Why I Choose to Live the Rugged Life: “Hockey is a Hard-Knock Sport, but It’s What Helps Me Get Back Up Time and Again When Life Knocks Me Down”

This Zebra proves (once again) that every setback in life is really just setting you up for a life-changing comeback!

A photo of Zebra Technologies employee Nicholas Heenan smiling in his hockey uniform after his weight loss
by Your Edge Blog Team
September 30, 2019

Editor’s Note: If you’ve been following the Your Edge Blog since we launched back in March, you’ll probably recognize the name Nicholas Heenan. He was one of the first Zebras to contribute to the blog. His story about his wife’s battle with Poly-Cystic Ovarian Syndrome and their ultimate victory with the birth of their baby girl Vivienne made us both smile and cry. It demonstrated just how strong and resilient Nicholas and his family can be.

Perhaps that should be no surprise because Nicholas is a hockey player and, as he puts it:

“Hockey players are renowned worldwide for their toughness. Lost teeth, cuts and bruises are all woven into the fabric of the game, held together with stitches and tape. But perhaps more than physical durability, hockey players take pride in the mental toughness required to play a sport that features grown men flying around a sheet of ice on two razor blades, carrying an instrument of blunt force trauma.”

Well, what you (and we) didn’t know at the time is that Nicholas isn’t just accustomed to taking hard knocks – and getting back up – in the hockey rink. He has also endured another physically and mentally excruciating personal journey over the last several years. One that makes you rethink what it really means to “live the rugged life” – to really embrace life’s challenges as opportunities. And one that reminds us that set backs aren’t a step back. They’re just forcing us to find a different path forward, one that can lead us toward an even more fulfilling life!

Read his remarkably inspiring story:

My name is Nicholas Heenan. I’m a Quality Technician at the Zebra plant in Greenville, WI. It is my job to ensure that the product sent to our shipping area is what the customer ordered, in the correct quantity. I spend my afternoons traversing the plant floor, testing and inspecting each job as it comes off our lines. Though the physical strain of my job may not be equal to that of my operator co-workers, the mental exertion, at times, can be trying.

Luckily, my sport…and my life…have prepared me for such exertion.

Growing up, sports were my true passion. While I dabbled in soccer, basketball and baseball, my two favorites were football and hockey. In high school, I was fortunate enough to captain both teams. In addition to that, I was an accomplished student and musician. (I still play the piano today!) Fortunate to be surrounded by family and friends who supported and encouraged me every step of the way, I had heard often enough that I would be a success in life, no matter the avenue selected.

But life has a unique way of derailing the loftiest of expectations.

During my first two years of college, I had changed drastically. No longer the outgoing, sure-fire success, I had become sullen and withdrawn, rarely attending classes or participating in any social activities. At age 20, I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. My symptoms manifested as visual, auditory, and aural hallucinations, paranoid delusions, severe depressive episodes and severe anxiety. Over the next five years, my family, my doctors and I struggled mightily to find the correct combination of medications to adequately help with the psychotropic symptoms. I spent a great deal of time in the psychiatric ward at our local hospital, and even survived two suicide attempts. Fortunately, I stayed alive long enough to identify the necessary combination of medications, which I still take every day.

Unfortunately, that success did not mark the end of my troubles.

One of the side effects of the medication was that it drastically slowed my metabolism. And after five years of dietary and exercise habits commensurate with someone who doubts their own survivability, I had lost my way. Quickly, I began to put on weight.

Eventually, I reached a peak of 621 pounds.

A photo of Zebra employee Nicholas Heenan at the peak of his struggles, weighing over 600 pounds.

Once again, I no longer wanted to live. The embarrassment and immobility of life at that weight creates an imprisoned soul, desperately screaming for release. Beyond the everyday struggles, my long-term health obviously took a hit, as well. I suffered from recurring staph infections in my left leg. Eleven times from 2005 to 2014, a simple red dot on my calf would, within hours, explode to encompass the entirety of my lower leg. Eventually, that red hue would morph to blue, then purple, then black. My temperature would skyrocket from normal to over 104 degrees. I would spend between six and eight days in the hospital, receiving IV antibiotic treatment to calm the bacterial infection.

These episodes became regular due to immobility coupled with extreme morbid obesity. This combination caused lymph fluid to pool in my legs, which, in turn, caused them to swell to over three times their normal size. During one hospital visit, my left leg alone weighed 125 pounds.

The final infection brought me to the hospital on December 28, 2013. It was the third infection I had experienced in a three-month period. One week in October…one week in November…and now there I was again. I rang in the New Year alone, in a dark, quiet hospital room. It was at that point that I realized that either I had to make significant changes, or I was going to die a slow, painful death.

I chose life.

With the help of the same extensive network of family and friends that had done so much to help build up the success story I was going to be earlier in life, I began to make small changes. Each day, I walked a tenth of a mile. Because I could not complete that distance without stopping, I brought along a metal folding chair with me. That first day, I had to stop four times to sit down. But I stuck with it. Eventually, I could walk 1/10 of a mile and only stop three times, then twice, and so on. Soon enough, I joined a local gym, where I continue to work out to this day.

In just over five years, I have lost 367 pounds.

Not only have I survived mental illness and morbid obesity, I have taken full advantage of the second chance I have been given. I am married to a beautiful woman, we have an adorable two-year old daughter and I am gainfully employed at Zebra, a company that recognizes my unique perspective, embracing my quirks and my never-say-die attitude. I share my story with everyone from elementary schools to corporate groups as a volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. As a history buff, I have had the amazing opportunity to lecture during a local AP European History class on the French Revolution, as well as the honor to interview local veterans of the Vietnam War, sharing their stories in an anthology volume that will hit the shelves in September.

Of all the wonderful successes I’ve proudly achieved with my recovery from nearly certain doom, however, one stands out above the rest.

When I began to lose weight, the long-term dream I had in mind was to play hockey again. After I had lost about 250 pounds, I sojourned to our local outdoor rink, exploring the feasibility of that goal. The early returns were not encouraging. After a decade without touching my skates, I started by leaning up against the boards, and walking around the outside edge of the rink. Eventually, I felt comfortable enough to start pushing off, and soon thereafter, I could let go of the boards. Over the course of two winters, I taught myself how to play the game again from scratch.

Today, I am the captain of the Chiefs, a local Men’s League team here in Appleton.

Participating in the rough and tumble sport of fire on ice is more than a passion for me. The dream of playing hockey, the camaraderie of guys with shared passions, goals and love for each other, working as a team toward a common goal, kept my hopes and spirits raised as I endured the excruciatingly painful process of recovery and weight loss.

Hockey saved my life.

I am a firm believer that courage is not the absence of fear, but the acknowledgement of fear, and going forward anyway. In hockey, and in life, we will all experience loss and setback. Mental toughness and courage drive us to continue standing up when life knocks us down.

And that’s what living the rugged life is all about. 

Zebra employee Nicholas Heenan smiles in a photo of him taken while wearing a kilt after his weight loss

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