I was so excited for my first official day of occupational therapy at Courage Kenny. I had been hearing about the center for years. Once or twice, I had even been by there on the bus. But I had never been inside. I had known a few people whose loved ones had been there for treatment, and they raved about it. Many of my health care providers gave me the impression that it was second to none. So now that my treatment was about to start, I was raring to go.
When I met my therapist, she began reading all of the various household tasks I’d said I wanted help with – sweeping, cooking, washing dishes, etc. After she was done, I told her that I really wanted to be able to use my triceps again. If I could strengthen my triceps adequately, I would be able to straighten my arm. Once I was able to straighten my arm again, performing all of these domestic tasks would be simple. Furthermore, straightening my arm would allow me to do chest, shoulder, and triceps exercises. As long as I could regain this sort of functionality, it wouldn’t bother me if I didn’t regain additional manual dexterity.
As previously instructed, I had brought my arm splint along. I took it out and explained that when I’d first received the splint, it had helped hold my arm in a neutral position. While I was delighted at my wrist being loosened from its permanent crook, my assumption had been that the splint would be adjusted from time to time. So it’d been my thought that my wrist would eventually be at an angle that would allow me to work out or push a broom. But when I was released from the therapeutic facility, there had been no talk of adjusting the splint.
The therapist said that she had a prototype she wanted me to take a look at. She disappeared down the wall and came back with sleeker model than the one I was wearing. It was made out of stiff plastic and strapped on very easily as, unlike mine, it wasn’t prone to attract lint. She told me that it was designed to be worn during activity, so after I took a few weeks to adjust to it, I could wear it to the gym. I would just have to have someone help me put it on and take it off for a few hours a night.
I’d been instructed to go through a similar period with my present splint. I had started by wearing it a couple of hours a day. During the second week, I had worn it about four hours a day. I had worn it for a couple hours more each week, until I was able to tolerate it for ten hours. Then I’d begun wearing it to bed every night.
After I told her this, she was satisfied that I understood how to begin with it. She told me that we could adjust it to hold my wrist at the correct angle. So I enthusiastically agreed to let her order me an active brace. As the session drew to a close, we came to the mutual agreement that it was going to be delightful working together. She loved working with knowledgeable, enthusiastic patients. I had been dying to find an occupational therapist who could help me pursue a more athletic course of treatment. I left the facility sure I was about to take another leap on the road back to active living.
Rehabilitating my left arm was now paramount for me. I had learned years ago that there was generally a pattern to the way you gain control of a limb. First you would be able to move your upper arm or leg. Then you would eventually be able to move your forearm or lower leg. Finally, you would be able to wiggle your fingers and toes. The legs generally come back before the arms. And true to form, I had been walking for years, but my arm was only partially movable. I decided to attack all parts of the arm simultaneously.
I had been doing a lot to move my shoulder for the past few years. I would do lat pulldowns and rows to increase that shoulder’s mobility. When I started doing them, I had a lot of pain in the joint. The muscles were so tight that I could barely move any weight. My only desire was to have the drive to get through each workout. The most difficult part of this was to set my ego aside. I humbled myself and kept going in.
When I first began lifting weights again, I could barely lift my left arm without it hurting. The lat and row machines lifted my hands overhead, stretching my shoulder passively. Over the course of a year, I gained a lot of flexibility. Simply moving my arm around helped the pain to subside. After a year, I was able to hold my arm above my head. This was a big deal because it allowed me to go through normal airport security scanners. I kept at these exercises, adding more weight.
While these were good for helping me with pain and movement at the site, I wanted to be able to productively lift my shoulders. Of course, this would entail me strengthening the muscles. I couldn’t perform shoulder presses because my wrist was too bent. I needed to find a shoulder exercise that would take my forearm out of the equation. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find any machines at either gym that would allow me to do this. Then one day as I was leaving the gym, I saw a lateral shoulder raise machine. This would be perfect for my needs.
At the end of my next workout, I came over to the machine. I sat down and placed my shoulder under the pad. It had handles to assist. I couldn’t pull my left arm forward enough to grasp one. I started by lifting the minimum of ten pounds for the first set. This was easy, so I added five pounds for my second set. This was also easy. So I went up five more pounds for each of the final two sets. All of these were easy enough for me to do fifteen reps for each set.
The next morning, my shoulder was slightly sore. It was only routine soreness to me. It had been years since I had last used it, so it was to be expected. I had been able to get four full sets of fifteen without failure or even working to capacity. These facts together let me know that it had been a productive exercise. I could gradually increase the weight over the next few weeks. After a month, the joint would be strong enough to go all out again. That way, the shoulder would be ready when my wrist was supple enough to start doing presses again.
With shoulder work being something that I was doing regularly, my next priority was working my arm. At first I had been concerned with trying to isolate my triceps to ultimately allow me to straighten my arm. I tried several different exercises, but my arm was still bent. Before long, I realized that occupational therapy would be able to help me with arm straightening, so I could just focus on working out my arm as much as I could. For the next few weeks, I did all of the biceps and triceps movement I could do.
After a while, I could tell that my arm was loosening up a little more. This told me that I could probably add additional exercises. I tested out a few new triceps movement before settling on lying triceps extensions. To do this, I sat on a flat bench, rocked back, waited for my left foot to slowly come to rest on the floor, then lifted a dumbbell over my head using both hands. At first, I felt like I might lose my balance, but once I started exercising, my body felt stable.
My form was terrible. I flared my arms out to the side; the weight barely moved; I wondered how much my triceps were even involved. I tried not to worry. I could still remember when I couldn’t even move my left arm. It had taken years to stop hurting when I forced it behind my head.
I thought about those days when I was still in the hospital and had told everyone I was going to walk again. Over the past few years, I had assured people that I would someday be an avid weightlifter again. There had been a lot of successes over the years, and I tried to catalog them all. I rarely told anyone how frightened I was. But I had really connected with my new occupational therapist. And for the first time, I felt fully engaged in the gym and in rehabilitation.