Dede Cummings, 54
Hometown: Brattleboro, Vermont
Medical Challenge: Crohn’s Disease
I was 4,000 feet inthe air, straddling a crevice on the Bamforth Ridge in the Green Mountains in June 2007, when I had a panic attack. “I can’t do this,” I said to my climbing partner. “I can’t take another step.” A decade earlier, I would have been anxious because I was afraid of heights. But that day I was terrified of something else: that I’d get a sudden case of diarrhea or incontinence on that mountain ledge.
I’d had digestive problems since college—episodes of pretty severe diarrhea and cramping—but they would pass, and I’d shrug them off. Then, when I was in my midthirties, I was driving home to Brattleboro from Rhode Island and was hit with such an explosive case of the runs, I had to pull the car over and go in the bushes. A few years later, in 2001, I had a colonoscopy and a CAT scan, and my small intestine lit up like fireworks. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, an incurable and sometimes debilitating form of inflammatory bowel disease.
Crohn’s isn’t life threatening, but it’s hard to live with. Any little stress can trigger a flare-up. Travel is especially difficult; after one trip, I had to throw my underwear away in the airport ladies’ room because it had gotten soiled during the flight.
In 2006, I had a flare-up of cramping, vomiting and dehydration that was so serious, I landed in the hospital and was scheduled for bowel-resection surgery that would remove two feet of my intestine. As I lay awake the night before, the woman in the next bed passed away. It was a bleak moment, and the nurses sent in a social worker to talk to me.
But I had something else in mind. “If I ever get out of here,” I said to my surgeon in the morning, “I’m going to hike the Long Trail”—the 270 gorgeous, and sometimes arduous, miles of trails that run the length of Vermont, along the Green Mountains.
Choosing such an ambitious goal was a giant leap of faith in my post-surgery life. My doctor had told me that half of all patients need to have a second operation, and many end up with an ostomy bag. The thought of that terrified me. So I envisioned a future in which I would not be part of that 50 percent, and I decided to move forward with optimism.
I’ve always considered myself an athlete. I played tennis and varsity squash in college and afterward taught skiing and led bicycle trips to Canada. Reconnecting with that part of my identity was an important part of my recovery. It helped quiet the fear in the back of my mind and in my gut. I slowly became physical again, going from yoga and walking to biking and then running. I did a 5K event, wearing pads in case there was any leakage, and then a half-marathon with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.
In July 2007, one year after my surgery, I started hiking the Long Trail with my good friend Johanna. We went out for six days, carrying 50-pound packs, and covered 56 miles in all, including the highest summits on the trail. It was scary to be out there in remote areas. I had to be super careful about what I ate—lots of rice and steamed vegetables. I packed a water-filtration system, and I carried iodine, because infections can really wreak havoc. But my attitude was, I want to embrace life. The panic attack I suffered was frightening, but with Johanna’s help I got past it, and that was part of the embrace.
Johanna and I go back to the Long Trail every summer, and we think we’ll have climbed it all by this fall. To be hiking this trail in my fifties with a chronic condition is incredibly empowering. I feel that I’m in better shape now than I was in my twenties and thirties. I’m stronger and calmer; my stamina is better and so is my focus. I’m also less competitive. I don’t run or climb to break records. I do it for joy.