Meet Nick Propper: Redefining Heroism
Nick’s lesson: Understand that taking care of yourself is the most heroic act you can undertake
Nick received his diagnosis at what seemed to be the pinnacle of his life so far. At 38, he was excelling both personally and professionally, enjoying family life with his wife, Antonia, and their two young children, and leading a successful new company. Things were going so well for Nick, it was easy to disregard what he now admits were evident signs of serious underlying issues within his body.
Something was wrong
At the time, Nick was competing in triathlons. During one particular event, he was finding it extremely difficult to zip up his wet suit – more difficult than usual, as it’s not easy in the best situation to put on a wet suit — ahead of the swim. With help from a fellow competitor, he managed to get the wet suit on and began the race. Yet, about 50 meters into the swim, he knew something wasn’t right with his body. But he told himself he had spent a lot of money to enter this race, and had traveled a few hundred miles to be here, so the least he could do was finish the race and then see what was going on afterwards. So, he finished the swim and transitioned to the bike portion of the race. Five kilometers into the bike ride, there it was again: Something was wrong. He didn’t feel well. His legs felt as though they were made of lead. But he was on a one-way 40-kilometer circuit with hundreds of cyclists behind him; turning around and going back was not an option.
He managed to finish and began preparing for the run, when a race official tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he was OK. Nick said he was, and the race official explained that Nick had been sitting there for ten minutes trying — and failing — to put his shoes on. Embarrassed, Nick finally managed to get them on and went out on the run. Despite feeling extremely ill, he finished – with the worst time that he had ever logged for a triathlon. He packed up and drove the two hours home.
The signs become visible
The next morning, after complaining about his race experience and feeling unwell to Antonia, she advised him to cancel the international business trip he had planned the following day and go to the doctor. Nick wouldn’t hear of it. The meeting was just too important, he said.
By the time his flight landed, his body was so swollen, he had to take his wedding ring and watch because they were cutting off his circulation. His shoes didn’t fit properly, and his clothes were tight. But the next morning he simply brushed it off again, and went to the conference.
Soon, a colleague noticed that Nick was looking a little odd and suggested he call a doctor. This time, Nick listened to the advice. The doctor suggested that Nick with dealing with dehydration and edema — probably caused by the training for the triathlon and effects of air travel – and reassured him that he was going to be fine, causing further delay in Nick’s discovery of the reality regarding his health.
Despite his symptoms getting worse over the rest of the week, not better as the doctor predicted, Nick pushed through and took a red-eye home. When he landed, he went straight into the office and led an all-day client meeting. He came home that night and went right to bed. When he woke up the next morning, Antonia sat up in alarm and told him that he should look at himself in the mirror. His face was so swollen he almost didn’t recognize himself.
A terrifying diagnosis
At Antonia’s urging, he scheduled an emergency visit with his doctor. Finally, the reality of his condition was revealed: his blood pressure was soaring, his kidneys were in failure, his blood was thick and on the brink of clotting, and his heart rate mirrored that of someone running a sprint. His doctor instructed him to lie down and remain still.
The next thing he knew, he was in the hospital.
He was diagnosed with a severe autoimmune kidney disease and immediately began an aggressive, nine-month treatment regimen. Today, 13 years later, he is still dealing with the remitting and relapsing nature of the disease, and at least once a year is back in hospital for the series of infusions required to maintain remission. What has changed, though, is he now lives by a new set of values.
Our bodies have a way of speaking up when something isn’t right. Listen.
Nick now advocates for attentiveness to inner signals and the acknowledgment that sheer willpower and determination has its limits when something is seriously wrong. “It will only get you so far before access to that source of energy is just switched off and then there’s nothing left,” he said.
His experience actually saw him completely change the course of his career, too: He is now a co-founder of a business dedicated to helping individuals and teams manage stress more optimally and recover more intentionally so that they can be at their best, more often, for the people and things that matter most to them.
He has also redefined his understanding of heroism, explaining, “Heroes pay attention. Heroes make the difficult decisions. Heroes seek the help they need. Heroes listen to what they’re being told. Heroes understand that there’s more to life than the pursuit of perfection as depicted in modern society.”
To others facing similar situations, Nick urges, “Listen to what your body is telling you. It’s easy to dismiss those signals when life gets busy, but our bodies have a way of speaking up when something isn’t right. Pay attention, prioritize your health, and understand that taking care of yourself is the most heroic act you can undertake.”
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