Against All Odds: Kathy Raasch

Devastated by serious health problems, these astonishing women reclaimed their bodies—and their hopes for the future—by taking on challenges that seemed impossible. Here, see how a strong spirit can triumph over even the most weakened body.

as told to Shelley Levitt
kath raasch picture
Photograph: Ben Hoffmann

Kathy Raasch, 47
Hometown:
Littleton, Colorado
Medical Challenge: Multiple Sclerosis

When I was 18 months old, I was hospitalized with meningitis, and my right leg was amputated below the knee. As I got older, my orthopedist told me I wouldn’t be able to do what other kids did, but I begged to differ. It took me longer to learn to ride a bike, climb a tree and swim, but I did.

I developed this determination and persistence because I was lucky enough to grow up in a small town with a big family—six siblings. I had the same friends from kindergarten through high school, and they treated me like anyone else. I remember being 13 and going waterskiing with my pals. I thought I’d just hang out on the boat, but they tossed me overboard. It took me 14 tries and 14 falls, but eventually I got up on that ski.

Whenever someone has told me I can’t do something, I go on and do it anyway. For my first nursing job, I was required to have a physical. The doctor said, “You can’t be a nurse with one leg. You won’t have the stamina.” Well, I’ve been a nurse for 25 years, and for much of that time, I worked 12-hour shifts in the emergency room. Seven years into my marriage, I had a tubal pregnancy. When doctors discovered that my fallopian tubes were malformed, they said the chances of my ever becoming pregnant again were nil. Exactly one year later, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter.

My first real setback came at age 35 when I started experiencing severe fatigue, the kind where you can sleep for 20 hours straight and still not have the strength to get out of bed. My feet were also numb and tingling. As a nurse, I had a suspicion of what was happening—multiple sclerosis—but when I got the diagnosis, my terror was indescribable. At 19, I’d worked in a nursing home where the majority of patients had end-stage multiple sclerosis. People were unable to talk or to dress themselves. That’s how I pictured my future.

For the first couple of years after my diagnosis, I just felt sorry for myself. Then, in the spring of 2002, the hospital where I worked launched a program that encouraged staffers to walk 10,000 steps a day. At the end of the first day, my pedometer showed only 500 steps, and I thought, This is pathetic. So I started a treadmill-walking program, which led to workouts on a stationary bike and then to swimming. The more I did, the stronger I felt.

In 2004, I signed up for the Danskin Triathlon—a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride and 3.1-mile run. About halfway through the swim, I was so cold and exhausted, I was becoming disoriented, but I told myself, My kids are not going to watch me die on this lake. When I finished the race, I felt so proud, it could have been the Olympics. And to see the expressions on my children’s faces! They were five and nine at the time, and they were screaming and hollering, “You did it, Mom! You did it!” It was a tearjerker, for God’s sake. It was just overwhelming.

The toughest race I’ve done was the Bike Ride for MS. It’s a two-day, 150-mile ride, and the last 15 miles are the hardest. For sections of that leg, you ride straight uphill at a grueling 15 percent grade to cross the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado, which is one of the world’s highest suspension bridges. It’s absolutely insane. Cyclists zigzag up the road because it’s too steep to ride straight.

After walking my bike part of the way, I finally crossed the Royal Gorge only to see another hill. The temperature was 100 degrees, I had ridden 135 miles, and I was crying my eyes out. Then a man came along and said, “It’s just one more hill. I’m going to ride it with you.” Angels show up when you need them; I never learned the man’s name, but he stayed with me the whole way. I was so happy about finishing that I wept again when the race was over.

With MS, there are days I’m going to have pain whether I sit in my chair and wallow or keep moving. It’s a choice. And my choice is, I’m not going to live my life on the sidelines.   

Click here to read Wendy Rodger's story.

First Published January 4, 2012

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