Rachel's Resilience: A Journey of Strength & Healing

From a medically induced coma and a double lung transplant to achieving fitness goals. Rachel's story and her new lease on life.
Cal Bauer
February 16, 2024
Rachel's Resilience: A Journey of Strength & Healing

One of the most rewarding aspects of Great Lakes Fitness Co. is witnessing the meaningful transformations in our members' lives. Each journey is distinct, each challenge unique, and the positive changes we see are deeply personal and inspiring.

Among these remarkable stories, one has been particularly heartwarming over the past year. This is the story of Rachel.

The Challenge

Rachel is a lifelong resident of Holland, enjoying the beauties of the lakeshore with her husband Bill and their son Ari, who was born in 2017. Like many West Michiganders she was a dedicated runner, training for long runs to complete on the weekends. She was making a living as a dental hygienist, and her life was full, active, and happy.

This story starts while taking a holiday in the Dominican Republic. Normally reserved for relaxation and a recharge, she noticed some changes in her body. She was incredibly tired. She traded hours in the sunshine for time in bed. And later on in the week, her hands started going numb.

Returning to Holland, she immediately went to see her doctor. She had no idea that this appointment would kick off a series of hundreds of other ones.

At this point, Rachel & the medical team around her were on a wild goose chase. The foreseeable future would be spent chasing a sequence of diagnoses and attempts at different treatments and therapies.

Her lungs were ceasing to function - air could get in, but they couldn’t absorb the oxygen. The decision was made to put Rachel into a medically induced coma. It was also clear what needed to happen - she would need a new pair of lungs.

She was moved to Spectrum in Grand Rapids and put on ECMO: a machine that artificially oxygenates blood independent of the body. On Thanksgiving, Bill received another call, to come to the hospital. Rachel’s condition was continuing to slide - it was time to come say goodbye.

ECMO is a rough treatment. Blood is circulated out of the body, artificially oxygenated, and recirculated. Because of that patients don’t typically stay on it for more than 7 days. She fought that through Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Sixty-one days her body was sustained by a machine. Arie’s third birthday came and went. They decorated the room and he was able to see her, but due to the tubes and contraptions she couldn’t speak. “Mommy, can you hear me?” was all he would ask her on his birthday.

On a dark, cold, winter night in January of 2021, she was woken up by staff. Their prayers were answered - they had found a match. A pair of healthy lungs were in an ambulance on their way to Grand Rapids, and she would be in surgery the very next morning.

She was given a new pair of lungs to breathe, and with it a new lease on life.

Learning to walk again

Since you started reading this, you’ve probably had 20-40 breaths without even knowing it. Using a pair of lungs you’ve had since you were 5 weeks in the womb. Something so essential, natural, and taken for granted. With a team of Occupational and Physical Therapists, she had to learn how to breathe again. How to talk, swallow, use her hands. She had never realized how much of a blessing the ability to communicate was.

The doctor told her she wouldn’t be home for another 3 months. Nonetheless, he said home. She would be going back home.

In her own words, her body finally understood what it needed to do. She started finding tremendous accomplishment in little things - spinning in the bed, putting her legs on the floor, standing up. All these baby steps to get back to being capable. Eventually, she started walking again.


She & her body were on the up, and how tremendous a feeling that was. Her body had been playing defense for over a year, and it was finally starting to gain some offensive ground. With it, new challenges and goals arose.

Number of steps to get into the house: 3. How many stairs were there in the house? Ok, we’ll have to stay on the ground floor for a while. Her PT would come to their house twice a week to work with her, and each time she would continue to get better. Get to the end of the driveway. Alright now let’s get past the neighbors. Two houses down. The goals kept progressing, and step by step, she was making a comeback.

She was home, could play with Ari, could help around the house. Her friends would come over and sit on the back patio with her. The challenges shifted from basic functional needs to the pains of moving with her body that had been deteriorating. She had chronic back pain from compression fractures and weakening bones from steroids required for new lungs and prolonged bedrest. Leaning over the sink to do dishes and carrying laundry baskets were taxing, and she was living on a heating pad every day.

Her friend Kristen, who stood with her throughout this whole process, eventually mentioned to her that there was a cash based Physical Therapist at the gym that she attends, and that she does a fantastic job. But Rachel had already been through so much, had already come back from such a dark place. She was reluctant to put herself through more. She was intimidated and fearful of getting out of breath in her new lungs. But she put her trust into Kristen and this new PT, Amber at Rebuilt Movement & Rehab.

The Comeback

From the first time she met with Amber, she felt like she was someone who cared. Who wanted to help her feel better. They laid out goals, the major one to simply “Feel stronger.” At this point, having been what she had been through, she felt as though her life would always have limitations. But Amber kept encouraging her to try a lot of different things.

Squats. Deadlifts. Presses. Slight conditioning work. Moderate conditioning work. She kept climbing the ladder that she had gotten a grasp on since her transplant.

“There was a lot of trust” she says. “She helped me get through my fears.”

They worked together twice a week for 7 months. She gained strength and confidence in her new body, and with it a momentum that she hadn’t felt in years.

“I got to watch her move from scared to breathe to excitement over her first deadlift. When I would suggest we try something new or push it a little, she would get this mischievous look on her face, shrug, and say ‘let’s try it!’”

Having stuck with the attentive care and training with Amber at Rebuilt, she was ready to continue to take on new challenges. “Let’s do CrossFit” she says with a smile and a laugh.

From the beginning of her time here at Great Lakes, collaborative attention between coaches and Rachel. We tailored each workout to her unique needs - paying attention to her strength, her metabolic capabilities, keeping in mind her energy levels and how she would feel after the workout. She finished her first class. “I did it!!” she said; another rung on the ladder. We found the balance to move and move well 3 days a week, and with it a newfound belief and confidence in her body.

This all culminated in a strength test this past January to kick off a new strength cycle. Deadlift day. We took some time to establish a “one rep max,” meaning we’re going to pick up some heavy stuff.

She got started with a 55 pull. Money. 65, butter. Up and up she went, all the way to 100. Triple digits. She set up in the stance we had worked on, squeezed the bar, pulled herself down, and engaged all the way from her shoulders to her heels. At the end of it all, she stood there with a new pair of lungs, a newfound confidence, 100 pounds in her hands, and a hell of a story to tell.

TLDR: Live. Breathe. Move your hands. Talk. Turn in your bed. Stand up. Take a step. Take two steps. Walk up your walkway. Three steps up to the doorstep. Walk around your house. Play with your kid. Help around the house. Find someone to help me take this further. Trust her. Lift a barbell. Lift a barbell with weights on it. Get out of breath. Push yourself physically. Push yourself mentally. Find the next level. Finish a class. Finish two. Set a lifting goal. Deadlift 100 pounds.

These were all the goals she had set, and all the steps she had taken. This whole time, going all the way back to the Dominican Republic, the question in her head had become “What can I do?” As I finished up my conversation with her, she smiles and says “What can’t I do?”

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