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How Back Roads Bill beat a superbug with vitamin 'N'

In the first of a two-part story, Bill explains how Nature helped him overcome MRSA, a drug-resistant, sometimes deadly bacterial infection

It has been an entire year of healing with four operations and learning how to walk again. This story and the next is about how Nature helps with the journey of being off and back on to the back roads.

It started with a winter prediction story and what would become the final Village Media story of November 2022 and was published on the same day (Nov. 30. 2022) that what was supposed to be a routine knee, cortisone-like injection at one of the hospital’s orthopedic clinics. Osteoarthritis is one of life’s aging things. But things changed all too quickly and went awry.

MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA is a bacterium that does not get better with the type of antibiotics that usually cure staph infections. When this occurs, the germ is said to be resistant to certain antibiotics. It causes sepsis, which is the body's overwhelming response to infection and can be fatal.

Within two days, I was making a trip to “Emerg” where, eventually, with some accelerated work by Dr. Linda Rankin, she immediately summoned the on-call surgeon.

Upon arrival, he explained my plight, “This is about your life.” So that you have a visual he, Dr. Aaron Van Vliet, looks like the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (the movie ‘Capote’). By the time I got home, the surgeon’s office called. My first operation was slated for the next day.

After two weeks of unrelenting chills and fever, my white cell count was still not good and that led to another surgery “to dig out more of affected flesh,” the same surgeon said. The health of my left leg was suspect, “This is about your leg,” Dr. Van Vliet said. I recall just before general anesthesia, I said to the good doctor, “Dig deep.”

"I will," he said.

Post-surgery, he said, “I think I got it all.”

Christmas and beyond were spent in the hospital. But I was “glad to be here.”

Fresh air

Exposure to nature not only makes you feel better emotionally, but it also contributes to your physical well-being. Mind-blanking — when our minds are seemingly “nowhere” — is defined by a lack of conscious awareness, you begin to be enveloped by blackness and that leads to personality changes.

During the month-long stay in the North Bay Regional Hospital, I was only able to get outside for a few minutes, a number of times, taken by daughter Ali and colleague Laura Kielpinski.

Notes in my medical records said I did not want to leave my room. They knew a little exposure, albeit not the back roads, would not only make me better emotionally, it would also contribute to my physical well-being, I had never been contained in my life before then. Returning to the outside, the feeling of cool air and real light was like a magic elixir. These were pauses within trauma.

January and February were a blurred timeline at my daughter’s home. I was not writing for Village Media or posting on any social media. Two bags of intravenous Vancomycin, daily, the most powerful of all of the known antibiotics and then pain pills (Hydromorphone – a class of opioids) of the same, and anti-inflammatories took its toll on my kidneys and my mental health. New medicines followed and then waiting for months for a new knee. “You will only wait until the infection is gone,” Dr. Van Fliet proposed.

Cry baby — naturally

The dark days were here, the walls closed in.

One of our most private acts, weeping, can forge connections. Tears may obscure our vision, but they can also bring great clarity. Many of us, especially as a male, have been taught to suppress our emotions and hide our tears.

I reached out to the author of Cry Baby – why Our Tears Matter after, in late January, Benjamin Perry was on the CBC Tapestry radio program with Mary Hynes. When writer Benjamin Perry realized he hadn't cried in more than ten years, he undertook to cry every day. But he didn't anticipate how tears would bring him into a deeper relationship with the natural world and others.

‘Cry, Baby’ explores humans' rich legacy of weeping--and why some of us do not cry. He explains the great paradoxes of our tears. Why do we cry?

About his book, he says, “When faced with the private and sometimes unspeakable sorrows of daily life, not to mention existential threats like climate change and systemic racism, we cry for the world in which we long to live. As we reclaim our crying as a central part of being human, we not only care for ourselves and relearn how to express our vulnerable emotions; we also prophetically reimagine the future.”

Ultimately, weeping can bring us closer to each other and to the world we desire and deserve.

