Muscle Sport Magazine

Meet LCpl. Tesla D. DeBarros, USMC, Ret.

If someone asked you to tell “your story” where would you begin? Would you start with your first memory? Your first accomplishment? When you became an adult or when you suffered a tragedy? It seems so hard to dictate what are important parts of your life and what are not. For me I believe my story really began a little over six years ago. My story’s introduction would be that my name is Tesla, that I am 27 years old and that I grew up in Ohio as an image of perfect health. I was active, played multiple sports and wanted to be a lawyer by the age of nine. After graduation, I went off to college like everyone else and in March 2013, I attended my first Arnold Sports Festival. I instantly fell in with bodybuilding. I fell in love with the atmosphere, the appearance of the competitors and everything about the sport. It was also here that I saw Dana Linn Bailey for the first time. I was in awe; her physique was incredible. I then realized I had just found my idol and my motivation. I was now determined to put in the work, day and night to become the next Ms. Physique Olympia just like her. Little did I know just a few months later my life would be turned upside down and every one of those dreams ripped away.

 

 

September 22, 2013, I shipped of for boot camp in Parris Island, SC. I was going to become a United States Marine. Towards the end of the 13 weeks, I fell very ill. I was blacking out and vomiting excessively. Medical said it was a stomach virus or food posing, gave me bed rest for two days and that was it. I pushed through, continued training and graduated in December. Next, I went to Marine Combat Training in North Carolina. During my four weeks there, it was very cold and ice storms were frequent. Toward the end, I became very ill again, but I just assumed it was a cold from the weather. Mid-February I was off to my specialty training to become a Military Police Officer. About two weeks after being there, my roommate reported me to our SSgt for my illness. My coughing and respiratory issues were keeping her up at night. I was then shipped to medical where they performed an X-Ray looking for pneumonia. When the results came back, they didn’t just tell me in the exam room, they pulled me to a special office.

 

 

It was then that I was told I had a large mediastinal mass and seven other masses located throughout my lungs. They were sending me three hours away (one way) to the University of Missouri Cancer Center. From the beginning of March through July, I would start rapidly declining. The UofMCC would find that the masses were not cancerous, but they had no idea why I was becoming so ill. I was constantly in the ER on base or at almost weekly appointments at the Cancer Center. I suffered blackouts, I was coughing up blood, in excruciating pain and had daily complications with breathing. They confined me to my barracks for almost a month at one point because they determined my lungs could not handle being outside. After almost five months with no answers, the command decided due to the severe condition of my heart and lungs that I would be transferred to Wounded Warrior Battalion East at the National Military Medical Center NSA Bethesda.

 

 

I arrived on July 21, 2014 and the following day I was receiving my first lung biopsies. Shortly after, I was getting heart monitors attached to me for days at a time. Over the next seven months I would see almost every specialist in the hospital. I was bounced around from cardiology, pulmonary, infectious disease, neurology, hematology, rheumatology and any other specialist that may have any input. I would endure countless procedures, testing, bone marrow biopsies, electroshock, chunks of my skin removed, MRIs and CTs and dozens of blood draws. All the while, I was getting closer and closer to death. All of my blood work came back with heartbreaking results in every different area. I was suffering every day and there was nothing any doctor or specialists could do to remedy my illness or combat the pain. Every appointment ended with a shoulder shrug and a “I am sorry, I just cannot find any answers.”

 

 

Finally, after another close call, all the specialist I had seen came together collectively for a meeting to figure out a solution to save me. The neurologist was the only one to come forward with a possible answer. He determined that I had an Idiopathic Autonomic Neuropathy. A vaccine that I had received in bootcamp was mutated and the antibodies in it had cloned my antibodies and caused them to start attacking my body. This is what caused all of the destruction of some of my organs, my different levels like platelets and other vitamins to be crashing. They immediately implemented a treatment that would be a form of chemotherapy to replace the antibodies with new ones for the next three months. I would be admitted to an impatient ward and receive my treatment one week out of each month.

