Health and Wellness

The Zebra Farmer

There’s a famous one-line quote that many doctors have heard in medical school that refers to looking for a diagnosis that’s more common than not. “If you hear hoofbeats, remember to think of horses and not of zebras.” The problem is that medically speaking… not everyone is a horse.

Six months after I got married, my husband and I sat down to a large cheese pizza and a movie. We did this little routine every Saturday night to ensure that we made time for one another as much as possible. Rob was stationed in South Korea, and we could never be sure when he would be shipped off for training or getting ready for war.

We lived in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom flat a few streets over from the Army base with a rice paddy in our back yard. It was our first home together and the minimum requirement that we would be living there (through military contract) lasted at least a year, but possibly longer. None of that mattered so long as we could be together… until the night that changed everything.  

I was positive that I had the stomach flu. By the time the movie ended, I wasn’t feeling so hot. My stomach churned, my face turned pale, and I made several trips to the bathroom to get sick. I had hope within that moment that everything would work itself out. That I would be feeling better again in a couple days.

That’s the funny thing about hope, in the beginning you have a lot of it. Yet as time wears on, it becomes the most dangerous emotion that someone who’s chronically ill can have. When days of being sick turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months… with no end in sight. You begin to lose it. You bargain for your life. Have another hospital stay, see another doctor. Sit down in your 100th exam room and hope has dwindled until there’s nothing left.

When you’re young you start out with the notion that all doctors are smart. You feel as if the world is full of incredible people, and that someone somewhere will know how to fix you. You move on to hoping that there’s a pill to take or a treatment to try that will give you a better quality of life. Yet you settle on symptom management. The ability to have more good days than bad ones… or just any good days at all.

My husband watched me waste away from being vibrantly healthy to counting the bones in my body just from looking at me. I weighed 64 lbs. Just a few pounds shy of the weight my almost eight-year-old boy is now. My body punished me for every morsel of food or liquid that passed my lips, and I was told more than once that I was probably going to die. I was racked with abdominal pain, and I couldn’t prevent myself from throwing up repeatedly no matter how much I begged to make it stop.

I reached a point where I longed for death. It took great effort to get dressed, to brush my hair, or just to walk from one room into the next. Upon trying to make my way to the hospital on base (The TMC), I would sit on the curb and lean away from traffic to avoid getting hit by cars when I passed out. I was transferred to a better hospital by ambulance, where doctors discovered that I had a kidney disease… which had nothing to do with regaining my able to eat.   

I went from having a needle phobia and being terrified of hospitals to showing up to medical exams for regular testing. I was forced into being dependent by allowing my husband to help wash my hair when I couldn’t do it myself. Rob spoon fed me broth or soup when my hands shook too much out of weakness from malnutrition. When he couldn’t be there, and we were back in the states (two years later) my mom helped take care of me.

All the while my husband was forced to continue going on training missions that kept him away from home for weeks at a time. He would stock the refrigerator and pray that I would still be alive by the time he came back home again. I was unrecognizable. He didn’t handle the new adjustment to my health very well. Alcoholism ran in his family, and he relied heavily on that to help him cope. Which began another kind of sickness that we had to fight to get through together.  

I spent nine years of my life more bedridden than not. I fought to avoid feeding tubes and TPN, I tried every medical miracle I could find (sometimes at the detriment to my body and peace of mind) because deep-down I wanted to live. I wanted a full life on my terms without lasting side effects from daily medications or being hooked up to machines that would barely help me survive.

Six months of testing at Mayo Clinic and I was diagnosed with a little-known illness called Gastroparesis. Which is the shortened medical term for stomach paralysis. To this day episodes of what I call GP strike fear and anxiety within my heart. It never fully goes away. It can become more manageable (like it did for me) but for the millions of friends I’ve made over the years through support groups… Gastroparesis doesn’t always get better with time (or in my case… with pregnancy). It can get so much worse.

