I wanted to share the story of my friend Michaela Dockery (formerly Kayla Stentz), who I met through my sister Amy. As beautiful as life is, it can also be incredibly cruel with the challenges and pain it throws at us. We all experience times like this whether it be with our family, our love life, our careers, or our health. But what's sets us apart is how we handle those times. Michaela is one of those people who is an exceptional inspiration here because of how she conquered (and continues to conquer) a recent life-changing setback.
A former fitness model and bodybuilder (including being a trainer for MTV's "I Used to Be Fat series), an incredibly driven and successful company founder, and mother to a beautiful daughter with everything to look forward to including a wedding and the melding of her fiancee's family with hers, things were looking fantastic. But life had different plans and a stop was put to everything very quickly. After pain and discomfort in her chest, a doctor's visit revealed that her chest was caved in and closing in on her lungs and heart. The only solution was the Nuss Procedure, where metal bars are inserted into your chest to pop your sternum back out. And if that's not scary enough, well then there's the recovery.
The only person who tells Michaela's story best is Michaela. So below, I have made only minor edits to her words, a story she's been sharing with me for many, many months now, plus included images of her journey. It's a very raw and vulnerable story and very detailed (documented over six months). I am so grateful to you Michaela for sharing and showing how to be totally fierce during times of turmoil. (An alert: Some of the post-surgery photos are pretty darn raw.)
With love... Dana
I’m the oldest of 9 kids to be exact. I grew up in California, then moved to Memphis half way through childhood. I grew up acting and playing sports and always had a love for sports and fitness. I started lifting weights with my brother and his friends when I was about 13. I loved the feeling I got after a workout and I loved looking strong. When I was about 12 I started waking up at 5:00 AM and running with my friend Kate across the street. I loved the rush. I loved moving. I loved being competitive.
When I was 18 a professional bodybuilder approached me about competing in fitness competitions. I trained for my first show and won. I was hooked. Shortly after, I got signed by one of the largest supplement companies in the health industry. Being healthy and strong became my job. All of a sudden I was a fitness model, athlete, and I had fans. It was odd but exciting. By the age of 19 I started my own personal training business and fell in love with helping others change their lives.
I became a mommy and life changed. My little girl changed everything. For the best. She made me see life so much differently. All that mattered was her. I needed to be the best mother I could possibly be. All I had ever wanted was to be a mommy. After several years in the industry I was burned out. I felt empty. Competing became a chore to me. It was too hard to do as a mother. It was empty. Being a competitor makes you selfish. The sport is only about you. To look a certain way. The industry was so full of drugs, sex, and agnostic people I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I was done. I kept my business going strong, but still wanted something. I soon was approached by MTV to try out for a new fitness show called “I Used to Be Fat.” I would be the health and fitness coach and help kids who had just graduated lose 50-lbs or more. After the show wrapped I knew I was ready for a change.
Entering The Medical Field
Two years later I walked in to my first surgery as a Medical Sales Representative. From there I thrived as a Orthobiologics rep and knew this was where I needed to be. I met the love of my life because of my career. He is a brilliant physician who has made me the businesswoman I am today. He pushed me to reach my goals and told me I could do anything. I opened my first medical company a year and a half ago, sold my shares, and opened another company. I love what I do, and I’m still helping others but in a totally different way. I have so much compassion for these patients.
What is this pain I'm having?
I will never forget when my hospital door opened and in walked a Cardiovascular Thoracic Surgeon and his team. I was confused. Why was he here? I had just had a scan and I had been waiting for several hours to hear what was wrong. The first thing the nurse said who was with him was “You’re too young to be sick.” I was thinking...
“Yes I was too young. I’m Kayla Stentz. I am strong. I am healthy. I take care of sick people. I don’t get sick. I’ve never even broken a damn finger.”
He put my scans up and I could not believe what I saw.
My chest wall looked like it was touching my back. My heart and lungs were being encroached on. No wonder I couldn’t breathe. No wonder I had been having slicing pains in my rib cage. No wonder my whole right breast was hard as a rock and had fallen to the middle of my chest.
I stayed in the hospital another few days processing what I had been told and getting more testing done. I was incredibly overwhelmed and just very emotional. I wasn’t really scared at that time. I was just trying to play everything in my head.