 

 

In March 2014,  I was admitted for my first infusion and it was awful. The day I was released my body started reacting and I was miserable. I had a migraine worse than anything I had ever felt; I couldn’t stop vomiting and everything hurt so bad I was in tears. I remember being wheelchaired to the ER with a jacket draped over my head because I couldn’t stand the light, screaming for them to make the pain stop and I was unable to control my constant shaking. I didn’t want to be alive. I was so dehydrated they couldn’t get IV access to any vein in either arm, five nurses tried (all failed). This all lasted three days. I pushed through and told myself I only had to do it two more times. At the end of the treatment my antibodies where supposed to be back to normal. The three months came and went and even though I began to stabilize, I did not get better, so treatment was extended to six months, then a year and then another year. Finally, in the beginning of 2016, it was determined that it was incurable and that in order to survive I would just have to continue getting the monthly treatment indefinitely and could begin the medical retirement process. Over those two years I was sent to doctors in four different states, inpatient for weeks at a time and gave up on life several times. But during those two years I also had moments where I continued to fight for my dreams. I would sneak off to the gym and work out whenever I could and constantly watched Bailey’s videos. I was weak and hurting… but I was committed. I even managed to get away from the hospital right after a bone marrow biopsy to attend another Arnold Sports Festival and to one of DLB’s private Warhouse Gym camps. With my primary doctor constantly reinforcing that I shouldn’t be lifting heavy, I would never be healthy enough to ever compete and that I needed to just accept the fate given to me. BUT I REFUSED!

 

In the fall of 2016 right before I was going to retire, I took a turn for the worst. Any and all progress had been lost. Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, I lost all surface feeling in my hands, arms, feet and legs. I could no longer feel temperature or touch only pressure, all my small nerve fibers were dead and my large ones were not functioning properly. Next, I woke up one day and I couldn’t move from the waist down. I was terrified; it lasted about two hours. The paralysis would happen randomly anywhere from 10 minutes to five hours without warning. I could be walking and my legs would just give out.  My retirement was immediately stopped, and the testing began.

 

 

Again, I endured months of testing with no answers. At this point I was having these episodes of paralysis multiple times a week, I was blacking out several times a day sometimes for hours at a time with memory loss. I was constantly in severe pain, I was shaking often, covered in bruises from the low platelets, struggling to breathe and so many other symptoms. I was losing hope. Then it got worse in December; I could not keep any solid food down for weeks. I lost forty pounds in under two months. I was literally withering away, and they determined that I had gastroparesis, basically my stomach could not process food and was going paralyzed as well.

 

 

As the black outs and heart problems worsened, I was sent to see specialist in New Hampshire and Boston. I underwent several electroshock procedures and had large tubes placed in my neck and arm to pull blood to test the oxygen in it. The results from that trip were devasting. The doctors informed me that there where shorts in my nerves from my brain to my extremities, that the left side of my heart was not function properly, so the right side was compensating and that I was not getting sufficient blood and oxygen to my brain. I was defeated. I was losing hope not only to ever being a bodybuilder and living a semi-normal life, but to even surviving. I had been fighting this illness for three years and it was going to win.

 

 

During all this, it was decided that I would be put on a different, stronger chemo treatment to try to slow down the progression. I did four rounds of it and nothing improved, so I was switched back to my regular infusions and they increased them to once a week every week for the rest of my life. In the beginning of 2018, the doctors determined there was nothing left they could do. I was told this illness was progressive, incurable, potentially fatal and that it was time for me to retire. It was time to try to live what life I could with all my daily symptoms and continuing my weekly infusions.

 

 

In the summer of 2018, I retired from the Marine Corps and relocated to southern California. I was underweight and extremely ill, but I was out of the hospital after four-and-a half years and I was free to take control of my illness, my way. That fall I decided I wasn’t done fighting and I wasn’t ready to give up my dreams. I started school to work toward my law degree and I got a gym membership. I knew that there were so many people worse off in the world doing so much more than me, I didn’t have an excuse and I didn’t have time to throw myself pity parties. I knew my illness could attack a vital organ and become fatal at any time or that I would go completely paralyzed any day, I got to work. I started going to the gym twice a day every day. Even on the days that I drove an hour to San Diego for my infusions I would go to the gym in the morning before I went. I changed my diet, so I wasn’t vomiting as much. I found Muscle Egg and Musclelious Foods, which had flavored drinkable egg whites and protein puddings. I began to pack on weight again little by little. I got stronger and kept pushing. I would black out between sets, wake up and lift some more. I didn’t care if my body hurt so bad, I was in tears, I hit my sets, even from my wheelchair when my legs weren’t working. The days my legs did work I took advantage and pushed them to their max. I refused to quit. I didn’t care what it took and what I went through I was going to step on a competition stage before the illness won.