I have a long list of zebra-like symptoms beyond Gastroparesis. Things that happen to me that can be explained under other diagnoses in which I was given, and things that can’t. I’ve had more than one near death experience and knowing my medical history… I’m sure there will be more. My husband and I have spent thousands of dollars trying to figure everything out only to walk away with less money in our pockets, and no answers to show for it.

One of my favorite primary care physicians I’ve ever had once told me that my medical history was so interesting, he took it to bed with him as reading material. While under his care, I contracted a rare parasite that no one in my area had experienced in almost 45 years. Upon returning to his office for a follow up exam, he shook his head, and we laughed over the absurdity of it together.   

When new doctors are forced into my life because physicians retire or move away, I am coaxed into relaying the bizarre sagas to fresh faces. The jaw-dropping reaction of disbelief is one I’m all-too familiar with. I can tell within the first five minutes of conversation whether that specific doctor can handle my case or not.       

Farm life and motherhood are my reasons for getting out of bed in the morning. There are moments when I am so overcome with pain that it takes everything within me to do the most basic tasks. My ability to run our farm, be a professional photographer, write, and build a small business is accomplished not because I’m young or feeling my best, but because I am resilient.

One of the many roses in my garden.
A picture of me right after I got pregnant. I got worse before I got “better”
I didn’t take pictures of myself very often but I took this one to show how much
weight that I was losing

60 thoughts on “The Zebra Farmer”

  1. What a series of awful medical events, but your resilience is great. I’m sorry this happened to you, but pleased that you felt comfortable enough with your story to share it here. Chuckling about your doc who read your file for fun. I’ve always liked that Zebra quote, and find that if applies to many scenarios outside of medicine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read my post today Ally! I figured I’d give some context to the other posts I’ve written where I was more vague about everything. These days I am the polar opposite weight wise. Once I was able to eat again, my body packed the weight on and I have struggled to get it off. I have come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to love myself through it and just be thankful to be alive. I’m blessed that my husband feels the same way.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Wow, LaShelle, wow! I’m so sorry for this long and terrifying journey you’ve been on. And it also makes me think of the safari on which I saw zebras in the wild. Incredibly beautiful creatures that live in delightful community. I’d say that zebra describes you in more ways than one – and you’ve found your community, not only in the support groups but also in the WP community as you share your powerful story.

    Here’s to your amazing resiliency. Gives me chills to bear witness to!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this even though you’re on vacation. It means so much! How right you are that community makes all the difference. I’m so lucky to have such supportive family and friends who have watched me suffer and seen me flourish in spite of it. Thanks for your beautiful comments.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! I take my hat off to you, LaShelle — if I wore one — for all you’ve been through and for your resilience ; it makes my troubles seem small; I found this a gripping post from the catchy title to the last feisty word 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It means a lot to me that you feel that way! Your poetry is brilliantly refreshing. Seriously I have a reminder on my phone to check your blog for new posts just in case I missed one 😂😋

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, my gosh. I had no idea. After nine years, it’s a wonder you had any hope left. Resilience carries us far in life, especially when others are starting to lose hope. I sense that this is mainly in the past, but it has to be in the back of your mind. You refused to let this define you; I imagine it’s made you mentally stronger in the long run. Now, I’m sure your boy is one of the main reasons you value your health.

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    1. When I got pregnant, Niki sent stem cells through the umbilical cord to help repair nerve and tissue damage. This is the reason why we think I was able to get better. While I’m not normal by any means and my health is still so unbelievably bizarre… I’m no longer bedridden and that my friend has been the biggest blessing of all. I’ve had almost 8 years of being able to do things again. Words cannot describe how amazing it is to not take things for granted… like eating, and I LOVE to eat now. I have the opposite issue of being overweight because my body held onto every ounce of fat it could get. It’s called starvation mode. I struggle immensely to lose weight. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m happy and lucky to be alive and that’s all that matters

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I so get the not taking things for granted angle. Even though my wife has a significant health issue, we have lived an incredibly normal life. I think something about feeling like you’ve danced with death affects our future actions in a way that makes us hold onto every precious thing in our lives a little bit longer and tighter.

