"The Only Way to Stop a Hwarang is to Kill Them"
I'm a purple sash now living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Having previously trained under Master Kijek and Instructor Coughlin in Wisconsin, I am moving forward again with Master Sirny at the Minneapolis Academy. Outside of Hwa Rang Do®, I work as a cyber security engineer for a large insurance company (AIG).
In 2008, 2011, and 2017, I was diagnosed with separate bouts of aplastic anemia, a condition similar to leukemia. It occurs when the immune system attacks the subject's bone marrow, preventing it from rejuvenating the body's blood. It quickly becomes life-threatening when left unchecked, causing crippling fatigue, slowed healing, and increased risk for disease. We treated my first two bouts with chemotherapy to knock out the immune system, allowing the bone marrow to regenerate. (Inst. Coughlin can attest to my persistence in training, even as early as a week after the chemo.) After relapsing again in 2017, I was given two options: get a bone marrow transplant or die in 5 years. We opted for the former, and thankfully found a non-family donor after just a few months. We were living in Madison, WI at the time, and Master Kijek worked me into fighting shape to prepare for the procedure. I was hospitalized for a month, but the transplant was successful and all was back to normal a few weeks later.
At a follow-up in November 2017, I was diagnosed with mild pneumonia and given a hefty antibiotic. I was also given a flu shot. After a few days, I started to feel a persistent numbness in my fingers. Two days later, the sensation in my leg was gone and I could barely walk. My transplant doctor had me hospitalized for observation and over the next week, I lost all motor function in my body. I couldn't even open my eyelids. In January 2018, my body stopped breathing on its own, and I was intubated and put on a ventilator.
One night in February 2018, I went into respiratory distress. Only 30% of patients survive it. My heart rate shot to 180 bpm and stayed there for over 6 hours. The doctors called my family and siblings in to say their goodbyes. I wasn't expected to last the night. I was put into a medically-induced coma and, to everyone's amazement, I survived. I stayed in that coma for 6 weeks, but awoke with no permanent damage to my brain, heart, or other organs. While there's much credit due for my doctors and nurses, I also credit Master Kijek's training for sharpening my survival mindset and giving me the strength to hold on that night.
My formal diagnosis is Guillain-Barre syndrome. It occurs when a patient's immune system attacks the myelin sheathing between nerve synapses, preventing nerves from firing and signals from reaching the body. The good news is that the sheathing does regenerate and I'm expected to fully recover. The bad news is that the recovery could take 10 weeks or 10 years- there's no telling the rate of regeneration. While most cases I've read about clear up in weeks, I'm going on almost 5 years. I'm still making progress though, and while slow, it's still progress.
I remained on the ventilator for a total of 16 months, during most of which I still had no motor function. Training in Hwa Rang Do® for so long, I use breathing to control everything from my heart rate to my own emotions. Suffice to say, it feels incredibly alien to lose that control and have a machine breath for you. (And don't get me started on when the machine glitches.) Learning to breathe again on my own was a struggle, and a number of staff said I would be ventilator-dependent for life. Again though, I persevered and slowly weaned my way wholly off of it in July 2019. After that, it took a year to wean myself off of needing an external oxygen tank. I still have a tracheostomy in my throat today, but can breath completely on my own and no longer require any life support devices.
I was discharged in October 2019, after spending 22 months, 2 weeks, and 5 days hospitalized. Spending that length of time bed-bound and unable to move caused my muscles to atrophy, leaving me in a wheelchair. A pinched nerve also caused my fingers to curl and lock ("claw hand syndrome"), leaving me with almost no hand function. The combination of these makes me wholly reliant on family and caretakers, even for basic eating, bathing, and dressing. I'm undergoing intense physical therapy now, but it could be years before I'm independent again.
I write all this to underscore my commitment to Hwa Rang Do®. There are many points in my story where it would've been easy to give up, saying that the art is too strenuous, that my body has been through enough, or that I can't do Hwa Rang Do® if I can't walk. Yet, I never once considered any of these. In fact, I know the opposite: Hwa Rang Do® has been an integral part of healing in all of my major health crises, and it is again through Hwa Rang Do® that I know I will overcome this one. Study and training will keep my mind sharp and my body active, whether I someday can again throw a 540 spin kick, or never walk again on my own feet, I swore an oath to our art when I tested for Tae Soo Do® black belt, and no autoimmune disease can stand in the way of that. At a seminar some years ago, you told us that the only way to stop a Hwarang is to kill them, and I've carried those words as a mantra through all of the above.
In closing, I'd like to share a reflection I've had on training: For years, I practiced Hwa Rang Do® thinking that the ultimate test of my skills would be fending off a mugger or carjacker, maybe breaking up a fight or attempted rape in some grungy alleyway. Instead, I've had to fight pessimistic doctors and social workers who want to write me off as a lost cause. In darker moments, I've even had to conquer myself and my own doubts despite the ease and appeal of surrender. I've come to find that this battle- the one I'm now fighting every hour of every day- this is that true test.
Thank you again for sharing your knowledge with us Dojoonim and Kuksanim. I look forward to many more years of training under you and Dojoonim.