The Flying Nest:

Feathering My Empty Nest, Naturally

by Kris Kelly

A Personal Path
The road to my Empty Nest has been paved with lessons that taught me resilience, patience, and gratitude. I am a wife and mother to four amazing children, as well as a daughter, sister, and aunt. Through all of my roles and experiences, I have discovered that the key to being happy and healthy comes from one’s lifestyle choices. As a result, I’ve learned to become my own health advocate, and that’s how I’ve discovered the strong healing powers of “superfoods,” herbs, homeopathy, flower essences, acupuncture, and the power of touch.

The Kelly family: Billy (22), Kris, Keenan (24), Megan (19), Faith (11), and Bill.
I can trace my path to a healthy lifestyle back to my first pregnancy, 25 years ago. In an attempt to cleanse my body and provide the best possible environment for my baby, I began to change the way I ate. As I drifted toward natural and organic foods, I realized that good health was really more than just what I put in my mouth. I began to understand that in caring for our bodies, we all have choices to make—choices that also affect our minds, spirit, and environment. It’s up to us, then, to make a difference in our personal quest for a healthier life.

Learning Along the Way
As my curiosity about natural products grew, so did my family. Our second son was born in 1988, and our first daughter came along in 1992. We experienced the same seasonal illnesses as many other families, with our fair share of colds, ear infections, fevers, and yes, injuries (those crazy boys!). I would turn to natural remedies and products as my first line of defense as each problem came our way. I used homeopathic remedies to treat ear pain, fevers, and coughs, as well as herbs for tummy troubles and to build immunity.

I began to understand the importance of “energy work.” At the time, I had no idea what that meant, but now I know it to mean the healing power of touch. Hugging and holding a sick child is one of the most powerful medicines a mother can give. My children always seemed to rebound more quickly than other children in our neighborhood, and they were able to avoid antibiotics altogether. There were no other families I knew who could say the same thing!

As the years rolled by, by trial and error I was able to compile my own assortment of alternative remedies that I knew worked. For instance, I learned that mullein and garlic oil worked for ear pain, especially when combined with a specific homeopathic remedy; stinging nettles worked wonderfully for seasonal allergy symptoms; and astragalus combined with echinacea helped during cold and flu season. I sifted through the helpful and not-so-helpful products, finding what I considered to be the best of the best.

Along the way, I consulted with pediatricians who, at the time, were not open to alternative remedies and were also not very well informed about nutrition. I also consulted with homeopathic practitioners, as well as a few integrative medical doctors. In general, though, I learned about natural products through my own research, typically trying them first on myself. In addition, my husband and I opened a natural foods store in 1998 that included an extensive vitamin and supplement department. Although, the store is no longer open, that specific learning experience played an integral part in my education on alternative remedies. Thus, I was confident in my ability to treat my loved ones and myself alternatively; I felt in control of my own health and ultimately of the health of my family.

Personal Health Crisis
Unfortunately, even the healthiest of families can face a crisis. My symptoms started after the birth of our third child in 1992. I was extremely weak after her birth and found it painful to walk up the stairs in my home. Extreme joint pain, low-grade fevers, and overwhelming exhaustion were the main symptoms. I also experienced extremely dry eyes and mouth. It took more than two years to get a diagnosis, as most doctors dismissed the symptoms because of my age and the fact that I had three small children. They attributed my symptoms to the stress of caring for small children and never thought to order the correct blood tests for autoimmune disorders.

Courtesy of the Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation.
Finally, in 1994, I was told about a doctor near my home in San Diego that specialized in women’s health issues. This doctor ran the appropriate tests, diagnosed me as having lupus, and sent me to a rheumatologist for further testing. Also in 1994, I was further diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disease in which white blood cells attack moisture-producing glands. This was the cause of the low-grade fevers, dental problems, extreme exhaustion, and severe joint pain, which made even the most common daily tasks difficult. My diagnosis came with a prescription for a drug to calm the immune system, as well as the recommendation to not have any more children. Although this was difficult to swallow, I still felt my body had the wisdom to heal itself if given the proper support.

I refused the medication and began to dig deeper, seeking alternative therapies. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs seemed to give me the most relief. I found a wonderful acupuncturist that I grew to trust in San Diego and visited her weekly. It took about six months of weekly acupuncture sessions and herbs before I started to see results. I also tried different massage therapists, which I found helpful, not only for pain control, but also to help me deal with my emotions. Over time, I regained much of my strength, my joints ached less, and my overall quality of life improved. I do not consider myself to be “cured,” but by using a gentler approach, I was able to maintain balance and continue on with my life.

