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As the year was drawing to an end, I was looking to stay on top of my health, my rehab, and keeping Mary active and nourished. One big thing I wanted to tackle was walking more on snow and ice. I was now committed to walking Mary three times a day in the backyard. I could do this pretty consistently in the summer. But the maintenance crew didn’t shovel snow behind the building, so the back patio was inaccessible most of the winter. It soon occurred to me that I could work on my balance by walking around out back in the thick snow.

The next time we got a few inches of snow, I called a neighbor and asked him to come downstairs with me. When we got to the door, I handed the leash to him. I let him go out with Mary first. Then I walked out after them. There wasn’t much ice to slip on, so I was able to walk out safely to a patio table. Once I was seated, I watched him walk Mary up and down the yard until she used the restroom.

Once Mary was done, I pulled out a bag and walked gingerly out into the yard. Since there was no ice or pavement, there were no slick surfaces for me to slip on. With each step I took, I gained more confidence. When I was standing over the poop, I lined up my feet, letting them sink down in the snow. This gave me more traction. I bent down, sure I wasn’t going to fall over. I scooped snow around and beneath the poop, getting all of it with no problem. I raised my head and stood up. Without having to hold Mary’s leash as well, it was easy to carry the bag in my left hand to the trash can.

Mary and my neighbor walked up the hill so she could continue to explore the snowy landscape. I used the time to practice walking in the snow. I practiced pacing across the snow covered grass, letting my feet sink down, then lifting them and moving on. It wasn’t lifting weights, but it was the same concept: I wanted to make my legs work with every step they took. Walking would be a simple task next spring.

Mary and the neighbor soon came back down the hill. She was panting and clearly happy. I let the two of them go back ahead of me as I stepped back onto the pavement. Knowing that it might be slippery beneath the snow, I clenched my inner thighs and took smaller steps. With each step, I planted my feet with more force. My left leg was obviously growing stronger from all of the leg presses. There was no chance of falling so long as I concentrated. When I was back inside, I took off my hat and wiped sweat from my forehead. It’d been hard work, but I was still getting stronger.

I almost always feel like I need to do more for Mary. While I know that, due to health or having to work full-time, many people exercise their dogs less than I do, it’s hard for me to shake the guilty feelings. I think it’s because I used to be so active. So when it snows too much for me to take her out back, I take out in front of the building.

I often let her out four times a day to compensate for the fact that I don’t like walking her too far from the front of the building, even in the summer. We live on one of the busiest streets in the area, and I don’t want to fall and have her run into the street. It’s even worse in the winter. We’re often out before the maintenance crew can shovel snow and salt the ice on the sidewalk. Mary wants to walk all over the neighborhood, but I’m still limited in how far I can go.

So in the winter, Mary goes out more often than normal and gets more treats than I normally give her. I have my neighbor take her for walks. Even the people at the security desk give her treats. When I went to the pet shop to buy food for her after Christmas, all of the Christmas treats were on clearance sale. I bought snacks for Mary, eager to see her wagging her tail and chewing blissfully.

As with every New Year’s Eve since 2015, this one was a quiet one for me. In the past, this would have been a somber time. I would have sat around pondering what level of recovery the new year would hold. I would’ve spent the next day wishing that at least one restaurant was open for delivery. It would have been 24 lonely hours spent feeling something that was a mixture of anxiety, hopelessness, and optimism.

This year would be different. On Monday, I had just found out that I would be entering this year 19 pounds lighter than last year. I had a workout planned for New Year’s Day, where I would be pressing 55 pounds for four sets of ten on my stroke affected leg. I entered this year with concrete goals that I was already on the road to achieving.

I got up around 5:00 in the morning and went easily through my morning routine. When I got to the gym, I was preoccupied with keeping my heart rate above 100 while riding for 10 minutes. My heart rate was over 110 for the entire time. I was constantly mopping the sweat from my forehead the whole time I was riding. So I climbed own from the stationary bike feeling energized and wonderful. I could tell that I was going to start off the new year with a solid workout.

I began with leg curls. Although I didn’t use more weight than the minimum amount, I was now able to lift it much higher. I also did the exercise for four sets of ten. I really wished that I could do full leg curls. It would mean that my leg would be more flexible when walking. As it was, I could only bend it slightly more than I could at the beginning of last year. But at a time when other measurements were trending positively, I had to remember that any amount of progress was movement in the right direction.

I now moved on to leg press. Although I had only been able to do the bare minimum on this exercise for years, once I started adding weight my lifting capacity quickly shot up. I sat back on the machine and started my warm up of 25 pounds. I normally do one set of 12 reps, but this time, my leg felt so good that I did 15 reps. Now it was time to lift in earnest. I felt so pumped that I easily put up 55 pounds ten times. This took a lot of effort, and I had to rest for over a minute before easily doing three more sets. After completing the four sets, I did one bonus set of eight. I got up and went on to my next exercise, confident that it was going to be a great year.

