Survival of the Fittest

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The term “ageless vitality” has taken on a whole new meaning for me since this spring, when my 76-year-old father’s lifelong dedication to health and fitness may very well have saved his life.

On the evening of April 30th, my dad was on his way home from a family dinner when he was struck and gravely injured by a drunk driver. That driver was so drunk, in fact, that he walked away from the accident, leaving my father broken, bleeding and trapped in his crushed vehicle without so much as checking to see if Dad was alive. Which he was, miraculously, despite a massive impact, several shattered limbs, deep lacerations and a collapsed lung that left him struggling to breathe.

It was the kind of accident that could easily have killed any one of us. And so our family has counted a great many miracles and blessings since that night: The fact that there was some passing traffic on the normally quiet county highway and that witnesses immediately called 911; that an off-duty firefighter and EMT just happened to live nearby and was on the scene within minutes; that the police tackled the drunk driver in a field and pepper-sprayed him into submission; that the Life Link helicopter and Jaws of Life arrived quickly; that the trauma and orthopedic surgery teams at Regions Hospital had all the skills and technologies they needed to piece Dad’s body back together again; and so on.

But perhaps the biggest miracle and blessing of all was that Dad’s body could be pieced back together. When the doctors came out of his first emergency surgery to talk to us, they remarked, admiringly and repeatedly, on the unusually healthy state of his body. Dad had the bones, they said, of a much younger man, and it was clear from his fitness and his muscle tissue that he had been active his whole life.

The orthopedic surgeon extolled the density of Dad’s bones and noted how well they’d taken the pins and rods that might otherwise have shattered them further. The doc who sewed up Dad’s head commented on the excellent quality of his skin. Our father’s prognosis, they said — for surviving this and ensuing surgeries, for enduring his long recovery, and for eventually reclaiming his lost mobility — was far more promising than it would normally have been for a person his age, in large part because he was in such excellent and vibrant health before the accident occurred.

For as long as any of us can remember, Dad has eaten exceptionally well and has exercised on a daily basis. Since having his hip replaced last year, his favorite fitness activity has involved pounding a giant tractor tire with a 10-pound sledgehammer (just prior to the accident he’d worked his way up to several hundred swings).

Today, even though Dad’s still stuck recuperating in bed much of the time, it’s not unusual for us to look over and find him doing his shoulder lifts, his ankle circles, his isometric glute squeezes and whatever other exercises he can muster. We know he’s counting the days until he can once again stand, and then walk, on his own two feet.

My dad’s strong connection to his body and his will to repair it, though, have only been part of the healing equation. The other critical factors in his recovery have been his love of life itself, his deep well of intellectual and emotional resources, and perhaps most of all, his wonderfully resilient spirit.

As we go to press, my father still has several months of difficult rehab ahead of him. In the meantime, he continues to be a fitness hero of mine, and an inspiration for maintaining my own health and vitality as I age.

While we may not welcome all the changes that age brings, most of us do value the wisdom that comes from experience. And if there’s one thing this particular experience has taught me, it’s that a long-term, whole-person commitment to health and fitness is one of the most important priorities any of us can maintain.

If you’ve already made that commitment, your future self — and your loved ones — will thank you. And if you haven’t made it yet, know that it’s never too late to start, or to start again. I hope this issue of Experience Life inspires you to make some optimistic and confident first steps.

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Quality of Life
By Pilar Gerasimo
Exercise-Activity