This harrowing true story of body transformation veteran Dougal MacDonald is a story of turning overwhelming adversity into magnificent triumph. As you start reading this interview, it will send shivers down your spine… and when you finish, it will inspire you to endeavor things you didn’t think were possible… It will make you pause and think about how it really is possible to be happy even after bad things happen… and realize that you can become physically strong again even after being struck down in the worst of ways. If you’ve ever been faced with any kind of health problem, accident or physical challenge, then this is an absolute must-read…
Tom Venuto: Dougal, thanks for taking the time to share your story with our Burn the Fat readers. I know that everyone who hears about what you’ve overcome will find themselves feeling inspired if not unstoppable. That;s one of the reasons I asked you for this interview to help people who are struggling on the health and fitness path because of illness, injury or any kind of personal setback to learn how to overcome them no matter what. To get started, would you give us a short personal introduction about yourself, where you’re from and what you do?
Dougal Macdonald: Tom, firstly, thank you so much for the opportunity to share my story, it’s a privilege for me to be chatting with you, and by the way I have learned so much from you via Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle (BFFM) which I bought online many years ago.
I am a typical African boy having been born in Zambia, growing up in Zimbabwe and South Africa. I guess you could call me an orphan, right now, since my mom died of cancer when I was 12, my dad died 20 years ago and my only sibling, my sister, died in a hit and run car accident some 17 years ago; it’s just me left.
Growing up in Durban, and having an affinity for the ocean, it seemed natural that I would gravitate towards surfing. I fell in love with it and it has been part of me ever since. I have been a Health and Fitness professional for 10 years now with a focus on the ‘mind’ side of health and fitness. I am 61 years old and have been fortunate to be able to develop the life that I want to live.
Hobbies and interests for me are pretty much to do with H&F. I research training and nutrition every day and still have a tremendous passion for it. According to Malcolm Gladwell, I have invested enough time to the subject to make me a ‘Global Expert’.
For many years I played rugby at club level, ran more marathons and ultra-marathons than I care to remember; was a triathlete, an eight handicap golfer and have enjoyed great health, so it seemed natural for me to eventually end up building a career in Health and Fitness.
Tom Venuto: So you’ve been a health and fitness professional for a decade now and I think it’s clear that you’ve always been a “walk the talk” type of trainer, not the “do as I say not as I do” type” I admire that. You also had some major success in body transformation contests. Tell us how and why you got involved in body transformation contests and what the early results were like.
Dougal Macdonald: The reason I became a Health and Fitness professional in the first place was because I was getting no satisfaction in the corporate world anymore. I had started a few businesses, including an advertising agency, and was tired of board meetings, suits and ties. I locked myself up for a while and really did some soul searching about what I wanted to do.
The first realization was I would never be truly happy unless I was doing something full time that gave benefit to others. Since I had recently been successful in a body transformation contest, people were asking me for help with training and nutrition, and I really enjoyed helping them get going. Out of this was born my personal mission statement ‘To empower 5 million people to find and fulfill their purpose through health and fitness.’
Body-for-LIFE had just started getting popular at that time and I entered the first competition held in South Africa. I placed 2nd. The following two years I placed 2nd and 3rd in my age group. I became very proactive and with the blessing of BFL and EAS South Africa I started the Body-for-LIFE club in South Africa.
This was very successful and apart from getting good results I got to meet Porter Freeman when he presented me with my Body-for-LIFE Champions jacket for service to the BFL community in South Africa at the contest prize giving; a very proud moment for me. I have one of only 5 Champions jackets in the country. I will never forget, however, my results for that first contest. I lost 22lbs and 20% body fat. I was hooked.
The outcome of all this was my desire to do this for a living and life. I got certified as a CPT, and a BFL Success Coach by EAS, and within a short period of time had more clients than I knew what to do with and I’m still doing it. No greater satisfaction than watching a previously overweight unhealthy individual come sauntering up the steps into the gym, lean and muscular, like he or she, own the place.
Tom Venuto: So here you are, a health and fitness professional, successful body transformation contest champion, lover of sports and physical activity and then one day, there was an accident and it looked like your lifestyle as you knew it – and possibly even your life itself – was coming to end. What happened that day?
Dougal Macdonald: 29th May 2008, seems like yesterday. My love for surfing ran, still runs deep and I would surf whenever I could over the years. My then girlfriend and I, with our kids, were on a midyear vacation at one of the world’s most beautiful spots, St Francis Bay on the South African cape coast, right next door the famous Jeffrey’s Bay.
