Wednesday, May 17, 2017

We live on

The Tuesday after my second marathon, a co-worker who runs sub-3 marathons asked me what was next. He was surprised that I would choose to make New York City, Pittsburgh and San Francisco - all hilly marathons, the first three of my life. According to him, I could just go out and run 4 loops of Central Park if I wanted my tracker to record 26.2 miles. And that a marathon should be registered for, with the sole intention of achieving a Personal Record (PR). He looked at me and remarked if he was missing something. I joked - "you're missing a heart, buddy".

This was a marathon from the heart. It took heart to go through the season, and it took heart to finish.

The seeds were sowed in October 2016 when I had started looking up to Roger Federer's first Wimbledon triumph in the build-up to my own first marathon. And then, during a conversation with my first coach (Noa), I had brought up the thought of emulating his yearly Grand-Slam tally with my marathons, if NYC didn't devastate me. And it didn't! And so, the search began. Proper spacing, marathons that I would like to do, places I'd like to visit. It culminated with a list of 3 cities - Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Chicago, over dinner with my 3 coaches - Christine, Deb and Noa.

Coaches-par-excellence

December and January saw me running in Barcelona, Mumbai, Bhilai and New York, the final one - the Fred Lebow half marathon leaving me with a bad right knee. A week later came the 18th, the Slam we'd all (alright, except for Djodal fans) been waiting for, for 4.5 years. And I just had to celebrate, to let my emotions out. So, off I went - on an 18-miler on a bad knee, a run that would open the floodgates of Deb's fury and have her unleash on me an 18-day penalty. Little did I know that at the end of the penalty lay an even bigger fury - that of fate.

What transpired over the next 3 months is an experience I'll never ever forget, one that will likely shape the rest of my life, for good or for worse. On the 18th of February, 2017, while mentoring a robotics team at HSCT Bronx for the upcoming FIRST Robotics competition, I felt pain - abdominal as well as testicular, accompanied by vomiting. Thinking of it as a gastro-intestinal issue, I took a subway home and went to sleep. And if the President wasn't already a bad omen to begin with, I woke up with a swollen testicle on Monday, the President's Day holiday. The next day, I saw a urologist, who diagnosed epididymitis, a bacterial infection. Another 15-day penalty on running and exercising. A course of painkillers and antibiotics took the pain away soon, and brought the infection down, leaving me in good shape to re-start running.

I'll skim through the rest of March - some good runs, the longest being the NYC half-marathon, where I did a negative split enroute to a 22-minute PR on the 13.1-mile distance. Things were going well at work, I'd started seeing a woman named Nikki, and we bonded well over our first date. Life would soon turn upside-down, put me on a roller-coaster that twisted and turned so many times I lost track which way I was going, whether I was in free-fall. 

On April 10th, during a follow-up with the urologist, he became suspicious of something else going on - the *something* being testicular cancer. A sonogram revealed no blood supply - hinting towards the events of Feb 18th being a testicular torsion, or to put it simply, a murder of the ball. While the chances of having cancer had me shit-scared already, the alternative didn't help much either. Living with a torsioned testicle meant that my body could start producing anti-sperm anti-bodies that could render me infertile, and also placed me at a higher risk of undergoing another one - an event that would make me Lord Varys. And while I do envy the wisdom of his mind, I would rather not want to emulate the rest of his body.

3 days later, the same urologist suggested I have an orchiectomy, i.e., a removal of the testicle, along with an orchiopexy, i.e., surgical attachment to avoid torsion, in order to solve both of the above-mentioned issues. To put things into perspective, barring a total blood transfusion at birth, I have never had anesthesia, surgery or even a fracture. This was going to be a huge decision to make.

In the week of April 24, I sought a second opinion. This urologist was much more certain of cancer, and that sent all the jitters through me. Testicular cancer is one of the aggressive kinds, and if not treated on time, can spread to the colon, lungs, and in rare circumstances, the brain. It is highly curable, which is the good part. I've heard and read so many people's stories of breast and blood cancers via my two marathons, and desperately did not want to be unaware of cancer in case I had it. An MRI revealed no signs of neoplasm, which came as a huge huge relief. But I left with the dilemma of going with a surgical removal, or waiting-and-watching, the latter being recommended by the second urologist. Another round of consultations with my closest friends, both urologists, and my primary-care physician, and I decided to stick to the plan.

