my hospital bed. Everything hurt, even breathing.

Angelina in a cave. Photo by Boundless Journey Photography.

Recovery was slow, and every setback made it harder to stay positive. After more than a month in the hospital, I had to come to terms with not returning to school that semester. I filed paperwork to drop out of school. I felt like such a failure and saw such a long road of healing ahead of me. I went home and worked on recovering as I struggled with depression.

Both of my parents went back to work, and my sister was at school. I sat at home, alone. I was in such a bad place. My family was so grateful to still have me in their life, yet I was so angry to be stuck at home recovering. I felt like I wasn’t making progress. I only weighed about 75 pounds—I’d lost 20 pounds after a month in the hospital. Much of my recovery focused on getting stronger and increasing my activity.

A few weeks went by, and I began to go outside and walk. My walks grew longer, and I got stronger. During a routine checkup, my doctor asked if I was doing okay mentally. I paused and thought about it.

I told her that I kept waking up in the middle of the night with nosebleeds. Sometimes, my mind would drift and I’d be back at the hospital. I would feel the pains I had felt while I was hospitalized. My hands hurt all the time from the memory of all the needles. After I would have one of these flashbacks, I would often throw up or have a nosebleed. I told her I hadn’t talked about it because I just thought it was part of the recovery.

My doctor explained post traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, to me. She said that many people who go through a traumatic experience end up suffering from PTSD. She suggested therapy.

The flashbacks were so vivid. I kept thinking I was in the hospital. It was a nightmare. It was time to try therapy.

Angelina at camp. Photo by Boundless Journey Photography.

I was also on medication for my heart, kidney, pancreas and lungs, in addition to an anti-anxiety medication. I was severely underweight and over-medicated. I was slowly getting better but becoming so dependent on the medications. I felt like life was on pause and I was just waiting on the doctors to tell me I could take my next step.  I felt so out of control; I hated it.

The only time I felt strong was on my walks. I was making good progress, but I soon grew bored with the same old flat streets. So I started going on short trails, which added some elevation gain and were more interesting. At first, the hikes felt difficult and I had to stop to catch my breath a lot; my lungs and heart were still recovering from the stress of infection. I was worried about being able to finish even a few miles on trail. Soon, I could walk up and down hills, breathing the fresh air into my re-inflated lungs. I could get my heart beating faster and harder; it felt stronger. I felt stronger.

I found that I loved the serenity and the views out on trail. I was still in a dark place, and the hiking was therapeutic. I wandered around the pines and watched squirrels chasing each other. I could think more clearly when I was hiking— and the effect lasted after the hike too. I noticed that, if I didn’t get my time out on trail, I was more likely to have a flashback. I really began to need trail time—both mentally and physically. I felt so at peace out there.

I eventually stopped having flashbacks. I was able to get off the medications.

Angelina posing by fallen tree. Photo by Nick Martinson.

A few years after my illness, I moved to the Northwest from the Midwest. Before I even moved, Enchanted Valley in the Olympics had been on my list to hike—it looked like a perfect backpack trip. It’s hard to even express how happy I was to live somewhere I could hop on a trail so easily. I worked through a number of hikes, further building up my strength and endurance; the Midwest doesn’t offer the elevation gain that you find in the Northwest.

Then, a few years after waking up in the ICU, and about six months after moving to Washington, I was able to hike 30 miles in a weekend on a trip to Enchanted Valley. It was the longest I had ever hiked, and I’d worked up to it by hiking other trails in the state.

Along the trail I heard a noise and I slipped into a fallen tree to watch. After a few minutes a herd of about 25 elk roamed right by the tree I was hiding in. Calves and their parents were only feet from me. I felt so alive and so in tune with my body. My heart was beating so hard from the excitement, and I felt so in control of my body. I was stronger than ever; I wasn’t waiting for a doctor’s permission and I wasn’t relying on medications to keep me healthy.  I was making my own memories to look back on.

The elevation wasn’t huge, and the hike wasn’t too advanced, but I was pushing myself. I hadn’t been much of a hiker before my health worsened. I was no longer reliving the past. I was moving on to bigger and better things.

This article originally appeared in the Mar+Apr 2018 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.