The moment my life changed
And taking risks suddenly became worth it
This isn’t something I’ve really shared much about before. This tale won’t be pretty. But it’s real. And it’s what changed me forever.
In 2004 I was just your average Midwestern kid going to community college, hoping to get a degree in graphic design. I was working at Best Buy and doing some web design on the side while playing in a band occasionally. You know, normal stuff. But sometime during that summer, I discovered a small blood stain near the waistband of my boxer shorts as I was preparing some laundry. Queue the freakout. I took a look at the corresponding place on my body, close to my tailbone, and found a small pit.
My condition was called a Pilonidal Cyst. I’ll link to the Wikipedia entry, but I warn you…it’s not for the faint of heart. It was an incredibly embarassing condition and something I would never wish upon anyone.
The doctor that did the examination determined the best course of action would be to do something called an “open surgery” whereby the wound would be excised and left open, to be packed with gauze and cared for. The subsequent surgery wasn’t easy, and was pretty hard to deal with. Thankfully I was still living with my parents at the time, so dealing with the treatment was made a little bit easier by my family. While the surgery wasn’t fun, and certainly didn’t leave me completely healed, it was the first step towards a recovery. The doctor’s estimate was that it would be healed within six months.
Eight months later, it hadn’t.
We returned to the doctor to investigate further. I was told that despite the fact that the wound was quite small now, it wouldn’t be healing any more on its own. There was only one option at this point.
Fast forward to late 2005. This time around, they called in a plastic surgeon and the plan was different. They decided the best course of action would be to remove the affected tissue and try to suture that area in hopes to “close” it. Waking up after the surgery, I was told everything looked great and I was on the road to recovery. Because this surgery had closed the wound, I didn’t need to be as attentive to it and only had the occasional checkup with the surgeon to make sure it was going well.
Four months later, it broke open.
As one can imagine my frustration by now, I was extremely disheartened. This time, the surgery felt so much more “complete” and yet it had a higher likelihood of failing, and thus it did. There was only one way to fix this now, and that was more surgery.
At the beginning of 2006, I decided that I didn’t want to return to college. There were a few ideas in my head that I was pursuing that I might be able to build a company around, and I wanted to get started rather than wait for school to finish. The conversation with my parents wasn’t easy, but they were supportive of my decision. I could always go back, right?
I landed a job south about 90 miles, near St. Louis at MonsterCommerce where I was doing web design. That allowed me to pay the bills, and still have some time on nights and weekends to pursue my ideas.
At the time, I still had my upcoming surgery to worry about, but I didn’t want it to weigh over me too much. I figured I would know the right time to bring it up with my employer and find some time for more surgery. That time came up a little over four months later when the condition was just a little unbearable, so I was scheduled for surgery.
October 4th, 2006.
While the first two surgeries were outpatient, this one was definitely not going to be. I settled up some things in St. Louis, and went in for the surgery on the 4th. They called this surgery a “rotation” where they would separate a significant amount of tissue and wrap it around, in hopes that they could correct the afflicted area (again, near my tailbone). The hard part about this surgery was that I would be in the hospital for a minimum of a week.
I woke up after the surgery in quite a lot of pain, laying in what was called a “floatation bed.” It was filled with air and tons of beads that made it somewhat similar to a water bed, but designed to not put pressure on things. And it was hot. For the week I was to be in this bed, I was told I wouldn’t be able to move much – just lifting my head and moving my legs around a little. But so little movement would be possible, that they even fitted my legs with devices that would attempt to keep the blood flowing there.
The first few days were pretty terrible, such that I really won’t go into details. Pain like I’d never experienced, horrible morale, and less than tasty hospital food. The only respite was the fact that I had my wonderful family nearby, many friends, and my St. Louis Cardinals were on track to win the National League Championship Series (they won the World Series that year actually).
On the seventh day after my surgery, I was expecting to get the nod to go home. My doctor came in that morning to check on everything, and as of that morning I was A-OK to leave soon.
Later in the evening on the 11th, something was wrong but I couldn’t quite tell what. At 11:30p that night, I was told there was a massive hematoma forming and that they had to pull me into emergency surgery. I was crushed. Prepped and laying near the operating room, they said that they’d have to open me up, remove the hematoma, then re-do the surgery. Back to square one.
I woke up groggy and feeling defeated. This was probably one of the lowest moments of my life. Four surgeries down now, I couldn’t imagine it getting worse (hint: it did).
The days that followed my emergency surgery are a bit of a blur in retrospect. I was attached to my computer, sending out requests for happy stories and things for my friends to keep my spirits up. Support was pouring in but I was at an all-time-low.
While I was in the hospital, my friend Sara had brought me a care package with some tasty Naked juice (first I’d ever had it), Honeycrisp apples (first I’d ever had), and a book called Into the Wild. I wasn’t much of a reader at the time, in fact I’d barely ever made it through a single book throughout the entirety of my high school career. But the television was getting boring, and in 2006 I didn’t have an abundance of things on the Internet to keep me busy, so I thought why not?
