How I Survived Sepsis Through the “Power of Kung Fu”

The concept of “kung fu” has become so widespread that most people are at least passingly familiar with it. Many still assume it refers exclusively to Chinese Martial Arts, but that’s not the case. The concept of kung fu isn’t limited to just one activity, nor is it limited in terms of depth. An individual may have deep kung fu in multiple, unrelated areas, from Martial Arts like boxing & fencing, to Civil Arts like philosophy & literature. “功夫/gongfu” or kung fu, is a two character compound that can be transliterated as ” effort over time,” “deep skill,” or “long-term achievement.” It’s a practical concept akin to something my Grandfather likes to say: “Effort is its own reward in the long run.” What follows is a story about my kung fu.

The Background Situation

2009 started off with a feeling that all was becoming right in my world. The fourth anniversary of my hiring at a job that I was literally “perfect” for was quickly approaching. The relationship I’d been in over that was becoming more serious, with plans for the future & talk of marriage. We even got a kitten “together,” to keep her older cat company. Life was stable, & therefore good in a way I had never experienced before then. Less than six months had passed since the twelve-year anniversary of my “Entering the Gate” of martial arts, my confidence had solidified to the point of needing very little supervision while assisting the Instructor in my Xingyi & Bagua classes. My answers could be trusted because my kung fu was solid. But that all changed with a seemingly minor scratch from a playful kitten.

By the end of the second week of April 2009 it was very obvious that something was wrong. My normally robust immune system still hadn’t beaten what I’d assumed was a late season flu. Much more worrisome was the firm, red, swollen spot developing on the back of my left leg. For the first time in my adult life, I immediately made an appointment with my primary care doctor. After some blood tests & a rather intimate examination, it was determined that I actually had two problems. The first was Cat Scratch Fever, an annoying but nonfatal bacterial infection that lasts for six months, no matter what. Antibiotics don’t help, at least not normal, run-of-the-mill kind. If infected, you will have what seems like the most obnoxious fever or flu of your life, complete with intense night sweats, for six months.

The second problem was more serious & much more complicated. The spot on my leg had turned out to be an abscess. The now angrily red lump had grown & begun to form “tracks.” Slowly, it was transforming into a fistula, which is the name for an abscess with tracks. In my case there were two tracks: one extended straight down the back of my leg, ending just about the middle of my left hamstring; the other extended straight up & to the right, into my torso & toward my rectum. If the this track had actually managed to penetrate the wall of my rectum, well… I’m sure you can imagine the sort of trouble that could cause. All of the medical personnel involved felt it best to wait until the Cat Scratch Fever had passed before draining the abscess. The fistula had stabilized, in that neither the abscess itself nor the tracks were growing. My precious rectum was safe, for the time being.

What Came Before: “The Old Me”

Let’s back up a little bit here, so I can provide some context. It’ll make the rest of this story easier to understand. I am 6 feet 3 inches tall, & have been since before Junior High School. I grew up in a “sports family,” playing sports like ice hockey, baseball, & a few others. Like most of the males in my extended family, & quite a few of the females, I had been involved in team sports from childhood. Additionally, I started practicing Traditional Chinese Martial Arts at 18, as a college freshman. By 2009, I weighed about 215 lbs, give or take. My long, lanky body hid that weight very well. At this point, I was 31 years old, having recently celebrated my birthday that January. In short, I had started the year healthy, fit, & much stronger than I looked.

Back to the story. Despite the constant fever & difficulty sleeping, I only lost about 25 lbs & remained in the 190 lbs range, which is a good weight for my size. I looked miserable & annoyed, which I was, but overall still healthy. Very few people noticed my weight lost, & most that did just ignored it. At the time, I had a joking reputation for being “too tough” to get sick, which I playfully encouraged. By mid-July I was over it & back to normal. I began to regain the weight I’d lost & had the abscess drained, which ended up signaling the beginning of the end for my relationship.

The standard procedure for draining an abscess is to drain it when possible & be done with it. But if the abscess is located in the lower body, as was the case with me, then more thorough action is required. Lower body abscesses are more than twice as likely to recur, compared to one on the upper body or limbs. This meant the surgeon who drained my abscess also had to cut the flesh out of the abscess & both tracks to insure this would truly be the end of the situation. That involved cutting open, scraping out, & slicing away flesh in my left hamstring, adductor, buttock, & a bit of the perineum, too. Basically, some very important load bearing muscles. I now have a scar that runs from just below the tip of my tailbone, along the “butt crack,” over the left edge of the perineum, across the adductor, & down my left hamstring. My weight dropped to 185 lbs.

Now, what does this have to do with kung fu?

One month after I got over the Cat Scratch Fever, at my family’s traditional late summer vacation spot, I had the misfortune to swim in what had become a bacteria infested lake. That Spring had seen heavy rain, & lots of disgusting things had washed into the lake. To make matters worse, I still had the slightly open wound on my left thigh. I was infected with what my doctor described as “every type of bacteria that’s on human skin.” As usual for me, I didn’t show much in the way of symptoms-of-infection for ten days or so. But the now familiar symptoms returned soon enough. Night fever in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with soaking full body sweats, rapid weight lost, inability to keep most foods down, body aches, & an inability to stand or support my own body weight of 150 lbs.