The health issues were taking their toll on me in a lot of different ways. There were nights when I would stay awake for hours, checking to see if my healthy testicle was in the same position it had been 10 minutes ago. Any slight discomfort in the groin, and I would wake, sit upright, see if any vomit was coming up. (Vomiting is one of the symptoms of torsion.) Although we were quite certain of a torsion being the reason, I couldn't get over the fact that 25 is not the age when it happens to folks. According to these researchers, it is a surgical emergency affecting 3.8 per 100,000 males younger than 18 annually. Wiki puts it at being most common at birth and during puberty, and happening to around 1 in 4000 to 1 in 25000 males per year before 25 years of age. Believe me, I'm not hitting puberty these days. The other possibility was of course, cancer. It's something that can't be ruled out just because a test doesn't reveal anything. I remember thinking to myself if I should quit running, and start going for Tour de France, in case I did have testicular cancer. If you didn't get this connection, consider reading It's Not About the Bike, My Journey Back to Life. It's an amazing book. You're welcome for the free publicity, Lance

Even if I had had torsion, why me? 1 in 25000, and it had to be me!! Add to it the fact that I suffered from it while mentoring high school kids, while trying to do something good for society. It was disturbing, to say the least. In the 400 days I had been at Bloomberg, I had devoted 465 hours of my time to volunteer projects with the Philanthropy Team. I know, #humblebrag, but it's ok, Roger does it too. In the next fortnight, I started backing out of projects I had registered for. I would go to a session where I was supposed to teach Python coding to some kids for 1.5 hours, but would sneak out within 30 minutes because I had started associating my misfortune with volunteering. Now that I look back at those weeks, I feel as if I was living in an annulus of positive energy, but immediately surrounding me was a ball of negativity and pessimism, an invisible sphere that I didn't have the will, time or energy to claw through.

With it came a loss of focus at work. I would stare blankly at the screen, looking to google for articles on torsion, cancer, infertility, etc. every opportunity I got. I no longer wanted to think about complex problems in math and logic. I love my job, and I love the people I work with, but I couldn't help but perform at a much lower efficiency level than what my potential dictated (more like dick-tated throughout April). I could feel it, and on the 20th, when I opened up to my manager about everything that was going on, he confessed he'd been feeling the same about me. Dating didn't help elevate my mood either. We would go out to dinner, and only one of us would have a credit/debit card. I would drop her off at a subway station, only one us had a MetroCard. I would visit her place, one of us would start having back-ache. When we'd started off, she'd talked about how much she loved philanthropy. At this point of time, neither of us was doing any good for society, but one of us couldn't because they didn't have time left after work, shopping, manicures and pedicures. I'd hoped she would be the person I could talk to about anything but I never even felt close enough to tell her what I was going through. If you're reading this, I apologize for not sharing my deepest troubles with you, and if you feel that it was my fault we split.

During this time, I did get a few things right. I started talking to people. It was actually my favorite British-woman who first advised me to seek a second opinion for the surgery. She also calmed down my anxieties about whether having just one testicle would drive a good woman away from me. Dear pretty Brit, if you're reading this over a breakfast muffin or night tea, I still wish you were 25. I had of course, kept my parents and best friends abreast of the latest developments throughout. I spoke to the people I'm closest to at work, both on the Machine Learning and Philanthropy teams. I can't thank my teammates enough for bearing with me when I would show up to work at 2pm, post-MRI, and with my mind somewhere else. My wellness coach at work was always there to advise me, and clear my doubts about surgeries, nutrition, and the American healthcare system in general. Two of the most amazing people I've ever met -  both fellow TNT marathoners and big-time fund-raisers, conversed with me and helped keep me stress-free. Everyone was just so, so supportive. My 70-year-old American Mom even offered to come down from Pittsburgh to be by my side on D-day. I realized something very important - the people who care about you don't cringe if you have to keep repeating the words testicle, scrotum, balls, penis to their face.

And if you thought I wouldn't mention tennis among the things I did right, then you must not know me yet. During those toughest weeks, I started reading Andre Agassi's autobiography Open. It begins with the following:

One cannot always tell what it is that keeps us shut in, confines us, seems to bury us, but still one feels certain barriers, certain gates, certain walls. Is all this imagination, fantasy? I do not think so. And then one asks: My God! Is it for long, is it for ever, is it for eternity? Do you know what frees one from this captivity? It is very deep serious affection. Being friends, being brothers, love, that is what opens the prison by supreme power, by some magic force. —Vincent van Gogh, letter to his brother, July 1880

I wouldn't say that reading this was the sole reason I opened up to people, but this and many other such excerpts from the book affected how I dealt with my scenario. And so did this gem:

Arthur Ashe, 3-time Grand Slam champion, was dying of AIDS which he got due to infected blood received during a heart surgery in 1983. One fan of his asked - "Why does God have to select you for such a bad disease?". Ashe replied - "The world over--50,000,000 children start playing tennis, 5,000,000 learn to play tennis, 500,000 learn professional tennis, 50,000 come to the circuit, 5000 reach the grand slam, 50 reach the Wimbledon, 4 to semi finals, 2 to finals. When I was the one holding the cup, I never asked god "Why me?". And today in pain, I should not be asking GOD "why me?".

