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Ian Warshak inspires students at baccalaureate service

20130523 BACCALAUREATE jmb 0056 featureGraduating seniors from Mission, Veterans Memorial and Sharyland High School received a powerful life lesson last week. Baccalaureate speaker and Mission High alumnus Ian Warshak shared his experience of an illness last year that forced amputation of both legs and all of his fingers, putting him and his family through unexpected trials.

Warshak described how in January 2012 he suddenly became ill with pneumonia, which quickly progressed into septic shock. His body went into multi-organ failure, and doctors made the decision to keep him sedated and intubated.

He said, “When (doctors) tell you something like that, you know it's serious, you can't help but think the worst.”

He couldn’t talk at this point, since he was on oxygen, so he used his wife’s phone to communicate with her and to ask questions.

“I wrote a bunch of things,” he said, “including questions to ask the doctor like, have you ever seen this before? What are my chances? Then I said, if it gets worse, bring the kids to see me one last time. I love you.”

Warshak continued relating his story, “That night, I remember having a bunch of my friends around my bed in the ICU. They were praying for me. I don't remember anything else after that until I woke up again about a week later.

“When I woke up, it felt like a bomb had gone off inside my body. It was pain, but I couldn't tell you what it was from or where it originated. I just hurt. Not only that, I couldn't move. And when I say I couldn't move, I mean, I—Could—Not—Move. I couldn't turn my head to the left or to the right. I couldn't lift my hand off the bed. It was like I was trapped in my own body. ‘What happened?’ I thought, and slowly over the next few hours and days, my wife told me what exactly had happened while I had been sedated over the week.”

Ian’s immune system, in trying to fight the infection, began to attack his organs. His kidneys shut down. His heart was barely pumping. Doctors placed him on dialysis and talked about a heart transplant as his lungs were barely functioning and his body struggled to stay alive.

“The doctors had put me on breathing machines that they had never used before. They put me in a hospital bed that rotated me upside down and from side to side, to try to get my lungs to work better. My wife was told to expect the worst, and to get her affairs in order. Now when they say that, that's code word for ‘he's not going to live,’” said Warshak.

But he did live.

“I made it,” he said. “Now as you can probably tell, I have some battle wounds. In fact—these are not my real legs,” he told the students as he pulled up his pant legs to reveal two prosthetic legs.

“Those are my battle wounds, but that’s okay, because when I woke up, all the doctors and all the nurses told me I was a miracle. They told me that they had never actually seen somebody who was so sick live.”

His organs started working again. He no longer needed dialysis. His heart and lungs started working again. However, the medication he had been on to keep him alive caused him to lose circulation to his fingers and toes. So when he woke up, his fingers and toes were completely black and hard. Like frostbite, he said.

“We prayed for my fingers and feet to regain blood flow. My kids and all our friends and family were praying… for my fingers and feet to be pink again. We prayed for God to heal them.  We knew that He could—

if that was his will.”

But it was not to be. After a lot of prayer and meetings with doctors, three months later the decision was made to amputate his fingers and legs.

Warshak said, “God did not heal them like we wanted, but we were still so grateful that I was alive! We now know that this is his plan for me.”

He told the students that he was not saying that this was going to happen to them. Rather, he told them that life is unpredictable. And he shared three keys to living a full life that he had learned through his powerful experience.

First, he said, “Surround yourself with people that truly care about you.

“These are the people that will be there when you need them—your real friends—friends that will sit with you in the intensive care unit at the hospital and watch the Super Bowl with you on a 12-inch TV.”

Second, “Be grateful in all that you have.

“I could choose to mope around because I don’t have fingers or feet, but what good would that do? I’d rather be grateful for being alive. You can always find something positive about your situation. God has a perfect plan for each and every one of us, and everything that we have comes from him.”

Third, “Push yourself.”

He said a few months ago he and his wife went on a trip to Colorado and he went skiing.

“On my fake legs! I knew that I would fall, and I did, and that it would be uncomfortable and it was. But I pushed myself. I push myself every single day, not just when I went skiing. Learning to walk on my prosthetic legs was hard. It’s about as awkward as you can imagine. I know that I am going to drop things every once in a while, I’ll probably trip and fall a lot too. But that doesn’t keep me from trying. I am even going to start training for a half marathon later this year.”

The students erupted in spontaneous applause and cheers as Warshak made that announcement.

Ian Warshak that night became more than a survivor; he became a symbol for every student seated in that school gymnasium – a symbol of what they can achieve in their own lives if they just push through the tough times. Doing what is hard in life is what makes us stronger and makes us better, no matter what life dishes out.

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