How One Woman Found Healing in the Himalayas
Not heeding the latter, I was growing increasingly certain, had been my downfall time and again. Moreover, I'd fought hard that blood-soaked night to keep breathing and loving and working and living, and I refused to fall into the same old patterns in its aftermath of listening to everyone else's voice but my own. Western medicine had saved my life, but it had also failed me. Repeatedly.
To understand what happened, both to me as well as to many women, let's first hop on back to ancient times: 2012, to be precise, when I was diagnosed with adenomyosis and its offshoot, severe anemia. This was after years of complaining to various healthcare professionals of intense and painful periods, only to be told to stay on top of it with ibuprofen.
Adenomyosis occurs when endometrial tissue grows into the uterine wall, causing severe bleeding and cramping with every period. (Middle-aged women with children, like me, are more prone to it.) The only foolproof cure, I was told, was a hysterectomy.
In preparation for the operation, I was advised to keep both my ovaries and my cervix by having what is called a supracervical hysterectomy. "Why?" I asked.
With no history of ovarian cancer in my family, it would be hormonally advantageous to keep my ovaries, I was told, particularly since I was not yet menopausal or even perimenopausal. Cool. Fine. Done. That made logical sense both on a gut and bone density level. Keeping the cervix, however, seemed an odd choice. What purpose could a stand-alone cervix serve other than to sit inside me and possibly get diseased? It was believed, I was told, in the passive tense—though experience and instinct told me otherwise—that the cervix played a role in sexual pleasure. What? Okay. If you say so.
"Wrong," said Dr. June Hou, my gynecological oncologist, five years later. I was in her office because I'd recently started bleeding during intercourse, and then suddenly I was bleeding every day even without sex—a mystery when you don't have a uterus. My cervix, as I'd once feared, was now diseased. In other words, nearly five years to the day after going under the knife, I was about to undergo another major surgery that could have easily been avoided had I simply trusted my gut.
Recovery from a trachelectomy (cervix removal) is roughly equivalent to that of a hysterectomy. You can't exercise. You can't lift. Getting up out of bed to go to the bathroom is challenging. I had friends who lovingly brought over casseroles, flowers and laughter when I returned home from the hospital, but as a single mother, mid-divorce, I was, as usual, on my own. Trash had to be thrown out. Dishes had to be done. Lunches had to be made; the dog had to be walked; laundry had to be transferred from washer to dryer; groceries had to be lugged from here to there. On top of that, I was newly out of a job and going on interviews. I had freelance assignments, money stress, mounting medical bills. I even had to appear and represent myself at a custody hearing less than a week after surgery, immediately after which I dragged myself to the closest emergency room to deal with an infection in one of the six still-fresh incisions in my torso.
Meanwhile, Quinn (not his real name), an empath of an old boyfriend who'd moved to China for work, reached out via every channel available to two people on the opposite ends of the earth, and said if I could get myself to Kathmandu, both he and the Himalayas would help heal me. Quinn's move to China had hastened our end, but the 19 years between us would have done so eventually. He's 32, I'm 51, and even if I still had a working uterus, I would not fill it. The three kids I have are enough. Quinn wants his own. In other words, we didn't break up for lack of love; we broke up for lack of a reproductive future.
I broached the idea of going to Nepal at my post-op checkup with Dr. Hou, who was, I was pleased to discover, supportive. She's Chinese, born in Shanghai. Although her professional life is steeped in the rigors and provable hypotheses of Western medicine, she also understands the value of Eastern healing, spirituality, mysticism—whatever you want to call that place we go to quiet the mind and mentally shore up our crumbling walls. A lack of domestic responsibilities in a soothing setting where meditation, massage and mindfulness are part of the fabric of society could be a boon, she said. Before she left, she reminded me about the dangers of sex: "Nothing goes up there," she said, "for at least another six to eight weeks. You could tear. I'm serious. Nothing."
