The Journey Back – Andrew Gillie – Highland Games competitor

Andrew Gillies - Highland Games / Strongman

Five years ago Andrew Gillie from Canton in New York State, USA, was a happily married father of two young boys , who loved competing in Highland Games competitions and lifting weights.  However the world was about to come crashing down.  This comment posted on Facebook, drew my attention:

….5 years ago I suffered a brain hemmorhage as the result of a ruptured cerebral cyst. I spent a nice chunk of time in the ICU and then on an specialized neurology unit. I was instructed to not lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk and to find a new hobby. With the help of God, my wife, my family, and my many awesome freinds I came back bigger, stronger, and badder than ever before. Thank you all…I’M STILL HERE!!!….

Andrew Gillies - Highland Games / StrongmanThis is Andrew’s story…

The Strength Athlete. . Before….

I’m almost embarrassed to give these kind of numbers. I’m small (170cm) and old… just your average gym rat. Probably around 150kg squat, 105kg bench, 180kg Deadlift.

I had been doing Highland Games for about a year and a half or so, and was starting to get pretty serious about it. I’d lift two days a week and throw on the weekends. I had always wanted to try Highland games but knew I was too small.

Eventually I decided that I’ll never be a huge guy… so I could sit outside the rope wishing I could do it, or go inside and give it a go.  I tried it and loved it.  The guys were great and it became a big part of my family’s lives. We’d go to festivals with friends and my boys loved it.

The Day it happened….

I was getting ready for work and had just gotten out of the shower when I started to feel hot. Very, very hot.  So hot that I threw on a pair of pants and went outside. It was midwinter and I live about 100km south of Ottawa, so it was about -20C (fairly normal here for this time of year) and there I was outside in just a pair of sweat pants. I realized the neighbors would think I was insane so I went back inside, turned the shower back on as cold as I could, and got in pants and all.

When I came out of the shower the headache hit. I’d had migraines before, but this was beyond anything I had ever felt. Imagine your head in a vice with a young Bill Kazmier turning the handles. It was just an immense sense of pressure and pain.

In medical terms it is called a “thunderclap headache.” I don’t think words can really describe it. I also had an incredibly stiff neck. I was told later that was how fluid is released from your brain and that is what was causing the neck pain.

I more or less stayed in bed for two days with an icepack on my head, trying everything to make the headache go away. Eventually I gave in and listened to my wife and went to the hospital. I figured they’d give me some medication and send me on my way, but after they did a CT scan the emergency room physician came in and told me that my brain was bleeding and that it was very serious.

Next thing I knew I was having a spinal tap (it took them three tries to get the sample) and then being sent via ambulance to the neurology unit at a university hospital in another state.

Hospital ICU

I spent several days in the ICU there, but most of that is just a blur; I remember a few bits and pieces but not much.  My wife tells me that I was pretty drugged up then. I started to regain my senses when I was transferred out of the ICU to a step-down unit for victims of strokes and brain injuries.

I was in the hospital for a few weeks. The diagnosis/prognosis was the hard part. According to the head of the treatment team, there was a lot of blood but it was in a very atypical pattern. The MRI’s and Angiograms showed no broken or restricted blood vessels, yet there was this large localized bleeding.  When I was released everything was very uncertain.

I remember my neurosurgeon saying that he knew it wouldn’t be very comforting to know what an unusual case this was, but he wanted me to know what an unusual case it was.

Prognosis “Dont lift anything heavier than a carton of milk”…

The lifting restrictions were because of fear of causing another bleed. The fear was that if there was a weak blood vessel or something unseen that the increased blood pressure would cause another hemorrhage with potentially very bad results.

I can honestly say the phrase “Lift ‘til ya die!” takes on a completely different meaning when presented to you as a realistic possibility.

I was sad. My wife would describe me as miserable. I would buy all these magazines related to other activities but nothing interested me. I remember just sitting in the squat rack at my school and just kind of staring, wishing I could squat again.

Change of Prognosis……

I was LUCKY, or blessed, or both. My neurosurgeon was a triathlete and was fascinated with what I did.

He was also puzzled as to why I bled so much but the blood didn’t spread, and why I wasn’t worse off physically, so he monitored my recovery personally for longer than he really had to.

About six months later, when most of the blood had reabsorbed he was able to determine that I had in fact had a cyst on my pituitary gland and it had ruptured. Although there was some bleeding, most of the fluid had in fact been cystic fluid that would have been much more viscous than blood and therefore wouldn’t spread like blood.

It was really quite impressive the way he figured it out.   He was able to explain everything clearly to me.  I  have much respect for that guy.

My weight had dropped from about 95kg to about 86kg in those six months.

Back to Work…

I went back to work after a month or so.

It was tiring; at first I could only work for a few hours at a time before I would be exhausted.  I had some hearing and vision problems as well.  The hearing cleared up and the vision improved a little but my right eye is still pretty bad.   I guess that’s why God gave us a spare, though.

Back to the Gym…and Highland Games…and Strongman Competitions..!!

Andrew Gillie - Highland GamesI didn’t begin lifting again until the doctor said it was all right. He was very supportive.

He signed a paper that said I was clear to resume all activities, and he underlined it so I knew he was confident.

I remember the first few tough lifts. I lost a lot of strength (even for me) in six months, so there were lots of tough moments.

Things like the first hard squat or Deadlift really made me pause to think “man, I hope that guy knows what he is talking about.” …looks like he did.

I’m stronger now probably because I am more serious, but I always wondered if part of it is because the cyst had been putting pressure on my pituitary.

The post-bleeding MRI’s showed that the pituitary gland had been compressed by the cyst; I wonder if it could actually be working better now than before the bleed? Maybe someone knows.

My goals this off season are a 175kg squat, 120kg bench and 200kg DL at 85 to 90 kg of bodyweight. I’d like to do another weightlifting meet and go 65/90. I can do the 90kg clean, and the 90kg jerk, I just can’t seem to put them together in same place and time.

We plan a lot of our vacations around Highland Games. Around two years ago I started doing Highlanders and now strongman contests as well. My boys don’t enjoy the strongman stuff as much as the Highland Games but they are still very supportive. (You can follow Andrew’s progress on YOUTUBE HERE. )

What did I learn?

I realized that I’m mortal, and maybe just a touch crazy. I think I handled being ill well. It wasn’t until I was well on my way to recovery that everything really hit me and I admit I had a bit of a crisis for a while. I’ve mostly worked through that.

It also got me more comfortable with believing in and being thankful for a power greater than us. Recently a local person died of a stroke just a day before my five-year anniversary. I felt a bit guilty for being happy about my survival when this person died of something similar.

I also have to ask “why me?” Maybe I should be doing more with the second chance I’ve been given.

I’m stronger now, but still pretty bad. My goals this off season are a 175kg squat, 120kg bench and 200kg DL at 85 to 90 kg of bodyweight. I’d like to do another weightlifting meet and go 65/90. I can do the 90kg clean, and the 90kg jerk, I just can’t seem to put them together in same place and time.

Finally, my advice for others in a similar situation…

Andrew Gillie - Back and Lifting :)First, it is hard… but there is so much more to life than picking up heavy things. I love doing it, but I love my wife and kids so much more.

Next, I’d say that forever is a long time and no one really knows what it means. You may be able to lift again someday, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday you might. Just be patient and who knows what might change……