When You Force a Workhorse to Retire, She’s Bound to Get a Bit Jittery in the Stable!

By: Katherine Itacy, Esq.

Dated: January 24, 2018

Both of my parents have demonstrated an obscene work ethic my entire life. And sure, they came right out and told me and my brother to work hard in school and for the things we wanted, but I think that I learned subconsciously to mimic their true workhorse style.

You know how they say: “Work smart, not hard?” Well…that lesson was never taught in our house…. Instead, Mom and Dad just wanted us to take pride in the efforts we put into whatever we did. You give it your 100% best efforts, and you don’t worry about the rest.

I get (or got) this perverse high from working nonstop at full tilt, and it came on quickly in my early teens. As I was getting better at track (and training more and more each passing year), I was also working at Dunkin’ Donuts during weekends and summers. The manager there learned fast that she could use my “Work the hardest you can, even at your own expense” mantra to the store’s advantage. As a young teen, she had me working in the kitchen with the full-time bakers. Later, she had me driving the delivery trucks to their other stores, and opening one of the stores at 5 AM. At the same time, my coworkers learned to let me pick up the slack while they took extra smoke breaks and stole my tips.

You’d think I would’ve learned to ease up the pace a bit, but nope! Not me! It made me proud to come home exhausted from my shift, with my feet aching and my hair and skin smelling like stale coffee grinds and donut grease (despite numerous attempts in the shower to eradicate the smells).

My work ethic only increased after that, to the point where I was running my own law firm, on three different boards of directors, doing pro bono legal work for the RI ACLU and a few select clients, testifying at the RI State House on various criminal justice and civil rights bills, volunteering for a friend’s mayoral campaign, representing a nonprofit on a RI Senate Study Commission and coaching high school track throwers. My obsession with doing my absolute best for all of these clients and entities led me to neglect my diabetes and caused me to have almost forty surgeries and procedures over a four-year timespan.

Even the Deputy Defender at my last job told me (half-jokingly) during my job interview that she’d only come down to the branch office for my interview “to see how tired you are from everything you’ve been doing!”

Looking back on it now, none of it was for fame, accolades or a sense of power. And upon deeper reflection, none of those things were ever praised in my childhood home. The only goal that my parents ever encouraged us to pursue (besides attaining higher education and the pursuit of happiness) was to work hard at whatever we chose to do in life. There were no five-year or ten-year plans in place. We weren’t raised to be doctors or lawyers. They didn’t push us to go to Harvard or Yale. They wanted us to find our own way, and to find our own version of happiness.

Turns out: None of my major life decisions were prefaced with much premeditation.

As contradicting as it sounds, I never plotted out what sport I hoped I’d excel at, or what college I’d work hard to get into, and yet, once I made the decisions, I worked my ass off to give my absolute best to the task at hand. I stumbled upon throwing and had no idea that I’d be good at it. Same with law school! I only considered it after my diabetes precluded me from becoming a federal law enforcement field agent. And the only reason why I decided to run my own firm is because I’d left a few other incompatible associate/partner positions and a friend told me that he’d mentor me through opening my practice.

I have never dreamt of running for public office, obtaining a judgeship or becoming a senior partner at some huge law firm. In fact, I’ve always preferred working behind the scenes. Coming out of law school, I would’ve been perfectly content being a worker bee, doing the grunt work while others received the prestige. I hate politics (personal and professional), and the only thoughts I’d had regarding political positions were that it’d be great to be an adviser and help shape public policy/law without having to do all the hand-holding and deal-making.

I was in my glory in both college and law school, taking up to 20 credits a semester, getting a double major and a minor at Penn State while spending 2-3 school days per week on the road for track meets; doing research for three different law school professors on top of doing internships and writing a 100-page paper on the criminal justice system (when my writing requirement only required that I write 10 pages, if memory serves correct). I didn’t even realize that I was double majoring, or was earning a minor as well. Hell, I was three classes away from a second minor in African and African-American Studies!

It all made me feel useful. It made my life feel purposeful. I felt like I was contributing; like I was soaking up as much knowledge and guidance as I possibly could. Like I was helping as many clients as I could possibly help.