Now, I know I'm no Arthur Ashe, however much I might dream of winning Wimbledon someday (Roger, can you do it again instead of me, please? Thanks.). But I do recognize the privileges I have had growing up, the opportunities afforded to me, and that my pains are a minor setback compared to what millions of other people go through.

And if you thought I wouldn't mention Federer among the tennis-related things I did right, then I don't even know what to say. One fine day, Deb came in to Bloomberg to drop off some medals (love the bling, btw) and I thought I would show her the NYC Marathon photo-book I had created.


She went flipping through the pages, and stopped to read something. I took a peek, and it was this:


Best snippet I ever wrote
   
It felt as if I had written that snippet last September, knowing I would need it most right now. I had surely been using Roger's brilliant comeback this year as inspiration to myself - that if I really wanted to come out on top, I would. 

One last thing was the decision to not give up on running. I had to make a choice - either go right into the pre-surgery procedures, have the surgery and miss the Pittsburgh marathon; or postpone the surgery to after. My primary urologist and surgeon assured me that running wouldn't worsen the situation, and that the chances of a second torsion, even though higher than normal, were still vanishingly small. I remember executing a fantastic tempo run the morning after learning about the torsion and then the fastest mile of my life the next Tuesday. I did not always have much time or energy left after all the visits to doctors, MRI, sonogram, blood tests, but I tried to not go completely blank in taper mode. The Wednesday before Pittsburgh, I would visit a counselor for the first time in my life. He informed me that running releases serotonin, a feel-good hormone into my blood stream. After nearly half an hour going back-and-forth, he said to me - "It's going to be very hard to put you into depression", a statement that stands testimony to the strength of my support system - parents, best friends, American family, running family, wellness coach, the Machine Learning Team, Bloomberg's Philanthropy team, Federer, the superb doctors I met, and each and every one of you who's inspired me one way or another to never give up.

And then came the Pittsburgh Marathon, whose recap you can read by clicking here. To give a brief overview, we raised 1513$ for the Susan G Komen Foundation, and I ran the two halves in 2:20:32 and 2:13:18 respectively, combining together for a 5:14 PR from a less-hillier NYC course. For now, I'll leave you with this picture of me at the finish line, simply because I love it so much!




Why am I writing all of this today? Partly because I had the surgery earlier in the day (May 17). It went well, and I'm supposed to take rest for a day or so, hence have lots of time on hand. But I'm writing this largely to make an appeal. If you're going through an unhappy stretch in life, if you're feeling stress or are undergoing depression, please talk. Talk to the people around you. They won't mind. If they do, then you've surrounded yourself with the wrong people. 

Remember that ball of negativity that's tough to claw through? You don't have to do it by yourself. Ask for help. It's much easier when your friends in the positive annulus lend a hand and pull you up. If no one else listens, TALK to me. And if you can run, RUN! And most importantly, do not lose HOPE. Find something to BELIEVE in. (I'm not making this up - my anesthesiologist today was named Roger, pure coincidence?) Life is so much more than one bad phase. LIVE!

I'll conclude with an excerpt from my favorite last paragraph ever amongst novels. Gail, if you're reading this, I'm sorry I'm spoiling Shantaram for you:

For this is what we do. Put one foot forward and then the other. Lift our eyes to the snarl and smile of the world once more. Think. Act. Feel. Add our little consequence to the tides of good and evil that flood and drain the world. Drag our shadowed crosses into the hope of another night. Push our brave hearts into the promise of a new day. With love: the passionate search for a truth other than our own. With longing: the pure, ineffable yearning to be saved. For so long as fate keeps waiting, we live on. God help us. We live on.

Ok, sorry, I lied. That wasn't the ending to my post. If you're feeling generous right now, and/or thankful for the people you have in your life, and/or just tired from reading and wishing I would stop, please consider making a donation to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and helping others live on, via http://pages.teamintraining.org/nyc/wdw18/VSingh
Note that every dollar you donate will be raised 2.74x, owing to a year-long (18+19=) 37% self-match in celebration of Roger's 18th and 19th, and a subsequent full match from my generous employer.

Thank you for reading, and thank you to every single person who has knowingly or unknowingly contributed to the state of well-being I am in today. I couldn't have done it by myself.

Yours truly,
Vipul.


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