"When only faith remains"

Brian King

Master of Arts
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Mar 17, 2003
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Bellevue, Washington USA
When Only Faith Remains
Patrick gave me permission to share this article that went out in the Systema (Toronto HQ)newsletter on June 13th. I wanted to share it cause it gives a great perspective on why we do much of the training that we do in Systema. Trained well it can become a way of living. This article is well written and the experiences are hard won. It was written from the perspective of a Systema instructor towards other practitioners of Systema, so, some of it may not make total sense to those that do not practice Systema. That is OK. Take what is understood. Patrick is a friend and a good guy. Highly recommend training with him if given the opportunity.
Brian King

When Only Faith Remains
by Patrick McKee

The purpose of this article is to express my gratitude toward Vlad, Mikhail and all of my instructors, and to give a little insight into how Systema helped guide me through a recent series of life-threatening events. In the roughly 12 years that I have trained in Systema (the last couple as an instructor), I have had plenty of opportunities to use our principles both personally and professionally. I never would have guessed that Id be using them in a medical setting on myself.

Early on the morning on November 10, 2014 as I was getting ready to fly home from Las Vegas, I suffered an ascending aortic dissection that caused a right parietal stroke resulting in complete paralysis on my left side. I later learned that 40% of those who have this type of dissection do not make it to the emergency room; they simply bleed out internally. For the next 10 days I worked on staying alive and recovering enough function to fly home where I could continue medical care and at least be around my family.

The first Systema application came when the stroke and resulting paralysis got stronger and more debilitating. I am very left-handed, but I couldnt move my arm to sign the admission papers, nor my leg or torso at all and verbally apparently I wasnt making very much sense. I'm not entirely sure why, but in my mind and heart I latched on to seeing my 11-year-old son, Nicholas, one more time. Some of you in the Systema community know him since he trains locally and has been to train in Toronto. In the army, we often say "Mission First" and seeing him one more time became the mission. As they were doing diagnostic test after test and prepping me for surgery, they explained that my aorta was splitting apart and I was literally dying right then. Every minute mattered getting me into surgery. While this was clearly a scary situation, the entire time I continued burst breathing to relax at least a little bit and then settle into an inhalation and exhalation pattern of four, six, eight and ten second breaths. Ive heard Vlad say many times, Breath in through the whole body, breath out through the whole body. This worked, at that time, fairly well, but since I could not feel or move half of my body I also remember Vlad guiding classes with Breath in through the heart, breath out through the heart and that provided a great deal of calm and relaxation. Sometimes the doctors or nurses would tell me not to hyperventilate, but Id point to the oxygen monitor and theyd see I was doing well.

I only remember fragments of coming in and out of consciousness for the first couple of the six days I spent in ICU. The surgical team told my wife that I coded (died) three times on the table, that I was on a ventilator for a half a day because my body would not breath on its own and I recall at least a couple of times when a bunch of people would come into the room, shaking me and telling me I need to take deep breaths because my blood oxygen was dangerously low. More burst breathing, more circular breathing to oxygenate and relax.

I came out of surgery with five new holes including my femoral and carotid arteries, two one inch cuts below my diaphragm from chest tubes because of two collapsed lungs and a ten inch incision from the open chest surgery to put a graft around my aorta. I received the strongest pain medications including fentanyl and dilaudid, but after a couple of days I didnt like being knocked out all the time. By day four I had enough strength and coordination in my left arm that I could try to use a walker. My left leg and hip were completely slack and numb, but the nurses encouraged me to get up and try to move. You cant get back lost time so I declined the pain meds and I would make it a few feet with the walker and lots of help. The week before, I was swinging kettle bells an hour a day, training or teaching four days a week and running on the beach with my dog. Now I was shaking like a leaf and dripping sweat just trying to make it 20 or 30 feet, dragging my left half behind me. The doctors said I had to make it twice around the nurses' station under my own power in order to get out of ICU and go to the post surgical recovery unit.

This was when my faith really came to the front of my awareness. I had many, many spiritual experiences during the seven-hour surgery and subsequent days in ICU, but I am only getting to the point of being able to put them in words so I cannot effectively share them right now. I have practiced the Jesus Prayer for several years and found it very helpful to have a daily practice that includes it. This was the first time, however, that I needed the prayer and support like a life preserver to literally make it from minute to minute and hour to hour. After the open chest surgery when they spilt the sternum in half, they wire it back together and you are not allowed to do almost anything involving your arms and chest for a couple of months. The pain and odd feelings of not having your sternum connected are indescribable. I would connect my breath to the prayer and be able to do whatever it is the nurses and physical therapists asked, sometimes with a very comforting sensation of detachment and as if I was being helped.

Im sure most all of you are familiar with the dog pile drill weve often done in Systema. You lay down, face up or down, and a bunch of people lay in strips or in one big pile on top of you while you discover the inner landscape of relaxing under pressure, controlling tension and finding some movement (any movement) while sustaining your consciousness with burst breathing. With two collapsed lungs, two chest tubes, 3 other drainage tubes, three IVs in each arm and plenty of pain I got to do the dog pile drill, day in and day out, 24/7 for several days. It was an amazing experience in perseverance and patience. I asked them to turn my bed so I couldnt see the clock and that made it easier to ride the breathing patterns for longer periods of time.

