Honoring A Legacy
I’d like to present this essay in honor of a little known but important legacy, left by Mr. James “Rhio” O’Connor.
In July 2009, we lost Mr. O’Connor to mesothelioma, a cancer of the sheaths surrounding our internal organs (See survivingmesothelioma). But before his passing, his actions and life proved it’s possible to thrive under conditions many would consider hopeless.
Hopefully, my own experiences, which I will share here, and those of Mr. O’Connor, which I will also share, will help the reader understand the power of vision and hope.
Mr. O’Connor, when diagnosed with that cancer, refused to accept the bleak prognosis he was given. Instead, he took control by learning about the disease. He then worked closely with clinicians to design a treatment plan, which helped him live years beyond his doctor’s expectation.
Mr. O’Connor inspires me because he answered his challenge in a way that most could only speculate when it comes to their own behavior.
I’m able to empathize with Mr. O’Connor, because I myself faced a health condition that took my own life – without actually killing me…
The disorder I faced affected my gastrointestinal system. I endured constant spasms in my gut, ranging in intensity from strong but tolerable to overwhelming. Concomitant with the spasms was an intense sense of anxiety and distress.
I was formally diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which I learned was a diagnosis of exclusion. You see, there was no identifiable physical cause of my symptoms. In the absence of a distinct physical cause, a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel assumes inherent psychosocial characteristics, particularly anxiety, as part of the disease’s etiology…
The severe gut distress and concomitant anxiety precluded normal life activities, and denied my life goals over many years. I wanted to go to medical school; then pursue board certification as a primary care physician. I also wanted to obtain advanced training and certification in martial arts, and teach them to others as a self-improvement tool.
But those constant spasms, which were exacerbated by eating, coupled with the intense anxiety, conspired to stop me cold.
To further compound matters, I lost my father in my late teens. After high school, I attended college fulltime and worked fulltime to support my mother. I am an only child, and my mother was disabled by an unusual illness, and could not work herself.
Unfortunately, my health concern and personal responsibilities ultimately forced me out of school.
I subsequently obtained a position at the National Institutes of Health as a lab technician, and was later promoted to Biologist. I worked under the pain of that perplexing syndrome, while using spare time to peruse the literature, in order to understand and manage my condition…
Even though the gut distress was undeniable, I simply could not believe the anxiety. I was not socialized to be fearful. And my family taught me to take responsibility for my thoughts and actions.
I believe I can be successful in any endeavor, through learning and applying relevant information. My approach to life entails a willingness to exert as much effort as required, for as long as is necessary, in order to achieve my objectives.
As such, I was flabbergasted by my condition. I felt goal oriented thoughts disrupted by anxiety. Though I did not believe those feelings, the model of mind-body with which I was enculturated provided no paradigm to justify my disbelief…
During the treatment of my mother’s illness, I was exposed to various alternative health therapies. I researched their premise and principles and decided to try a colonic irrigation. Colonic irrigation involves flushing the gut with water. During that treatment, I felt the intense angst well up and then diminish!
Following treatment, I felt focused, alert, happy and content!
That experience afforded me a paradigm shift – an organic condition, localized in my gut and not subject to conscious control, was imposing anxiety and negative feelings upon me.
I subsequently sought to ascertain the mechanisms through which such a phenomenon could occur. That insight was necessary, not only to facilitate my recovery, but to potentially assist others in a similar quandary.
Through my studies at NIH, I learned that the gut’s Enteric Nervous System not only received communication from the brain, it sent signals to the brain as well. In fact, the Vagus nerve, a primary connection between gut and brain, contains far more pathways that send signals to the brain (called afferent fibers), than it does pathways receiving signals from the brain (efferent fibers).
I also learned that immune system activity in the gut, induced by either microbes or inflammation, could adversely impact brain structures such as the Amygdala, the primary fear center, and the hypothalamus, which integrates nervous and endocrine functions.
Inflammation and immune activity in the belly also solicits the release of a protein called interleukin-1. IL-1 can transmit signals along the Vagus nerve to the brain, where it can affect serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Those neuro-chemicals influence our motivations, feelings, mood and behaviors.
I finally identified a plausible reason for my physical and psychic symptoms. Next, I needed to identify a mechanism through which I could manage and overcome the condition.
As discussed earlier, my mother suffered an unusual disorder, which also involved her digestive tract. Initially, she couldn’t eat certain foods; then her condition worsened such that her body rejected most foods, and eventually even water!
Her doctors could identify no physical cause of her condition, and finally concluded she was profoundly anorexic. They believed she was subconsciously rejecting food, despite making an effort to eat! They wanted to hypnotize her!
Rejecting that notion, we desperately searched for another approach. We finally located Dr. Theron Randolph, an immunologist who co-founded a brand of medicine called “Clinical Ecology”, later renamed “Environmental Medicine”.
Dr. Randolph saved my mother’s life. He asserted that inflammation didn’t need to be initiated by immune cells, but could be triggered into overdrive by sensitivities to chemicals in air, water and food.
Dr. Randolph took my mother through a meticulous process of food elimination. He gave her classes of foods one at a time. He excluded food classes she reacted adversely to, while allowing foods to which she had little or no reaction.
After studying Dr. Randolph’s approach, I applied it to my own diet. I identified foods that intensified my distress, as well as foods and nutrients that helped quell the spasms (I tested negative for food allergies, Crohns disease and Celiac.).
So, after years of life spent struggling with a body/mind disorder, I finally found a plausible explanation and an effective means to manage the condition…
Both Mr. “Rhio” O’Connor and I found that a paradigm shift was necessary to address our respective challenges. Conventional beliefs did not provide the motivation or methods for us to succeed. We had to craft our own “game plan”, through learning, trial and error.
Unfortunately, many of us become a little too dependent on the norms and paradigms of society. As such, we look to “authorities” for guidance and protection when confronted with potentially traumatic conditions.
Mr. O’Connor’s legacy urges us to reconsider beliefs dictated by authorities or conventional wisdom, when such beliefs impose unnecessary restrictions on our lives, freedom and happiness.
It takes a special kind of vision to see goals beyond the limits imposed by society’s norms and conventions.
It takes a special brand of person to find reasons to hope when faced with life threatening conditions.
Mr. O’Connor was such a person. Whereas my challenge was life disrupting, Mr. O’Connor’s was life threatening. Despite that, he thrived, extending his life seven years beyond his doctors’ bleak, short prognosis.
Given the effects of enculturation and the uncertainty, stress and fear associated with life threatening disease, it’s difficult for anyone to accurately describe their response to such a condition.
Would we believe and accept a bleak prognosis from a distinguished, respected physician? Would we feel so helpless that we could only pray that doctors could save, or at least extend, our lives? How would we feel under the influence of that illness? Would we be hampered by depression or fear?
Mr. O’Connor’s legacy encourages us to explore such questions in advance of a traumatic event. Not everyone would react the way he did to an unexpected cancer diagnosis, but we all have the potential to do so.
I intend to help people develop that potential.
I intend to extend Mr. O’Connor’s legacy by completing a degree in Public Health. I’m also developing my own system of martial arts and self-defense.
From those platforms (and my own personal experiences), I can disseminate the information needed to prevent disease. I can also provide the insights needed to cultivate the beliefs, feelings and motivations necessary to succeed when confronted by threats; and the discipline Mr. O’Connor himself relied upon, to manifest his vision of a truly successful human life.