Bravery has taken on many shapes and sizes during my life. Sometimes it has been in dramatic ways, while other times it has been simply getting through the day. But each time it has meant momentum moving forward. Bravery often times begets bravery…if only we can remember those many times God has given us courage in the past.
When I was 14, bravery was moving with my parents to a new town while my brothers were away at college, and walking through the doors of my new high school alone, not knowing a soul. As a college student, bravery was traveling to a developing country for the summer, with my luggage arriving seven days after I did! And as a new mom, bravery was leaving the hospital without our precious son, born eight and a half weeks early, while he stayed behind in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for extra medical care during his first month of life.
Each of these times God gave me the courage, strength, and the ability to move forward. There was nothing in me that could have managed these situations on my own.
These days bravery means living in the moment, not in fear of what may be ahead and not in agony over what has been lost.
While there are times to process both the past and the unknowns of the future, bravery means not being controlled by either realm. And that is difficult, because a lot has been lost, and there are many unknowns, especially in regards to my health.
Just over three years ago I was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea, meaning my airway was closing multiple times an hour and depriving my body of valuable oxygen during sleep. The Apnea–Hypopnoea Index (AHI) measures these occurrences. An AHI of 0-5 is normal, 5 – 15 is mild, 15 – 30 is moderate, and 30 and higher is severe. I was at 61. No wonder I always felt exhausted and suffered from terrible depression. I wasn’t able to get restorative sleep. Ever.
For several months I used a CPAP and then BiPAP machine, sending pressurized air through a tube and mask in order to keep my airway open while asleep. However, the side effects were unbearably painful for me, hurting my jaw and blowing my abdomen up like a balloon each night. Desperate and in even a deeper depression after having so much sleep deprivation, I had a genioglossal advancement, opening up the airway by cutting the mandible (lower jaw bone) and moving it forward, which, in turn, moves the lower part of the tongue that can close off the airway. This did help my sleep apnea initially, bringing my AHI clear down into normal range!
However, the pain and complications following surgery were extreme.
My bone structure itself was problematic; in surgery my doctor had noted how unique it was, unlike anything he’d ever seen before. My joints were also unstable, and my jaw dislocated multiple times. Additionally, my lower teeth all became loose, and eventually one tooth had to be removed. But probably the biggest concern was that my broken mandible was not healing from surgery. Bone grafting was done all throughout the surgical site, but it was unsuccessful.
More doctors. More pain. And so many tears.
Extreme TMJ pain developed, and a mouthpiece was made to stabilize my joints, but this didn’t help long-term. My husband and I traveled across the country to a world-renowned specialist, one of five trips we made last year for treatment. I was given a new mouthpiece, Botox shots, infrared therapy, and physical therapy exercises. Still I would only experience short-term relief, only to cycle back to the same pain again and again.
In the midst of all of this, my husband’s dad and my dad both passed away from cancer. We were close to both of them, and their absences were – and still are – felt immensely. Only three weeks after my dad’s memorial service, I had a bad fall, dislocating my patella, breaking my leg, and spraining both wrists. I was wheelchair and walker-bound for three months. I couldn’t drive or even care for myself for much of that time. I continued to have jaw issues and even had to have a surgery to remove prolific scar tissue. Thankfully God provided family and friends to pray and also help out in tangible ways, because physically and emotionally I could hardly take any more.
Bravery means trusting God when circumstances are beyond our understanding. Even when loved ones are called Home. Even with ongoing pain. Even with unknowns ahead.
Now three years later, I am still living with a broken mandible, a vertical fracture that developed where my tooth once was, TMJ pain, and unfortunately, sleep apnea again. My most recent sleep study showed an AHI of 51, nearly back to where it was pre-surgery. I am exhausted, and I miss the ability to talk and laugh without pain. Complications have been so unprecedented and severe that, of the 17 doctors (both mainstream and alternative) that I have seen for these issues, none have seen a case like mine.
I have been asked if I regret having the first jaw surgery. Looking back with more information now, it is clear that this was not a good idea. But at the time, doctors didn’t realize the extent of my issues. We all knew sleep apnea is life threatening, especially with as severe as mine, and I was desperate for help. Years before, I had success with extensive reconstructive surgeries in both knees after I had had nearly 40 patella dislocations. No one understood how different my jaw would be.
Bravery is accepting that this is my story, as much as I wish it wasn’t.
This is not the story I would have written, but I trust that God has His purposes. And while the process has been painful in every way, I have grown tremendously.
I am blessed with an amazing group of family and friends who care deeply for me and my well-being. Through their encouragement, promises of Scripture, and songs, God continues to provide me with strength to keep going.
Bravery means knowing there is somehow purpose behind this pain, but being authentic with God and others about the ache in finding it.
During the last three years, I’ve realized God can take my anger, pain, tears, and anxiety. He wants me to be authentic and lay down all of my emotions and losses before Him. It is only when I give him my broken pieces that He can redeem my brokenness. And then I am reminded how His love and faithfulness never fail, regardless of circumstances or my feelings.
This week bravery was going to a new doctor for sleep apnea, continuing to pursue answers. I also began a new kind of treatment to promote healing for my TMJ pain and mandible. We will see what is ahead. I rarely “feel” brave these days, but by God’s grace I am moving forward. And that is good enough.