Washington Trails Association
Trails for everyone, forever
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.
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.
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.
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.