Double Vision. One Focus.

“On 4/3/15 I woke up like the picture on the left. I’d had a stroke in my sleep which caused a palsy in the 3rd nerve of my brain, causing my right eye to swing out. I saw two of everything and could only see straight if I closed one eye. It’s taken over a year and a half, 3 surgeries, an ocean of tears, and the desperate need to regain my life to get ME back. I took the pic on the right just after taking my new SoulCycle instructor photos — hence the incredible and very fake lashes. I never imagined having the courage to share the ‘before’ pic, but think it’s important to recognize and celebrate the journey, no matter how painful. Unlike so many stories, this one has a happy ending, one that will hopefully inspire determination and hope!”

This is the story of Emma Zaks, a bubbly, energetic, and very popular SoulCycle instructor. Those who ride with Emma watched this healthy and fit 33-year old woman go through an unimaginable two-year journey — becoming increasingly ill with debilitating symptoms, both gastro-intestinal and neurological, that ultimately resulted in a stroke.

On and off the SoulCycle schedule at first, Emma began subbing out her classes for other instructors. Then followed a long absence. She would later return to teach — a patch on one eye and face swollen from the steroids doctors had prescribed for devastating symptoms no one really could explain. An autoimmune disease of some sort was the rumor. As is her nature, Emma remained her upbeat self through it all, or so it appeared, never letting her riders see the pain and fear going on inside.

Luckily, this story has a happy ending. After her illness was finally diagnosed and treated, Emma started posting little bits of her journey on Facebook. So moved and overwhelmed by her strength and bravery, we asked her to tell us what happened from beginning to end. This is her story in her own words…. and her Facebook posts.

“When you’re 33 years old and teaching on average 18 SoulCycle classes a week, you don’t expect your body to fail you. And then it did. It started slowly with weeks of digestive problems, and ended with a terrifying ambulance ride to Mt. Sinai. My first trip to the ER at the end of January for unbearable stomach pain had ended with a discharge hours later after multiple inconclusive test results for ailments like kidney stones and food poisoning. I found myself back at home, sicker than I’d ever been, and without a single real explanation. For two weeks, I lived and worked with continuing pain”…

It all started with major stomach issues that began in January of 2015. I had been in and out of the ER, and was finally admitted to the hospital in February. I had left my class in the middle of “cuing” a hill climb, to throw up in the closest bathroom. Unable to walk or breathe through the pain and nausea, I took an ambulance to the ER. When I was admitted later that night, the diagnosis was vague: some undefined form of modern dysentery. They ran every test in the book, from Colonoscopy to Endoscopy to CT scans. Everything came back inconclusive. I was put on huge amounts of IV antibiotics and steroids, and sent home after six days as an inpatient, despite too many unanswered questions.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Knowing what I know now, I wish I had pushed harder for more answers, but who was I to question these doctors? I hate confrontation and wanted to be a “good patient” who was liked. So I took the prescriptions and advice to rest and went home, hoping for the best. Needless to say, things didn’t get better.

“After my stay at Mt. Sinai I went back home to my boyfriend’s apartment to fully recover from whatever infection had wrecked havoc on my system (see top pic of the dude and the baby). Still weak, and still having stomach issues, I knew something wasn’t right but thought it would get better with time and rest. I went back to work and taught for a few days before leaving for a vacation I’d luckily planned months prior. The crazy part is that all seemed fine in Turks and Caicos (see bottom pic, if you haven’t been, start saving, and go, it’s beyond worth it). Sure my stomach wasn’t normal, but it was never normal so I was used to that, but the vomiting had disappeared, and I had more energy! I was on what my doctors called a ‘low-residue diet’, translation: bland, low-fiber foods, ie. PASTA. HALLELUJAH! For the first time since childhood I was eating every white carb in sight without an ounce of guilt. I now refer to this vacation week as the bliss before the s***storm”…

On April 3, 2015, I had a stroke. I got back from vacation in March of 2015 and went back to work thinking everything would be fine. To make a long story short, things only got worse. My own personal apocalypse happened.

I woke up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, looked up at the ceiling and thought, ‘Huh, there are two lamps on the ceiling. Strange. Maybe I’m just sleepy.’ I got up and figured I was dreaming or that my maybe my eyesight was getting worse. What had actually happened didn’t register until the morning when I woke up and there were still two lights on the ceiling. I started to panic as I realized that everything was blurry. I ran to the closest mirror and saw one eye looking straight ahead and one eye going off to the right, all the way to the very corner of my eye. I didn’t know if I was hallucinating, but my greatest fears were confirmed when my boyfriend, Geoff, now fiancé, saw me and immediately started crying. I guess I just went into survival mode. I grabbed my phone and called my doctor who said to go straight to the ER.

The next hour is hard to recall because I just remember focusing on keeping my right eye closed so I could see properly. If I could see straight, I wouldn’t panic. It never occurred to me that what had taken place overnight would turn into almost two years of hell.

“It’s all about maintaining humor. Luckily I had incredible friends who were there to make me laugh when all I wanted was a strong sedative!!!!”

We got to the ER and they didn’t have a clue what to do with me. I’d just been there with stomach problems and now I’d come back with some bizarre neurological episode. The neurologists assessed me and found nothing. The spinal tap came back clean, and so did the MRI. So they released me with more steroids and zero explanation. At this point I’m thinking, ‘How is it possible you are sending me home? I’ve just been in the hospital, this hospital, and now this strange thing has happened. This is not normal. Something has happened.’

Confused and frustrated, I returned home only to have my stomach flare up again. At first I chalked it up to anxiety, but then it got worse and I couldn’t stop vomiting. Back to the ER I went and this time they admitted me. At this point my stomach had gotten so bad that everyone was just trying to get that under control. No one was focusing on the fact I had a patch over my eye. It was very bizarre.

Finally with an X-ray, the simplest of all tests, they were able to find what appeared to be a stricture in my small intestine. This is when your intestines have begun to twist around themselves, preventing anything from passing through. At this point, the doctors realized that this wasn’t a gastric infection and decided that their only option was to do exploratory laparoscopic surgery. Possible outcomes? They’d find something conclusive, or they’d find nothing and I’d have had surgery for naught. So I said, “Sure, open me up.”

For a brief moment I was face to face with mortality. All of a sudden you’re not the invincible person that you thought you were. I thought, ‘I’m too young for all this.’

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Originally published at styleofsport.com on February 16, 2017.