Adapted in TC: How we create our lives

Featured in the Record Eagle on July 29, 2018 WRITTEN BY Susan Odgers

The Record Eagle newspaper logoWithout the arts, I would not have found my way out of despair.

That’s what I was thinking last week, during lunch, with my friend, Janet Greenhut.

Janet’s an Ann Arbor physician; specializing in clinical preventive medicine. She helps people change behaviors that affect their health. She and Ryan Hart founded Living Well with Illness to help correct the power imbalance between the medical story and the patient’s story.

Participants in their work are invited to tell their illness story to a supportive person and to explore their feelings about the impact of chronic illness on their life. Key questions include: What is the meaning of your illness in your own life? Which of these impacts has affected you the most? How do you wish to live from here on out?

I remember the release of Norman Cousins’ “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration.” I’d been paralyzed for three years then and struggling to make sense of what had happened to me. Cousins’ experience of his own illness resonated with me and we began corresponding.

He encouraged me to journal, watch movies, garden, dance, paint, learn the piano, even cook. Creativity helped me adapt to my new life and reclaim my pre-illness self. Where I had only felt loss, I now experienced creation. Living my life using a wheelchair took on a new spirit. Engaging in my own creativity was also self-soothing and helped me cope with the ambiguity of … will I ever walk again?

Even when I was very ill, I appreciated others’ creativity through books, recordings and conversations. Every time I was hospitalized — sometimes for months — I made sure my room was extensively decorated with personal items to reflect who I was as a whole person. I wanted my caregivers to see me as more than a bundle of current ailments lying in a bed. One of my best decorations was a large colored world map tacked to the wall in front of my bed. The map was a great conversation starter and helped remind me that there was a big world waiting for me outside of the medical center.

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Contact Susan Odgers at

She is a 31-year resident of Traverse City and has been using a wheelchair for 42 years. Odgers is a faculty member of Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University.


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