Heather Zuk is a breath of fresh air. She has a light and airy countenance about her that makes you want to float into her realm. She is creative, witty, hard working, heart warming, and all of 20 years old. Over the six or so months that I have watched her online, followed her posts and giggled at her shenanigans, one word comes to mind immediately: BEAUTY.
She surrounds herself with it. She embodies it. She has a lovely outlook on life, not an ounce of bitterness in her tone or, I imagine, even lurking around in the roots of her heart. She never has unkindness at the tip of tongue; never a shaming remark; never a desire to tear down. Quite the contrary, she is the consummate builder: she builds flocks of chicken; libraries of photos; books filled with poetry. She’s a creative mind, and it’s on that gift that she chooses to focus. She’s kind and a brilliant and creative steward of all things lovely in the world. I see her in pictures of meadow-filled flowers; in pictures with family, smiles broad about their faces, clearly enjoying the company of one another; in pictures adoring the relationships she’s built with her brood of chickens.
When I ask her what the mesh has taken from her, she seems not to understand the question. Innocence maybe, but her youth has not afforded her the hindsight to gaze upon the bodily sacrifice of bearing and rearing children. I ask again. This time, the answer comes more naturally, “Well I used to love to help out with the farm more, you know, milking the cows and stuff, and I can’t do that anymore. I miss helping with the work on the farm that I used to do. But I can still do a lot,” she concludes. Our vignettes of conversation never end on sour notes, or lingering notes of fear, or uncertainty. That’s just not who Heather is.
She is a 20-yr-old who knows what she wants and is content with what she has, and what she’s able to do, despite what’s been taken from her by the hernia mesh that was first implanted in her as a 17-yr-old.
When I interview her, it’s more like a girl chat. It’s fun and fresh and spirited and upbeat. It feels like mesh is someone else’s problem. We talk about maybe getting to meet someday, about her photography and, dare I say, quite eccentric interest in poultry. New York feels closer than ever during our discussion. Heather is multi-dimensional, and she’s not afraid to show it. I love that about her. Oh ya, and she works at a body shop. “Just in the front office,” she reminds me, but inside I think, “How cool! I just love this kid.”
When we do enter the mesh realm, she explains to me that when she was 17, she was mounting the stairs to her bedroom, and on the way, she sneezed. A few short minutes passed, and she began to feel weak, nauseous, fatigued and just “very ill.” Neither she nor her parents knew why. After three or four hours of enduring the worsening symptoms; they subsided almost as abruptly, so she and her family thought it simply to be a strange, single incident . . . until it happened again a few months later.
This time, they sought immediate medical attention and discovered that Heather had, not one, but two hernias – one femoral and one inguinal.
Heather was referred to a specialist, and most of you reading know, “the rest of the story,” as the late, great radio personality, Paul Harvey, spoke in signing off at the end of his radio program. Unfortunately, like many of you, Heather can’t end her story here. After seeing a specialist, she and her family decided to follow doctors’ orders and have mesh implanted at both hernia sites. She has never been the same. In fact a third hernia (femoral) showed up about a month after her first mesh implant surgery. She has had another hernia since, hernia revision surgery, and attempts at removing some of the mesh, and all this, by the ripe-old-age of 20.
Doctors say the mesh is likely to interfere with her ability to have children down the road, but she doesn’t live in that reality. She tells me, “I guess I’ll deal with that down the road, when it’s time.” I have an online friendship with her, and I delight in the person she is. I watch her post funny videos; take silly pictures with her sister; enjoy her family; playfully, skillfully and artfully enjoy her hobbies. We make a pact on the phone. She will help me learn to raise chickens, and she is excited to share with me all she knows about them, when I tell her I’ll be taking on a few yard birds soon. We giggle about my neighbors “free range chickens,” and their birdie little antics. We laugh; make pinky swear; and both find a great deal of humor in my chicken-raising neighbor’s name: Mr. Fetherston. I delight in her joy. Not everyone laughs at that, and I feel a kindred soul. Mesh again recedes from the forefront of our conversation. I ask why she likes chickens so much, and she says, “I don’t know; I just always have.” I sense that she enjoys them more so now; because, with her injury, she can still participate fully in the activities of caring for chickens, not having to give up facets of their care, like she’s had to with her other bigger barnyard friends, cows and the like.
Her family – father, mother, brother and two sisters – are supportive, and she knows that is a gift. She is wise beyond her years in some ways, but also green, bright and new. I sense she has no vocabulary for what many other mesh-injured women have lost, because she is simply at the point in life where many of us long to be again: she hasn’t gained quite as much to lose as her elder counterparts. That doesn’t lessen her suffering, in my opinion, for pain and suffering is always relative. In a way, I grieve that she may never experience what has been lost by so many of you; deep relationships with adult children and spouses, careers and dignity. It certainly, again, begs the question,
“Is it really better to have loved and to have lost, than never to have loved at all?”
It’s a question that floats in the Mysterious; hangs in the balance, some days tipping towards yes, some days tipping towards no. She confesses that sometimes when she ponders the future too much, anxiety begins to take hold – the terrifying type – full blown panic attacks. Having experienced such myself, Heather and I agree; there is no better word to describe them than, TERRIFYING. On one recent occasion, she began to feel the pangs of anxiety growing stronger. She tried to watch a movie with her sister, but nothing seemed to help.
“I was trying not to burst out crying for no reason [during the movie]. When it finished my sister went to bed, and I stood in the bathroom trying to figure out why I was crying, and I started blaming the mesh. That led to over analyzing all the bad things the mesh has done and possibly could still do, and before I knew it, my pulse had escalated and I started hyperventilating. All of that caused me to panic more, because I couldn’t make it stop; so I sat there sobbing; almost passing out; hyperventilating uncontrollably for about 20-30 minutes before my pulse returned to normal. When it finally ended, I was so completely exhausted I barely made it to my bed before falling asleep.”
In the same exchange she says, “I am in constant pain, and I struggle with depression,” but she is quick to add, “but I don’t focus on that.” In fact, her writing about her experience is quite eloquent. Read more here: http://herpassionforpoultry.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/two-definitions/ from her first-person point of view.
One thing is clear as crystal to me about Heather. She is full of love; full of joy; full of compassion; happiness; empathy; adventure; spirit; and Hope. I believe that whatever or whomever comes her way; she will absorb the Bad, and turn back out into the world the Good. She has a Spirit about her that makes one know her story ends happily ever after, however it actually ends.
Enjoy her talent as a photographer in the gallery I’ve posted here, and visit her blog http://herpassionforpoultry.wordpress.com to get to know more about this lovely, quirky, genuine and grateful girl with the giant joy that makes up some of her beauty, and a woman I have come to call friend.
Thank you, Heather, for sharing yourself with us. We are all better for knowing you.