Everything I read led to the same ending. This was by far the most painful surgery in the books, and the hardest to recover from, mentally and physically. It sounded horrific, but still I was not scared.
Why? I hadn’t done my full research yet.
I had no idea what was coming.
My doctor kept explaining that I would be in a lot of pain. A few weeks later I had a checkup with my Internal Medicine Doctor. He put me on an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication. Me? I wasn’t depressed was I? Was this really a big deal? Was my loss of appetite and not sleeping due to all this? Chronic pain wasn’t normal? Ok fine I guess not. I just kept being told by every physician that I saw to prepare myself for what was coming. I didn’t. Not for a while at least. I was turning 30 on December 19th. I had stuff to do. Plans to make. Fun to be had. Christmas was coming. So much to do. I kept myself so busy. My Fiancée Dee threw me a party at his house for my 30th and I had the time of my life. Being sick didn’t cross my mind. I was 30 and I was having fun. Christmas came and went quickly, and it was wonderful.
December 22, 2014
I remember waking up December 22 and I noticed the date. I had nine days until a surgery that would be life changing. I lost it. For a few days I lost it. Everything became real all at once. I couldn’t stop time. All of a sudden I couldn’t put my little girl down. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. I didn’t want to miss a second. I went to mass every day, I couldn’t pray enough. Prayer was the only thing that soothed me.
I wrote a new Will. As I had the notary notarize it I lost it. Having to do this was scary and overwhelming. I went home and started writing out a manual of my life on a weekly basis. I realized someone needed a manual. That someone else would be living my life for me... That someone else would be taking care of my little girl, my dogs, my work...everything. From what I buy at the grocery store down to the codes to my safe and where my bank accounts are located, I had to write it all down.
For the next nine days I spent time with my little one and my loved ones. I constantly kissed Sophia. She slept with me every night. I saw friends who are dear to me. I remember hugging a friend and her saying “I won't see you until after your surgery, I am going out of town.” We started crying… I would be a different person when she saw me next. It's almost like everyone knew what was coming but me.
December 30, 2014
I held Sophia all day. We ate a quiet dinner together with Sam and Jason who are like family to us, and who are also Sophia’s God parents. I then have to say goodbye to Sophia. I cannot describe what it felt like to say goodbye to her. I simply can't.
I got home, showered with the special soap I had to shower with and laid down. Emotions were racing through my head. At 10:30 my friend Taylor called and said she was coming to spend the night because she wanted to be there with me. How dear are good friends?
December 31, 2014
It's 3:30 AM. My eyes open and my heart starts racing. This is it. The day has come.
I stand under the showerhead letting hot water pour over my face to hide my tears for several minutes. I wash with the special soap I was given for pre-op again. It smells like surgery. I know this smell well. I look down at my chest. It's the last time I will ever see it like this. How is this day already here?
I dress. I pray. Can't brush my teeth. I sit. I wake up Taylor. She hugs me. We pack my bag. The Vols are playing in a few days and I must have my orange sweats. I also need makeup, right? A hat... I need a hat. What if my hair gets yucky? I’m ready. My best friend of God Marianne shows up at 4:45 looking like Miss America with a huge smile on her face. I instantly feel better . She says "We are off to Cabo!!!" I wish.
As we got closer to the hospital my hands got clammy.
When I stepped out of the car I breathed in the icy air knowing it would be the last time I would breathe it for a long time.
I walked through the front doors and headed to admissions. As the administrator put on my hospital bands she said "Praise him.. All the time even now, praise him." I praised him. I silently offered up what was to come.
The rest is a blur. Next thing I know Dee's mother Wallene is by my side, Marianne, Taylor, and one of my dearest friends Tim. We laugh, joke, catch up, then the nurse comes in and tells me it's time. We all join hands (even the sweet nurse) and they pray with me. The next thing I know I'm in the OR with a room full. I’m used to the OR but it's very different when you're the one on the table and you know what all the instruments are. Anesthesia comes to me and says “Are you ready to party?” I said "Hit me.”
My last memory is the bright operating lights growing dim. My first memory post-op is screaming.
Faces are all around me. I’m in recovery I can tell. Something is in my throat. I'm screaming. I hear running of feet…I feel a burn run through my body... And everything goes black again.
