My fitness journey started at 8 years old in the middle of a 3 mile bike ride gasping for breath on the side of the road. What started out as a fun, easy training ride in preparation for the Prouty bike race had quickly turned into fear. My dad was standing next to me coaching me through breath work trying to help me stay calm as my lacking ability to breath sent me into a panic.
This was a fairly typical breathing attack that I would experience from the ages of 6 to 12 caused by a condition known as pectus excavatum. Pectus excavatum is a condition in which an individual’s sternum is indented, resulting in what looks like a dent in the middle of the individual’s chest. This condition, depending on the severity of the indent, can limit an individual’s lungs from expanding fully and in severe cases even affect the position and function of the heart. I was one of those individuals with a severe case.
At about three years old it started becoming apparent that my chest had an unusual indentation. As I became older and grew, it became more pronounced. Around kindergarten I was playing rec soccer and my parents and I started noticing that my lung capacity was lacking, despite being a very active child and thoroughly enjoyed running around wherever I could. In first grade soccer, I experienced my first breathing attack during a game when I was running up the field and suddenly found myself on my knees gasping for breath. After this incident, my parents took me to a specialist and I was diagnosed with pectus excavatum. The doctor informed my family that my case was severe enough that I would expect to need surgery after I finished growing. In most cases, surgery is not necessary other than a cosmetic fix. My indent, which I called my pond because of how it filled with water when I layed in the bathtub and could float a toy boat in, was severe enough that it was preventing my lungs from fully expanding and shifting my heart away from the center of my chest.
By the time I was 11, my ability to be physically active became increasingly limited to the point where I was unable to walk up a flight of stairs without gasping for breath at the top. I was overweight and sedentary because of my inability to exert myself physically past a certain point. It became apparent that surgery was necessary sooner than expected. In the spring of 2012 I received surgery. My chest was cut open and a metal bar was placed underneath my sternum and wired to my ribs to hold my sternum in the proper position. I recovered in the hospital for a week, regaining my strength to walk. For the most part, other than a few short walks each day, I was confined to my bed for several weeks following.
During the time I was recovering, I set the goal that after all this was done I would get myself in better shape than I had ever been. When I was finally cleared for full activity I started teaching myself how to do pull ups, adding one rep each week until I was able to do 10. I biked everywhere that summer, riding anywhere I could to regain my cardiovascular ability now that my lungs had the room they needed to expand. I regularly was riding my bike 15 miles, running and doing pushups almost everyday. I was able to do all of this without breathing attacks for the first time in my life.
After 6 months the bar in my chest was removed and I continued to remain physically active and participate in sports without fear of breathing attacks. The surgery left me with a scar across my chest that is my everyday reminder of the gift and second chance I received to live an active life and the motivation to improve myself physically each day. This second chance gave me the drive to pursue athletics, competing at Olympic trials for archery in 2019 and being named to the USA Archery Collegiate All American Team the same year. This second chance has given me a love of fitness and lifting weights that is a main pillar in my life to this day. While my fitness goals have changed year to year, the appreciation for my ability to be active has not.
While working out is physically challenging, the ability to experience this difficulty on a daily basis is something I am grateful for. I get to workout, I get to run, I get to be challenged, I get to struggle, and I get to be happy. I view this mindset to be an advantage in life and I am grateful for my health challenges that have allowed me to look at life in this way.
By Caleb Eastman, UVAC Marketing Intern and Enthusiastic Member