Quinn was not dissuaded by this last bit of information. "Just come," he said. ("Or not," I thought.) I looked into flights to Nepal, which, because of July's monsoon season, were unusually cheap. Hotels in Kathmandu were similarly inexpensive, averaging $30 a night. I'd had to liquidate my 401(k) in order to survive the recent downsizing, illness and recovery, but two weeks abroad would cost less than two days of a full-time caretaker in New York. The deciding moment came after my friend Cindy hired a craniosacral massage therapist to come to my apartment: That one hour of being touched, seen and cared for in such an intense and intimate way felt more curative than all the hours of lonely bed rest leading up to it. Quinn, I knew, would happily be that person to me 24/7. In fact, of any man I've ever loved, he is, by far, the most giving.
I booked the flight. I found a room with a balcony overlooking the Himalayas at the inexpensive but historic Kathmandu Guest House, whose oasis of a garden had been graced by the Beatles, Jimmy Carter and Peter Matthiessen.
Then, a week before my flight, I was attending a friend's 50th birthday party when I started hemorrhaging. It pains me to admit this, but instead of asking one of my many friends to rush me to the emergency room, I apologized to the birthday girl for leaving early and headed home, figuring I would sleep it off and go to the hospital the next morning. By the time I arrived back at my apartment, however, giant blood clots the size of tennis balls were literally shooting out of me like cannonballs because of the blood pooling above what Dr. Hou would later describe as "fraying flesh" at the top of the vaginal canal.
Such fraying, and tearing open, called vaginal cuff dehiscence, only happens in 0.24 percent of all trachelectomies. In other words, I'd won the lottery. Just not the kind you want to win.
I had no idea that the clots were clots. To my untrained eye, they looked like pieces of internal organs, perhaps a chunk of liver or my kidney, so I scooped them up off the floor of my bathroom, which now looked like a crime scene, and placed them in a glass Tupperware container (not plastic, my unhinged brain decided, heaven forbid they should come into contact with BPAs) in case they needed to be replaced inside me. And then—I'm even more horrified to admit this—instead of heading straight to the emergency room, like any rational human, I called my surgeon's answering service (three times, to no avail) to find out if what I was experiencing was normal.
An hour and a half later, at 1:30 a.m., still at home and growing weaker, I considered leaving for the hospital. But at this point, I was also too confused to act on my own. I woke up my sleeping daughter, age 20, who'd just arrived home for her summer internship four hours earlier. Had she not been there, my surgeon would later tell me, I would not be here typing these words. "I think something's wrong," I told her.
Luckily, my jet-lagged and sleep-deprived 20-year-old daughter had more presence of mind than her bleeding mother. Or at least a basic trust in her own gut and eyesight. She surveyed my blood-stained bathroom and the sealed monstrosities in my glass bowl. "Let's go," she said.
I passed out the minute we reached the emergency room, my container crashing to the ground and splattering all over my daughter. Or so I'm told. The rest of that night is hazy. I remember my friend Lisa showing up to deal with the dog, followed by my sister Jen, who was unusually in town on vacation with her family. I remember my daughter crying when she heard Jen's voice on the other end of the phone. I remember wanting to cry myself for putting my child, still legally too young to drink, in the position of caring for her mother. I remember being irrationally annoyed when the nurses ripped off and threw out my favorite green yoga pants, which were now too bloodstained to save.
The bleeding was so severe now, in fact, that the nurses had to wipe down one stretcher with bleach and transfer me to another. I could feel myself dying, the life force literally gushing out of my body. "Nepal," I kept thinking to myself like a mantra. "I have to stay alive and make it to Nepal." Altogether, 18 clots would shoot out of me—"A chai!" I apparently joked with my daughter, using the Hebrew word for "18" that also means "life"—before I was finally rushed in for emergency surgery.
Dr. Hou showed up for rounds later that same day. The first thing I asked her was whether I could still go to Nepal.
I had no proof, but I was certain that the stresses and strains of everyday life combined with a lack of a caretaker had contributed to my fraying flesh. My daughter was home now, but she was supposed to begin her internship the following day. My oldest was off working in Thailand. My mother was unavailable. My father had been dead for years. A new boyfriend I'd started seeing five months earlier, an age-appropriate man with whom I'd first noticed the bleeding, said he wasn't up to the task. (Yes, reader, I broke up with him.)
"If you stay off your feet all week," Dr. Hou said, "it might still be possible to go."