My next memory is my mother’s face, Wallene’s face, and my friend Alison’s face. My hands are being held by my mother and Wallene. Everyone is crying. Everything goes black again.
The next memory I have is screaming. Burning. I’m on fire. Someone put the fire out. Am I in hell? My body is on fire.
I hear yelling for the nurse. More medication is put in my line. More burning. A wet rag is put on my face and the fire goes down. Rags are put all over my body. I am on fire the minute the rags warm. My friend Amy is next to me and she’s cooing to me. My mom and Wallene are rubbing my hands and feet. Needle is pushed into my stomach. More burning. I black out again. If only I knew I would receive 32 Heparin shots during my stay. 15 weeks later I still have bruises but my stomach no longer look pregnant.
The First Days
The next few days are a blur. Day 3 gets very serious. I am no longer allowed visitors because of the state I am in. A priest came and gave me anointing of the sick and last rites. I didn’t know this until weeks later, but that day my surgeon told my mother and Wallene that if I didn’t turn fast they would have to take out my hardware to get my pain down, and try again later. Without my hardware my future doesn’t go too far.
My blood pressure was up so high from the pain. When it was decided to put me under again my respirations went down to 6-per-minute. "We couldn’t win," my mom said. The next few days are still a blur. I remember waking up to my surgeon pulling my drains out. I remember feeling them come out and the bright operating lights above me. Then I slipped back under.
My nights were the worse. I felt so alone even though I had so much love around me. It was dark. Monitor lights blinking everywhere. I wanted to rip my oxygen straws out. I would wake up soaking wet from pain. I would count down the minutes until I could get another dose of Dilaudid. It would burn so much the minute it went through my veins… But then a little relief for a few minutes. Then the itching and burning would come with a vengeance. It felt like a million red ants were swarming me. My mother, nurses and anyone else in the room would grab cold rags to soothe my skin.
The most terrifying time during this? I was on day 6 of no food. Only ice chips and a little jello. The nurses were changing shifts and I ran out of ice. My mother went to go fill up my cup. I had been dry-heaving for days. I had not eaten in so long I had nothing to throw up… But the meds made me so nauseous.
I saw a cracker on my bed table and put it in my mouth. As I took my first real bite of food in six days, I coughed. The cracker lodged in my throat. I instantly started choking. I went to press my call button and couldn’t find it. I frantically searched everywhere my fingers could reach. It was nowhere to be found. I was gasping and no air came. I tried to scream and no words came out. I tried to sit up... In doing so I tore my abdominal muscles to hell. I started getting dizzy. Head was getting heavy. I started praying and thanking God for my life and to take care of Sophia. I’ve never felt what I felt before. You think about how you will die one day. This was not what I envisioned.
Just as I realized I was going to choke to death a new nurse walked in. I remember a minute of chaos and a mask going on my face. I remember my mother yelling. I drifted off.
When I woke up, I remember wondering if I was dead. A hand that was a little foreign to me was holding my hand. I didn’t know the hand… But it was so incredibly comforting and brought me so much peace. I opened my eyes. It was my darling brother, Gabe who lives in California. I couldn’t believe he was there. The next three nights he stayed up all night with me. He would hold my hand. He put headphones in my ears and turned on some vibration sounds. It would put me to sleep. It was so comforting to have him there with me. He was so incredible with me. I am still in awe to this day.
Every morning at about 6:00 AM a cold steel plate was inserted in back of me and a radiology crew would come in. I remember the first time I saw my new chest. I thought I looked like a freak/bionic woman. I couldn’t believe that was me. I now understood why I was in so much pain.
Coughing. I coughed 100 times a minute. The pressure on my chest restricted me from breathing basically. I felt as though a semi truck was on my chest, with someone stabbing me with knives at the same time. Every cough was torture. A torture I cant describe. I coughed like this for three months straight… It’s only been in the last month that I don’t cough every time I say a sentence.