The sounds of the hospital were less than appealing and certainly didn’t add anything to the ambiance of the book, so headphones it was. I’m not entirely sure why I chose Sigur Rós’ incredible album “( )”, but it feels right looking back.
Here I was reading a (true) story of a kid who, at the end of his college career, had his life ahead of him with a trust fund and plenty of privilege that would make his life easy for some time. But instead, he gave it all up (literally and figuratively), and set out on a journey to the Alaskan wilderness to find himself. It was a multi-year journey that ultimately took his life. I couldn’t put the book down. It consumed me. The idea that there was some young kid who once left his life of comfort behind to seek a greater truth was simultaneously crazy and exactly right, despite the fateful outcome.
Somewhere between the 11th and 21st, while I was still in the hospital, there was something that changed in me. Prior to that moment, I always felt like I was leading a fun life, but one that was safe (to put it easily). I hardly ever took any risk. I rarely tried anything adventurous. Up until that point, I’d never even eaten a rare steak or sushi or avocados as they all weirded me out. It was the easy way out – stick to what I know, don’t deviate, and things will be ok. Basically the only “risky” thing I had done up until this point was to leave my life in Central Illinois behind to start pursuing my ideas in St. Louis 100 miles away.
It was a rainy day, that much I recall vividly. I was sucked into the book, and listening to Sigur Rós. No one was in my room at the time – my family was either at work or school. Something about the rain depressed me further, and being alone didn’t help either. But, I had hit a moment in the book that got my mind wandering. On my iPod, Sigur Rós song called “Dauðalagið” was playing. It’s translated as “The Death Song.” Befitting, because at that moment, laying in that hospital bed, I wondered to myself “what if this was actually my death bed?” “What if I didn’t get up from here?”
Now, the situation wasn’t dire by any means. I was going to make a full recovery without question. But the quandary stirred in me. I was 22 years old and hadn’t yet really experienced life. I was stuck in my world of safe. But reading this inspiring story of someone that decided to take the ultimate risk of leaving everything behind, just to find himself, put me in a frenzy. Was I holding myself back from my dreams, simply because I had little desire to take risk? The answer was easy: yes.
That was the moment that my life changed. Reading Into the Wild, listening to Sigur Rós, and watching the rain outside while stuck in my hospital bed. A powerful moment that snapped something in my brain just as Dauðalagið hit its crescendo, and suddenly gave me the power over my own fear of risk taking.
The next few months…
Looking back, it would have been much easier if the story ended there, and that fourth surgery was it. But of course, that wasn’t in my cards.
I was in the hospital a total of 17 days, and less than 30 after that, even that surgery failed yet again. Another surgery scheduled. This time, the fifth procedure was going to be outpatient, hoping to fix only the part of the area that had opened. Thanksgiving was a little subdued for me that year as a result, but it was awesome to see my family all gathered around.
Less than 30 days after the fifth surgery, it too failed. I was sad, there was just no way around it. I had now been out of work for two months, and desperate to get back to my life. Up until this point, I was confined to a bed the entire time. I was angry.
Seeing as how I had a lot of time to spend with my computer and the Internet, I started doing a lot of research and found Dr. Marc Brand in Chicago who was performing a radical new surgery called a “cleft lift” – something that was showing an incredible amount of promise. My mother and I traveled north to meet him, and hoped that the surgery would work. He examined the previous efforts, and determined he’d be able to fix my problem. Which, thankfully he did.
Surgery was January of 2007, and I was back to normal in February. I had finally conquered my ailment and I was returning to my life. But something was different this time. I was different.
Risk was now all worth it. Trying new things, worth it. I wanted to take challenges in life head on, and I wanted to challenge myself in ways that I hadn’t yet before.
Shortly after returning to my job in Belleville, IL, I had run across a TechCrunch post on a “summer camp for entrepreneurs” called TechStars. Despite the fact that it would require my friends and I who were working on our idea to leave everything behind and jump head-first into starting something new far away from home, it felt worth applying, at least. But much to our surprise, we got in. We moved out to Boulder, CO to start the company, and that’s where my life started on a whole new path.
The strife that I endured through my condition changed me forever. And yet, despite the difficulty and embarrassment of the condition, I wouldn’t change that series of events if I could. These experiences altered how I perceived life, and what I could do with it. I didn’t want to waste another day thinking “what if” and instead just asked “why not?”
In just the few years that have followed my surgery, I’ve felt incredibly fulfilled in life. If you could find my 18 year old self and tell him some of the crazy things I’ve done, and the opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of, I’m pretty sure I’d have laughed it all off. Fortunate is an understatement for where I am right now in my life. But it’s all because of just one day, when down on my luck and spirits, I decided it didn’t have to be that way and I could just try things that seemed crazy.