So, I stayed off my feet. I relied on my daughter to do the heavy lifting. Dr. Hou examined me the day before my scheduled flight and sanctioned my departure, as long as I took periodic jaunts up and down the plane's aisles and did no heavy lifting. So, I organized wheelchair escorts at every airport. I researched the best hospital in Kathmandu, just in case. Then, I turned off my phone, which was dinging wildly with worried texts and calls from friends and family.
"No," I finally said to my beloved sister, who was on the verge of crying and begging me to stay. I did not apologize. I did not back down. I knew, deep in my gut, that what lay on the other side of that sardine-tight flight would more than make up for its pain and discomfort. From now on, I promised myself, I would listen to my own voice.
I arrived in Kathmandu before Quinn and fell fast asleep, so his appearance a few hours later felt like a dream unleashed. My shoulders relaxed. My heart flooded with warmth. My spirits brightened. There are people in this world who act as sunshine to our souls, and Quinn is one of them. Not only to me but to everyone. He befriended the normally stiff-lipped bird lady in my park and made her smile. He seeks out the shunned and ignored, and works hard to make them feel seen. He is his disabled brother's keeper. He does not differentiate between famous and homeless. Everyone, in Quinn's eyes, is human.
The circumstances of his upbringing were hardly ideal, but he does not complain. Wickedly smart and witty, with a penchant for languages—we once shared an Uber with two Chinese tourists, and suddenly he was speaking fluent Mandarin—Quinn and I met on an app date that lasted from the moment it started until the day, five months later, he had to move 8,000 miles away for work. We knew from the start that our relationship had an expiration date, but we could not stay away from each other and had simply decided to be Buddhist about it. "Just breathe" became our mantra.
Months of letting his hair and beard grow had given Quinn the distinct aura of Jesus. Apt, since it would not be an understatement to call him a savior. What young man takes two weeks out of his life to play helpmate and nurse to an infirm former lover nearly two decades his senior with whom he can neither consummate his love nor plan for its future?
Quinn, that's who.
He'd purchased a lightweight hammock and set it up on our balcony. Every morning, we would lie in it, stare out at the Himalayas, and plug the word "healing" into Google Maps to weigh our seemingly endless array of red-dotted options.
While every other backpack-laden guest at the Kathmandu Guest House was there to trek the mountains, our sole goal, every day, was to lift nothing, walk little and help me recover. That is to say, Quinn carried all my stuff in his daypack and kept telling me, whenever I lamented not being able to trek like the others, that ours was a different kind of journey.
Photo: Courtesy of Deborah Copaken
Our first stop was Seeing Hands Nepal, where a 90-minute, deep-tissue massage was performed by masseuses who were blind and took their cues from skin and muscle, somehow instinctively finding the inner hurt between them and understanding how to undo it. Next, it was off to a tiny, Tibetan bowl-lined room overlooking the Boudha Stupa, where I lay on the floor and was treated to the magic healing of a sound bath. I was skeptical at first about what multiple brass bowls placed on and around me—including one on my still-aching pelvis—could possibly do for my pain and suffering, but then I realized it was less about the bowls themselves and more about their vibrations. I'd been forced to lie perfectly still, surrounded by chiming bowls, for 30 minutes. That forced intention, in and of itself, combined with a wall of pleasing sound was restorative.
We visited the Kopan Monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist monk's paradise, where we meditated for several hours in a psychedelically colorful room in front of a giant Buddha and strolled the well-groomed grounds of possibly the most stunning spot in all of Kathmandu. Later that week, we stumbled upon the Himalayan Healers of Nepal. A healing arts school in Thamel, it trains those in the untouchables caste to touch. It also trains war widows, women who've been sex-trafficked, and victims of domestic abuse, helping them seek work in the spa industry and escape the horrors, social isolation and destitution of their pasts.
Quinn and I loved both the concept of this school and its gentle manager, Manoz Rana, so much that we ended up returning back there nearly every day, sampling all of their various offerings. Ayurvedic, Nepali and hot-stone massages were our favorites. Massage, because of its high cost in the United States, has always seemed to me to be the purview of the wealthy: a luxury, not a necessity. Before this trip, I'd had less than a dozen massages in my entire life, most of them gifts from others. In Nepal, massage is sacrosanct, both inexpensive enough and societally valued enough to be engaged in and appreciated by many.