Your pride and all modesty goes out the door at a time like this. I now have what I call the ass wipe club. Yep, I’m going to be blunt. The ass wipe club. These are the nurses, family and friends who have now seen every inch of me. Who started walking me to the toilet once my catheter came out. I remember one night needing to go the bathroom and I had a male nurse. Oh man I thought. He stood in front of me making sure I didn’t fall over. He joked with me and made light of the situation. I remember telling him my boyfriend would be mad. Hahaha so funny now to think about it. He cleaned me up then pulled up my pants for me and lifted me back up. Yep… That will bring you right down to earth.
Day 7: Sophia Visits
I had been counting down the hours. My world, my princess was going to come visit me. I felt so empty without her. We are almost inseparable… And so not having her around me was like not breathing air. I will never forget when she walked in to my room with my mom. My nurse had made sure to cover me up well so that Sophia would not see my central line in my neck or any of the other wires. I remember her face when she walked in. She looked scared but relieved to see me. I remember her smell and her little lips kissing me. Her hand holding mine. My heart instantly rested. She took my first steps with me that day with my PT and nurse. She was so patient with me as it took me about 30 seconds just to take a step.
When Sophia came to visit me on Day 8, she asked me if I was ever coming home and why I still had straws in my nose. :-)
Getting Through This Chapter
Mother Teresa once said, “Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus – A sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you."
So many things got me through and still do. Prayer, Sophia, my family, my fiancee, his mother, and my dear, dear friends. The nurses who cared for me in CVICU for so long. My PT’s. Sophia’s school St. Agnes Academy was a huge support. Even co-workers and people at my gym were so incredibly supportive the first several weeks of recovery and still are. Jesus and his Mother Mary. I clung so tightly to them. I kept thinking of how Mary watched her son be tortured for hours and finally watched him die. I kept thinking of Jesus on the cross. Keeping that in your mind when you are going through suffering makes your suffering nothing… But it also gives you an incredible comfort. I would pray so hard… And I would feel their comfort.
That’s what got me through. To be honest, my only choice was to get through it. The only choice I had was to tell myself I wouldn’t give up. I had to get so mental because, my body was wanting to give up. I truly 100% believe if I had given up mentally I may not be here right now. My body screamed at me 24/7 that it was done. I wanted to be done. The pain made me want to be done.
Day 11: Home
The next few weeks my family took care of Sophia and kept me alive. They worked around the clock. They were so selfless. My little sister Anna would lay next to me in bed for hours and rub my aching back. My mom and siblings cooked delicious meals every day. My friends came by daily with goodies and anything my heart wanted. They would come watch movies with me, have Saturday morning mimosa parties (even though I could only smell the mimosas), paint my nails and just be silly. The amount of dinners brought, goodies, and gifts still are overwhelming.
Bones and Bars
I'm down to 95-lbs. Every bone on me showed. The bars are sticking out of my sides. I used to be a fitness model on the cover of magazines. This was very humbling and hard to see in the mirror. It taught me so much though. Your spirit needs to be worked out and in shape more than anything else. And when it is, all is well.
My PT Courtney was one of my ultimate lifesavers. From the day I got home from the hospital to about six weeks later, she came several days a week to work on me. Her hands were like magic. If it weren’t for her I would have never slept, and would have had to stay on pain pills much longer. I would wake up crying and go to sleep crying... When she would come the pain would calm down so much I would sometimes pass out in her lap. She was like an angel. I will be forever grateful for her.
My fiancee Dee was a massive support in the coming weeks as I started to move around. I was petrified to move much, and scared to stretch. He would push me hard and tell me I could do it. Even with tears streaming down my face he would say, “I know your limit and you have not hit it yet.”
Week 5: Valentine's Day Party
This was my first time out with Sophia. I got to go to her Valentine's Day Party!
8 Weeks: Post-Op Trip
My love takes me on a post-op trip to the Keys! I'm pretty anorexic looking and in a lot of pain from flying, but happy! It was so incredible to be away from doctors and being sick. No one knew. It was so peaceful.
I Made It
Five thoughts on how people can get through difficult times:
Wake up every morning with a positive mindset. YOU MUST tell yourself what you have to do. Get mental. If you tell yourself the pain is so great then the pain will be too great. If you are going to tell yourself you can’t do it then you won’t do it. You must not let the difficult time own you or dictate your life. You must be STRONGER than the difficult time.