Once I got out of the ICU, I dont remember a lot of pain, but it was exhausting pulling the paralyzed side of my body around. Again, more breathing. Because I was weak and using a walker, I started with one step inhale, one step exhale. I was out of bed as much as theyd let me be so within a couple days I could do two or three steps per in and out breath. When the pain, exhaustion or both would get to be too much, 20 or 30 burst breaths with as much relaxation as I could muster would center me and give me a little more energy and focus to keep going.

After ten days in the hospital I was begging them to let me go home, either by car or airplane. The doctors had said that Id be spending at least two or three months in Las Vegas but, quite honestly, its really not my kinda town. I have a few doctor friends and so, long story short, we worked out a treatment plan and they signed off on it. A very good friend of mine who just retired from Special Forces flew out from Maryland and he escorted my wobbly self home to San Francisco. I was still mostly in a wheelchair, but I could get up and do the tasks/tests the doctors set for me. I would think of Nick, my son, and I was very encouraged by the fact that I seemed to be getting small amounts of function back almost every day and that gave me strength to continue.

I knew it would be a challenge, but I did not fill the prescriptions for pain medications they gave me in Las Vegas. Once I was unhooked from all the meds at the hospital it became sharply clear that I was going to have to coordinate breathing with movement and let that breath act as a guide and/or support for me. I was happy to take ibuprofen when my chest or any of the sutured areas hurt acutely but I knew the stronger meds would knock me out and, especially in the case of stroke rehabilitation, the clock is always ticking. You have to use every minute and bit of energy to move and relearn everything youve lost.

Over the coming weeks, several of the local Systema members helped me and my family out in many ways for which I am profoundly grateful. I was not allowed to drive and I live in a semi-rural area so just getting to dozens of doctors appointments, physical therapy and cardiac rehab sessions was a huge amount of work. My sons school and after-school activities also had to continue and, again, we were incredibly blessed to have such an outpouring of care and time given to us.

Between the stroke and cardiac rehab, I had sessions scheduled for most weekdays and homework to do a couple of times per day, every day. Again, burst breathing and circular breathing would help me to make it through profound discomfort or, at least, to give me more energy to keep going. I was not allowed to lift anything like a water bucket over my head, but I did soak my stroke-side limbs in ice water. Various ways of applying the nagaika (the Cossack whip) also helped build new neural pathways in areas that were numb to the touch or where the muscles simply did not respond.

Three months after the first surgery, I was hospitalized again and ended up having three surgeries. Because of some mistakes by the doctor, there was lots of blood and lots of pain. After twelve days, I was released and had visiting nurses come to my house three days per week for almost two months. I was on a wound vacuum and the dressing changes every other day are known for being excruciating, particularly in my case because they had to pack an incision with foam that exposed my femoral nerve and artery, nine centimeters long and four centimeters deep. They encouraged me to use pain medication, but again, the good stuff would knock me out for half a day and that wasnt good so, I usually settled for a couple of ibuprofen, lots and lots of burst breathing and what I call active prayer.

For rehabilitation, my physical therapists have given me pages and pages of exercises to do, but in my own rehab time, I rely on what Ive learned in Toronto and from local instructors such as Sergey Makarenko, from dozens of seminars and from Vlads DVDs such as The Combative Body, Systema Classic-Exercise, Breath For Internal Control and Kwan Lees Strength and Flexibility. I started doing some of these exercise even when all I could do was think them for my stroke side and mirror them on my functional side. Once I could use a walker safely, I did them outside, no matter the weather, in my backyard or the field behind my house that leads to the ocean. Being barefoot on the earth seemed very calming.

Its been almost seven months since all of this began. I have received a clean bill of health from my physical therapist and can return to work and the military reserves, albeit slowly and carefully. The goal I set for myself was to do everything better than I did before the medical crisis. I didnt want to just walk or write or move again; that didnt seem specific enough. I made myself do it better and with more awareness and accuracy than I had before. I am back on my motorcycles and road bike; Ill wait a couple more months before trying the mountain bike on trails. I still have some vestibular/ inner balance work to do and my autonomic nervous system is messed up from the stroke, the surgery or both. Genomic testing revealed that I have one broken gene that may have contributed to the aortic dissection, but I also did less than healthy things in the past (smoking) that may have contributed to the event. Now I need to get lots of aerobic exercise and keep my blood pressure as low as humanly possible.

Its not my style to lecture people on the specifics of religion and spirituality. I have my own beliefs and I try my hardest to live those beliefs every day. I trust and believe that you are an intelligent person who lives an examined life. I will, however, strongly encourage you to take time every day to strengthen yourself, on all levels, because when a crisis hits, just as in martial applications, youll fall back on what you know and what you spend the most amount of time doing, thinking and being.

I cannot adequately express my gratitude for the care, kindness and prayers I received from my Systema family around the world. I will continue to pay it forward and do what I can to promote Systema. I am most grateful toward Vladimir, Sergey Makarenko and our close-knit group of local instructors and dedicated students. It is my belief that all of that concern and positive energy played a significant part in my recovery about which more than one medical professional used the term miraculous. Thank you.

About the Author: Patrick McKee has trained in Systema for eleven years and is certified to teach under Vladimir Vasiliev. Mr. McKee has worked as a private investigator and executive protection agent for 20 years, a president of his own licensed investigative and security corporation. Patrick serves in the California State Military Reserve on the Small Arms Training Team (SATT) training National Guard soldiers in firearms and tactics.

He teaches at San Francisco Systema.


Sr. Grandmaster
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Jun 27, 2011
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That story gives me hope. Which is a damn fine thing.