One day at work, I had to climb three flights of stairs on a stair case designed to make it easy for the elderly & infirm to use. My heart-felt like it was going to pound its way out of my chest, & my legs almost gave out beneath me. After having what seemed like a full half of the blood in my body for drawn for testing, I began  modified version of the training regimen I’d developed to cope with Cat Scratch Fever. Obviously, the Standing & Moving exercises had to be removed. Even the seated versions of meditation were impossible unless an elaborate support system of pillows was set up to keep my body upright. None of that mattered to me though. Somehow, I knew I would be fine in the end. I knew my kung fu was strong enough to beat this new illness.

Sepsis is supposed to kill the average person in five to seven days. For reasons I don’t fully recall, the results of my blood work were delayed several times, extending the wait to around six weeks. The basic timeline is this:

  • Infected in mid to late August
  • Begin to show symptoms around two weeks later, in early September
  • After taking a week off work to recover & seeing no change, I made an appointment with my doctor
  • Numerous delays cause the results to be unavailable until the last week of October
  • Find out what was actually happening: Sepsis

I won’t go into too much detail, since my doctor actually said it best: “Most people would’ve already died, but you’ve pretty much beaten this & started to recover. Though I’d still go to the Emergency Room right now, if it were me!” I went as advised, & spent the last week of October hooked up to antibiotic I.V.’s in the hospital. I watched NCIS, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, & ate everything I could get my hands on.

Despite the circumstantial evidence that a year plus long course of antibiotics I was put on (combined with a year plus worth of stress, malnutrition, depression, & general social awfulness) caused my Crohn’s Disease to “activate,” I consider this an essentially positive experience. I had made it into my 30’s with an attitude of disdain for the weak, chronically ill, & infirm. The worst part is that I hadn’t noticed how cruel & callous my attitude had been, how dismissively I behaved to some of the kindest people in my life. In 2010, I became deeply depressed at the contradiction I faced: my behavior directly contradicted my ideals. But having identified the problem, it was finally possible to make corrections.

Practical Application Leads to Concrete Results

Ultimately, the point of this story is not “the highest ideal,” but the “practical methodology” used. Here’s the breakdown of the daily practice routine I used to survive a sure-fire, guaranteed death. Individually, these methods are each sufficient for a healthy person, but together they kept my disease wracked body in good enough shape to survive.

  1. 坐忘/Zuo Wang – Sitting & Forgetting: The quintessential Daoist form of meditation, derived from/inspired by the famous exchange between Confucius & his disciple Yan. I used it to empty my mind of the worry & fear generated by the onset of these illnesses, at first. But by the end of the whole ordeal I was using it to resist both depression & an inability to truly see myself. Other people saw a thin person recovering from a long-term illness. I saw a ghoul, grey skinned & deathly. Once in a while, I still see that when I look in the mirror.
  2. 胎吸/Tai Xi – Embryonic Breathing: One of the most important Qi circulating exercises, I used it to keep both my spirit & major organs strong. The single greatest benefit was a sort of spiritual equanimity in the face of my one-and-only medical fear, that being long-term, unknown wasting illness, centered in the crotch & genital region.
  3. 小周/Xiao Zhou – Small Circulation: Another key Qi circulation exercise, it may also be the fundamental, original example of such meditation methods. Normally, one should learn & refine this before even attempting Embryonic Breathing. That is the standard model, where each new exercise builds on what has gone before, though, as I’ve already said, each could also stand alone. I used it to make sure the weight loss didn’t effect my body too severely. I honestly shudder at the thought of what would’ve happened to the foundation of my kung fu otherwise.

Beyond these three, I would add in elements of self massage, the Seated Eight Sections of Brocade set, & regular martial arts “Image Training” focused on, well, not dying from illness. I am convinced that the bulk of the credit for my survival belongs to Image Training, which can be practiced any & everyone. I’ve proven that no amount of illness can stop someone from practicing this particular method. It’s a true “must have” for everyone!

And there we have it: how I survived sepsis through the power of kung fu. Not ‘Chinese Martial Arts,’ but actual, literal kung fu – effort expended over a long period of time. The benefits of meditation cannot be overstated, even if it is difficult to “prove” the reality of those benefits in a laboratory setting. As with most of life’s possibilities, the proof of meditation’s efficacy is in the sustained, long-term, regular practice of meditation itself. Which method you choose, from whichever tradition, is up to you. It’s best to find something that appeals to you individually. Obviously, I prefer the Daoist approach, & focus on training the breath, Qi, & emptying of the mind. And it’s a good thing I do, as worry & preoccupation & unresolved emotions are what made “six months of annoyance” stretch into a nearly decade long lesson in self-care & self-confidence. The discomfort has been great, at times bordering on suffering, but it’s all been worth it to prove the Power of Kung Fu.


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