Exclusive: Iyanla Vanzant Opens Up About The Medical Emergency That Nearly Killed Her
David Livingston

As Told To Charreah K. Jackson. 

Iyanla Vanzant has been a mainstay at the Essence Festival. But during last year’s event, she was fighting to survive. As a new season of Iyanla: Fix My Life premieres on OWN and she prepares to return to the festival’s empowerment stage,  in an ESSENCE exclusive,  the inspirational speaker opens up about choosing life.

Let Go to Live

A few days before last year’s Essence Festival, I flew to Jamaica to speak at a former student’s two-day event for women. Minutes before I was to take the stage, I became critically ill, throwing up, and had cramps. I’ve been blessed to have never had a health challenge beyond a cold or having children. I thought, I have food poisoning. Let me get this out, drink tea and go do my presentation.  I would not cancel the event. I finally  got to where I could get on the stage.

I spoke for about 20 minutes, then had a revelation that I shared. “I’m standing on this stage, telling you the importance of taking care of yourself and I’m deathly ill.  I’m leaving. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be here.”

I left and they called a doctor. We all thought I had food poisoning, and they gave me medicine for it. I rested. The next day I was numb from the meds and finished speaking. I wasn’t feeling well, but it wasn’t as bad as the day before. 

The following day I left to return to the U.S. and get ready for the Essence Festival. The meds had worn off and all the symptoms were back: the pain, cramping, nausea and dry heaves. I was trying to push through. In my mind I’m saying, I cannot be sick, because I have Essence in two days. By the time the plane landed in Baltimore, I was on my knees in a corner, with my face in a barf bag. They met me with an ambulance on the tarmac and took me to the hospital, where I discovered that one of the pouches in my colon had ruptured.

Shadow of Death
This type of rupturing can be deadly, as toxins can seep into your bloodstream. When I got to the hospital, they had to perform surgery on me immediately. Somehow my left ovary had positioned itself to absorb the toxins that were being released from my colon. They didn’t know that until I got on the surgical table. I got ill because the ovary had become overwhelmed, and the toxins were seeping into my blood. I had septic shock, which can kill you.

I had no previous symptoms. I’d had my hair and makeup done, and was getting dressed to go speak and this ­happens. Two weeks after I had my surgery, a very dear friend had his colon rupture while he was sleeping and he died.

It’s a common condition called diverticulitis, in which the colon develops pouches. Sometimes it is from diet. My theory is that a lot of times it’s from stress. Nothing goes on in the body that doesn’t first happen in the mind, so it has probably been a lifetime of little stresses building up. We don’t know when my rupture happened, because of the grace of my ovary.

They removed 13 centimeters of my colon and the ovary, then performed a colostomy. The procedure, which connects the colon to the surface of the abdomen, provides a new path for waste and gas to leave the body. I had to wear a colostomy bag, which collects your bodily waste and you change out the bag.

Eliminate Your Drama
When you have a colostomy bag hanging off the side of your belly, you get real clear about what you take in, knowing that you’re going to see how it comes out. I had to do it at a physical level, but it was also about the emotional, psychological and spiritual level. What are you taking in? 

So many of us take in stuff—what we hear, what we ­accept, what we accommodate and tolerate, what we entertain—and we’re not clear how it comes out. It can come out as depression, angry outbursts, the way we treat ourselves and the way we treat other people. 

As women, you take things in and digest it, and you have to eliminate as well. We have to draw nutrients that feed our life and our soul and then eliminate the rest. That’s where a lot of us have problems. We don’t eliminate. We will hold on to people, things, clothes, ideas, beliefs and behaviors longer than necessary. Then when we have these dramatic eruptions in our lives—be it a breakdown in a relationship, a loss of a job, a rift in the family—we don’t understand why. You have to look at how you digested your experiences. What are you holding on to and how are you processing things through your mind and your heart? Your whole life is a colon. You have to eliminate.

