Layla M. Halterman
Dear Ursinus Family,
Our modern day associations with Thanksgiving center around stuffing our faces with traditional fare like turkey and pumpkin pie, watching football, and reuniting with our loved ones. And while that is all well-founded, we tend to unintentionally get distracted from the true meaning. The holiday is a dance between commemoration and expression of gratitude.
Five years ago today, I was deteriorating due to complications from routine oral surgery. I had symptoms of a recurring high fever and a suspicious mass inside my cheek. After doctors made an incision in my cheek and removed a large portion of the mass, I learned the unimaginable: an atypical mycobacterial infection, presenting a very rare, aggressive bug that was thankfully treatable with intense antibiotic therapy.
But recovery did not go as planned. It was instead a treacherous, uphill battle. I dropped down to a whopping 90 pounds. Every antibiotic cocktail I was prescribed set me back even further, progressively making me sicker and sicker. I then developed Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, an allergic reaction that affected my mucous membranes, leaving me with painful open lesions that covered every inch of my body constricting my ability to see, walk, and eat. Given my rapid decline, doctors were convinced my fate was written — six feet under — leaving me with no choice but to be swallowed up in the deep fog of fear and sorrow.
As I write to you today, two things hold true. I’m not a courageous person by nature. And ever since my illness, I suffer from a great deal of PTSD. It is like a ribbon running throughout me, close enough where I can touch it. In fact, I can no longer get my blood drawn or make it through a doctor’s appointment – even the yearly checkups – without a fit of terror.
But my near-death experience has changed me in very profound ways, motivating me to live a life of gratitude. I used to die for the weekends. I used to die for the summers. And before I knew it, I was dying in Overlook Hospital. I now seize every day, celebrate always, and focus intently on the moments of joy.
It is the greatest irony of my life that my near-death account helped me find deeper gratitude – gratitude for love of my family, the embrace of my friends, the normal blood counts, and the moments of doubled-over laughter. But it should never take a brush of death for us to understand what a privilege it is to simply be alive and healthy. The moment you start treating life like a blessing, I assure you it will start to feel like one not only on Thanksgiving, but in the days to come.