For the few days that we had been there I would get up at first light and head into deep water. I would surf for about 4 hours and then head in to the shore break to be closer to the family. This day I was tired after all the time in the water and ready to head in. “One more wave.” I thought. A biggish swell came through and turned into a steep wall quickly…I paddled in and stood up a little late.
Over the falls I went and happened to go head first into an exposed sand bank at speed, which had the consistency of solid concrete. BANG, the lights went out, I saw stars and felt the MOST excruciating pain I have ever felt in my life. Somehow, I got myself out of the water – holding my head upright as it would not hold itself up, whilst still attached by the leash to my board – with the knowledge that I had broken my neck. I heard the bones breaking; I knew.
I was loaded onto a trauma board and taken to hospital 90 minutes away. That ride was the longest and most painful of my life, even with a boatload of morphine inside me. I was stabilized and had 5 hour surgery 2 days later. All sorts of titanium bits were put in for the fusion.
For the medical types who are reading this, I fractured C1, 3 and 4, with a Hangman’s Fracture of C2. A physio’ friend said my x rays looked like those of a cadaver.
Tom Venuto: As if the accident and initial surgery and hospitalization weren’t enough, you described – in your book and on your blog – that there were complications that caused your recovery to drag out for months and months. Tell us how that unfolded.
Dougal Macdonald: Boy that was the tough part. Leaving Port Elizabeth hospital by jet after a week or so to go to a clinic in Johannesburg, it was discovered that I had contracted Septicemia. That can kill you in 48 hours so immediate surgery was ordered to clean it all out. Boy, that was even more painful than the original injury. Then plastic surgery to fix a hole in the back of my head left by a pressure wound. More surgery to clean out more infection and finally a fifth surgery to remove all the hardware and put me back together again. 5 anesthetics and 5 major surgeries over 7 months.
Tom Venuto: What was your physical condition like after this whole ordeal — not just your body composition but also in terms of pain, mobility, restrictions and so on? And what was the prognosis? What did the doctors or other people tell you about what you could and couldn’t (or shouldn’t) do from that point onward.
Dougal Macdonald: When I left the hospital I was disoriented, scared, hugely sore, extremely weak, stiff and had no mobility between my head and shoulders. I asked my neurosurgeon when I could expect some movement. “You will never regain movement between your head and shoulders”. Lovely…and when will I start feeling sensation on the left side of my head and neck? “Never, the nerve damage is too bad for you to have sensation beyond pain.” Wow, terrific, thanks.
I had lost 22lbs, all of it muscle mass, and was so weak I couldn’t walk 20 yards by myself. I was on anti-depression medication, sleeping pills, voltaren jabs, anti-coagulation jabs, pain pills; it was ridiculous. As soon as I got home I took myself off anti-depression and sleeping tablets, and resisted pain medication as long as possible…although there were often time when I was in so much pain I had to take them. It took me 4 days to sleep without sleeping pills.
I asked the neurosurgeon and the orthopedic surgeon when I would be able to get back to exercising in the gym. “Why would you want to do that?” was the answer. This after my original surgeon had attributed my upper body strength to me still being alive. Ironic huh. Swimming only and not yet.
Tom Venuto Wow. The way I see it, there are two types of people in the world and each would react differently. Most people would come out of the experience feeling bitter, angry, depressed. The other type of person would come out grateful to be alive, grateful to be walking, more appreciative of life and living it more fully than ever before. There’s no doubt you’re in the second group. I think we’re always amazed when we see people who go through a tragedy and come out the other side feeling grateful and seeing only the positives. Here’s the million dollar question Dougal: How? How exactly do you do it? Could someone else do it too just by changing something that’s going on inside their heads or their hearts?
Dougal Macdonald: Tom, I am absolutely not unique. We are all born with a brain and the growing ability to use it. It makes sense to me at least that in terms of attitude we all have the same potential. I personally have made a habit of embracing adversity past, present and future because how can we possibly discover our full potential without going through pain to get there?
Intense pain, both physical and emotional, simply makes you stronger because it shows you have the ability to endure. For me it was a case of, this has happened, nothing I can do except allow it to make me stronger. Our walk on this planet can only take us two ways, forward and backwards, I cannot imagine anyone wanting to go backwards. Then it’s a case of thought processes. I don’t have to look at the big picture beyond having an unshakeable belief that I will be healthy, stronger and fitter than I was before. From there it’s just one step at a time…forward.