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      2. Your wife is my hero. You’ve told me before about her MS diagnosis and that’s a very challenging illness to have. I’m so glad that she’s doing well and you guys are staying strong. She sounds like a woman of strength

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Whoa, that sounds scary indeed. You’ve always said you had medical conditions, but now that you’ve listed them out, it really is inspiring what you’ve fought through. And 64 lbs! That’s crazy scary. Yes, you’re definitely resilient for sure. I’d have tapped out long ago. Thanks for sharing this honest account of your life.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have the opposite problem now. Once I was able to eat again, my body held onto the weight and now I can’t get it off! So frustrating. I’m learning to love the body I’m in regardless. Being alive is so much more important. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  6. I am sitting here, in awe of your strength, LaShelle. I am so glad they finally figured out what was wrong with you (and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you sharing this piece of you) and that you have figured out a way to not only cope but thrive.
    Here is proof that we don’t know what others are living through on the day-to-day basis.
    That quote is SO apt!!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Today is not so great. Just got done with court with the guy who broke into my house. A lot of things went wrong. I’ll explain more after the trial. Thanks for asking though

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  7. Wow! Sorry you’ve had to deal with all of that. My sister-in-law has spent years in a similar situation with a unidentified auto-immune disease. I respect and admire your inner strength and coping skills. Thanks for sharing your story.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. That is an incredible journey you have been on LaShelle – plus you lived to tell about it. You owe it all to just a handful of good doctors and you certainly have a resiliency beyond belief. Thank you for sharing your story with us. I know you mentioned illness before when you did the post about Yellowstone, so now we know the backstory.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Never a problem LaShelle. I am now four days behind in Reader. I’ve done better lately keeping up, but last night I shut down fairly early when severe weather came rolling through, so I was already behind as it was. Take care of yourself and feel better!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ha never a dull moment over here. I’m on day 5 and it’s brutal but I think (I hope) I’m coming out of it. Rob is still deep in it and I can’t wait for it to be over with. My health is so bizarre I’ve been dreading and trying to avoid it for ages. Got all 3 shots and was first in line for my booster darn it!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. This is terrifying, LaShelle. I can’t believe you’ve lived through this and continue to live through this. Like a dark shadow, always looking over your shoulder… It’s heartbreaking to hear how much of your life was dedicated to either surviving this disease or researching it…. You definitely are one of the strongest, most resilient people I’ve ever met!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahhh you’re too kind! Crazy fact… I started a support group for it which had over 10k members (which I walked away from and handed to a friend when I got pregnant and my life took a different turn). My other blog (my very first blog) was devoted to helping others and still to this day has over 150k views and climbing. It’s really hard to explain why I walked away from helping other people with it except to say that it was extremely depressing. Lots of friends that I made died. I leave that blog up to continue to help people but I don’t write on it anymore and I created this blog just for me. My health will always be a struggle and I don’t like talking about it very often (except when it gets to me) but instead try really hard to focus on other things that make up who I am instead. Since it will come up from time to time, Izzy pushed me to write this. She’s my kinda-sorta-nonbiological-daughter (long story) haha. She said my blog needed context and that the story about what happened to me was something people who don’t know me should know. So I took her up on it ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow LaShelle. I’m kind of at a loss for words. Your story is fascinating. The idea that doctors don’t know everything is something I’ve had to come to terms with, but I cannot imagine living with an illness for so long with no real solution. Anywho, thanks for this glimpse into your life. It’s very inspiring.

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  11. Oh my goodness what a terrible time you have had! There are so many things that can go wrong with our health, I should be kissing the floor every morning because I wake up well and full of energy – but we tend to take it for granted – something which no doubt, you never do. I do spend a lot of energy ensuring that my health is as best it can be because I don’t want to become ill with the diseases of my parents – but tomorrow morning I am going to thank goodness for horses and not zebras (touch wood) when it comes to my own circumstances. I’ve never heard that phrase before – I rather like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad I could teach you about that phrase and I’m glad that you’re able to remember to be thankful for the health you have. It’s a gift that should be enjoyed ❤️

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  12. Thank you for your bravery in sharing all this here. Stepping away from the support group you created was such an incredible act of courage and self-preservation. I applaud you for raising awareness and for defining for yourself what parts of this journey you want to share and where you want to spend your energy. You constantly inspire me with your kindness, your beautiful words, and incredible photography.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow, some more light, lollypop reading. not!

