A few years ago I found myself cooling my heels in the cardiac unit of a local hospital after a training session/workout. I was fairly young at the time (early forties), I did not smoke, drank only on rare social outings, as a lifelong vegetarian I had avoided the pitfalls of the American fast food dietary time bomb, and I led an active life. How I ended up in that hospital had a lot to do with my attitude toward health and training.
My family has a very rare, almost unique health condition, we develop rheumatic symptoms in reaction to a host of triggers, the most common one is cold. The cold does not have to be very severe either, just working in an air conditioned office can result in high fevers, swollen joints, uncontrolled shaking, lose of fine motor control, and all sorts of other nastiness. Other triggers include exercise, and trauma (think ude tanren, or even the joint locks of aikido). Because our condition is so rare it is only now starting to get the kind of systemic investigation that allows our doctors and us to begin to understand the disease. Treatments are finally being developed and we are gaining important information about how the disease works which helps us manage it.
I used to be ashamed of the welts that would raise over my skin as a reaction developed, I would go to great lengths to hide them. I felt weak willed when, in the course of a developing reaction I could no longer stand in a front stance because of the pain in my ankles and knees. I often felt humiliated when I would begin to shake and loose fine motor control during winter training. I would gut it out, feeling incredibly frustrated, and go home to collapse while my fever would shoot up, often to 103f for hours.
For months after a bad reaction I would have the most painful tendinitis from forcing a joint that was swollen and tender from the rheumatic symptoms to move as though it was fully functional. Of course this itself took time to heal further effecting my training.
I have no idea if it is linked or not to the genetic mutation that causes our condition, but most of my family members that have it also have chronically elevated blood pressure, unusually rapid pulse rates, and some irregularities in heart rhythm. I am no exception, though because I considered myself to be in good shape from regular exercise and training, I did not worry too much about it.
The particular day that I found myself admitted to the cardiac care unit I had been outside training for a couple of hours. It was early spring and the air was still a little cool. Spring is generally the time I start trying to make up for all the training that I miss during the winter months when I have to be very careful about managing my disease.
My plan that day was to finish my training with a run of about a mile and a half. About a quarter of a mile into the run I started having chest pain. Within a few more minutes I was having pain in the back of my throat, could not catch my breath and started to feel extremely dizzy. That is when I decided that it was time to throw in the towel, stop running and seek treatment.
Tests revealed that I did not have a heart attack, though the rhythmic irregularity showed up, and my rapid heart rate caused the doctors to keep me in the hospital for an extra day just to make sure that they had not missed anything.
Though I had not had a heart attack I had to follow up with my physician and several specialists to find out what exactly had happened. I had been under an extraordinary amount of stress during this period. The stress had contributed to, and in some ways masked the health problems that revealed themselves that day.
In hindsight my diagnosis was embarrassingly obvious, I almost can not believe that it had not occurred to me. Asthma. Asthma that I had been diagnosed with years before, and which I no longer gave any thought to had been the cause of all of this. Specifically I had exercise and cold induced asthma. Thinking about my family’s condition this made a great deal of sense.
The stress I was living with was causing the asthma that had always been just a minor problem to become a big one. When I found myself unable to catch my breath during the more aerobic portions of classes I would chastise myself for having both poor “fighting spirit” and poor endurance . In order to enhance my cardio-pulmonary fitness I added more aerobic training to my routine . This of course lead to more asthmatic episodes.
There is one thing about asthma that bears mentioning, bad attacks leave one more prone to future attacks (often worse than the original one) as the lungs become ever more sensitive to their triggers. The more I fought to recondition myself, the more I was becoming de-conditioned and vulnerable to stronger attacks. The particular incident that landed me in the hospital was a developing asthmatic attack that was much stronger than others I had experienced.
Armed with inhalers, other medications, and a new understanding of what was happening to my body I was able to modify my training regime so that I could recondition gradually, and begin to manage my asthma. Dealing with the stress was a much more difficult process. Thanks to my doctors I could once again enjoy training in karate, rather than simply enduring it. Within a few months I was again able to make it through most classes without using an inhaler.
Quite a few years ago a very dear student of mine became sick with, what at the time seemed to be a simple cold. He was determined to pass his up-coming black belt test and was training like a man possessed. He had completely embraced the idea that he could somehow train through his illness. This is an idea hung in the atmosphere like a cloud in our organization.
One day during a gashuku he simply could no-longer go on. He went to a local hospital where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. His illness could have been life threatening.
Of course a great deal of the blame for this was mine; as his principle instructor it really did not matter what the culture was, or what the karate books said, it was my responsibility to make sure he was training safely. I was selfish, I loved having such a dedicated and talented student in class. It was exciting to watch his progress, and his joy at each new accomplishment radiated from him energizing the whole group. I should have taken note of how hard he was struggling as he became more ill and insisted that he see a physician.
Luckily he made a complete recovery, but things could have been different. I have no interest in becoming the sort of karateka, or karate instructor that accepts lackluster efforts and accomplishments but I have learned that illnesses and health conditions need to be respected. The individual karate student, and perhaps her physician, has the most information, and the most relevant information regarding what is safe and what is not regarding health and training. This has to be respected by the instructor, even if it means that some students are likely to hide behind excuses.
Instructors should be very careful about giving advice regarding the effects of training on health conditions. Health and sport science have improved dramatically since the early days of modern karate when a great deal of the training culture was established.
Sometimes fighting spirit means having the will to be patient and to work within the parameters of a condition, even though it would be more satisfying to just plunge right into training full steam. This emphatically is not the same as not trying, or not being dedicated. In fact it demonstrates a dedication to improve in spite of frustration that is rare in a society that values convenience and ease so highly.
One last thought about all of this; just as macho affectations on the part of the seniors in a group can influence juniors (and the group in general), so to does maturity and reasonableness. The senior who models the process of dealing straightforwardly and intelligently with injuries, health conditions, or even the challenges associated with aging is a tremendous asset to the organization she belongs to and can be an important role model for all those coming after her.