Medical officer fights for his life

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Catharine Schmidt
  • 109th Airlift Wing
He entered the performing arts center on Oct. 23 for the Olympus-Natural Muscle Association competition feeling good. He had trained hard for this moment, and even though he wasn't sure how he would do, he was fired up and ready to go. It had been a long, hard journey getting to this point, but just the fact that he was alive and able to be at this competition was reward enough for him.

Maj. Eric Laughton, the 109th Medical Group senior medical administrator and a New York State Trooper on the civilian side, had been lifting weights for 25 years and entered his first contest in November 2009. In the beginning of 2010, he was in pristine physical shape and had been training for a bodybuilding contest at a weight of 170 pounds with a body fat estimated at 6 percent, but on Feb. 5, 2010, his body started to give out on him. He was having severe abdominal cramping and because he was out at the base for a Drill weekend, he was admitted to a hospital in Schenectady.

"When I entered the hospital, I was in horrific pain," Major Laughton said. "The doctors seemed at a loss to control it." A few days later, his intestines had perforated and he needed emergency surgery. "By this time, I was in intense pain (likely shock) and have no recollection of going into surgery."

During surgery, doctors were able to repair the intestines but the perforation poisoned Major Laughton's body, and all life systems - heart, lungs, liver and kidney - began shutting down. "To complicate matters, I incurred acute respiratory distress syndrome, a syndrome by itself quite deadly. I slipped into a coma and was placed on life support. The doctor announced that I was not doing well, and it was wise to have friends and family in to say their final goodbyes; I was not expected to make it through the night."

"When we were told he probably wouldn't make it through the night, I think my mind went blank," said Sabrina Sterling, Major Laughton's girlfriend, who was also four months pregnant with their son at the time. "It wasn't real; it couldn't be. There was no way this was going to happen. I wasn't going to allow it and there is no way that God would take the greatest man I know away so young. He couldn't do that; Eric had three boys and one on the way who needed him; I needed him. I don't think that I ever really accepted what I was being told, and I held onto the fact that Eric is a fighter and had too much in life to fight for."

Just as Ms. Sterling expected, Major Laughton's body did begin to fight back. He made it through the night and continued to fight over the next few weeks with friends, family and co-workers by his side continuing to pray for a miracle.

"Given that we were in Schenectady, miles away from home (in Buffalo), the Air National Guard truly became our second family," Ms. Sterling said. "A day did not go by when there wasn't someone from the unit there to sit with us, get us food, offer up a place to stay, or sit with Eric while we took a nap. One of the things that helped the most during this difficult time was having people with Eric when myself and the rest of his family couldn't be. The friendships and laughter were also instrumental in helping deal with all of the stress of the situation. There is a true healing power in laughter and friendship."

"The support was immeasurable," Major Laughton said. "I am blessed to be assigned to the best medical group in the country. It was a doctor from the unit who initially drove me to the hospital. He sounded the bell, and other doctors from the base came. A couple of these doctors work fulltime for the hospital. When the hospital initially tried to discharge me, they immediately stepped in and had the decision reversed. That alone probably saved my life. Once admitted, they ensured that at every moment I had the best care possible. They, along with numerous nurses from the unit who also worked at the hospital fulltime, never left my side; when one left, another came. It was a team effort to keep me alive - and I'm grateful for that.

"They ensured my family was taken care of," he continued. "The commander [Col. Mary Brandt] on one occasion cooked a meal at her house and brought it to the hospital for my family. These acts of kindness continued throughout my stay and were instrumental in my recovery and keeping my family's sanity. Between the Air National Guard and the New York State Police (also there constantly) family, I had continued support and I've come to realize how important that was."

After 13 days, the life support was removed and Major Laughton regained consciousness for the first time since his surgery.

"The doctor's stated it was my excellent physical condition that was extremely instrumental in my survival," Major Laughton said. "It was made clear to me that 'medicine' did what it could, but the real fight had to come from me, and that if not for my physical condition the outcome would have been different.

"The funny thing is that I thought I was training for a contest at the time of this incident, but I'd soon come to find out I was training for the biggest fight of my life - and that was indeed my life."

But his fight wasn't over; he still had a lot of work to do.

"My muscles had atrophied severely and I had lost 42 pounds [weighing only 128 pounds]," he said. "I had lost the ability to walk or talk. I was, as they stated, 'completely de-conditioned.' The doctors said I was fortunate to be alive, but that the recovery would be grueling, and full healing would likely not happen for at least a year. I thought I had nerve damage because I could not even text. The doctor stated that was because I had no muscle left."

Major Laughton was released on March 4. With Sabrina by his side, and with the help of nurses and a physical therapist, he was about to begin the long road to recovery.

"When I got home, again Sabrina was there for me in every manner," Major Laughton said. "I could not walk, could barely talk, and couldn't shower or feed myself for a while. She handled all those 'basic' survival issues and never once complained, showed frustration or expressed negativity. Without her, I surely would have needed to be admitted to a physical therapy home."

But competition was out of the question for Major Laughton. Or so the doctors said.
"I had a physical therapist come to the house. He was knowledgeable and a good guy - but I understood more how to heal my body through bodybuilding. So, I took on rehab myself," Major Laughton said. "Sabrina drove me to the gym. The workouts were excruciating; I had lost (more than 40) pounds and still could barely walk. I began with the 5-pound pink--what I affectionately call 'girly'--weights, which I could barely lift. Very slowly to start, I gained strength."

His weight also slowly began to increase. By March 27, a week after he first entered the gym again, he was up to 148 pounds. He returned to work April 4, and his workouts continued.

"There came a time when I told Sabrina I wanted--needed--to compete. I had unfinished business. Despite deep reservations, she supported my decision."

Ms. Sterling had also competed in the past, and knew first-hand what the training was like. Because of that, she was scared.

"I felt that Eric's body had just been put through the ultimate test and there he was telling me he needed to do this," she said. "I asked him to wait to allow his body to heal but also knew that I had to support him with his decision. I knew in my heart he had to do this for him, so I made a promise to myself to be there for him, but we had a mutual agreement that if he started to experience any negative affects he'd stop."

Major Laughton began to train for the Olympus-Natural Muscle Association competition on Oct. 23 as his goal. By July, with the support of Ms. Sterling and his trainer, Bert Harrop, Major Laughton was up to 175 pounds, with a competition weight goal of 163.
"It was a balance, especially because it was so close to when I had surgery," he said. "I had to bring up my weight by eating enough calories and lifting heavy weights (very difficult) to increase muscle mass. But an important part of the competitive bodybuilding is the diet and added cardio. So, I had to add a lot of weight and then had to subtract a lot of weight while maintaining appropriate muscle mass needed to step on stage. So, the battle is not just in the gym, but in your mind."

His training continued, and just a few days before the competition, he was confident all of his hard work had paid off.

"I think I'm ready," he said. "I would have liked more time to build back more muscle mass that was lost during, but I had limited time. ... I've worked hard. Sabrina has cooked all my food, and I feel I am, at a minimum, respectable enough to get on stage. This is only my second contest - but I'm fired up, mostly to just be what I like to call 'vertical' and alive."

He took a deep breath and went out on stage. As he competed he knew he had done all that he could and more to get to this point. But most importantly, he was alive. His hard work paid off. Major Laughton took fifth place in the Men's Open Middleweight; second place in the Masters Over 40; first place in Novice; and took the Novice overall . Jerry Marsala, the show's promoter, then presented him with a personally designed Heart Trophy as he told the audience Eric Laughton's story...