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Focus is a Muscle by Connor O’Leary at TEDxUIUC (Full Transcript)

So I tried to keep going, with school, with racing, and with getting well. The days really did seem never ending. For seven hours a day, five days a week I set tethered to this chair in the infusion room at the Huntsman Cancer Center while I watched the chemo drip through my veins through this port that I had surgically implanted into my chest. I desperately tried to hang on to that awesome life that I’ve had just five months earlier but my focus was diminishing.

Chemo and cancer had really robbed me of my ability to focus, which is sometimes known as chemo brain. And I learned that if I was going to get better, if I was going to beat this disease, I needed to identify the essential and eliminate the rest. So that’s exactly what I did.

I stopped riding. My body was really becoming too weak anyways. I dropped all my classes that semester and I focused all of my time and energy on to one thing: beating cancer. And eventually my treatment was almost over, and I was like this hallelujah moment. I could see the end of the road. It was my second to last round of chemotherapy, and I started to experience this really crazy pain in my left collarbone. It was kind of a dull pain and it was not something I never experienced before. But trust me I had been experiencing a lot of new pains that year. And so I brushed it off as another indication that the chemo was probably just doing its thing.

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But then a few hours later, that pain moved from my collarbone into my chest and shoulder blade. And at that point I was like okay, what’s going on? But again I self-diagnosed it, claiming that I must have pulled a muscle or that it was just another reaction of the chemo drugs.

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But that night, that pain moved from those other places to my back and my rib cage. And I literally felt like I had been shot. Now I’ve never actually been shot. But I’m assuming that it feels something like that. It literally felt like I’ve broken every rib I had. So that night I remember sleeping in this chair in my parents’ living room. And I scoured the entire house for any painkiller I could find. The pain was absolutely excruciating. I couldn’t drink, eat, sleep or even lay down. The pain was so bad.

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In the next morning, my parents came into the living room and saw me sitting in that chair. And at that point they knew they needed to get me to the ER, so they rushed me to the ER. And at that point I was literally on the verge of passing out. My pain level was through the roof and my heart was racing out of control. In the ER, the doctor came in and he told me, “Connor, you’re lucky to be alive”. He explained to me that I had pulmonary emboli which are basically big blood clots, and that they had exploded in my lungs like hand grenades, and that I still had one large plot hanging off of that port in my heart. And that they were still extremely worried that it could break loose and go to my brain. And trust me we definitely did not want that.

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So I spent the next week or so lying in a hospital bed, coughing up blood, while the blood thinners ran through my veins trying to break down those clots. Hands down it was one of the scariest experiences of my life. But ultimately I was released, I was able to go home and I was able to finish those last few rounds of chemotherapy.

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Now it wasn’t until I got home from the hospital that I realized it was my focus that I had to thank for being alive. It was those sometimes endless thankless cold terrible hot days of training that it served an even greater purpose than a spot on the podium. It was my focus that saved my life.

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Now eventually after my chemo and my blood clots, I was able to get back on the bike. And I was able to start really training again. And eventually I did get back to the top of the sport. But before that, when the chemo and the blood clots were over, I was starting from Ground Zero. And I knew that I couldn’t just start riding immediately. So I focused on the lowest impact sport I could possibly think of, which at the time was swimming. And I remember going to the local community pool and it must have been seniors night out or seniors get half off because the place is absolutely crawling with bald-headed old guys. And I’m not going to lie, I fit right in.

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So at the pool they had this kind of resistance track where you walk against the current. And so I decided okay, I’m going to start there. So I hopped in and started walking against the current. And I quickly realized that I was getting lapped by a 90 year old man, not 19, 90! Granted he was a really fit 90 year old. But I remember thinking to myself, man, this is what I’ve become. I went from being in a lead level athlete to now getting lapped in a community pool by a bunch of old people. I’m not going to like crush my soul but I remembered that focus is a muscle and it has memory — muscle memory. Although my body wasn’t cooperating, my mind hadn’t forgotten all of my cycling and training. And I could still remember those stories that I would tell myself. When I’m really hurting in a race it is key to compartmentalize. I can’t think of the big picture in the moment.

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By Pangambam S

I have been a Transcriber and Editor in the transcription industry for the past 15 years. Now I transcribe and edit at SingjuPost.com. If you have any questions or suggestions, please do let me know. And please do share this post if you liked it and help you in any way.