I’m very clear that my experience was a warning. The lesson is, don’t hold on and don’t hold back. We hold so much energy, thoughts and emotions and have ruptures in our relationships and finances and internally with diseases. 

People will take their clothes to the cleaners and do their laundry, but they never clean their energy. You vacuum the rug, but you’re upset with a friend, a relative or your partner for days and never clean your energy. That is a form of holding on. When you have a breakdown or are upset with someone, the way to eliminate toxic energy from your body, mind and spirit is clearing conversations. We have to have clear, clean and complete conversations.

We also have to renew and recharge our vision. Just because it’s a good idea in March, it may not still be a good idea in July if it’s not bearing fruit. In these 60 to 90 days, ask yourself, What am I doing? What is the progress I’m making? Do I need to make some additions or eliminate some things or people? I had my first summer at home in probably ten years. We have to create more me time for reflection and get off technology. 

Follow Your Intuition
Last year was the first time in probably 15 years that I missed the Essence Festival. In January 2016, I woke up one day and had the inkling to invite Ms. Oprah Winfrey to come to the festival. Not as Oprah Winfrey but as my guest. And she agreed. 

Sometimes when you reach a certain place in your profession, people separate you from the everyday community. Sometimes people try to do that to me, and I sense sometimes that they do that to her. I always come to Essence as a Brooklyn resident, meeting my community at the heart. I wanted to share that space with Ms. Winfrey. She said,

“Let’s do it. We’re going to tag-team the presentation.” I said, “I’m not telling anybody you’re coming, because I want you to come as my sisterfriend, not as Oprah.”

As a woman and as an elder, I’ve found that following your intuition is crucial. So often women are talked out of their intuition, doubt it or  try to validate it by talking to others.  It’s so important to trust and honor your intuition.

I had surgery three days before I was to speak at Essence Fest. Because  I had followed my intuition in January and asked Ms. Winfrey to be with me,  I was able to call her and say, “You have to do this for me.” Ms. Winfrey was ­willing and it was already set.

My grandmother always used to say, “God always has a lamb in the bush,” that when you have a great need, the Divine will provide. I followed my intuition and invited Ms. Winfrey, not knowing I wouldn’t be there.

Press On
When they told me I was going to have to wear a colostomy bag, a diva such as myself was not happy about pooping in a bag on the side of my belly. I ­remembered a very important lesson I learned when I buried my daughter, which is that you can do ­anything for a little while if it’s ­going to make you better. You can do anything for a little while if it’s going to help you grow. As Black women, we sometimes complain and fail to affirm and be grateful, because we don’t like discomfort. Understand the blessing is on the other side. Anything that takes us out of our comfort zone is often preparing us for better.

I wore that bag for 111 days. In October I had it removed and my intestines reconnected. My friend died from the same ailment. I’m sure he would have preferred to wear that bag for the rest of his life as opposed to not being here. My wearing that bag taught me not to hold on, and not to hold back. Be mindful of what you take in and no matter how uncomfortable or discouraging it may be, you can do anything for a little while. 

Anytime you go through an invasive procedure and remove a part of what God gave you, it’s a challenge. Since my surgeries I have been mindful of things that strengthen the digestive system. 

I now know that my first responsibility every morning is to make contact with the God that I serve and to get instructions on how to serve. 

I’m at an age in my elderhood where we’re expected to just fall apart. Growing older is a necessity, but falling apart is not a requirement. I’ve lived my life faithfully each day, knowing that whatever that day brings me, it’s for a higher purpose. We aren’t in control of anything. When you get down to real matters of life and death, there’s something greater and grander than us going on.

I did get a little of Essence Festival last year, traveling to New Orleans in the fall to film my cameo in Girls Trip. And I am excited to return to the festival, one year after my life was spared, and share with women I love. Ladies, we have to let go to live.

You can catch new season of Iyanla: Fix My Life Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on OWN.”

This feature originally appeared in the May 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.


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