Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Laura Hillenbrand

In finishing her gripping novel Unbroken, I learned more about the author Laura Hillenbrand, someone with a remarkable story. Hillenbrand's New Yorker article, "A Sudden Illness," won the 2004 National Magazine Award. As I googled the article, I learned about a woman who has walked through a harrowing, deep and persistent struggle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: someone misdiagnosed and cruelly told for years that she had psychiatric problems, couldn't take care of herself, was lazy, selfish and unmotivated, needed to eat more, couldn't handle the rigors of life, etc. Hillenbrand was treated as such by medical professionals until she found an Infectious Disease Specialist named Dr. John G. Bartlett at John Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Bartlett diagnosed Hillenbrand with CFS and at that point, Hillenbrand realized that her condition was "real"; for years she had been told by physicians outside their fields of knowledge that she was "fine" and had a problem with "imagining" an illness, when in fact she wasn't fine and did indeed have an illness. 

In her article, Hillenbrand describes her condition in this way:

One mistake could land me in bed for weeks, so the potential cost of even the most trivial activities, from showering to walking to the mailbox, had to be painstakingly considered. Sometimes I relapsed for no reason at all. Living in perpetual fear of collapse was stressful,... For as long as two months at a time, I couldn't get down the stairs. Bathing became nearly impossible. Once a week or so, I sat on the edge of the tub and rubbed a washcloth over myself. The smallest exertion plunged me into a 'crash.' First, my legs would weaken and I'd lose the strength to stand. Then I wouldn't be able to sit up. My arms would go next, and I'd he unable to lift them. I couldn't roll over. Soon, I would lose the strength to speak. Only my eyes were capable of movement. At the bottom of each breath, I would wonder if I'd be able to draw the next one.

Today, Hillenbrand has great difficulty reading as looking down triggers vertigo- it takes her a painstaking amount of time to write as well. After a relapse in 2007, she didn't leave her home for over two years. Hillenbrand conducts her interviews for her books and articles over the phone and even today rarely leaves her home. When she attended the film premier of Seabiscuit a number of years ago, she did so in a wheelchair. Even Louis Zamperini who went through untold amounts of suffering (see previous blogpost) said of Hillenbrand, "Her suffering made her able to relate to what I went through in prison." 

Needless to say, I commend to you the New Yorker article- also kudos to her longtime boyfriend, now husband, Borden: read the New Yorker article and this one: USA Today Hillenbrand Article… I think you'll see why.

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