In January 2011, I was a healthy, fit 28-year-old. I was rocking six-pack abs and was devoted to working out hard. But my relationship with fitness—and the way I would choose to live my life in the future—all changed after I wound up in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV, and fearing for my life. This is how rhabdomyolysis, often known as “rhabdo,” nearly ruined my body, and how I’m still dealing with it today.
My Run-In with Rhabdo
Before my experience with rhabdo—which is a breakdown of muscle tissue that releases the protein myoglobin into the bloodstream and can lead to kidney damage or complete kidney failure—I had only heard about it in passing at my CrossFit gym. The coaches kind of brushed it off, mentioning that some guy who wasn’t really in shape got it by doing GHD situps, an advanced situp done lying on a glute-ham machine. They look like this:
Their solution to safeguard yourself? Just make sure you stretch.
I’m not sure exactly why I got rhabdo. At the time, I was playing in some softball leagues and also coaching. I had been an athlete all my life; I was used to going hard, and I wasn’t a newbie to CrossFit. But that week, I'd finished a Warrior Dash with a bunch of my gym buddies on a Saturday, and headed into the gym on a Monday for a workout that included GHD situps and timed running. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything more extreme than I was used to, but an hour into the workout, I was struggling. I was the last to finish the workout that day, and I was never the last to finish. My body felt like it was completely shutting down.
The next morning when I woke up, I couldn’t use my stomach muscles at all. I was always sore after CrossFit, but this was a different kind of sore—I had to drop and roll out of bed. At the time, I had about 7 percent to 8 percent body fat, but when I took a picture to text to my friend who had been at the workout with me, my entire belly looked distended. I managed to make it to work, but throughout the day my stomach kept getting bigger and bigger. At one point, I was trying on clothes for an event I would be MC’ing, and it looked like I had love handles. I remember peeing and seeing brown toilet water, but thinking maybe the water had been dirty. I wasn’t educated about the signs of rhabdo, so I didn’t think anything of this.
Diagnosis and Treatment
I worked for 12 hours that day, completely oblivious to the fact that I was experiencing kidney failure. After work, my roommate, who was also my best friend, found me lying face down on the couch, so completely exhausted I didn’t feel like I could get up. I had her Google “that thing people get from GHD situps.” We rushed to the ER, which happened to be a block away, and no one had a clue what was happening to me, even after I mentioned rhabdomyolysis. It wasn’t until my roommate translated rhabdo to mean “kidney failure” that I was rushed to an exam room. I was given an IV and told I was staying overnight. Meanwhile, my stomach was continuing to grow, and my kidneys were swollen, so my back was swelling too.
No one was telling me what was wrong because no one knew. I saw about nine nurses, and no one had ever heard of rhabdo in their life. I think the most stressful part of the whole thing was no one really knowing what was wrong with me, or if what I had could kill me. By day three in the hospital, I had a complete nervous breakdown, yelling at my entire family and all of the nurses. A specialist was flown in who was able to diagnose me with rhabdo and make sure I was getting the right treatment.
I was discharged after seven days in the hospital. Because I had spent a week with fluids pumping through my body, I couldn’t really bend my arms or my fingers or move my feet well because everything was so swollen. There were pockets of fluids in my legs and around my genitals. Those first few days being home were some of the hardest. You’re not with the doctors or your family anymore, you’re just staring at yourself; you look like you just had a baby, but you didn’t have a baby. You work out to look good and feel good, but I had worked out and then this is what happened. I blamed myself when I looked in the mirror. I wondered if I would ever be able to work out again or if the bloating was ever going to go away. It took three weeks before my body got rid of the excess fluid.
The healing process was hard physically, but it was most challenging mentally. I didn’t work out for an entire year. Physically, I could probably do stuff, but mentally I was so scared this was going to happen again.
For two years, I completely blamed myself, but now I know that was wrong. If people aren’t educated about rhabdo, and no one knows that it's something that can happen to them, how will they know how to limit themselves in a culture that pushes people to the max? (For tips on how to lift weights safely, pick up Women's Health's Lift to Get Lean by Holly Perkins.)
After taking a year off, I picked up yoga and started doing a lot of hot yoga, but no weighted workouts at all. Today, I’m back to working out most days of the week, but I’m not willing to do things that require me to write down a time or score and compare it to someone else. I’ve come to realize that competition is a huge problem for me, mentally, and this experience has taught me to respect my body’s limits. If I’m going to be doing any type of workout four times a week, whether it’s yoga, running, or anything else, there has to be a balance, and an obsession with my body cannot have so much control over my life. At the end of the day, if I could lose my life over something like this, it’s not worth it.