My most pressing 2020 goal, after rebuilding my leg strength, was reactivating my arm as well as I could. So after I finished my lower back workout, I tried to do machine bicep curls. I had tried using this machine the week before. Although I hadn’t been able to move it, I had let the machine pull my arm downward, stretching my arm out more than it had been stretched in years. Now I was ready to try again. It was very difficult, but I did curl it a few inches, squeezing out three sets of ten. Although this didn’t feel like much, I would soon be doing more and pairing it with other bicep and tricep exercises. While brain damage from a stroke can be permanent, my arm did seem to be responding the more I challenged it.

I stopped working out an hour before my ride was set to arrive. I could’ve done more, but I wanted to stop while I was still felling pumped. I walked over to the snack bar and ordered a smoothie. It was rejuvenating, the fruity flavors vibrant against my tongue after such a rewarding workout. I had no idea what triumphs the new year would entail, but I would try to savor every moment.

While I was on the way home, my neighbor texted me, asking if I felt like walking with Mary and him to the local coffee shop. I had just had a hard workout, but I wanted to try it. It would help me to develop more balance and energy. I let him know when I got back to the apartment, and he came down to go out with us.

I let him hold Mary’s leash again so I could concentrate on my footing. I noticed right away that my left foot no longer had a problem clearing the sidewalk when it was on the side that sloped upward. Instead, I could fully step up with my leg, thereby walking more normally. When I got to the other side of the street, I had to walk through some of the uncleared snow.

The more I walked, the more snow and ice seemed to cover the sidewalk. This might have been a problem a year ago, as I’d relied on my cane for supporting my weight. But with all of the leg exercises I was doing, my left leg was getting a lot stronger. The stronger the leg got, the more erect I could walk. Improving my posture meant that I no longer leaned on it. I was now able to use the cane for balance and probing. As I got beyond the ice, I was able to casually stroll into the coffee shop. Everything I did would continue to get easier this year.

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After I arrived home from Texas, I had a month left until the end of year. My trip had revealed that I could do so much; I was excited at how much progress the year would show in its entirety. I wanted to keep my momentum, so I knew it was crucial that I remain healthy. Any illness or injury could sideline me from regularly going to the gym. Since I had some concrete goals that I wanted to meet, I did everything I could to prevent running into issues that might complicate things.

The Monday after I got off the airplane, I went to my clinic for a flu shot. Because I have severe asthma, I fall into the high risk category for respiratory illnesses. People who fall into this group are highly encouraged to get annual flu vaccinations. Before my stroke, I was sporadic in how often I followed this recommendation. The stroke happened after I had gradually become less active because running caused my lungs to hurt. And that was while I was healthy. If I became sick, I would need to spend more time out of the gym, so it would be twice as hard to spark motivation.

My mom had died of a severe asthma attack before her time. So when I woke up in a hospital bed having almost died of a stroke, it made me fearful. Someone close to me had also advised me that people who have already suffered a stroke are more likely to have another. After this, I was afraid that I might have a stroke while I was inpatient. Once I was discharged, I insisted on buying a blood pressure machine. I probably worried Dad to death, asking him to take my blood pressure several times a day.

When I would go to outpatient therapy, they would often hook me up to cardiovascular exercise machines. There was always a heart monitor attached, too. The physical therapist would instruct me to try and keep my heart rate above 100 beats per minute. I worried this would cause me to have a cardiovascular event. This was something I thought about for about two weeks, but I kept my concern to myself. Then I realized that I was in a controlled environment. The staff wouldn’t tell me to do anything dangerous. And if some emergency did occur, they could quickly recognize it and get me into an ambulance. So I stopped worrying and pushed myself to stay at 102 bpm.

I was in outpatient therapy for over two years, so when I started doing cardiovascular training on my own, I was used to keeping my heart rate up. I pushed myself on Nu-step, treadmill, recumbent bike, and upright stationary bike. It quickly got to a point where I was doing a minimum of 15 minutes on any of these before I started lifting weights. By late 2019, my weight was down and my energy was up. I got my flu shot so these trends would continue.

I’d always had high anxiety regarding needles. But when I was in the hospital, they had to draw blood from me so often that it just became a normal thing. On top of that, I discovered years ago that I wouldn’t feel as much pain if my arm was more active. The amount of exercise I had recently been getting made me eager to try it. As usual, I turned my face away from the needle and asked the nurse not to tell me when it was about to go in. She kept talking. I barely felt it. I told her that it was the best stick I’d ever had.

Now that I felt that I had done everything I could to not get sick, I had to go in for CPAP machine supplies. With as much as I was demanding of my body most days, I knew it would need oxygen to repair itself overnight. It was also important that my brain was getting restorative sleep. It would be a lot more difficult for me to build new neural pathways if my brain was starved of oxygen, so it was vital that I had a functioning CPAP. Otherwise I might stop breathing several times each night.

On the day I was supposed to pick up my supplies, the medical taxi dropped me off and left. When I got inside the building, I was sure it was the wrong place. Since it is a large medical complex, I always put the street address and suite number of the office in my calendar. I pulled out my phone and confirmed that this was the wrong address. I called the taxi company and reported that there had been a mistake. She told me that I had been dropped off at the correct address. Mildly frustrated but still an hour ahead of schedule, I went up to the suite where I’d received my foot orthotics and informed the office manager that I’d been dropped off at the wrong building and needed to know where to go to get CPAP supplies.