You must find a solution. A solution changes everything. No matter how bad your situation, you must find ways to change what you can.. You must pray. Prayer is your weapon. It is your comfort. Without it, you are wasting the most powerful gift given to you.
You must surround yourself with love. Keep the negative out. Place people around you who will push you. Who will not let you slip under.
This is something I wrote down one day, and I read it whenever I am feeling weak.
“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to you knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. No one is going to hit as hard as life. It ain’t about how hard you hit...It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done. You have got to be willing to take the hits.”
I think this is a great lesson for anyone going through anything.
How am I today…hmmm. That depends on if I am Mom at the moment, or working in the O.R, chaotically busy, spending time with family and friends or having a day of rest. Here’s the thing. I am in a good deal of pain 24/7. My best times are in the morning before I have been up for long. I wake up and am usually a 3 or 4 on pain scale. Towards late afternoon my pain goes up a lot, and by night it is usually a 7-9 on a pain scale. I don’t have time for pain in the AM. I don’t have time for it when I have things to do, kids to take care of, cases to be in, or a function to attend. At nighttime I have time to be in pain. I am able to be in pain. Sometimes the pain is too great and it puts me in bed by the afternoon, but I have learned to count down the hours and push through the best I can. When my day is done I can not wait for my epsom salt bath, heating pad, herbal pain relief combinations (no it’s not pot people haha) and my bed. I am not able to lay flat and have been sleeping sitting up for four months now…but I don’t care. I am able to lay without moving and that’s good enough for me. Every day is different. Sometimes I'm doing really well. Other days I feel like giving up because I am so tired of pain. I drove to my best friend Marianne’s house last week and sat down with her and started bawling. I was just so tired of the pain and it emotionally wears me out.
I have to take the days as they come and I have to put aside my pride. That has been VERY hard. I have gone from being in great shape and working out daily the last ten years to maybe making it to the gym three days a week. My jeans still sag a little and I don’t have the muscle or tone I had. I get depressed about that some days. But I have to listen to my body and not be prideful or “too tough.” I have learned there is a difference between being too tough and stupid. I have been stupid many times since this surgery, but I am learning.
What makes me charge ahead the most is my Sophia. I have to get strong for her. We have so much life to live together. I watch mommies who are able to pick her up and hold her and while I am so glad she is able to have that, it breaks my heart that I can not do that for another few years. I have to be strong enough to work. If I don’t work she can not go to her school. She goes to an incredible school, but it is very expensive. I cannot give her the life I want to give her if I don’t get out of bed every morning. If I didn’t have bills to pay I would probably still be in bed half days every day right now. That is not a choice. I can not be a good mother, wife and stepmom if I do not push forward. I must smile and push through the pain because, that is my only option. I keep a good poker face. That’s what counts.
The amount of people who have reached out to me is overwhelming. I still have a pile of precious cards from Sophia's friends and friends of mine. A few from people I don’t even know. People I have not seen in a decade. Friends' mothers who I grew up around. Friends of friends, friends of my fiancee’s mother, people off social media who have contacted me who I have never met. I have had a few supplement companies contact me asking of I am interested in using their product and being a spokesmodel but I decided I really needed to focus at the moment on detoxing and just getting healthy as I can get with a chest of titanium (:
Today is my 6-month mark… (June 30, 2015)
Today is my 6 month mark. I woke up with a pain fever a second night in a row last night and a massive fever blister that I always get when the pain fevers come. Boy do I look pretty. When my pain level raises I get fevers. I was laying looking at the celling last night thinking, “God has a sense of humor…I think he’s just reminding me of the journey I started 6 months ago.”
One of my nurses asked me, “What does it mean for you to hit six months? How does it make you feel?"
That’s a hard question but, the first thing that comes to my mind is “How did I make it, I can't believe I made it?” It all seems like a nightmare now… It doesn’t seem real.