Despite advice to the contrary, in 1999, I gave birth to our fourth child, Faith. For me, her birth was about letting go and embracing the complete trust I had in the power of the human body and its ability to adjust as needed. I learned firsthand the incredible healing energy a life can bring. When Faith came to us, I knew I would experience motherhood as I never had before. I was limited by my energy levels and would not be able to maintain balance—physically—if I pushed myself beyond what my body was capable of processing. I had to change my type-A style of mothering; this would include rest and letting go of the small things. I learned to appreciate what I could do and forget about what I could not. The little life in front of me brought a type of balance I had never before allowed myself. It was a true awakening of my authentic self, and one I am grateful for each day.

Integrative Medicine in Healthcare
In 1995, a year after my diagnosis, we were at my in-laws’ house on Thanksgiving Day. Just before dinner, I was called to the bathroom, where my husband was lying on the floor, white as a sheet and sweating profusely. He said, “I’m having a heart attack.”

After an intense hospital ride and several long hours in the ER, the doctors finally discovered that his esophagus had actually perforated. The doctors had been so focused on tests for the heart that they had overlooked the esophagus. During this time, Bill was becoming septic. He struggled to breathe as the acid from his stomach affected his lungs. It had been several hours, and the doctors were unsure whether or not they could save his life. A specialist operated immediately, but Bill’s prognosis was unsure, and it would be several days before we knew if he would make it.

As Bill began to heal, the nurses brought him his first meal, a veggie burger, which Bill reluctantly ate after questioning the orders. Unfortunately, the nursing staff had overlooked the doctor’s order for “No Food by Mouth.” Bill’s esophagus perforated once more. He had another emergency surgery, ultimately ending with an incision in his neck to prevent fluids from entering the esophagus. It was as gruesome as it sounds! He was to remain this way for three months in order to give his esophagus time to heal. I was in charge of cleaning the multiple tubes hanging from his body, as well as feeding him by tube several times per day. During this three-month period, we consulted with several of the top esophageal doctors in the country, ultimately deciding on Dr. Tom DeMeester of the University of Southern California.

For me, shifting from full-time mother to full-time caretaker was difficult. I had been home-schooling my three children at the time and quickly realized the focus could no longer be entirely on them. I needed to learn as much as I could about how to care for and feed my husband, as well as research what he might expect in the future. The prognosis was that Bill’s esophagus would only get worse. The options for treatment were either a series of dilatations, which were risky and would only buy him time, or the complete removal of his esophagus. The surgery was somewhat brutal and the survival rates were very low (20%, according to research), so Bill opted not to have the surgery at that time. As usual, I turned to my natural remedies, herbs, and homemade organic foods to help build Bill’s strength. Soon, he began to heal and was able to expand his food selection, although he was still limited to homemade (blended) soups, softer foods, and daily smoothies. The blender became my favorite kitchen tool. I would blend warm oatmeal with soymilk in the morning and make shakes for lunch and dinner. I used organic fruits for the smoothies and added high-quality whey protein. I was eventually able to make organic eggs and other soft foods. Soup was part of most meals, as it was a great way to get veggies into Bill’s diet.

Surgical Intervention
Once again, Bill’s compromised esophagus began to fail him. When it became difficult for him to swallow water, it was clear to his doctors that an esophagectomy (removal of the esophagus) was necessary. Bill underwent complete removal of his esophagus at USC University Hospital in May 2007. His surgery was successful in the sense that he could now swallow without choking for the first time in many years. The surgery entails removal of the esophagus with a “gastric pull up.” Part of the stomach is used and made into a small tube, which is pulled up and attached to the top of the throat. The problems that remain with this procedure are undigested food particles in the bloodstream and severe reflux. Bill is only able to eat small amounts of food at one sitting and has to sleep sitting up. It’s been a long road, but he is alive and well.