It occurred to me after some time that the person who had taken the appointment had given me the wrong address. Thinking back, I remembered that she’d had to guess the building number. Once we’d figured out that I needed to be in the building across the street, one of the orthotics reps went down with me to make sure that I got across safely.

The rubber stopper on the end of my cane had become old in the two years I’d owned it. The metal cane shaft had worn through it and scraped the ground so loudly that the rep walking me across the street mentioned it. When I reached the durable medical equipment office for my appointment, I asked the rep, “Before we get started, do you have rubber stoppers for canes and walkers?” She took my cane into a backroom and came back with a new rubber stopper affixed to the tip.

The representative sat down and showed me how to change and clean all of the CPAP machine components. She also convinced me to go with heated tubing and to buy a can of wipes. I’d recently been getting sore throats and lung infections, so I changed the filter and she gave me a new humidifier chamber. I thanked her and took everything home. It was still noon, but I wanted to try out the “new” CPAP. I fell asleep and didn’t wake up for three hours. It was the best sleep I’d had in over a year.

If I was going to stay on top of my health, I was going to have to keep all of my appointments, take my prescriptions, and use every piece of equipment they recommended. In order to be able to afford to stay current on everything, I would have to keep my medical insurance. The plan I was on required providing documentation twice a year. Because I was always fearful of documents being lost in the maul, I would always take everything to the county services building myself. This also allowed for all of my documents to be entered into the computer system on the same day.

I gathered all of the pertinent documents and took them to the services building on Wednesday, December 18th. My premium was paid through the end of the year; I reasoned that I had plenty of time in case anything was processed incorrectly. I went down to the county on the following Friday to pay my insurance premium for January and February. While I was there, I found out that the worker from the previous week had not registered the paperwork in the system. The team member I was talking to assured me that she would get everything resolved.

That Monday, I had my quarterly Botox injections. Ordinarily I receive a text message from the taxi company the night before an appointment Their automated voice system would tell me what time a cab would be dispatched if there was one scheduled. But this tine, the expected text message never arrived. I called my insurance company’s medical transportation line to confirm my ride to the doctor’s office. The representative told me that my insurance was inactive. Because there was so much to straighten out in very limited time, I called Metro Mobility and scheduled a same day taxi. No matter what, it would be a guaranteed ride to my appointment.

Now that I could get to and from the hospital, I wanted to make sure that my insurance was active. Since it was only 7:30, I called the automated line to confirm that all of my documents had been received. After listening to the muffled voice recordings three times, I was still unsure, so I waited until 8:00 and called the insurance company for clarification. Their outgoing message said that they were closed. This was frustrating, but my appointment was only three hours away. I called back every few minutes, finally reaching a representative who told me that the county had just updated my insurance file a few minutes ago. She offered to transfer me to the transportation department. I told her that it wouldn’t be necessary: I didn’t mind paying for a ride as long as I knew the service was covered.

Botox injections were he most important part of my visit. However, I was more concerned with my weigh in. For the three and a half years following my stroke, I had been 258 pounds. My goal had been to come in at under 240 by the end of the year. Loosing twenty pounds would have been ideal, but my goals were 240 by 2020, 225 by 2021, and 215 by 2022.

I stepped on the scale and it said 239. I felt such an amazing rush. I was increasing flexibility, gaining strength, and losing weight, all under a program that I was designing as I went. The path of recovery held a lot of mystery and surprises, but the potential was inside of me.

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I had been working hard in the gym. I had also gotten to travel a bit recently. What I wanted more than anything was to start trying to walk around Minneapolis and see how I performed moving about the city. After all, rehabilitation is supposed to be about reintegrating yourself back into the community. I knew that recovery of muscle function could be agonizingly slow – and even then, your outcome wasn’t guaranteed. So I was always pursuing opportunities to run errands or socialize.

One night in October, some members of Nerds of Color were dropping me off after seeing a movie. Luis indicated that he lived near me. Naturally I retorted that we should get together some time. A couple of weeks later, when I posted a picture of my friend John and me watching the New Orleans Saints at a sports bar, Luis replied that he loved the place. I told him that we should go some time. We talked back and forth, and he ended up suggesting that we should go there to watch the SEC football championship game. Since LSU was playing, I wanted to see it anyway, so we agreed on it.

Almost two months later, on game day, I took Metro Mobility to the bar. When I got out, there was almost no ice on the ground, but we were late for kickoff; I got off the bus so quickly that I still almost fell. The driver asked if I wanted her to hold my arm. Embarrassed, I admitted that I had just gotten too eager for a second and reassured her that I was fine.

