Long road to recovery heading for roof of world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2005, 12:00am

When adventure racer Ryan Blair reaches the roof of the world in the European Alps next weekend, he will have climbed more than a mountain. Fifteen months ago, the 33-year-old American suffered a serious abdominal infection that nearly cost him his life. What was supposed to be a routine appendectomy turned into a major ordeal for one of Hong Kong's top adventure athletes. After three major operations, months of therapy and a painstakingly slow recovery, Blair can proudly take his place among the world's best athletes in one of earth's most scenic and breathtaking settings.

Blair is one of three long-time Hong Kong residents who will compete in one of the world's longest and most gruelling sports events at the Raid World Championship, which will be held across three countries and will begin in Gstaad, Switzerland, with the Swiss and French Alps providing an imposing backdrop.

The other two Hong Kong team members representing Asia and Team Salomon/Asia Pacific Adventure are Frenchman Philippe Guillo and Briton Stuart Sharpless.

As Blair lines up for the start of the race, which includes scaling Mont Blanc and many other physically demanding challenges, he will remember just how far he has come just to make it to the race when even walking properly was a challenge last year. 'It was a mind-blowing ordeal I had to go through,' Blair said before he left for Switzerland this week for the minimum 10-day race. 'Basically, I had an appendicitis operation and I ended up getting peritonitis. I went for what was supposed to be a routine four-day hospital stay and after they sewed me up, I ended up getting the infection. They had to re-operate a week later after I developed the infection. I recovered and checked out of hospital. But then I felt completely ill again. They didn't get it all out apparently. By the time I was readmitted, they realised that I needed emergency treatment and I rushed to Queen Mary Hospital.'

His stay at Queen Mary was the turning point of an amazing recovery. It was by sheer luck he came under the care of one of Asia's foremost specialists in the area, Chu Kin-wah, who treated Blair as one his last patients before going into private practice.

Blair believes he owes his life to Chu, who had worked at Queen Mary for about 20 years and realised almost immediately what was wrong with the athlete. 'I was very lucky he [Chu] just happened to be there. He saw me and it was one of things where if I wasn't going to be operated on in less than 24 hours, I would have suffered serious consequences. The infection got so bad that my intestines started to fuse together,' said Blair. 'In the third operation, they basically split me in half and took out all 20 feet of my small intestines. They cleaned and separated all these bits that were infected. They sewed me back and then, oh my God, recovering from that was another ordeal.'

What happened after his third operation will forever be etched on Blair's mind. 'I woke up from surgery with six tubes in my body. I had two tubes coming out of my abdomen. I had double IVs on both arms and I couldn't even eat [solid food] for about 10 days. My whole intestine was shut down trying to heal. The only way they could feed me was through these double IVs pumping through. I couldn't lie down on a flat bed because I had this surgery in my abdomen area. It was just brutal, man,' he said.

After his surgery, Blair's long road to recovery began. Step by step, Blair pushed himself, testing the very limits of his abilities to heal. He was eager to return to a normal life and he was going to stop at nothing to become an athlete again.

'It literally took about a month just to stand up and walk normally because of the scar tissue and everything. I lost more than 30 pounds. Being stuck in that bed, at that angle for that long really took a lot out of me. It was like building myself up from scratch.'

Imagine the body losing 30 pounds of muscle after three major surgeries. Blair lost so much body mass, he didn't even have enough muscle on his buttocks to sit properly. 'My glutes were just skin and bones. I needed a thick cushion to sit on. To rebuild all those muscles, it took time. I still have a lot of scar tissue and a lot of that is still healing,' he said. 'But it's amazing how the body can respond if you have the right attitude and put in the hard work. Three months after being discharged from hospital, my first big goal was to climb a mountain back in North America. The doctors were giving me all sorts of advice - advice for basically normal sedentary people and not athletes. I received good advice from a doctor who treated a friend of mine back in the States. My friend won a bronze medal at the Winter Olympics after undergoing a kidney transplant.'

Slowly, Blair pushed his weak body back to a level that made him one of Asia's top adventure racers. He eventually returned to full fitness thanks to his determination, perseverance and his never-say-die spirit.

'I did push through recovery. I felt fine and within three months of coming out of a hospital, I climbed a mountain in the US. Within six months, I did some shorter running competitions. Eight months later I did a longer, two-day mountain running competition in Hong Kong and 10 months after leaving hospital, I competed in my first adventure race, which included paddling, mountain-biking and everything.

'My partner [Sharpless] and I won that race [in Taiwan]. It was a great race that we were able to pull off. A year later, we did the first qualifier [for the World Championship] in Perth, Australia. Definitely, it was a step-by-step process and a lot of hard work was needed as I was trying to set some big goals. One thing I must say is how the whole ordeal actually became an exciting new challenge for me. How many people get the opportunity to rebuild their bodies from scratch? When you face adversity, it's not about what happened but how you respond.

'I must also mention how these kinds of experiences make you rethink life's priorities and bring a family closer together.'

Blair can look back on his ordeal and come to the realisation that he has triumphed over the adversity of a life-threatening illness and come away stronger than ever. 'We are the only Asian team competing at the World Championship. We have two goals. One is to finish the race and enjoy an amazing week on the roof of the world in the Alps in Europe and to have no major injuries. Our second goal is to be as competitive as we can be and finish in the top half of the field.

'It's going to be tough because there will be 40 teams in total and these are the best teams in the world. At this level, a lot of skill, endurance and many disciplines will be involved. You can't be just a good runner or mountain biker to do well at this level. Effective navigation, decision making and team work are essential, too.'

And so another journey begins for Blair, but it wouldn't matter whether he does well at the World Champs. He's already a winner for making it to the start.