Because We Can

March 11, 2019

A man's struggle between Meibomian Gland Dysfunction and running

By Jason Henrie

I strip down to my running shoes, shorts and long sleeve and slip on my hydration pack as I step from the warmth of the car. I feel the cold crisp morning mountain air of Colorado's San Juan Mountains sting my nose and hands and I catch a faint sweet scent of decomposing aspen leaves and withering mountain grasses and flowers. Morning's first sunrays warm the summits of nearby peaks as I ready myself for the impending mountain run.

I stand in the cold ready to go but am held back by the overwhelming desire to disclose my considerable gratitude for what was about to transpire with a heartfelt thank you to my wife for her unwavering support through the exhausting trials of the last year and, despite them, ending up here at this trailhead with me, supporting me in taking the exhilarating yet apprehensive baby steps to a life of running in the mountains again.

I look toward Engineer Mountain, the magnet that pulls my spirit for this run and allow its field to pull me forward with my first running steps up the upwardly twisting singletrack trail. Fallen golden aspen leaves now browning under autumn's chill crunch under foot while, overhead, aspen branches reach bare bone to the sky as if to implore it to deliver the first snow flurries of old man winter.

As I build to a runner's stride, I soak in the emotion of starting up the trail and the impending adventure of running in the mountains. I try to hold on for as long as possible until the unrelenting uphill angle and the thin air force me, with burning calves and exploding lungs, to give them full focus.

One year ago, I would have never known what was going to hit me. Up to that point, I was very fortunate and generally ran when I wanted and often where I wanted, only taking small breaks when life got busy, I lost interest, or had a short term injury. I was living my passion, running in the mountains and deserts of the Southwest United States and beyond, adventuring and exploring the wilderness of the earth and my body and mind.

All that came to a crashing halt. Suddenly my life changed completely. I became photophobic with an acute sensitivity to sunshine, florescent lights and glare along with extreme eye surface irritation. I would get such fatigue from these issues that my eyelids and eyes felt perpetually taxed. I was forced to spend many days sleeping in a dark bedroom. Even on good days I had severe difficulty focusing on simple tasks including work, family life, socializing, driving and of course, running. My life as I knew it was slipping away before my ever worsening eyes.

As the months went by with countless doctor appointments and no diagnosis, my optimism weakened to hopelessness; I had demoralizing bouts of severe anxiety that my life was spinning out of control. I could not get out of my mind the potential horrifying reality that I might not be able to work and support my family, nor go outside and do anything active. I was not prepared for that kind of life.

I did try to run sporadically at the beginning until my eyes worsened to the point that they consistently stung and mostly stayed shut from the pain. My upper brow would swell from the stress and fatigue of eye exhaustion.

The following is a note I wrote to myself at the end of one of my last outings before abandoning running:

Running in the dark - eyes closed. Tearing. Straining. I run. I run at night. Must be brave and got to deal. Light sensitivity and cold sensitivity rules my running, work and family ... my life. But it is nothing compared to some people's struggles. I may run eyes shut but I am still a fortunate one. I have so much. I must run, I must. To prove to myself I can. My body works, my mind functions. It is only my eyes. I must learn to be strong. I must run.

- February, 20, 2014.

In my desperation I tried everything to heal my eyes. Eye specialists, acupuncture, naturopathic doctors, strict anti-inflammatory and cooling diets, steroids, antibiotics, supplements, a lot of sleep, anti-stress habits, zen podcasts, meditation, tai chi ... and tons of online research were all explored with varying success and often failure.

After nine months of hopeless struggle and six months after abandoning running, I finally got a diagnosis. I was diagnosed with Meibomian Gland Dysfunction, a dysfunction of the oil glands on my eyelids that was allowing tears to immediately evaporate off the surface of my eyes, creating an extremely dry, irritable condition. I was informed, along with the diagnosis, that I would be living with this debilitating disease for the rest of my life. I was devastated. The thought was unbearable.

After the diagnosis, I decided to try a new procedure that has varying results in helping the oil glands. I coupled this with many of the continuing treatments mentioned earlier that I thought could help.

Months after the procedure and my new regimen, my eyes seemed to ever so slowly make progress. I was in bad shape but I was finally feeling a glimmer of hope, enough to believe it was worth giving running another shot. I needed to find myself again and running was the only way I knew how.

Miraculously, I survived some short, non-technical trail runs with a fair bit of eye sensitivity and fatigue, but not like before. I continued to run, ever so slowly seeing improvements. Along with my incremental eye improvements, my mood and confidence improved.

The highs and lows culminated with me forcing an ascent of a local Flagstaff mountain, Mt. Humphreys, by way of 3,000 feet of elevation gain to the 12,000-plus foot summit along a technical trail twisted with rocks and roots that topped out after an exposed and bouldery final summit push.

I was not ready to tackle such a challenge for my eyes but my drive got the better of me. It was touch and go the entire ascent but somehow I found myself perched at the top. I squinted my tired and tearing eyes down northward toward the distant Grand Canyon's bottomless rocky chasm, eastward toward the technicolor folds of the Painted Desert and southward toward the pine forested gridwork of streets of the city of Flagstaff and jutting red rock sandstone spires of Sedona, an awe inspiring view I thought I would never see again.

Standing there on the summit, taking it all in, I felt a small sense of who I was break free from the web of distant memories lost and find a home in who I am now. I felt like me again, even just for a moment.

The Humphreys run, one month ago, became a turning point. I am not quite sure to what extent, but I finally have hope. Where once I was depressed, anxious and afraid, I now believe I can go out and run in the mountains and deserts and adventure, explore and live my passion again.

As I write this, just days removed from completing the Engineer Mountain Trail, My eyes are not perfect but I feel they are on a positive path. Instead, I feel soreness and fatigue in the rest of my body and a sense of stillness and satisfaction that I haven't felt for far too long. It is a feeling I unknowingly took for granted for much of my life.

Now I understand that those of us who are able to lace up our running shoes, get out the door, and run for any distance are most fortunate. We never know when that will be taken from us. I now believe that we should all run with great gratitude, savoring every high and every low - all of it. We should run ... because we can.



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