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(article from 2004)
by Harry Odobasic, Third-Year Tai Chi Student
In tai chi, at first you don’t see physical, measurable progress. It’s intangible. You might not realize it until it comes to the fore by surprise. That’s what happened to me recently as I was recovering in the hospital from an operation.
In 2002 I was diagnosed with atypical trigeminal neuralgia (TN), a condition caused by the deterioration of the myelin sheath around the trigeminal nerve, which is then pressured by a nearby vein, artery or, as in my case, both. The trigeminal nerve has three branches which carry sensation from the jaws, face and eyes to the brain. My affliction was with the branch located in the jaw. Some doctors say that this is the most painful condition known to science. In my case, there were times when the pain was so intense that I lost my sight and control of my muscles. The attacks were spontaneous—they would start and stop suddenly, with no apparent connection to anything I was doing. I was placed on epileptic medication to control the pain, and as the attacks came more and more frequently, the dosages were increased.
In May, 2002, I had microvascular decompression surgery, which consisted of placing Teflon pads around those parts of the trigeminal nerve that were determined to be the cause of the problem. For the next two months, I was totally pain-free. But then the attacks returned, at first sporadically and then with greater frequency and intensity.
I had spent many years in the Army, and had been a runner for most of my adult life. Now, with the dangers that a sudden attack might pose on the road, I had to give that up. My wife, Sue, had been studying tai chi with George for two years, and encouraged me to join her. She was sure that the stress of my lifestyle was making my condition worse. Tai chi’s beneficial effects on stress are well known and documented. So, in the fall of 2002, I enrolled in George’s tai chi beginners class.
At first, I went to tai chi because I wanted to do some form of exercise that wouldn’t aggravate my condition. Then it grew on me, and I started to get serious. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that when Sue and I had blueprints made for the remodeling of our home, we planned a tai chi room that would be dedicated to the practice.
In the meantime, however, my condition was still hanging over my head. My doctor informed me that statistics showed a higher cure rate after a second operation, and I decided to do it. The operation was performed in June of this year.
That’s when I really noticed what two years of tai chi had done for me. After the first operation, my recovery had been slow. I had considerable irritation and swelling around the wound, and had to receive anti-inflammation medication. It was one month before my stitches were taken out.
What happened this time, however, was extraordinary. It started at the hospital, on the fifth day of my recovery. The doctor had just cut the bandages off, and I had a head full of dried blood. I looked like a mess. A voice in my mind said, “You gotta do a form,” meaning a round of the tai chi exercise. It was a crazy idea – I had just started walking on the third day after the operation, with assistance from Sue. Up to that point I did not have the balance to stay on my feet unassisted. Most of the other patients who had had operations on the same day as me were still flat on their backs. But the voice wouldn’t be denied. “You gotta do a form,” it insisted.
Inspired by this conviction, and without any support, I walked out into the hallway, in full view of the nurses, orderlies and other patients, and started doing the slow-motion tai chi movements. Slowly, people took notice, stopped what they were doing and watched. The nurses, janitors, patients—everybody. It was as if we had all entered a zone of stillness. For two years, I had listened while we talked about chi energy in class, but to me this had always been intangible. Suddenly, it was as real as anything I had ever experienced. When I was finished, I felt like a million bucks, like I had never had the operation. That one round of tai chi seemed to have wiped all of that out. I was uplifted – not just my spirits, but my soul – to a point where I felt just great. One of the nurses asked, “Were you dancing?” A patient in the room next to mine said, “That was very nice.” I felt so good that I wanted to keep going. So I walked around the entire wing, unassisted, practicing walking meditation, coordinating my in-breath and out-breath with my steps as we occasionally do in class. Afterwards, I didn’t feel like lying down again; I just wanted to sit on the side of the bed. I was released later that same day.
This time, there was no inflammation and no redness around the wound. My stitches were out in two weeks, and one month after the operation, I was in Aruba, vacationing with my family, and improving my strength and balance by doing tai chi in the sand. The pain has not returned, and week by week the medications are decreased. I’m on my way to a full recovery, and tai chi deserves a big part of the credit.