It was September 18th, 2013. I was just a little over a month away from my first marathon. I was in the best shape of my life. I was eating healthier than I ever had and felt great! I visited my trainer and we chatted over the half hour about how excited I was. How I knew I was ready. About how this was one of the last few sessions I would spend with him until after the marathon. And how I wanted to make sure I didn’t have any injuries.
“So take it easy, ok?’ I said to him.
“Of course!", he responded.
Our relationship wasn’t new. I had been seeing him for months. I had developed a deep trust of his knowledge. I knew he was taking more classes for certification. I also knew the gym had recently been bought out by a bigger conglomerate and they were busily “re-training” the employees. I felt safe. I felt protected.
On September 19th, I had a makeup session with my trainer. At the beginning of the session we did core exercises, which I expected to be my focus. I was surprised when halfway through the session we moved to the other side of the gym and started working on arms.
“We did arms yesterday, are you sure I’m ok to do it again?”, I asked.
He gave me the look of, come on I got this, and said, “I’m sure, Michelle”.
One of the exercises included jumping pull-ups. A jumping pull-up is when you use a booster (in my case a bench) to jump up into the pull-up, but then you must slowly lower your body, fully extending your arms. It is also called a negative pull-up. It's sort of like cheating a pull-up, but the lowering, and lengthening, puts an immense strain on your muscles. This was something we had never done.
After he demonstrated the exercise I said, “NO WAY I can do this”.
“Oh yes you can," he replied.
I was to do 20 reps. After 10, I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”.
He pushed me along. Assuring me I had no problem finishing it. And I did! Imagine my surprise at the end of the workout when he told me to do another set of 20. I pushed through 10 very sloppy ones. I couldn’t go on.
“Yes you can”, he says “10 more and you can go home.”
I trusted him. He had pushed me many times before. This wasn’t any different, right? Wrong! I learned later that the load he had me perform was out of the ordinary for the fittest of my male counterparts...let alone me, a 37 year old mother who hadn't done a pull-up since I was 12.
Immediately after leaving the gym, I was kicking myself. Wow, my arms hurt! I didn’t want to hurt this close going into the Marine Corps Marathon! We were supposed to be doing maintenance! “No injuries, remember”, I thought. I made it through my day with vague soreness. But, that night, I woke with a deep aching pain in my arms that prevented me to sleep. When Friday morning came, I couldn’t straighten my arms.
“What the hell”, I thought, “how am I going to get through my day taking care of 2 toddlers with gimpy arms!”
I was walking around like a T-Rex. Like the stereotypical meathead gym rat. I wondered, is this how it’s supposed to feel? I assumed the worst case of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) of my life. After all, that IS the gym culture. Feel the burn. If it hurts then it’s working. In fact, my gym proudly displayed quotes of this nature in the training area. Lucky for me, I had leftover muscle relaxers and prescription strength ibuprofen in my medicine cabinet. Unlucky for me, it didn’t touch the pain.
Friday night’s sleep met with the same deep aching pain in my arms and I couldn’t find a comfortable position for the life of me. Saturday morning, I was unchanged. We were supposed to take the family to Great Country Farms, but it was foggy and misty, and my 2 year old was clearly needing an early nap. I decided to get on google to see if I could shed any light on my arm injury. I thought for sure I had torn a muscle. I typed in Jumping Pull-ups Can’t Put Arms Down. And what pops up? If You Exercise, Read This. Here I found a woman’s story of Rhabdomyolysis. "What the heck", I thought. Never heard of it. No way I had that, right?
I had just gotten health insurance in June, so I decided to run over to urgent care on a whim. I NEVER would have gone if I had no insurance. It’s just DOMS right? When I arrived I was running a fever. The nurse practitioner was puzzled, but unaffected. I mentioned the article I read. That raised her eyebrows and she recommended I head over to the ER for a better look. While I drove to the ER, I started feeling....funny. Different. Not quite right. The ER doc took one look at me and one look at my urine sample and chuckled at the thought I might have Rhabdo.