And while I have essentially stumbled upon every accomplishment and accolade I’ve earned since high school, and had no prior plans for any of the educational, professional or activism decisions I’ve made since then, it has somehow all felt like it was meant to be. I can’t imagine what my life would’ve been like, had I not been a hammer thrower or a criminal defense attorney.

And yet.

If all of this was somehow preordained for me to stumble upon, what am I supposed to believe my purpose is now? I feel so confident that I’m supposed to be practicing criminal defense, representing indigent clients, doing pro bono work and advocating for justice and equity for all. I know I had a skill at legal research and writing. Yet now, I can’t even understand or analyze a single legal case. I’m in so much pain these days, I’m mind-numbingly laid up in bed, with every other thought being: “It hurts so bad!!!

Almost a year ago now, I came to the heart-wrenching conclusion that I could no longer perform my job duties, and I immediately notified my employer. Just about one of the most soul-crushing things I’ve ever had to admit to myself or others. This workhorse has been put out to pasture. My heart and my soul (and my ego) want to be able to continue contributing to society. My mind and my body have taken that purpose away from me, and it is still something that I am adjusting to. Why put a purposeful soul into a defective body?

Best believe, if I could work, I would. I’ve been working incessantly since I was fourteen years old. I was able to earn a good living running my own law firm, starting at the age of twenty-five, in the midst of a tough economy and an even tougher area of law to turn a profit. I have no qualms about doing hard, thankless work; I’ve sure done it before. In fact, I’ve done a helluva lot of free work, and been more than happy to do it!

The workhorse in me sure isn’t happy about her crap body forcing her to retire. Quite honestly, being trapped in this body is one of the cruelest punishments I could ever receive. It’s stifling my spirit. I’m trying to stay optimistic that life will guide me to stumble into whatever’s meant for me next, but in the meantime, I need to conserve my energy in order to make it through most days. Time to put that workhorse spirit into adjusting to my new quality of life – goodness knows, finding peace with this reality will be the hardest work I’ll have done yet!

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The Mindfuck that Comes with Adjusting to a Debilitating Disability

By: Katherine Itacy, Esq.

Dated: December 12, 2017

I grew up thinking that I had fatefully (and narrowly) escaped paralysis. As my mother has relayed to me time and time again, in early 1988, she noticed that I was complaining of lower back pain. Since I had been born with Spina Bifida and a lipoma near my lumbar spine, she knew to immediately get me to a neurosurgeon. After receiving nonchalant (and incredibly sexist) advice from one Rhode Island surgeon to wait to operate so that I could feel confident to wear a bikini (scar-free) when I got older, she sought a second opinion at Boston Children’s Hospital.

That talented and intelligent neurosurgeon explained to my parents that the baseball-sized tumor had wrapped around my spinal cord and was pulling on it, similar to the tension felt when one pulls the cord on a set of window blinds. He warned them that the lipoma needed to be removed immediately, before the tumor snapped the cord and left me paralyzed. I had surgery in March of 1988, at the ripe old age of four, and re-learned how to walk. We followed up with yearly MRIs until I was twelve years old, since there were remnants of the tumor that were too close to the cord to safely remove.

Except for some swelling and lower back pain when I exercised, I really didn’t worry too much about the tumor after that. Sure, I didn’t feel confident to wear a bikini in public, since the surgeon had to pack my lumbar region during surgery in order to reinforce my back; but then again, I also didn’t have to spend from age four on in a wheelchair. I considered myself pretty fortunate, bikini-clad or not.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve had a rough go of it with my diabetes since my early 20s. I’ve had dozens of surgeries to save what’s left of my vision, to maintain some use of my fingers and hands, and to keep my left breast from being completely taken over by large, benign tumors. The eye surgeries have messed with my depth perception, almost completely obscured my peripheral vision, and made it near impossible to drive at night.