Luis came out to meet me, telling me that he had gotten us a good table up front. In the past, I might have wanted to sit in the rear of the restaurant, closer to the restroom. But this wasn’t a concern. For one thing, I hadn’t had to worry about incontinence in a year. For another, the floor was really smooth. I glided across the surface more quickly than any floor I had walked on in years. These factors when coupled with my increased speed from working out would guarantee that I always had more than enough time to make it to the restroom.

Luis and I sat down a few tables away from a large TV. I knew exactly what I wanted. My favorite menu item is their spiciest burger. I ordered it and a dark beer. It just felt so good knowing that I wouldn’t have to worry about the prices of anything. I wouldn’t be worrying about my dragging foot or whether I could make it safely to the restroom on time. It suddenly occurred to me how much planning and anxiety had gone into every evening out over the last few years. It was only through constantly placing myself in uncomfortable positions that I was able to finally sit back and have a relaxing evening.

My friend Manny had started the Nerds of Color group around movies. He had always invited me along with the group. During the earlier days – as with other social outings – I had kind of sat back and not talked that much because I needed to preserve my breath. Now I had the breath support to joke and laugh freely. Where my eyes had once had difficulty tracking the ball, I could now spot violations in real time again. It was a wonderful night out, and I was so happy to have a new friend to share it with.

Trying to stay active after the stroke meant that I tried to leave the building most days of the week. If I didn’t have to go to the gym or physical therapy, I would try to go shopping or run other errands. These activities still drained a lot of my energy. Then I started my blog. I had never been good about meeting academic deadlines before the stroke; I had a natural tendency to procrastinate about writing. I developed anxiety about how much I had to write each week for my blog, and that only added to my lethargy. I managed to stay ahead of the blog, but it was often at the expense of canceling a trip to the gym or shopping.

After I got back from Thanksgiving in Texas, I was inspired to be more active. I committed myself to a minimum of four days a week in the gym. If I needed to work on my blog or run errands on days that might conflict, I just did two or three things that day. Getting back to feeling like a complete person would mean redeveloping the capacity to get several things done in the same day.

One Saturday, for instance, I still wanted to finish 1000 words for my blog. I had lunch scheduled at 1:00 with a couple of transplants from my Mississippi atheists’ group. Knowing how much I hate the idea of missing a ride, I gave myself over an hour window to be idle before leaving at 12:40. I went down to the basement at 9:00 and gave myself two hours to bang out 500 words. When that was done, I packed up, went upstairs, plugged in my computer, and took my dog out to use the restroom. Everything was scheduled and efficient.

After I got to the Jamaican restaurant, I felt like I could relax and enjoy my friends because I was on schedule. We talked about how the weather and politics differed from Mississippi; I told them about the advancements I was making in rehab; we joked about the intense spiciness of the jerk chicken. I didn’t feel any rush because I knew I was going to accomplish everything I had set out to do that morning. I could have fun and I could simultaneously meet my goals. Everything was as it should be.

A couple of days later, I wanted to go out to watch the Saints play on Monday Night Football. My friend Dan and I hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years, so we decided to go out. Dan lives on the north edge of Saint Paul; I live just south of downtown Minneapolis. For the sake of convenience, I told him that we should go to the bar across the street from the Vikings stadium.

When Dan drove up, I was waiting in the lobby. As I walked up to the car, he got out to help me in. While it was a kind gesture, I told him that I had been getting in and out of cars by myself for two years. I was okay. On the way to the bar, Dan marveled at how much better I looked than the last time he’d seen me. I was walking straighter and was more sure-footed. When we arrived at the bar, the parking lot still had chunks of ice everywhere. Dan asked me if I needed him to hold my arm. I didn’t. I prefer having people walk alongside me. I only want help if I slip.

When we got inside, the bar was relatively empty. I hadn’t been there in a decade. Back then, it had looked more lived in. It had undergone a name change and was now under new management. The renovated dining area looked new and polished. The bartender told us that we could sit anywhere. We took a space at the bar and asked him to put on the game.

The Saints had a record-setting game, so even though I have jitters whenever one of my teams plays, they didn’t last that long. Soon Dan and I were reminiscing about old times. A couple of mutual friends texted, asking how the other was doing. After the game was over, I walked outside and took pictures in front of the Vikings’ longship. As I walked back to the car, I could tell that I still had hard work to do in order to walk with real ease, yet I had overcome the hardest years.

The highlight of the month was my friend Manny coming back for a visit. He’d timed his vacation to coincide with the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Nerds of Color had ordered an advance block of tickets for the first show at a fancy theatre in the suburbs.

When I’d moved back to Minnesota, Manny would always invite me out when he had groups going to games, movies, and cultural events. Sometimes I would become exhausted just imagining how much effort it would take to get there. I would have to sigh and say, “No, thank you.” But most times I would try to go. Manny would come inside, zip my jacket, help me down the steps to the car, and buckle my seat belt for me. Once we got where we were going, I would have to stand up and drag myself inside.

Manny was helpful and persistent for years. If he hadn’t pushed me to do as much as he did, working out wouldn’t be as easy as it is now. When I think of how much willpower it once took to drag my left foot across a floor, stacking on additional increments of weight at the gym now is definitely the easy part.