“No chance”, he said. “You just have a muscle strain. But, we’ll go ahead and do an x-ray if you really want to see if there is something broken.”
I guess I don’t blame his early, uninformed diagnosis. Everything on the internet said if you have rhabdomyolysis, you will have cola colored urine. Mine was almost clear. Of course it was! I’m a health nut! I drink tons of water and eat a clean diet! But there was a sensation I had that something wasn’t right...and I decided to push him for blood tests.
Thank God I did. For had I walked out of that ER that day, I can’t say with any certainty I’d be writing this.
The ER doc walked back in my room about 30 minutes later to say he was still waiting for my CK test to come back.
“Your liver enzymes are a bit elevated, but I still don’t see anything to indicate rhabdo. Again, it just looks like a muscle strain. Follow-up an orthopedist next Wednesday if it’s not better. But, we’ll go ahead and wait for the CK to come in...” Those last words he said in a way I expected him to continue....just for shits and giggles.
The next hour in that room, I felt things really deteriorating. I was dizzy. I was out of it. I overheard nurses outside my room talking.
“Oh my God, I’ve never seen it that high in a heart attack patient”.
“I know”, said the other.
Were they talking about me? What was going on?! My ER doctor quickly appeared. His cocky, know it all demeanor had diminished.
“I’m sorry, but things just got a little worse for you. Your CK came back at 42,000.”
I asked, “What is it supposed to be?”
“Undetectable”, he responded.
Terror flooded my mind. I’m a mom. I’m needed. I’m only 37. I’m healthy. How is this happening to ME?!
“We are going to have to admit you to another hospital”.
Things started happening really fast then. I was being transported via ambulance. They did an EKG before I left. Then decided to monitor my heart on the way. As soon as I was put into the ambulance, I starting having chest pains. "What was happening", I thought. Tears filled my eyes as I stared up at the lights in the ambulance. Was I going to die right there? Without my family. Without saying goodbye. My kidneys were failing. My electrolytes were out of whack. And I was having heart arrhythmias. Because of PULL-UPS. Pull-ups! Unreal.
So, what is rhabdomyolysis? In layman’s terms, when your muscles are pushed beyond their limit, they virtually explode. Releasing dangerous myoglobin into the bloodstream. Your kidneys try to do their part in cleaning the blood, but are unable to properly filter the myoglobin out. They then begin to shutdown. If left untreated, rhabdomyolysis will kill you.
I was in the hospital for 6 days. I reached out to my trainer immediately to cancel my membership. He told me to come into the gym. “But, I”m in the hospital?” I tried reaching the training manager. He did not return my email or phone calls. I finally reached the GM. “Oh, ok, how about I fax you the form,” he said. “Again, sir, I’m in the hospital”. I finally filled in the paperwork for cancellation when I returned home and faxed it in, but at that time I had already been charged for October’s personal training. Seriously? I didn’t want to go after them for negligence, I just wanted to cancel my membership and get October’s money back. For 2 weeks, the GM and I tried to get a response from corporate. When I finally did, it was this: “It will be another 30 days for your membership to be cancelled”.
At first, I wanted to blow this whole thing up on how crappy my gym is and how cancellation for extenuating circumstances like, your trainer almost killed me, should trump standard cancellation policies. But, as time has worn on, this is much bigger than my gym sucks. What if I had died? What if there is another mother, father, sister, brother out there who is just as uninformed as I was? What is the responsibility of the trainer? Of the gym? Should they be legally held accountable for pushing a client too far? Does there need to be more education on the part of trainers and their clients before beginning training sessions?
The nurses I talked to while I was in Loudoun Hospital (which provided me the most amazing care) told me that they see rhabdomyolysis all the time now. This is not acceptable. I want to make sure my story is heard. Nationwide. It is ridiculous that I almost died over something so small and careless. I want to make sure my story can be used to help others.