I think about the pain and I usually start crying. It’s almost traumatic now. I found myself looking at all my pictures post op the other day. I could not believe that the 94-lb girl I saw in the pictures was me. I was shocked. I then saw my long thick flowing hair and started sobbing. Hair…it really is our crowning glory. Hair is a funny thing. If I could get anything back right now it would be my hair. HA! At least I have an incredible hairstylist who gave me a great short hair cut and color. I feel sassy again (:
I’ve gone from 94-lbs to a healthy 119-lbs now. My scale has gone up and down depending on my pain. I lose weight quick if I have a hard week pain wise. Some weeks I swell so much that I gain a quick 5-lbs. Getting used to my new body has been VERY difficult. It’s very frustrating. I get very angry sometimes. I feel ugly sometimes. I feel like I’m 80-years-old. That is hard. If I want to have a fun day I always pay for it. If I could use one word to describe the way I feel now in my new body it's HUMBLED. Humbled is the word that sums it up. Why humbled?
I used to make my living having a perfect body. I was an athlete, a strong one at that. I felt powerful. An athlete's mind set is very different. Their strength is everything. I competed for a living and was a fitness model. My body paid my bills. My body was everything. I would diet my ass off to stand on stage for 30 seconds and be told if I was the best or the worst. WHAT A SHALLOW JOB. Either way it changes you to where you are no longer healthy about your image. Being soft meant you were out of shape. Not having a six pack meant you didn’t do enough cardio. Having hips was not sexy. But today is different.
Through this transition I have learned SO Much. I have been HUMBLED so much. I have learned that soft is BEAUTIFUL. FEMININE. I have learned that there is a difference between being healthy, and being narcissistic about your body.
I have learned that if you are putting more time in to your physique than your spirit, you may get a six pack but you will be empty inside. I have learned that there is no such thing as perfect. There IS such a thing as HAPPINESS.
I have learned that vanity is stupid. Security is real. Yes, half of my hair has fallen out. I have bald spots that I am insecure about. I have flab on my thighs for the first time. Shopping is not fun anymore. I can’t go to bootcamp. I can’t open doors that my 6-year-old can open .
But I’m here. I can pull up my own pants now. I can brush my own teeth and hair. I can hold a fork (that took me awhile) and I can drive. I have SO much to be grateful for.
It’s crazy to look at pictures of myself from a week before surgery. I learned that pain and stress can age someone dramatically. Its made me realize that we truly have the ability to age ourselves dramatically. We have to relax! We have to live life and love every second of it. Even the hard times.
We need to pray about everything. We need to nourish our relationships. My relationships held me up. They are everything to me. We need to strive to be better versions of ourselves. THIS LIFE IS PRECIOUS. We cannot take it for granted.
Six months ago my life changed forever. I wanted to die when I came to days later. The next few months were a horrific nightmare. Six months later my life is beautiful. It’s painful yes. It’s frustrating yes. Yes I get angry. I heard something beautiful at mass last night. The priest said “ God gives us thorns in our side so we are reminded that WE NEED HIM. That we must let HIM BE IN CONTROL.” I smiled to myself. My new goal is throughout the day when my bars hurt or they limit me, instead of cursing them I will be thankful for their reminder that I need God. That I can offer up the pain and frustration for someone else who is in pain. Life threw me a curveball. It's that simple.
Six months ago I lay in CVICU practically dying from pain. This Friday I I marry the love of my life. How great is GOD? He may have allowed me to go through hell, but look where it brought me? I have the most beautiful family. The fullest life. I’ve been able to touch others by my story. I’ve learned SO MUCH. I’ve learned that we can take so much more that we think. I have learned to appreciate everything. I still smile to myself when I walk to the mailbox. A few months ago that was a marathon for me.
God has shown me that if I am faithful to him and I hang on, he will never ever forsake me. DON’T EVER GIVE UP. Appreciate the thorns in your side. Be grateful for them. Don’t wait for tomorrow to make changes. There may not be a tomorrow. There is always a rainbow at the end of the storm… You just have to hang on and wait for the break in the clouds.
Brand New News! (Wednesday, July 22, 2015)
I was getting ready to publish this post when Michaela announced something. Many months ago while she was recovering she was such an inspiration that she was approached by Josh Murray (you know, the final chosen one for a recent "Bachelorette") to be a part of #TeamMurray for Advocare. At the time, Michaela needed to focus on getting better. But today, because Michaela did fight the fight and is better, she is able to team up with him. Michaela and Josh will host Advocare mixers where everyone can meet, share stories and get to know each other.
"I still miss helping people reach their health and fitness goals. This time, I needed the help too so I thought, 'Why not start a team and we all push each other?'"