True to form, Manny had committed to getting several people to the theatre. He already had Luis in the car when he picked me up in Minneapolis. He still had to zigzag all over the metro area to pick up someone in Saint Paul, another person in the suburbs, and then back to the suburb where the movie was playing.

As we were on our last stretch of highway, we were hit from behind. This was that perfect slice of chaos we didn’t need to screw up our evening. Manny and the other driver got out to inspect the damage to the cars. There didn’t appear to be any. So we went on to the theatre.

I had a beer at the movie. That was a big deal for me because I was used to having to leave the cinema at least once during a movie to use the restroom. And that was when I’d had nothing to drink. Drinking a beer during the movie would really test my bladder. But I wanted to try.

The movie began with the iconic text crawl. My vision problems since the stroke had never allowed me to read more than a few lines. I would get through the first two. But after that, I wouldn’t be able to scan from the end of one line to the beginning of the one beneath it. The text would get all blurry. This time, I read all three paragraphs as quickly as each line appeared on the screen.

I missed the Nerds of Color group photo after the movie because I had waited so long to finally go to the restroom. Nonetheless, I was triumphant that I had held it so long. Everyone was still standing around chattering when Manny made the announcement that we had to hurry across the street before the taqueria closed.

Once we were seated with our food, Manny had us each introduce ourselves and say our pronouns of choice and favorite character. Although he is an introvert, Manny is a natural organizer. People volunteered why they liked certain characters, giving us windows into their personalities as well. I love these get togethers because there is always a broad range of ages, a kaleidoscope of skin tones, and an orchestra of different voices. This is a sliver of the life that I knew I could pull myself back to when I took those first shaky steps in 2015.

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(Note: This post appears one week later than planned.)

By 8:00 pm, we were all ready to go out for our first dinner in Dallas. Jonathan gave us a few options before we finally settled on a brisket restaurant. This was exciting for me, because I like to try signature dishes whenever I travel. We had to park a couple of blocks from the restaurant. Dad stayed behind with me while everyone else walked ahead at a normal pace. To be honest, I was a little frustrated by them moving so far ahead that they disappeared from sight. But I quickly channeled that feeling into determination. I thought about how hard it had been going places when I had barely been able to walk, then I forged ahead, determined not to stumble or tire. This was one more challenge I would make look easy.

When I finally got inside, Jonathan informed me that they were out of the ghost pepper mac n’ cheese. That was only a side dish, but it was one of the things I had been anticipating. Jonathan had talked it up so much that I wanted to taste it as badly as anything. I already knew what brisket was supposed to taste like. Pepper mac n’ cheese just sounded exotic.

Dad wanted to try the bleu cheese potato salad instead, so I got some of that too. We had to place our brisket order by the pound. Not wanting to gain weight during my vacation, I ordered a half pound. This way, I felt justified asking for a fat cut as opposed to lean. I regularly go to the doctor; I take my blood pressure twice a week; I work out a minimum of three times a week; and I knew that I had already lost eighteen pounds in the last ten months. So I try not to deny myself too often so it doesn’t start to feel like a diet.

The brisket was juicy and well-seasoned. It’s served in meat packing paper. We all sat down around a big wooden table. The restaurant is a converted barn, spacious yet cozy. I watched Parker play while Ivory, Sharon, Daddy, Candice, and Jonathan talked. For the first time in years, my silence had nothing to do with being tired or how difficult it was to speak. I enjoyed watching Dad surrounded by family. It felt unbelievably satisfying that I could do my part in making this weekend happen for him.

Candice and Jonathan gave me the room at the end of the house that had its own restroom. When I was placed in this room two years ago, I had fallen off of this bed. But that was back before I was lifting weights. Now I had more body control, so I could balance on the side of the high bed without having both feet flat on the floor. So when I got up, I was able to dress by myself in their house for the first time.

I was the first one into the living room. Jonathan came in and made coffee. Dad came in before long, and Jonathan ordered breakfast via delivery app. We ate and talked about what we were going to do that day. Before long, we heard Parker over the child monitor. While Jonathan went to go get her up, Dad and I talked about my improving financial situation. It was important to me for him to be at ease with where I was.

Parker ran into the room ahead of Jonathan. He asked her to say Hello to everyone. Then she ran straight for her grandfather. Dad and Parker have a beautiful bond. He claps and talks with her, tosses her up in the air. She is delighted every second he is around. Parker is a happy toddler, full of joy and intelligence. This was the first time she was old enough to remember me and say my name. This is an important time for her developmentally. It’s a perfect time for me to be visiting more often and becoming more active.

Not using my cane in the house gave me more opportunity to practice balancing, walking laterally, and maneuvering around people. Sharon and Ivory came over at noon and Candice came home from work, so the house was now abuzz with activity. The kitchen and the dining room were now full, and Parker was going from person to person. All of the people and activity gave me new chances to interact and obstacles to negotiate. During the early stages of my stroke recovery, this would have caused sensory overload, leading me to sit down on the couch to self-isolate. But it was stimulating now that I had progressed so far. I welcomed the challenges.