    Thank god you have the Gastroparesis managed to where you can manage the farm and not wither away and die. You chose for it to make you stronger and not defeat you it seems.

    This is a disturbing, albeit thoughtful post. You are back to a safe weight I nope?

    Don’t die.

    On a totally unrelated note: Do you have stalls and a corral? You have one horse, right? Are you going to get more horses, or are they a waste of money because they don’t generate any income? (You’ll have to bare with me, I’m fascinated with this farm thing – have many questions about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have two stalls but nothing fancy. No more horses for me right now because Harlow is a rescue who’s not an easy keeper. He’s an old man who drops weight and I spend tons of money keeping him fed lol. Plus I’m super busy with working on the cut flower business which is my baby right now. No round pen because Harlow doesn’t need it. You can climb all over him bareback. He’s a good boy. Horses CAN generate income but they usually waste more than they make (not always but usually). Cut flowers is a booming business that can generate over 30k a year per acre and sometimes way way way more than that depending on where you live, how good you are, and who’s buying. Selling bulbs can generate even more which is something I may do once mine are producing a lot. Many bulbs double (but often x6 or more) their output so when you start having more bulbs to separate than you can pick flowers off of… You sell them. Certain bulbs can go for $5-$10.00 PER bulb. So if you have 100 bulbs or more and the next year you get something like 200-600 more off of them… It’s worth it to sell them. They generate amazing income. So cut flowers is the crop we grow here but we live in the woods with mountain land so we have to clear trees by hand one section at a time. We just added 6 1/2 acres. We had 4.71, we now have 11.2. we’re building a greenhouse, going to add ponds, working on a hydroponic system with fish to help feed the plants and hopefully will be adding a ton of aquatic plants to my cut flower arrangements. Things like water lotus tubers, Iris’s and greenery. ❤️ My husband wants cows but only to feed himself and friends through word of mouth. We’ll probably get 2 or 3 babies and raise them next year. Another cool thing about our property is that because it’s not all usable space, it’s perfect for hunting. So my husband wants to put deer stands up and hunt. There’s a ton of things to do here but it’s a crazy amount of work. When we log trees we do it by hand by ourselves. So it’s slow but it’s rewarding.

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      1. wow, fascinating. Truly fascinating. And, I didn’t know “cut flowers” was even a market. Are they pretty type flowers that flower shops use in flower bouquets?

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  14. Oh, Lashelle, I am so sorry about all that has happened. I am familiar with the experience of having a chronic illness due to the fact that I suffer from chronic pain. My problem is nothing compared to yours, but I can empathize with your concern that it might come back.

     I was supposed to read this since I am having a hard time with that right now. The fear of it happening once again. It doesn’t seem like that worry will ever go away, does it? I see you. ❤️

    Sending you so much love.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really appreciate you sharing that with me! Chronic pain is absolutely awful to live with regularly and I’m so sorry that you struggle with it. Gastroparesis is mostly under control and I say that loosely but I have a ton of other really weird things wrong with me. I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars seeing an autoimmune specialist trying to figure them out and they just don’t know why I am the way I am. I don’t have any solid answers in that regard I also have my kidney disease which normally runs in people’s DNA through family members it’s passed on, but nobody in my family has it. Everyone was tested and everyone tested negative. Unfortunately because I have it I was able to pass it on to my son and because we don’t know anyone else in my family that has it we won’t know how long I will have or which way it will go until I need a transplant. It’s complicated. Every day is so bizarre and complicated. I feel like anytime something new comes up doctors just sort of look at me, shrug and tell me that this is just something new that I get to live with. Which is frustrating but I am doing my best to make the most of it and I am not going to let it keep me from doing things that I love to do – which I know you get!!

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