I was adjusting to my diabetic-related complications. I even gave up my law practice and moved myself and my two miniature Shar Peis clear across the country to start a new, more balanced life. For the first year in Texas, I lost weight, was able to exercise almost every day, and got most of my diabetic-related conditions under control.

Then the proverbial ish hit the fan.

After feeling the sensation of electric shocks to the base of my spine, I received news that the 1988 surgery had caused scar tissue to form inside a sac of nerves below my lumbar spine. The scar tissue had caused the floating nerve roots to clump together, and to adhere to the wall of the sac. The condition is called adhesive arachnoiditis, and it is incurable and inoperable. All of the sudden, I am once again at risk of paralysis. I could also develop dementia at any time due to the disorder.

For the last two years, this condition has caused me debilitating pain in my lower back, legs and feet; it has caused dysfunction to my bowel, bladder and sex organs. It has caused persistent, seizure-like muscle spasms all over my body. Steroid injections, epidurals, radio-frequency nerve ablations, narcotic drugs and a trial run of a spinal cord stimulator have all failed to alleviate the pain. I am on the maximum allotted dosages of Lyrica and Cymbalta to address the nerve pain, and they barely scratch the surface.

My work at the Office of the Federal Public Defender in southwestern Texas was to conduct legal research, provide trial-related advice, draft legal court filings and give presentations regarding criminal defense issues to the Assistant Federal Defenders in the District, as well as to the court-appointed attorneys in the area. I loved my work. I was good at my job. But once I developed the arachnoiditis, everything fell apart.

Soon after the diagnosis, the pain got so intense that I could no longer concentrate on my work. Every few seconds, my brain would redirect its attention to the pain in my body. I couldn’t sit, stand or walk for any meaningful period of time. A few months in, after I’d had to take days off or ask to work from my bed at home, a colleague of mine brought in a camping cot for me to use in the office. Even that wasn’t enough, because I found myself unable to read any caselaw or write any court filings. I couldn’t do my job. I couldn’t even think like a lawyer anymore.

I got so angry at my body. What kind of sick joke was this? I get saved from paralysis at age four, only to find my out nearly thirty years later that the surgery that had saved me from the paralysis has led to a condition that puts me at risk of paralysis? Was I living in my own version of Sliding Doors? Did it not matter whether I had the original surgery or not, since it would all still lead to the same result in the end? Or was I only meant to have mobility in my youth, so that I could play sports and earn a college scholarship?

Was it not enough that my diabetes was aggressively attacking half of my body parts? Did I do something so heinous in a past life that I deserved to suffer so much in this one?

I’d like to consider myself a pretty tough, resilient chick. I’ve endured well over forty surgeries over the last ten years and still managed to pursue a career that gave my life meaning. I found what I believed to be my calling in life. I was helping to change lives for the better. I had joined the boards of nonprofits that did incredible work to better society. I was surrounded by colleagues and mentors who I admired and applauded for their lengthy careers doing what I hoped to mimic, even in part. I was sopping up the knowledge and experience of others, and I loved it. And then I lost it all.

I had to quit my job. I had to stop practicing law. I can’t even think of rejoining any nonprofit boards or starting back up with any volunteer work. Besides no longer being able to read and analyze caselaw or draft any legal filings, I have to save all of my remaining energy on visiting the vast number of doctors that I need to see in order to maintain my health. So now I spend most days laid up in bed, falling asleep for 3-5 hours during the day due to my meds and/or the pain. Some days, it’s too painful to stay awake.

I’ve gone from being an elite athlete to being unable to even go for walks. I’ve gone from running a successful, meaningful law practice and being on the board of three amazing nonprofits to being unable to work in any capacity. What once identified me (athlete, activist, criminal defense attorney) is now only referred to in the past tense.

What should I make of all this? I’m not trying to throw myself a pity party, but I’m having a hard time adjusting to the screeching stop of almost everything that I both loved to do and was good at. I know that a lot of people have it worse than me. I know that I should consider myself lucky to have experienced all that I have at my age. But I’m pissed.