It was soon time for a late lunch. Jonathan wanted to take us to a Jamaican restaurant near downtown. When we got there, he quipped that when he’d first eaten there, he could tell by the fact that it was in a rough area that the food would be outstanding. So I walked across the lot full of anticipation about what the meal would be like. Jonathan recommended the jerk chicken as “very unique”, so that’s what I ordered as well.

The jerk chicken was amazing. It was almost as hot as I’d expected, but it also came with a heavy, sweet glaze. The mixture of hot and sweet is my favorite. I had ordered the large size, not realizing that the medium portion would have sufficed, so I was able to ignore most of the side items and concentrate solely on the meat. This was the only time all trip when I didn’t concern myself with portion control. Indulging myself one time was not about to wreck my weight loss plans after I had been diligent and come so far. I sat forward and savored the chicken because it wouldn’t have been nearly as hot had I microwaved it later.

Since we were in the area, Candice and Jonathan wanted to show Sharon where they got married. We drove down to the Bishop Arts District. Jonathan pointed out that the district had originally been about a block long. In the decade since, it had really mushroomed in size. He said that a lot of the growth was due to gentrification. “Back in the day, you couldn’t pay people to live here!”

Jonathan parked near the gallery where they had been married. I was in the vehicle with Sharon and Ivory. We had to keep driving for a couple of blocks before we found parking, so I had to cross the street, then walk a block. When we reached Candice and Jonathan, they informed us that we were first going into a gourmet pie shop.

When we got inside, we found that they had sold out of several flavors. Jonathan and Candice went through the list of what they had. I told them that I didn’t have a preference, but I wanted to pay for one. They were more expensive than I had anticipated. But I was undeterred. At the time of the stroke, the family had rallied around me. They had pulled strings to make travel and life easier. Beginning with this vacation, I vowed that I would do something for the family every time we got together. Today it was paying for the pie; next time it might be paying for dinner. But whatever the case, I want to spend the rest of my life showing my family what they mean to me.

Next we headed to Dealey Plaza to see where JFK was assassinated. I don’t know what I had expected, but I was taken aback that the site was a sloped hill beside the entrance to a busy parkway. There was no on-street parking available, and no one wanted to pay to park in the lot. I told Jonathan that it looked like more walking than I felt like doing anyway. He told me that he would drive along the parkway slowly so I could take pictures.

As we wheeled around the bend, Jonathan warned me that even at this decreased rate of speed, we would pass the site quickly. So I set my phone camera to video. If I took continuous footage, I could screenshot what I needed later. True enough, I had to capture the street signs in front of us, then quickly swivel to get images of the grassy knoll. It all went by so quickly that wasn’t sure about the images I did get. I knew we couldn’t swing around for a second pass, so I spent most of the ride home replaying the video and capturing still images with screenshot. I didn’t have a perfect shot, but the real value was in spending the afternoon with family.

When I woke up the next morning, it was Thanksgiving. I woke up at 6:00am out of habit. Knowing that everyone else would still be asleep and not wanting to wake them up, I stayed in bed and listened to videos on my phone. I managed to doze off, and when I woke again, it was after 10:00. I dressed at bedside, going more slowly than I normally would because of the high bed. I washed my face and brushed my teeth, and I finally went out to the living room around 10:30.

Everyone was up by now. Jonathan gave me breakfast; Dad and Parker were playing; Candice was in the kitchen; the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was on. Before long, Ivory and Sharon came over from their hotel. So the only ones we were waiting for were Candice’s parents.

They finally arrived and the table was set. We gathered around to let Candice’s father say grace. Before he did, we went around the table so everyone could say what he or she was thankful for. When my turn came, I said that I was thankful for all of the love and support everyone in the room had provided since my stroke. People often see videos of me working out or read my blog posts and remark about how amazing my drive is. It is actually a simple task when I have so many people behind me. If they weren’t all there, I would never have started getting up in the morning back in 2015.

The food was good, but I ate relatively light. Then I parked myself on the living room couch. Game after NFL game came and went. I go to speak with each of Candice’s parents several times. I had forgotten how much I liked them. They asked me about how rehab was going, and I secretly vowed to have better use of my left arm when I saw them again.

Candice’s parents left before dark. Sharon and Ivory didn’t leave until late. I went to my bedroom after 11:00. I plugged in my phone, folded my clothes for the next morning, and packed everything else in my bag. Not yet tired, I turned on the TV and watched documentaries until around 2:00am.

I woke up the next morning, washed up, and got dressed. I had many hours to spare before my flight. We ate breakfast one last time, then we watched TV until it was time for me to go. I called for a Lyft about three and a half hours before my flight time because I always like to leave an immense amount of time for traffic jams or accidents on the way to DFW. When my driver arrived, Dad and Jonathan walked me to the car, where we hugged and said our goodbyes.

