Former Kentuckian recovering from serious health challenges offers hope and advice for others in similar situations

Written as “an open letter to friends and colleagues,” this essay offers hope and insight for people and families facing serious health challenges.
By Wes Irvin

Over the last seven years, I have been on a medical journey that has unfortunately taken me away from many folks who I still miss working with on a daily basis in Washington, D.C.

I’m sure many of you have wondered if I just fell off the face of the earth. Well, I have fallen along the way many times, and this journey has been a rollercoaster in every sense of the word, but I remain thankful to still be here every day.

Here’s my story: In September 2012, my life took an unexpected turn. Since then, I have undergone 60 surgeries and survived abdominal flesh-eating bacteria, five septic episodes, and multiple pulmonary embolisms. I also lost my spleen and gallbladder. I’ve been treated (and my life saved, more than once) in hospitals in Baltimore, Cleveland, Houston, and Rochester. I could go on, but you get the picture. It’s an understatement to say that there is no playbook for what my family and I have undergone. Thankfully, my underlying health was strong and it’s a big part of my story of survival.

I write not to seek sympathy, but to share some reflections born from this journey of compounded trauma, emotional healing and wellness, patience, perseverance, faith, and forgiveness—and also to thank some of the people closest to me who have been so supportive.

1. Yes, it is the journey, not the destination. As Robert Hastings writes in The Station, life really is about the journey. If you look out over the horizon, and try to figure out everything in your life, you’ll simply outrun yourself and miss living the gift of today. We exhaust ourselves by overreaching for the future—becoming less and less aware of what’s directly in front of us.

2. Today is the real deal. We all get excited about opening a Christmas present, a wedding present, or a birthday present. Right? There is so much anticipation and enthusiasm around a new gift. I have learned after losing hundreds of days since 2012—and from coming in and out of the woods—that I needed to open my “daily present” a bit more mindfully. I’ve realized that yesterday is in the rear-view mirror, tomorrow is uncertain, but today is for real: it’s a gift; it’s here. We should open today with excitement, surprise, and thanksgiving. Grab on and enjoy! As Eleanor Roosevelt wisely said, Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.

3. Find the pony in the pile. It sounds crass, but I’ll say it anyway: Find the pony in whatever pile of crap you unexpectedly wander into—and work tirelessly to find it. When horrible things happen to us, believe it or not, there is good we can find. I encourage you to hone in on that. If you can approach adversity with this mindset—and it isn’t easy—then you can ride that pony to the finish line. What I’m saying is find the positive, that morsel of goodness inside what may seem the deepest, darkest place in the issue you are facing.

4. Love is not just for “loved ones.” It is so important not only to love yourself, and your family, but to love people from all walks of life, every day, because I assure you that one day it may take all walks of life to save yours. Since day one of my ordeal, I have reminded the very kind folks who cleaned my rooms from the ICU to the ER in every hospital where I’ve stayed, how critical their jobs are. They, too, are busy with the work of saving lives. I hope you will look around for individuals working to ensure we can open the gift of today and tomorrow—folks working tirelessly to keep us safe, get us where we’re going, to ensure we get food. The list is endless. . . .

5. Forget politics—we’re all people. The America in 2012 when I fell sick is not the America I recognize today, in terms of the rhetoric. As politicized and divided as the country is today, I have seen up close the incredible professionalism, courage and skill of medical teams whose only concern is the care of their patients. My caregivers have been from all walks and stations of life and from countries around the world. I have been blessed that they call America their home. It’s because of the microsurgeon from Turkey, the nurse from India, and so many others who treated and helped me, that I am here. All of them worked and continue to work to find ways to put Humpty Dumpty back together. And I remain grateful to all of them.

6. Giving thanks, with gratitude. Finally, I want to thank the people who have accompanied me on this journey: First, my wife Tricia and our children, Ashby, Jack, and Mary Rose. Trish has navigated the unimaginable with grace and forgiveness—and our children have done so as well. I also want to add that Trish did all this while serving our community in multiple roles over the years. They have all been a blessing and extremely understanding during rough times and managed to pick themselves up—and often me as well—every day while moving forward.

I also want to thank my former bosses who helped me along the way. They have either sat by my bedside or helped to keep my focus balanced and strong. And speaking of bedsides, Secretary Norman Mineta was also an inspiration to me as I watched him, too, bravely navigate a serious illness while managing his leadership duties from a hospital bed. So thank you: Secretary Mineta, Ernie Fletcher, Frank Wolf, Jay Timmons and the National Association of Manufacturers, Jim Simpson, Mike DeWine, Bill Schubert, and Dave Camp. You were there for me, and it has meant the world.

I have been enveloped by a spiritual guiding light and have felt all the prayers and positive thoughts over the years from so many of you reading this. My heartfelt thanks to you all. As I like to say, “Thankful is simply every day.” The S.S. Irvin remains afloat, and we are working hard to mindfully navigate it every single day. Our family, knowing we are all survivors from this journey, has so much to celebrate and to continue to be thankful for.

Wes Irvin is a former Lexington resident who was congressional, campaign and gubernatorial press secretary for Ernie Fletcher. He lives in Annapolis, Md., and says he is an evolving survivor who advocates for the disabled and focuses his volunteer time on emotional wellness issues, due to a multi-year health journey.
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