From the ICU to Ironwoman

October 20, 2021 5:00 AM

A bowel obstruction landed Laurie Svoboda in the intensive care unit. Less than four months later, she competed in an Ironman race.

woman in icu on left and running marathon on right with hands up high in joy wearing red
Left: Laurie Svoboda spent nine days in the hospital in late spring. Right: In September, she completed her first full Ironman race. Credit: Photos by FinisherPix®

Laurie Svoboda, Ph.D., was having a pretty nice Memorial Day weekend.

That Sunday, the research assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health had woken up and ridden 60 miles by bike. This wasn’t out of the ordinary for Svoboda, a frequent triathlete and two-time half-Ironman competitor. She loved how alive she felt when she pushed her body to work hard, to grit out mile after mile on the bike, in the water, or on the pavement.

But by nightfall, she wasn’t feeling upbeat. In fact, her abdomen was in severe pain — the worst pain, she says, of her entire life.

An ambulance whisked Svoboda to the Michigan Medicine emergency room. There, providers discovered a bowel obstruction; her colon had twisted around itself and cut off her blood supply. She needed emergency surgery.

Krishnan Raghavendran, MBBS, the division chief of Acute Care Surgery at Michigan Medicine, led a team that successfully removed an entire blood-starved, twisted section of Svoboda’s colon. Yet Svoboda’s blood pressure was plummeting. She needed time for her body to stabilize before she could tolerate the rest of the major operation.

Svoboda’s next destination was the intensive care unit. The team decided to leave her abdomen open and give her IV fluids, antibiotics and medications to bring her blood pressure up. Twenty-four hours passed before Raghavendran and Aaron Williams, M.D., (a general surgery resident at Michigan Medicine at the time, now in cardiothoracic surgery residency at Duke University School of Medicine) could join the healthy portions of Svoboda’s colon back together, completing the procedure.

Svoboda ended up losing 17 pounds over the nine days she spent in Michigan Medicine’s University Hospital. An eight-inch scar took up ample space on her midsection. She couldn’t eat for most of the time she’d been admitted, so her levels of important vitamins like iron and B12 were low. Moving hurt.

But Svoboda had been in pain before. She’d had another bowel obstruction in 2016 (the anatomy of her colon makes it more likely to develop twists.) She’d given birth to triplets. And she’d pushed through fatigue amid lengthy swims, runs and bikes in the past. She was determined to not just recover from her latest health crisis but also elevate her fitness level — enough to compete in an upcoming Ironman race that had already been delayed a year because of the pandemic.

SEE ALSO: Want a Better Surgical Outcome? ‘Train’ Like an Athlete

And she did: On September 12, Svoboda crossed the finish line of Ironman Wisconsin with a time of 15 hours, two minutes and 36 seconds.

“I was ecstatic,” Svoboda said, “and, really, incredulous that I was in the ICU just over three months before race day and that I’d even gotten to the starting line of my first full Ironman race.”

“Full marks to Laurie,” Raghavendran said. “She’s got a fabulous spirit, and she’s really worked hard in improving herself and getting back to baseline. I don’t think we should be given any credit for that, even though she’d disagree. In the end, her grit and endurance and her desire to participate in such a grueling event — that’s what made it happen.”

Here, Svoboda describes the elements she believed help her to succeed:

Her good surgical outcome

“There are so many complications that can occur during these surgeries that could have kept me from bouncing back so quickly, and I had such a good outcome,” Svoboda said. “And I attribute that to the talent and hard work of the surgical team. They’re evidence-based, and they deliberate on things; it’s not just a knee-jerk reaction. I felt like every decision that was made, even in an emergent situation, was very thoughtful and well organized.”

The compassion and dedication of her nurses

“When I was in the ICU, I had a nurse who paid more attention to me than she was probably required to as a result of her job,” Svoboda said. “She was constantly checking in on me, and she was very encouraging. I was tied up to all of these tubes, and she helped me do a couple of walks around the ICU, just to get up out of bed and get moving.”

"Laurie’s grit and endurance and her desire to participate in such a grueling event — that’s what made it happen."
Krishnan Raghavendran, MBBS

Her early movement

“I got myself off the painkillers as quickly as I could and tried to force myself to get up and move a little bit, to walk around every so often in those first couple of days after the surgery,” Svoboda said. “And gradually, I walked a little bit more and a little bit more. The pain really subsided as I regained my mobility.”

Her Ironman goal

“Getting out of bed felt like so much effort,” Svoboda said. “And there were a lot of adjustments; they had me on a low-fiber diet for the first month, and that was terrible because I was vegan when I went into this. So it took a while for me to start regaining the weight and getting myself back to a healthy nutritional status where I could do all the activities in my daily life.

But when I was discouraged, I would get energized by thinking about the Ironman. I think that kept me going through the entire healing process and into race day.”

Her fitness coach

“I’m in the Ann Arbor Triathlon Club, and I started asking around about coaches,” Svoboda said. “I found a great one, Michael Parker, and he helped me re-engage in the training in a manner that was safe and effective. And I'm really glad I worked with him, because I think that that was a big part of my recovery: starting to train again without overtraining or overdoing it and getting injured.”

The outpouring of love and support from her family and friends

“I was incredibly touched by the messages of support and encouragement from family and friends,” Svoboda said. “Their kindness buoyed me during the toughest days of my recovery. I would have never been able to complete the demanding training without support from my husband, Rob, and our parents, who help us regularly with our kids.”

Her memories of physical activity’s many benefits

“Growing up, I wasn’t particularly athletic,” Svoboda said. “I was overweight when I was in elementary school, and I actually had exercise-induced asthma, so I hated exercise. It took me a long time to fall in love with it. But once I got to high school, I found that going for long walks or riding my bike around the neighborhood helped me deal with the anxiety and depression I’ve had my entire life. Exercise builds self-esteem in a way that transfers to other areas.”

SEE ALSO: Woman runs half-marathon on one-year anniversary of complex cancer surgery

Her belief that she could complete the race

“I reached the starting line of the Ironman feeling anxious, excited and confident that I could finish the race,” Svoboda said. “The 2.4-mile swim was probably the best swim I’d ever had in a race before. And then there was the 112-mile bike ride, which ended up being 114 miles; I guess their course was long. The end of that bike ride was fairly rough. But then I got out onto the marathon course, and there was high energy and a really positive, fun environment. So the run just felt like a party the whole time. I had some knee pain in the middle and ended up doing a lot of power walking. But I had 17 hours total to finish the entire race, and I did it in 15 hours and two minutes. I was in tears of joy.”