How Well Are You Working Your Problem?

If great problem-solving skills stood between you and saving your own life, would you get cracking on a solution? It’s easy to say, “Of course I would, Walt,” but it’s harder to do. Especially if you’re in Doug Lindsay’s position. In 1999, he was 21 years old and studying biology when he became suddenly ill.

Right about the time I was moving to Denver with my family, Lindsay was starting his senior year at Rockhurst University. That’s when his life completely changed. After a day of classes, he collapsed on the dining room table at his home in Kansas City.

He would spend the next 11 years in bed for 22 hours a day, baffling doctors with his mysterious lethargy. His mother suffered from the same mystery. When Lyndsay reached 18 months old, his mother couldn’t pick him up and by the time he was four, she couldn’t walk.

Doug Lindsay’s mobility was severely restricted. He could walk about 50 feet at a time and stand for a few minutes. And, because no one could diagnose him and treatments were unsuccessful, Lindsay realized he would have to find a cure for himself.

Lindsay problem-solved in four ways:

He buried himself in research.

During his early years at college, he picked up a 2,200-page endocrinology textbook near a garbage can, hoping he could use it to diagnose his mom. There he found a passage explaining how adrenal disorders could mirror thyroid disorders. After exhausting the information available in outdated medical textbooks, he pulled together the funds for a computer and got busy on his theory.

He persevered.

Lindsay discovered a foundation online dedicated to researching the disorder he had determined was troubling his family. Though it turned out the foundation’s scope wasn’t a fit, Lindsay pressed on, deciding he needed a scientist who shared his curiosity and willingness to take on a rare case. Lindsay concluded the best place to find this partner would be at the American Autonomic Society’s annual conference in South Carolina.

He surrounded himself with the right people.

Scientists around the world who focused on nervous system disorders would be at this conference. Lindsay prepared a presentation about his disease and with the help of friends, bought a row of airline tickets so he could lay down during the flight. Lindsay arrived in a suit, tie and wheelchair, doing his best to look and act like everyone in the room so they would listen to what he proposed.

He collaborated to work the problem.

Thanks to Lindsay’s initiative, Dr. H. Cecil Coghlan, a medical professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, said he thought Lindsay was on to something. Coghlan and Lindsay worked together for the next eight years to create a solution. That solution was the removal of Lindsay’s adrenal medullas which were producing too much adrenaline and leaving him constantly fatigued.

Lindsay’s method to problem-solving is a great lesson for all of us who might be facing a daunting challenge. 1) Get your hands on all of the facts. 2) Persevere when the facts don’t help; look at other types of sources. 3) Surround yourself with the right people. 4) Collaborate to work the problem.

Lindsay walked in Rockhurst University’s graduation ceremony 16 years later than planned, but he wore a mortar board having accomplished much more than a degree. He’s living a full life and has a medical consultancy where he applies his tenacity and experience to help others like him.

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