It’s not really even about my sudden lack of mobility or the fact that apparently nothing can provide me with consistent, significant pain relief. I’m more pissed about being stopped from continuing to pursue my calling in life, and from being an activist for issues that are in desperate need of reform. Believe me – I know that far more talented and qualified people have already picked up my slack, and that so many more will follow in my absence. I’m not diluted enough to think I’m irreplaceable, or that I’ve even made more than a few drops in the ocean of change that my peers and mentors have already made to the causes I love so much. But is this really it for me? Is this all that I will contribute to the world? I had a small taste of activism, and I want more.

I have no idea what’s waiting for me in the future. My condition could plateau for a while, or it could take a drastic, sharp turn for the worse. I could become paralyzed and/or develop dementia at any time now, and if I lose the only remaining piece of my identity (my mind), there’ll really be no more “me” left.

I’m trying to come to terms with all of this. The main reason why I want to write my book now is because I need to get it all out while my mind is still somewhat intact. I feel like maybe the things that I’ve been through in my life might be able to lessen someone else’s pain, or at least make them feel like they’re not alone in their struggles. I have to get it all out while I still can. Maybe if I do, it can serve as some smaller version of activism. Maybe then, I won’t feel like my life’s purpose stopped before I even hit 35.

I guess only time will tell.

A Sincere “Thank You!” to the Rhode Island Interscholastic League, and to My Dad

By: Katherine Itacy, Esq.

Dated: October 22, 2017      

As it gets closer to Wednesday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, I have been reflecting more and more upon what the Rhode Island Interscholastic League (“RIIL”) has meant to me. The simple fact is, RIIL changed my life, and has afforded me more opportunities and experiences than I could have ever hoped to have experienced in my lifetime.

You know, even though my family (the Johnstons) have been successful in the hammer and weight throws long before I picked either one up, I actually stumbled upon the events by pure happenstance. When I started high school, the hammer and weight throws were relatively new events for females. In fact, it wasn’t until the summer before my senior year that the women’s hammer throw became an Olympic event. So when my high school track coach told us in 1998 that the events had recently been added to RIIL-sponsored track meets, he asked for some volunteers, and I was one of the girls who signed up.

By the end of my four years competing as a Rhode Island student-athlete in high school track and field, I had accomplished the following:

  • Gatorade Rhode Island Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year – in 1999, 2000 and 2001
  • Rhode Island high school girls indoor track and field state champion – weight throw – in 1999 and 2000
  • Rhode Island high school girls outdoor track and field state champion – hammer throw – in 1999, 2000 and 2001
  • Former Rhode Island high school girls indoor track and field state record holder in the weight throw (set in 1999 and again in 2000)
  • Rhode Island high school girls outdoor track and field state record holder in the hammer – tied with existing record in 1999; set a new record in 2000, and again in 2001 (which remains the state record to this day)
  • National high school girls indoor track and field champion – National Scholastic Indoor Championships – weight throw – in 1999, 2000 and 2001
  • National high school girls indoor track and field champion – Nike Indoor Classic – weight throw – in 2000 and 2001
  • Former sophomore-class national record holder in the girls’ weight throw (set in 1999)
  • National high school girls outdoor track and field champion – hammer throw – in 1999, 2000 and 2001
  • Only three-time national champion in the girls’ hammer throw in National Scholastic Outdoor High School Track and Field Championship history
  • Former freshman-class and sophomore-class national record holder in the girls’ hammer throw (set in 1998 and 1999, respectively)
  • Trained at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California in 2000
  • Filmed a training video for the hammer throw for United States of America Track and Field in 2000
  • Member of the 2000 United States Track and Field Junior National Team, competing in the 2000 World Junior Track and Field Championships in Santiago, Chile
  • Received almost 70 formal recruitment letters/packets from NCAA Division I schools, and ultimately accepted a full athletic scholarship to attend The Pennsylvania State University

Funny thing is, I honestly don’t remember doing half of these things; it was my father who had to remind me. See, more importantly than any award or record, the bond I shared with my father during my eight years of track and field was (and still is) one of the most important and best things that could have ever happened to me. He was (and remains) my biggest supporter (along with my mom); he was my coach (along with my uncle), my talent agent (moderating and keeping account of all the college recruitment letters and phone calls), my strength trainer and my best friend. Over eight years of competitions, spanning from New Hampshire to Florida, North Carolina to California, Canada to Chile, and including each and every RIIL-sponsored local meet, my father only missed two of my performances! That was while commuting every work day from Warwick, Rhode Island to Boston, Massachusetts for work.