 

 

In the summer of 2019, I was fortune enough to qualify for the USMC team in the D.O.D. Warrior Games, which is a Paralympic competition that included all the military services and seven other countries. I competed in archery, powerlifting and field where I won two gold medals, two silver medals and broke a record. Just a week after the Games, I took another bad turn and was back in inpatient at Walter Reed. After a week of testing, it was again determined that they couldn’t find any answers but decided that my infusions were now doing more harm than good and that at this point it was just poisoning my body.

 

 

After five years, my doctors quit on me, wished me luck and sent me on my way. I was shattered. All the progress I made was gone and I knew I was going to be miserable without the infusions, which served as a sort of pick-me-up each week when my body would crash. I spent about two weeks being depressed and defeated before I told myself to suck it up and go lift the weights until I couldn’t anymore. I reminded myself no pity parties and that someone always has it worse. I got some adaptive equipment for my hands because I was losing the use of them slowly as well, I found more ways to deal with my symptoms and was back to work.

 

 

In November 2019, I made the decision it was time for my first show. Since the Arnold was where I had fell in love with the sport, I figured there was no better show to do, so I registered for the Arnold Amateur which would be in March 2020. I would have to do a 12-week liquid prep so that I wouldn’t vomit up all my food and was able to accurately count my macro intake. I would be lying if I said prep wasn’t hell. On top of my daily symptoms of blackouts, vomiting, paralysis, chronic fatigued and weakness, inability to produce sweat or regulate my body temperature, I also have a very compromised immune system, so I was constantly ill. I had influenza three separate times, an upper respiratory infection, a double ear infection and serval 24-48 viruses.

 

 

At four weeks out from my show, I had a miscarriage. I didn’t even know I was pregnant because doctors had told me that I couldn’t get pregnant. I still kept pushing and prepping. On my way to the airport for the show, I was notified that the show was canceled due to COVID-19. I was beyond devastated. We decided to continue with the trip in case things changed. The Arnold later announced that my show would go on but with no spectators. On March 5th I wheelchaired into check-in at my first bodybuilding competition in the figure and physique classes. Even in my wheelchair between shows hoping to save my legs enough to get through posing. Although the show did not get to be what I had hoped and that I didn’t take my best possible physique, nothing mattered when I stepped on stage because I had done it. I had beat the illness long enough to fulfill one of my dreams. I got to be on that stage three different days and took 4th place in my physique class. I was on top of the world.

 

 

It has been months since that show, and I have been back to training to grow and go back again. Sometimes I think about all my different diagnosis which include Idiopathic Autonomic Neuropathy, Peripheral Neuropathy, Thrombocytopenia, Gastroparesis, Episodes of Paralysis, Syncope, Anhidrosis, Chronic Fatigue, Migraines, Fibromyalgia, and Multiple Vitamin Deficiencies that I have to give myself injections for and I think I overcome a lot everyday, but at the same time and it’s just my daily life. I laugh and joke about it and never take life too seriously. I spend every day trying to use my story to motivate others and show them that you can overcome anything as long as you work hard, do not make excuses and do not throw yourself pity parties. There will always be someone out there who has it worse so be grateful and put in the work.

 

 

I do not use my illness or situation as reasons to give up and I hope I encourage the same in others. Lifting has literally saved my life and I would like to spend my life and fitness journey showing others that your fate is in your hands and yours only. I was told countless times I’ll never lift again, I’ll never be a bodybuilder and even told I wasn’t going to survive a few times. I hope to show people that only you get to decide what you are capable of, not an illness, not a doctor, no one but you. I would like to think that is a message that would help a lot of individuals through many different struggles whether it be physical, mental or emotional. I would like to be the person reminding them to suck it up because you are capable of anything just do the work because you have the fight in you.

 

Well that’s it, that’s “my story” up to this point but I promise its nowhere near finished. I’ll be seeing everyone from the Olympia stage one day soon.

 

Be sure to follow Tesla on Instagram – @tesladawn

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