I always end my interviews with a simple question - What’s next? The answers usually fall along the lines of new projects or new career paths. Amber Myers' answer? A hip-hop dance class.
When Amber was a teenager she tripped over her own feet, reached out to catch herself, and ended up with a tiny hairline fracture in her left elbow that her body never recovered from. This led to arthritis, multiple surgeries and loss of movement. Up until recently her elbow had basically become a chunk of bone filled with arthritis. She had little ability to move her arm without pain.
At 27 years young, Amber had a heart attack and lost 30 pounds in 2 weeks. Her doctor gave her the choice of traditional physical therapy or yoga. She opted for yoga, but she didn’t like it. In fact, she was angry about having to do yoga. She was angry about life. She felt like a shell of a human being and thought she was going to die before her thirtieth birthday. Yoga was an unwanted requirement to a challenging life she felt she didn’t deserve.
Amber is now a heart attack survivor, avid yogi, and pioneer for arthritis research. Her story is one of awe-inspiring perspective. She is the product of choosing a positive outlook and making something remarkable with her unfortunate situation(s). But she’s real too. She experiences self-pity and overwhelming feelings of doubt. And every time these feelings creep in, she has to choose to get herself out of it.
Amber faced a lot of challenges with her elbow. She searched for answers but found none. The only available operation was an elbow replacement, but those were designed for people in their eighties. If she ever wanted to lift more than a couple of pounds the rest of her life, she had to find a different way.
Meanwhile, she had a heart attack and her rehab included an 8-week yoga commitment. She didn’t like it, but she eventually liked seeing advancement in her own practice. However, her teachers were skeptical of what she could and couldn’t do because of her elbow. She’d go into class and ask for help getting into a certain arm balance or inversion, but her teachers would only steer her away from the poses she desired to achieve. One day she was actually shamed in front of the class about “wanting to emulate what she saw on the internet.”
This didn’t sit well with Amber, so she started a home practice. If you haven’t seen Amber’s Instagram, go to her page. Even with her arthritis-filled elbow, she does more arm balances and inversions than the majority of yogis with two good elbows. Despite her doubters and suffering physical pain, she persisted.
Recently, Amber has had to rework her yoga practice. Last year she contributed to the advancement of medical research through her willingness to go under the knife. She agreed to try a stem cell elbow replacement, which had never been performed before.
Basically Amber’s left elbow (aka chunk of arthritis riddled bone) was cut out, reshaped, and put back in with the aid of stem cells to help the elbow grow back healthier and stronger than before. Waking up from the surgery was one of the most traumatic experiences of her life. Everything hurt. She was screaming. She felt like something had been taken from her. It was not what she thought she’d feel after having the surgery she’d wanted her whole life. As we talked I could hear her emotions swirling. But her sweet voice also conveyed an undeniable amount of strength and determination.
As you can imagine, she has her good days and her bad days. When we spoke it was about nine months after the surgery and she had just gotten feeling back in her left hand. I asked her how she was coping with everything and she chuckled and said “I take a lot of baths and throw frequent pity parties for myself.” What she’s dealing with is hard. It’s not hard like I-had-a-bad-day-and-nothing-went-my-way hard. It’s actually hard. And no one can do it for her. She has to do it herself. It took a long time for her to allow herself to admit that things weren’t perfect, but she eventually understood that every day doesn’t have to be perfect or even show progress. She takes life an hour at a time.
The incredible part of Amber’s story is that she has had to deal with a series of knock-downs basically since birth and she has persisted. What’s even more incredible is that she has no similar story to look to for inspiration. There’s a reason why modern medicine only provides elbow replacements for 80 year olds. It’s because 20-something year-olds don’t get elbow replacements.
Her current attitude of rediscovering her yoga practice is extraordinary too. Instead of lamenting the fact that she can’t do the poses she worked so hard to achieve before the surgery, she focuses on the feeling of experiencing the firsts again. It makes the deal just a little sweeter for her to achieve a feat for the second, first time.
Doctors are using her case for research. It could help find cures for arthritis. She’s enduring because she knows there is something much bigger than herself at play. Even so, she admits that’s not always enough to cope with the struggle. But on more days than not, it is where she can send her focus for a small bit of comfort.
“I try to be as real as possible. I don’t know what my future looks like. Sometimes I still don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I still have a while. I don’t know what I’m going to do when this is done because I never pictured a life without pain in my arm. I try to be as open as possible though. I hope if there’s ever another me, I can help or inspire or comfort them.”
I smiled as she said this and thought about all the millions of people who could benefit from arthritis research. For now she can rest assured that she inspired me through her simple answer to what’s next. Beyond hip-hop dance classes she wants to play softball next summer and she bought a cello because she’s always wanted to play a string instrument. She’s looking at life without limits and she’s not taking anything for granted. Neither should we.