Now the key to all this is the easiest part. Changing your mind by saying, “I am going to be the best that I can be every day.” Then changing your heart by feeling …”I have made the decision to be the best, there is no discussion.” Get out of the door.
Yes you will feel down, yes of course you will have pain and yes of course you won’t feel like getting out of the door, but you do it anyway because that’s what champions do, and I honestly believe there is a champion inside each one of us.
Now in essence everybody on this planet has the ability to think this through and then make a decision to change, and all it takes is that decision. From this moment on “I WILL!” is the mantra. There will be times you slip and times you don’t do what you’re supposed to but as long as that decision has been made, you KEEP moving forward towards your dream. You haven’t failed if you miss a goal, you can only fail when you STOP moving forward. NOTHING is ever accomplished in one day.
Tom Venuto: Correct me if I’m mistaken, but I think it was less than two months after your final surgery that you were back in the gym training. Lifting weights doesn’t seem like something a guy in your situation should have been doing, but you did it anyway. Was that with doctors blessing or against doctor’s orders? What were those first days and weeks of starting to train again like?
Dougal Macdonald: Oooh, this is tricky because I wouldn’t recommend doing what I did. First I started walking a few days after I got home, with a golf club across my back and through my arms to keep me upright. I was in a huge amount of pain but I kept at it and was walking about 3 miles every other day within a week or two. Then two weeks after my last operation I walked into the gym. I lay down on the bench and struggled to bench the Olympic bar, it was crazy I was so weak.
Tom Venuto: You made quite a comeback. Tell us about your results in the months you started training again after your recovery.
Dougal Macdonald: About eight weeks later I was benching 220.
I got quite good results doing Adam Waters’ transformation later in the year and then great results during your first Burn The Fat Holiday Challenge.
Yes, it was definitely against doctors’ orders, but I wasn’t foolish about it. I don’t do any lifts above the head and very few isolation exercises. I can feel when my neck, which has grown 5cms since the accident, is involved and I back off. I do mainly compounds, front squats, deadlifts, bench, chins and pull ups and weighted dips. This accident has been great for my form which has improved markedly.
Tom Venuto: Coming back after an injury or even just a layoff is a challenge that a lot of people have to face. In some cases people never get started again, or they start, but they feel pain and find it a very difficult struggle and just quit. It’s very easy to lose momentum even when you don’t have injuries to contend with and it’s always difficult to overcome inertia and get started again. What’s your formula for getting re-started and regaining momentum after a layoff?
Dougal Macdonald: Tom, this goes back to what I was saying about having goals and a vision. My vision was and still is, to be in better condition than I have ever been before. Once you accept that as an absolute, you are betraying yourself if you give up. Every day you do something to make you better than before.
I think the difficulty is that people can’t see themselves getting past the physical or emotional pain of today. This is overcome by developing that vision and that is why contest are so good for getting people started. Now, if the vision extends beyond the contest and you have an all-powerful belief in your vision, then the end of the contest simply means a stepping stone. Not, stop and think, “What I do now?” which is why so many people fall back.
Tom Venuto: What if someone is coming back after an injury or health problem and things have changed drastically compared to before; for example, the doctor says, your back can’t take the stress any more — no squats, no deadlifts, no heavy lifting at all… or, you tore a muscle or injured a joint and its now susceptible for re-injury so you can’t train it the same, or you’ve even lost use of one or more limbs. I’m not looking for medical advice, but generally speaking, what do you have to do physically, mentally and emotionally to come back from this kind of thing?
Dougal Macdonald: Mentally and emotionally you need to acknowledge that life goes on whether you participate or not and make the decision that you want to be part of it. Once you’ve made that choice, it’s a question of, “OK what CAN I do going forward”, not what CAN’T I do, and then find a way to get excited about an activity that you can do safely and that will keep you healthy. There are so many physical activities available today, you may even find one that gets you MORE excited than you were before your limiting issue.
For me – I am never allowed to run again, I am never allowed to ride a bike, mountain or road, I can’t turn without looking like a robot, I have to sit at the end of a table in a restaurant, otherwise I can’t talk to everyone at the table, I have difficulty driving, I can never do squats or military press which I used to love, and more importantly I can never surf again…. the training that I’m doing now, I do with caution and with approval from my physio’ (sort of)…
To be continued in part 2
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About the Author:
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, gym owner, freelance writer and author ofBurn the Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has writtenover 140 articles and has been featured in Iron Man Magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development,Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom is the Fat Loss Expert for Global-Fitness.com and the nutrition editor for Femalemuscle.com and his articles are featured regularly on literally dozens of other websites.