On the way to the airport, the driver asked me if it was okay for her to stop and use the restroom. I told her that it was okay, as I had more than enough time to spare. I asked her to stop at a McDonald’s because I knew what to order. When I got to the airport, it was still over two hours until my flight boarded. Since I had opted for an electronic boarding pass, I was whisked through security and made it to my gate with over an hour to spare

It was so relaxing to be flying without a care in the world – economically, logistically, and physically. After I landed in Minnesota again, I would keep striving to make sure that my life would continue to fall into place. I wanted to keep making it look effortless.

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At the end of November, I returned home from a second successful family vacation. I say “successful” because I was able to walk so much better than I had in the past. I owe this to the fact that I had added stationary bike and lunges to my exercise regime. With the bike, I had built a lot of balance and control in my lower leg movement. With lunges, I had strengthened my glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings. These exercises combined to improve my speed and balance. Moreover, I no longer feared falling, as I could easily spring back to my feet.

Now that I was back, I had half a year before I would travel again. I wanted to use this time to increase the intensity of my rehab again. My body was progressing exponentially. Instead of being drowsy for the first few hours of my day, I was alert and raring to get to the gym. No longer did I need to shower to wake myself up or climb back into bed for a power nap. I could sit on the couch and pet Mary, secure in the knowledge that I could get downstairs for my ride with thirty minutes to spare.

Being in the lobby so early held several advantages. First, I was guaranteed that someone could wake me up if I dozed off. This would make it impossible to miss my ride. Second, since there was a restroom in the lobby, I could go a couple of times before I got on the bus. This would alleviate my worries about incontinence. Third, I would be ready to go if the bus arrived early. From my days working at UPS and Fed EX, I had always been cognizant of keeping drivers on schedule. If a driver wanted to make up time on her route, she could do so by leaving early with me.

When the bus finally arrived, I would invariably step up with my left leg. That way, my workout would begin from the moment I started my trip. Once on the bus, I would refuse help with my seat belt. I would reach down and hold the buckle end with my stroke affected hand. Then I would use my right hand to lower the arm rest and buckle the seat belt. Next I would pull my right hand to the safety bar at the front of the bus. Pulling my body backwards, I would stretch my left arm for the whole ride. When we pulled up to the gym, I was wide awake and stretched.

At the gym, I was now trying to dramatically increase my leg strength. On leg press, I was pushing myself hard. For over a year I had just been working out with the weight of the sled. I wasn’t really experiencing a lot of gains in strength, but I think fear of failure was holding me back. In October, I added ten pounds and hoped for the best. I was able to do this ten times. So I started doing several sets with it each time I did leg press.

These sets were very easy for me, so I decided to start going up five pounds a week. I was surprised at how my body took to this. I had expected my gains to continue to be very modest. On the contrary, it was like I had never stopped lifting leg weights. Since my right leg hadn’t been damaged, I didn’t feel the need to challenge it yet. I would start each set by using both legs for the first five reps. After five reps, I would drop my right leg and just push with my left leg for ten reps.

This was exhausting, but it was also empowering. When I stood, I found myself no longer leaning to my right. I found that I could lift my left leg much higher. When I walked, I could feel my hamstrings and glutes flex. I no longer had to think about lifting my toes with every step. My gait narrowed; my steps were sure. In the gym, I became more confident about carrying my weights to the machines. I didn’t need my cane or guide hands. I knew I wasn’t about to fall.

Eventually I was able to lift a 45-lb plate with my left leg. My goal became to lift two plates. In order to accomplish this, I decided that I should do leg weights four times a week. I also decided to add squats to my lunge days. In addition to helping me build power, this would make bending down to pick something up less threatening. So the next day I did lunges, I committed to three sets of squats.

I had no problem setting and resetting my feet. I ducked under the bar. Gripping the bar, I practiced shooting upward. Then I went down. When I pushed upward, I could feel thrust through my calves. My toes felt a little unstable, still I drove the weight all the way up. I did this for ten reps. As I completed each rep, I imagined that I would soon have complete control over all the muscles of my lower leg. I did two more sets, trying to feel my calves and toes flex every time. When I was finished, I walked out of the gym, lifting my left foot effortlessly as I went.

As I mastered leg exercises, it would be important to start focusing on my arm. I noticed one day that there was a hand bike machine at my gym in Roseville. Hand bike was something I had only done a few times after being released from the hospital. But the few times I had done had been very productive. So I decided that it would be a great exercise to start doing regularly.

After a couple of times, I established a regular pattern. I would sit down on the seat and adjust it until I was as close to the pedals as I could be. Even at this distance, my arm didn’t stretch far enough for my back to rest against the back of the seat. My arm and shoulder were tight, but there was no longer any pain associated with trying to work them. At first, I had a problem with my grip. No matter how firm a grasp I had on the handle, my left hand would slowly slide down it. I would have to stop every couple of minutes to adjust my grip. There were several times when I wanted to try using just my left hand, but it was too hard to turn the hand pedal.

Then one day, I decided to try a different method. I began by using both hands to pedal. After five minutes, I felt like my left shoulder was nice and loose. So I dropped my right hand and only pedaled with my left. My RPM slowed down precipitously, but was still above five. I pedaled hard to try to keep it near ten. I tried extend my arm and my shoulder to drive the pedal forward with every cycle. My arm wasn’t about to completely straighten any time soon,but maybe it would after a year of doing this exercise continuously.

