What If You Can’t Bounce Back?



What If You Can’t Bounce Back? 1

I just read the book Run Down: An Endurance Athlete’s Race Against Chronic Fatigue by Dr. Michael Gallagher. He is an orthopedic surgeon who is also an avid long-distance runner and triathlete, having completed the Hawaii Ironman and the Boston Marathon, among other accomplishments. Then in 2014 he got sick with a virus, and ended up with what he now knows to be chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as Myalgic encephalomyelitis). This has severely impacted his life. He can no longer do any of the endurance activities that he loves, and also cannot stand long enough to do longer surgery sessions, so he had to cut his work back to part-time. It was a long and frustrating search for a diagnosis, and after the diagnosis, there was really no effective treatment.

What has been maddening for sufferers of this condition is that it is often dismissed as being in the patient’s head. In fact, until recently it was misclassified in official diagnostic manuals as a psychological disorder. Patients cannot exercise with intensity so become unfit. A now-discredited treatment approach was attempting to gradually increase exercise tolerance, combined with cognitive behavioral therapy. After a long series of tests at the Mayo Clinic, an exercise physiologist explained to him that he was extremely unfit and suggested he needed to do the graded exercise/cognitive therapy. Imagine how frustrating this would be to someone who’d been an elite level ultra-endurance athlete.

I kept hoping for him to find the right doctor or magic bullet treatment so the book would end with him bouncing back to fitness, but he never did. But he did come up with a lifestyle that makes him happy. He can go for non-strenuous walks, and he bought an electric scooter to ride in his beloved mountains near Boulder, Co. It may not be the same as charging up those same mountains on a bike under his own power, but he is still getting out in nature. And he learned to meditate, which replaced some of the stress-relief benefits of more strenuous exercise.

This is inspirational, because any of us can have our favorite athletic pursuits taken away by injury or illness. I’ve partially been through it when I had to give up my beloved running because of arthritis. But I was able to pivot to alternatives like hiking and biking. It’s good to know it would be ok if something happened to take away all my fun activities, I’d still be able to follow Dr. Gallagher’s example and come up with a happy lifestyle.

It is encouraging that Myalgic encephalomyelitis (M.E.) has at last been properly classified as a medical, not psychological condition. Unfortunately, not enough research is being done to find a cure. But there is hope there, too. Dr. Gallagher pointed out that the symptoms of “long haul covid” (lingering long-term symptoms of covid) have a lot of overlap with M.E. And a lot of money is going into research into long haul covid because millions worldwide are affected by it. Hopefully what is learned will be helpful for M.E. as well.