I attribute Bill’s recovery to an amazingly skilled surgeon (Dr. Tom R. DeMeester), who not only brought years of research experience and surgical skill to Bill’s care, but also brought to it an enormous capacity for compassion. Dr. D’s approach to integrating health care was not what some might view as a holistic solution, but nevertheless it was integrative in the sense that he instinctively knew what was best for his patient. He relied on years of experience combined with the personal relationship he had come to have with our family. Bill’s personal nurse, Rita, was a busy little angel with an intense zest for life who brought just the right amount of healing energy needed to get Bill up and moving. Of course, I am not discounting the effects of my own use of homeopathic remedies before and after the surgery. As a result of his excellent care, Bill went home on Father’s Day, just 10 days after complete removal of his esophagus.

Where I Stand Today
As a mother of four children, ages 24, 22, 18, and 11, I stand firm on two main issues:

Food: As a mother, I made a choice to raise my children on a vegetarian diet, leaning toward macrobiotics and choosing organic foods whenever possible. I currently remain open and shift, at times, to a more raw foods lifestyle. I have learned to eat with the seasons, meaning that we eat more raw foods in the summer and more cooked foods in winter. I believe in “superfoods”—nutrient-dense foods such as burdock root, chia seeds, goji berries, maca, hemp seeds, and sea vegetables—and try to incorporate a few into my diet each day.

Products: Through experience, I have learned to question and demand high-quality products for my family and myself. I question not only the ingredients but also the source of the raw materials. I focus on organic herbal manufacturers, knowing that they, too, are interested in living a clean life. I have learned to be aware of what my body is telling me, to be mindful of my environment, food, time, sleep, and friendships. I believe in an integrative approach to healing, and I know that we need to clean up our environment for the health of future generations.

The Flying Nest
As an eco-minded mother, I had always used an integrative approach to taking care of my family. Although I raised my children to eat clean, organic foods and use supplements, herbs, and alternative remedies to cure most common illnesses, I found the "college years" to be a whole new ball game for me as I strove to continue to take care of their health needs! As my first two children settled into college life, they encountered injuries, allergies, flu, colds, and severe sore throats. Because of the distance between us, I found it difficult to send the products they needed in a timely manner. By the time I got the call, shopped for the products, purchased a box for mailing, and sent the products off, the kids were either much worse or getting better.

Most people who are interested in supporting anyone using natural products need to do a little research before making a purchase. Typically, they drive to the natural food store, read the information on the back of many products, or possibly consult with the vitamin department for a recommendation. So, as an empty-nester, I developed a company—“The Flying Nest”—to take the guesswork out of this process by providing information and high-quality products with the click of a mouse and shipping them that same day.

In creating "The Flying Nest," I wanted to make it easy for parents. With extremely late nights, poor nutrition, alcohol consumption, and strange “energy” drinks constantly compromising the health of college students, I knew I needed an efficient way to provide what my kids needed from a distance. My only choice was to order snack or “finals” kits offered through the school. These kits were delivered directly to the student with a loving note from home but were filled with M&M’s, Skittles, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, coffee, and energy drinks loaded with sugar. Not great options for keeping their immune system strong!

The idea to provide kits that would meet specific challenges (they're organized by condition, e.g., stress, finals, flu, cold, allergy, sinus) and that would support the health and wellness of our 18- to 22-year-olds seemed to be a great solution. I wanted to provide products—Wellness Kits—that I knew would help my family, items that were supportive to the immune system, free from the side effects of pharmaceutical medicine, and also good for the environment. I make a conscious choice to work with manufacturers who have gone to great lengths to care for the land and our environment. This is about the way a product is produced from the ground up. (See Oregon’s Wild Harvest—one of my suppliers—to get a better idea of what I’m talking about.)

And so began the Flying Nest. I started the small company as a way to provide products for college students, but it quickly grew to include products for empty-nesting parents, seniors, and even small children. These unique kits can be ordered online and shipped directly to a loved one when needed, or sent early as a preventative measure. They include foods and supplements to help with sleeplessness, stress, seasonal illnesses, travel, feminine care, and the munchies (organic snacks). We even have a gluten-free snack kit for those students with allergies or gluten sensitivities.

I believe that having the option to choose natural products that can benefit your child’s overall wellness is important. At the same time, you are trying to help them maneuver their ups and downs. And, of course, as an empty-nesting parent, you are being supportive to your grown children but you yourself are also beginning to let go.

Kris Kelly, a mother of four, is founder of The Flying Nest, an online source of wellness for loved ones—organic snacks and alternative remedies sent across the miles.

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