The discipline, the sense of sportsmanship, teamwork and sacrifice, the collegiality with my fellow competitors and the sense of self-worth as a young female and as a student-athlete – they can all be attributed as much to RIIL as they can to my dad, Keith Johnston. That is why I feel so indebted to both.

Indeed, I am absolutely certain that any success or accomplishments I have achieved following my 2001 graduation from Warwick Veterans Memorial High School can be directly traced back to my time participating in high school sports, as well as to the time spent and sacrifices made by my father to help me achieve my best.

So on Wednesday night, as I am inducted into the RIIL Hall of Fame, I will be accepting this great honor on behalf of myself and my dad, and in great reverence to RIIL. You have changed my life infinitely for the better, and I am so grateful to be a part of RIIL history. Thank you.

You can follow RIIL on Twitter at https://twitter.com/riil_sports or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/RIILSports 

For last-minute tickets to the event, which must be purchased prior to Wednesday’s event, visit: http://www.riil.org/page/hot_news/view/11 

Welcome, readers!

My name is Katherine (Johnston) Itacy, and welcome to my site! I intend to use this site to explain who I am, the journey I’ve been on, and the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Born and raised in Warwick, Rhode Island, I am a 29+ year-long Type I Diabetic who threw the 20-pound weight and hammer throw in high school and college. After setting both state and national high school records, winning eight national high school championships and competing in the 2000 World Junior Track and Field Championship in Santiago, Chile, I earned an athletic scholarship to Penn State.

Later, I earned an academic scholarship to Roger Williams University School of Law. I loved law school; I joined both the moot court board and the trial team, conducted research for several professors and a private attorney, and graduated fourth in my class. I spent a year working for a private criminal defense attorney before pairing up with a classmate in his practice, and eventually, going out on my own. I spent five years running my own law firm in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, focusing on pre-trial, trial and appellate work for criminal defendants, and hearings and appeals for convicted sex offenders. I joined the Rhode Island and National ACLU board of directors, as well as the Rhode Island Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers board of directors, and did pro bono work for both the ACLU and for indigent criminal defendants.

Running my criminal defense law firm was the most rewarding experience I have ever had, but it took its toll on my diabetes. During four of the five years I ran the practice, I underwent over three dozen surgeries. Diabetes had attacked my eyes, my hands, and the nerves in my elbows and wrists.

In November of 2014, I took a job in Del Rio, Texas, as a legal research and writing specialist for the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Western District of Texas. I loved my work there, but my health began to deteriorate further, to the point that I could no longer perform my job responsibilities. I developed an incurable spinal nerve pain disorder called adhesive arachnoiditis, as a result of a 1988 lipoma/tethered spinal cord surgery. The diabetes has also caused benign tumors to develop in my breasts, and has damaged the nerves in my lower body.

For the last 22 months, I have been on a mind-numbing journey to find adequate health care, including a sufficient drug protocol to help alleviate my daily pain. I have also had to adjust to my new quality of life, and to accept the fact that I can no longer pursue my life’s calling.

I hope that you can use this blog site (as well as the book I am writing) as a resource. I will be using both the site and the book to document my life’s journey, and to share some of the life lessons I have learned from living in a diseased body. My poor health has motivated me to live the fullest life possible, but I have days (as I am sure that many physically disabled persons do) when I feel as if the medical system and my body have failed me. We all need an avenue to vent our frustrations, and to feel as if we are understood. I hope you will find that you can do those things here.

I look forward to hearing from some of you as to what struggles you have faced with your health and with the medical system in America. We all need emotional support from time to time, and I am confident that we can find that in one another. I wish you all good health, and a full, happy life!

Sincerely,

Kate