In May of 2014, I woke up one morning and had what I thought was really bad indigestion along with some abdominal pain. I had physical therapy that morning from a recent shoulder surgery and went about my morning routine as usual. While at PT, the pain started to get severe and I was sweating profusely, extremely nauseous, and really weak. I gritted through the pain, finished the workout and went straight to Coast Guard medical.
Once there, I started throwing up. I got a shot of morphine for pain and was instructed to go to the local hospital for lab work, but there wasn’t any discussion of pancreatitis. At the hospital, I kept getting worse, but did my lab work and was sent home. We were in the process of moving from Oregon to Seattle and I tried to find a quiet place to “suffer” in peace while the movers did their jobs. Several hours later, after they left, I decided to just go to the ER. Thankfully, I did. My lipase levels were sky high, I was diagnosed with idiopathic recurring acute pancreatitis and admitted.
In 2015 I went nearly 10 months without even being able to show up to work due to so many complications, hospitalizations, and so much chronic pain. As such, I was medically retired at 38 years old, after nearly 19 years of service between the Navy (4 years) and Coast Guard (14 years 10 months).
I was living in Seattle at the time and after retirement, my wife, Christine, and I moved back to the DC area where we lived previously and were closer to family. The decrease in stress has helped significantly, although I still end up in the hospital a lot. Thankfully, in 2017, I noticed that my pain was decreasing and after three and a half years of being on Dilaudid and MS Contin every day, I checked into a rehab program and fought for 6 grueling months to get off pain meds – which I have been off ever since (with the exception of hospital stays).
Last year, Christine participated in a fitness challenge at work and I started tagging along. It started with just a walk around the block, then a mile, then several, and then I discovered rucking (check out www.goruck.com to find out more about this amazing community, what it is, and why I do it) – which is basically walking with a backpack (aka ruck) filled with weight. It started to do wonders for me.
Rucking is great because it’s excellent cardio and active resistance training without having to run. Rucking has tapped into something that I longed to do many years ago and reminds of my military days such as the physical and mental challenges and the camaraderie amongst ruckers. For example, over the past six months I have lost over 20 pounds, made dozens of new friends, have more energy and strength, and accomplished things I never thought I otherwise would have.
My rucks vary depending on the types of GORUCK challenge goals I have at the time. I normally ruck somewhere between 100-150 miles per month. The longest I usually go is about 20 miles with the longest ever being 34. These days I go shorter distances but do a lot of ruck-based workouts along the way. It’s not uncommon for me to do several hundred air squats, flutter-kicks, pushups, and other exercises while out rucking and all while wearing or holding the ruck, which weighs anywhere from 35-60 pounds.
However, it hasn’t cured me. Between Feb 5th and 8th of 2019, I came down once more with pancreatitis. However, I refused to let it get me down (literally). GORUCK issued a challenge for us for the month of February to ruck at least one mile each and every day this month. While not sounding like much, it is a challenge with pancreatitis. But, as soon as I was admitted, I had the nurse help me put on my ruck (and I dropped my usual weight down from 35-45 pounds down to 10) and I started rucking circles around the 5th floor of Reston Hospital Center.
The nurses already knew me from previous hospitalizations as someone who can’t sit still from the boredom. However, this time they definitely thought it was odd that I insisted on wearing my ruck (and rarely taking it off) and didn’t think much of me doing 10-20 laps around the floor. However, after hours of not stopping, they all kept asking me how many laps I had been doing and they and a lot of the patients were cheering me on. Despite the pain and nausea, I had a goal of 100 laps – and I hit 170! People were getting so excited over this that they came to the hospital to ruck their daily mile with me! I had friends from Stafford, Virginia and D.C. drive all the way out to do this with me! The support and encouragement was overwhelming.
At the same time, while doing this in the hospital, it was a record stay for me. I was able to decrease from IV Dilaudid to IV morphine in 24 hours of my admittance (it usually takes 3 days) and my stay was right around 72 hours – which is half of a normal stay for me!
So, again, while rucking hasn’t cured anything, it is making my quality of life significantly better.
My goals with rucking are to first and foremost keep having fun with it, but possibly tackle the nefarious HTL (Heavy-Tough-Light). That is a three-day event that starts with a 24+-hour “Heavy” challenge, then the next day do the 12+-hour “Tough” challenge, then a few hours later finish the “Light” challenge. This is GORUCK’s pinnacle team event and involves upwards of 48 hours of intense physical activity, 70 or more miles rucked, and more pushups, lunges, burpees, and other exercises than most people can count.
I also have a goal forming in my mind of continuously rucking 1 mile for every day that I’ve been hospitalized. Right now that number is 108 and that is no small number for any type of endurance event, so we’ll see how that plays out. If that does happen, it will be done under the banner of pancreatic disease awareness.
Before I was diagnosed, I wasn’t as active as I am now, but I did fish a LOT. I lived in Oregon for four years and I was out chasing trout all over the state and I loved it. Aside from that, I loved hiking and camping and basically enjoying the perfect Pacific Northwest climate.
With my diagnosis, my life came to a standstill, as I’m sure is the case with so many other people. I never knew when the pain or nausea would get worse. It was hard to make plans because I canceled them at the last minute so many times. My pain was so bad that I was on MS Contin and Dilaudid around the clock and therefore didn’t drive anywhere.
Most people barely know they have a pancreas, let alone how it works (I refer them to the Weird Al song for a quick lesson). I still get lots of people that wonder why I simply haven’t had it removed like my gallbladder was.
Now, I’m obviously at a point where I try to grit and persevere my way through this and not let it stop me (unless it’s really bad).
My advice to others struggling with this is to stay strong, remember this is a process and that we may never get the answers or treatments we need, as there is no cure for pancreatitis (yet). Figure out what works for you and how you can live with your diagnosis. Find people that you can trust and stay accountable to them. It’s too easy to get seriously depressed and have circumstances steal our personalities, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Most of all, every day that we wake up we get to choose to have a strong mind and a positive attitude. Do that and NEVER GIVE UP.
***To see how Matt raises awareness of pancreatitis and mental health among veterans, please CLICK HERE.