Same with yoga. Instead of the fancy studios in my city, catering to the young and moneyed, yoga in Nepal is an essential and inexpensive start to many of its citizens' mornings. Our $5 (that's the tourist rate) daily hour of peaceful movement and meditation with the elderly but rock-strong Shyaam Guru, in a modest room at the Hotel Himalaya Yoga, became the anchor of our days. When he found out about my two surgeries, he deliberately led our class in movements and breathing that would be both restorative and less stressful on my pelvic area. "Yoga simply means union of two," Shyaam told us during savasana, the corpse pose. "It doesn't mean sweating and listening to loud music. The yoga symbol in Sanskrit is a plus sign; that's all." I grabbed Quinn's hand, feeling that plus sign deeply.
So much of Western health and attitude is about rugged individualism: Grin and bear it; fight the battle; win the war; pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. We forget that without love and care, without mindfulness and calm, without each other, all that grinning and fighting and winning and bearing might actually inflict harm instead of providing the transformational soil for inner peace. Recovering at home by myself had been a contradiction in terms. The loneliness and physical strain had nearly killed me.
One afternoon, we visited the Temple of Pashupatinath, where Nepali Hindus bring their dead for cremation. At first, we were shocked to note the joy and celebration of that place, to join in the clapping, dancing and singing with Kathmandu's children and their families, with Hindu priests and Nepali dancers who every night gather, along with dozens of curious monkeys, to celebrate life and burn incense among the burning corpses. Western attitudes toward death are so different: It's hidden from view, somber, almost shameful. We bury our dead under the ground. They send their dead's smoke out into the sunlit sky.
"Do you like coming here and watching the bodies burn?" I asked a 7-year-old Nepali girl.
"Yes!" she squealed with a gigantic smile. "My brother and me, we come here all the time. It reminds us to be grateful to be alive." She held her hands in prayer. "Namaste." Namaste, literally translated, means "I see the god within you," and is used for both hello and goodbye.
A new corpse was brought in, covered in the typical yellow and red cloth used to prepare the body for cremation: a mother, 40, whose relatives told me she had cancer but didn't know the word in English for where. Her nephew pointed to my scarred pelvis, which had been spared the same fate. "There," he said. "Her cancer was in there." Her teenage son was weeping copiously behind her, unable to speak. "That could have been me," I thought. "That boy could have been my children." I shivered, grateful for my still-working synapses.
Quinn's father had died four months earlier, so he'd brought some ashes to toss in the Bagmati River in his honor. While Quinn prepared the symbolic fragments, the woman's corpse was set on fire. Eventually all of these ashes would be tossed into the river, where they would seep their way back into the earth.
Quinn and I returned to our little room, with its hammock overlooking the Himalayas, to celebrate not yet being earth's ash. It was our last night together, and he was determined to make it special, never mind our strict restrictions. So, for two hours, with soft Nepali music playing and incense burning, he used every new aural, tactile and olfactory skill he'd learned over the course of our healing journey, asking only that I give myself over to him and trust my gut enough to trust him—a difficult task, he knew, for a woman whose marriage and body had both broken for lack of it. But trust has to begin somewhere. Quinn's love had been a constant, even after he'd moved away. He checked in, sending flowers, and a stuffed bear for my son. For so many years, I had no one to catch me when I fell. "Just breathe," he said. "I've got you."
His hands dug deep into the hurt, kneading and smoothing it, while my eyes flooded with tears, not out of pain or sadness, but from gratitude. In the depths of that vulnerability, I made two vows. First, to always trust my gut, no matter its divergence from public opinion. Second, to use the experience of near death as lodestar. Now, whenever faced with a new life wrinkle, no matter how difficult, I simply put that wrinkle—the new mass on my rib, a friend's recent betrayal—into context: Are you a blood clot howitzer? No? Then count your blessings, check in with your inner compass, remember Nepal and take action from a place of strength, not fear.
"Namaste," I said, leaving Quinn the next morning, forever.
Deborah Copaken is an award-winning war photographer, an Emmy-winning TV producer, a screenwriter and the New York Times best-selling author of Shutterbabe and The Red Book, among others. Her latest book is The ABCs of Parenthood (Chronicle, 2017).