God had been with him his whole life, in and out of the boxing ring. Could He help him cope with this devastating illness?
Posted in , Apr 27, 2020
Late into that fall morning in 2007, I remained in bed, my body weak with pain and fatigue, my spirit worn out too.
I was living alone in a townhouse outside Celebration, Florida, my life a shell of what it had been. Sixteen months earlier, in June 2006, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. My marriage ended. My body failed me. Things really fell apart. I needed physical help every day. I was no longer Superman: successful, in amazing shape, strong in every sense of the word.
I couldn’t work anymore as a television producer. The daily pain and fatigue of my MS meant I couldn’t keep up with grueling production schedules. I was trading stocks to make ends meet, but I couldn’t take care of my family the way I used to. MS had also given me a limp. I had to drag my left leg everywhere I went. It was mortifying.
I barely left the townhouse. Not to go to work. Not to see my friends. Not even to go to the gym, as I had done habitually six days a week for years. I’d gone from a self-made millionaire to a depressed, sick recluse.
I lay there and stared at the ceiling. God, is my life over? Really?
I knew firsthand the power God had to give direction to the lost and the broken. Growing up in the Bronx and Queens in the 1960s and 1970s, I was always getting into fights. First in the streets and later as an amateur boxer. I had a lot of anger and a chip on my shoulder the size of a Frisbee.
It wasn’t until I was 16 and a girlfriend brought me to Bible study that I gradually came to clarity. There is another way, God seemed to be saying to me. But I wasn’t willing to turn my life over to the Lord until many years later, when I went from an angry rebel to a serious body builder and businessman who owned his own gyms.
Working out became a way of life. It focused me almost like prayer. When I wanted to transition into producing television and film projects, I again leaned on the Lord. I worked hard and signed a deal with a leading sports entertainment marketing company, then with FOX Sports on two sports reality competition shows.
By the time I turned 47, I was proud of the life I’d built. I had three wonderful kids, a thriving career. I was in great shape. I spent time as a youth pastor and gave glory to God, sure, but I had a big ego too. Didn’t I deserve some of the credit?
One day in March 2006, I was at the gym, pressing a cable down as part of my triceps workout, when a sharp, burning pain erupted in my left shoulder. Must be a pinched nerve, I thought. The pain spread to my left arm and fingers. Could this be a heart attack? I shoved the thought to the back of my mind. Superman didn’t have heart attacks. I asked God to fix the problem and pushed on with my workout.
Over the next few months, the pain went into my legs, along with numbness and weakness. I tried to ignore the symptoms. One day, my youngest had to pull me out of the swimming pool because I couldn’t raise my legs to do it myself.
Maybe I need to see a doctor, I thought. The timing, however, could not have been worse. I had a big business trip to California already planned. I didn’t have time for doctors’ appointments.
Nonstop meetings, getting into and out of the rental car, pitching my ideas over and over again—I barely held it together on that trip to Los Angeles. I came home to Florida and finally pulled my head out of the sand. I made an appointment to see a general practitioner. The doctor examined me and listened to my list of symptoms. “Have you ever had a head injury?” he asked.
“I was always a fighter,” I said. “Both in and out of the ring.”
The doc looked concerned. “Maybe it’s finally caught up with you.”
We scheduled MRIs. When the results came back, the doctor called and said, “You need to get to the hospital right now.” The MRI showed lesions in my brain.
I was admitted for a full neurological workup—more MRIs and a lumbar puncture. I hated the idea of needing care and refused to be treated as an invalid. I insisted on dragging myself to the bathroom rather than allowing myself to be catheterized.
It wasn’t until I was alone in my room later that night that panic surfaced. Why, God? I prayed. Why? What is your plan? I was supposed to be Superman.
On my fourth day in the hospital, the neurologist came to my room with the results of the tests. “From what I see, you have all the symptoms of multiple sclerosis,” he said.
I knew nothing about MS. The neurologist explained that it was an inflammatory disease. The myelin sheaths around the nerve cells in my brain and spinal cord were damaged, disrupting communication between my brain and my body. There was no cure. The pain and fatigue would probably get worse. Vision loss and impaired coordination were likely in my future. I could need caregivers as the disease progressed. To depend on others to help me through my day-to-day.
I was stunned. What about the life I’d worked so hard to build, the life I’d thought God wanted for me?
In the almost year and a half since my diagnosis, I had prayed to understand God’s will. But I’d had to give up my work and life as I knew it. I didn’t go out with my friends anymore. The only people I saw regularly were my kids. My life had shrunk along with my muscles, my strength. Now here I was, alone in my townhouse, lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. I’d never felt so weak, so vulnerable. God, what do I do? I pleaded.
In my heart, I heard him say, David, I made you a fighter. You have to get back to what you know.
Early the next morning, I forced myself out of the house and through the doors of the fitness center in Celebration. It wasn’t the kind of hard-core gym where I used to work out—I didn’t want anyone who knew me to see me. I was scared. My body had been so inactive since my diagnosis. What if I couldn’t do even one rep? What if my legs wobbled or, God forbid, collapsed under me?
Best to start light. With my arms at my sides, I held a five-pound dumbbell in each hand and, very slowly, curled the weights up to my shoulder. I caught my reflection in the mirror and recoiled. My biceps were so puny. I shook my head. Keep fighting, I told myself. Get back to what you know.
I made myself go to the fitness center every other day, early in the morning, always alone. Until one morning in November, when I heard a knock at my townhouse door. “Ready to work out?” It was my buddy John. He’d gotten wind of my solo workouts and wanted me to come to his body-building gym.
I didn’t want to go and embarrass myself, but John was a big, strong guy. He could pick me up if he wanted and throw me in the car. I knew he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Darren, the gym manager, was waiting for us. He and John had tailored a training plan to ensure that I could keep up. After years of being in charge and running my own gyms, I was following these guys and letting them coach me as if I were a beginner.
“You can do this,” John said whenever I struggled. “You’re a body builder, a fighter, and you’ll always be one. Train any way you can, and you can beat this disease.”
It was time to relinquish some of my ego. My desire to be the best, the strongest. I just needed to get through the workout that day and come back. Some workouts were better than others, but I kept training. That week. That month. That year. Exercise helped me regain strength, function and mobility. Darren and John picked me up and drove me to the gym, encouraging me all the way. Without their belief in me, I don’t know if I would have ever found my way back to body building.
Two years later, I returned to television production. I met a wonderful, godly woman named Kendra, who became my wife. A registered nurse who worked with MS patients, she knew the downward progression of the disease yet still chose to be my partner in life.
Our marriage has been the biggest blessing the Lord could have given me. Kendra grounds me, humbles me and makes me appreciate that multiple sclerosis is God’s way of enabling me to make a positive difference in the world. At age 50, three years after I was diagnosed with MS, I competed in a state body-building contest and won a trophy for Most Inspirational Body Builder.
In 2012, Kendra and I founded the nonprofit MS Fitness Challenge to help support people with multiple sclerosis who want to keep their bodies moving. We are also educating trainers on how to work with the MS community, and our charity has expanded to more than 25 countries.
It’s hard doing all this while living with MS. Some days I’m so tired, I practically have to crawl out of the gym. But I know I’m not Superman, and I don’t need to be. I can lean on my friends and family and, most of all, on the Lord, who, as my arm tattoo of 2 Timothy 4:17 proclaims, stands with me and strengthens me.
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