‘I can reach the world again’ | Health Beat


Kristina King’s wife, Bet Dembicky, puts it best.

“To say she doesn’t sit still would be an understatement,” Bet said.

Here’s a quick catalogue of the incredible forays King has taken thus far, at age 53, in her life’s journey:

  • She boxed professionally in her late 20s and early 30s. She even fought Laila Ali, daughter of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali.
  • She worked in prisons across the U.S. for more than 30 years. She handled rowdy inmates as a sergeant on a security team and even reached the rank of lieutenant in her career.
  • In her spare time, she volunteers on a search and rescue team.
  • These days, she’s perfecting her routine as a farmer.

It’s an exciting life, by any account.

But it hasn’t come without serious repercussions.

Back in her boxing days, King ruptured her diaphragm in a fight. The scar tissue followed her for more than 20 years. Some of the scar tissue fused to her heart.

Due to three-quarters of her stomach being pulled up into her stomach, King said, scar tissue had become attached to her aorta and left lung.

With the damaged diaphragm and the effects of the scar tissue, her activities grew limited.

“I had been on light duty for some time,” King said.

At some point, it affected her ability to work.

Where once she could head into the prison yard to chat with prisoners, her physical health quickly put an end to that. It was simply too dangerous, if ever she had to physically defend herself.

“I was at the point where I could hardly walk at times,” she said. “I used a walker to get around and I had to rest a lot as the pain became immensely serious.”

It had become a terrible situation, she said. It even affected her ability to eat solid foods.

Then, in June 2021, she met Geoffrey Lam, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon at Spectrum Health.

The road to surgery

When Dr. Lam met with King, he soon identified the problem and developed a plan.

“She had a recurrent hiatal hernia where her stomach was again pushing into the chest cavity,” Dr. Lam said.

King’s pain had been worsening and she had difficulty swallowing for years. She thought she would need to have her esophagus removed, but Dr. Lam said that would not be necessary.

“Our plan was to deal with the scar tissue … and, hopefully, improve her quality of life after surgery,” Dr. Lam said. “She had very little hope when we first met.”

Dr. Lam would use robot-assisted surgery to tackle the issue.

Before that, however, King would need to lose about 30 pounds.

She followed a strict, low-carb diet for a few months and lost enough weight to get clearance for surgery.

That came in August 2021.

King underwent multiple procedures at Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, including upper GI endoscopy, robotic video-assisted hernia repair and surgery for gastroesophageal reflux.

Dr. Lam performed the robot-assisted surgery by using small incisions between the ribs, which would help minimize the post-surgery pain and recovery period.

“We like to offer patients a minimally invasive approach, if at all possible,” Dr. Lam said. “There is a lot of data looking at the long-term effects and improvement in pain, quality of life, faster recovery and shorter hospital stay by using robotic-assisted surgery.”

Dr. Lam knew the operation would be long and tedious. King had 20 years’ worth of scar tissue inside her abdomen.

Robotic surgery would help avoid a big incision, which would lessen the effects on her body and help her get back on her feet much sooner.

“Traditional surgery in the chest cavity involves a long incision, between 4 to 6 inches in length, where we go in between the ribs and then have to spread the ribs,” Dr. Lam said. “You can imagine this can be very painful, with a much longer hospital stay and longer recovery.”

In the robot-assisted procedure, the doctor made four small incisions, each about 1/2 inch in length.

The surgery itself involved small, delicate instruments and a camera.

“The robotic platform allows us to do operations much more precisely, even compared to minimally invasive surgery,” Dr. Lam said. “We were able to do the operation safely in as short of a time as possible, without large incisions or long recovery times.”

Up and moving

After surgery, King found she could get out of bed immediately.

“I was up walking that same night with my walker,” she said. “And the next day … (the) tube came out. And the next day, another tube. I was out of the hospital within four days.”

It proved life-changing.

She had always been a resilient person, always on the move.

When she became a boxer in 1996, she went all in. She held five titles in the Toughwoman competition, including two runner-up titles and a state title in Michigan in 1999. She boxed professionally after that, including the April 2000 fight in China against Laila Ali.

When the sport became too physically demanding, she moved to coaching. And when she could no longer coach, she moved to new challenges.

“That’s when I started to do search and rescue,” King said. “I was able to handle that. I had a bloodhound named Emma, and she and I saved multiple lives.”

She got into farming, too.

Even so, her health challenges had kept her from the level of activity she desired. It had been a devastating blow.

“There were times where I would just sit and cry because I wasn’t able to do anything, and I was always so physical,” she said.

Her surgery with Dr. Lam changed all that.

“I don’t know if Dr. Lam knows how much I appreciate him,” she said. “He gave me my life back.”

‘I can reach the world again’

Post-surgery, King said she’s back to 100 percent.

She’s farming regularly with Bet these days, riding the John Deere tractor up and down the 200 acres where they tend their crops.

“We work with heavy equipment out here,” she said. “I’m able to jump up on farming equipment now.”

She can walk, hike and tackle long flights of stairs, without any pressure on her diaphragm. She and a friend even hiked more than 60 miles this past spring in Utah, where they visited five national parks.

“I hiked Canyonlands and met people I never would have met,” she said. “I just retired in July. And I have a lot of life left to live.”

She’s excited at the prospect of once again enjoying life on the go.

“I can reach the world again and touch the world like I wanted to before,” she said. “And I’m glad I took that risk with this surgery.”

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