“One of the things,” he said, “I think being in nature does is palpably remind us that we belong to forces larger and greater than ourselves. That kind of humility provokes weeping, too. It reminds us that we are vulnerable — inextricably enmeshed with all living things. To care for nature, whether in a garden or simply in awe on a hike, invites a reciprocal tenderness in our own souls. One that, for me, often brings tears close.

“Part of what I'm saying is that a relationship with the natural world is something that can provoke our tears — particularly in this climate crisis as we watch ecosystems around us suffering — but that allowing ourselves to feel the enormity of those emotions, to let the tears flow, both reminds us of our humanity and helps us move through grief that can otherwise be paralyzing.”

Crying helps and I now tend to cry outside with more joy and understanding. When I look around and see the colours, the sounds, the movement, and the life within Nature, wherever I may be, I am grateful and stronger for it.

Outside therapy

In the interim, I finally returned to my cabin at the Canadian Ecology Centre and Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park (“Sam”) in March. I am the founder and have spent most of my working life there in a park. I was using a rollator but I did a little barefoot walking you’ll recognize the foot.

Back to writing about the back roads helped. The first Village Media story was on March 8, acknowledging a favourite Bill Barilko story that was to be included in another author’s book.

My daughter says, “Everyone needs therapy.” Eventually, I warmed up to this need and I relented for the better.

During our sessions, my online CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) therapist regularly reminds me this will require a great deal of “alone work,” and that “Nature will help.” Nature therapy is the act of being in nature alongside a trained professional. Also called ecotherapy, nature therapy can include many different outdoor activities. Spending time in nature is proven to improve the well-being of everyone, especially those living with mental illness. You can get lost in your own past and can get stuck on “Why me?”

The government of Canada supports an initiative from BC Parks Foundation called ‘PaRx, A Prescription for Nature’. This initiative gives health professionals the information, tools, and resources to prescribe time spent outdoors to their patients experiencing symptoms of neurological duress.

No additional prescriptions are needed or wanted for most. Nature can help people organically ween themselves off the opioids while exercising the mind.

With a variety of accessibility-mobility aids the multiple doses ensued. Able to finally get back in the car, I set out immediately to Mashkinonje Provincial Park a destination with access in mind.

That day, by myself, with the wheeled walker, making it to the first vista along the boardwalk, was like climbing some of the mountains of the past in other countries.

Renting a mobility scooter allowed me to explore “Sam” again. Setting is important, it helped during COVID when I created 411 consecutive poems and photos. Discipline matters. I was home again.

Then in mid-April, with the ambulatory walker with no wheels. (You get to know your aids, walkers with and without wheels, canes, crutches, the scooter, hiking poles, the different wheelchairs.) I “stumped along” a few shuffles with old running shoes and neoprene socks into the cold water. And with daughter Ali steadying the tandem canoe I “plopped” like dead weight into one of the cane seats. The adrenaline and exhilaration helped with the first few strokes. Like no other time I watched the blade dip and slide its way through the medium I have always loved.

On another day friend Bernie Moseley-Williams took me for my first back roads “Sunday” drive. I was almost six months into this journey, It rained all day but the “only care” was in the day pass. He knew it was the medicine I craved.

It took months for the residual infection to go away. Mid-May brought on the third operation and a new bionic knee along with another elongated third scar, 21 cm long with many sutures and staples. I remember the tinkling sound of the staples as they hit the metallic pan. It is the sound of progress.

Dr. Van Vliet is the sort of MD who tells it like it is. In the early months, “You are doing okay.” After this surgery, “You are doing better.” Two social media followers said, “Bill you have nineteen lives,” and another, “It is just not your time.” So, the expression was true, I was out of the woods of danger.

I had to learn to walk again but the back roads seemed to beckon. Black days of the past are now shades of grey.

Next week Bill will explain the unforeseen and how more of Vitamin N – Nature was needed.