Once I hit five minutes of single arm pedaling, I started using both hands again. Not only was this ridiculously easy now, but I was now able to sit back farther. My RPM increased to over 40. I could have kept up this pace indefinitely. My shoulder was extremely loose now. After five minutes, I decided that it was time to work my right arm again.

This time, I tried to focus on my triceps. Not thinking about my shoulder, I tried to will my arm forward while in the overhand part of the cycle. As I pulled the pedal back towards me, I tried to let my back and shoulder do the majority of the work as opposed to my arm. Unlike before, this time using a single arm really felt like work. Maintaining the pace wasn’t as important; I just wanted to keep moving. If it felt like hard work, my arm was getting stronger.

After five minutes, I started using my right arm again. I used both hand in tandem as I pedaled through a two-minute cool down. When I was done, it didn’t feel like I had really worked that hard, but I had to wipe sweat from my head repeatedly. Even if my arm would never straighten fully, I knew it was entitled to this kind of regular exercise. Until I was able to work a more diverse training split, I would do hand bike this way every day I worked my Roseville program.

My workout ended the same way it began – with a walk up the steps of the bus. This time, my left leg almost collapsed from exhaustion. It was satisfying because it was due to hard work. If I had been doing nothing or wearing a brace, it would have been disappointing.

I pulled my hand forward on grabbed on to the safety bar. It was simple to get it there. I pulled my body back as far as it would go. As I talked to the driver, I felt my arm loosening and growing straighter. It was so empowering. He asked me how long ago I’d had my stroke and how often I worked out. I told him about my four year ordeal, adding that I see a little improvement every week. But that only happens if you’re meticulous and dedicated.

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As with every flight I ever take, I went to bed early. I still woke up before 5:00 am. Not being able to fall asleep, I got up, showered, and ate breakfast. After I finished with everything, it was only 6:00. This would normally be the time when I checked my luggage to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten anything. But I was only going to Texas for three nights; it didn’t make sense to pay baggage fees. Everything had to fit in a backpack. I packed a toothbrush and two changes of clothing.

I watched videos for half an hour while charging my phone to 100%. When I was done, I put one of my chargers in the bag, zipped it closed, and went downstairs to wait on my ride. I decided to streamline the process further by only wearing a sweatshirt. Sure, it was jacket weather in Minnesota, but I would only be outdoors for a minute – from the building to the bus and from the bus to the airport. In Dallas, it was supposed to get as warm as 71º. The only thing bringing a jacket would do was slow me down at security. And it would be too bulky in the climate controlled airport. So I locked up my apartment, feeling free and excited.

My bus was around twenty minutes late, but I wasn’t anxious this time. Having no bags to check would make check-in a breeze. I got to the airport, printed my boarding pass, and was whisked through security. Since I wasn’t wearing a jacket, it was easy to remove my belt and empty my pockets. It took me longer to remove my shoes than it did to stand and go through the full-body scanner. When we got to the other side, I was able to quickly put all of my accessories back on, as I no longer required a bench to stretch out on. The weight loss had made me faster and more flexible.

When I was finished, I still had almost two hours before my flight started boarding. Knowing that I would be called for early boarding removed any sense of urgency I might normally feel before a flight. I asked the wheelchair agent to stop by the coffee shop so I could get something to drink, not knowing how long it would be until I would eat in Dallas. I got my order and made it to my gate with over 1.5 hours to spare. I stood up and transferred to a regular chair, where I sipped my coffee and tried not to fall asleep.

An hour later, they called my name. Unlike my last trip, I elected to take a wheelchair down the jet way. Although I knew I could walk to the plane, I didn’t want to walk so slowly that I held up the line. I was the first person to arrive on my row. In the past, I would have asked the flight attendant for assistance with my seat belt. This time, I was able to bring the buckle end across my lap, hold it with my stroke affected arm, and guide the other end into the buckle. I settled back, proud that I now needed only a minimal amount of help when flying. Soon, I might eliminate the need for special accommodation altogether.

We landed after a couple of hours. Since I didn’t have to go to baggage claim, I was content to let the other passengers scramble to get their things from the overhead bins and get off the plane. I called Jonathan and let him know that I would be coming directly to the exit. When I got outside, I was instantly relieved that I wasn’t wearing a jacket. I dropped my phone while waiting for Jonathan to drive up. For a brief moment, I couldn’t breathe. I picked it back up and noticed that the three-month-old crack hadn’t gotten any bigger. Then I realized that I would have been able to pay it off and get a new one if I had to. Jonathan pulled up, and I climbed into his SUV feeling a lot more secure than I had in years.

Jonathan told me that we were going from DFW international airport to Love Field to pick up Ivory and Sharon. I was hungry, but he told me that we would get something to eat after we picked them up. In the past, I might have felt too ravenous to wait. But since I’d started losing weight, I’d learned to be patient between meals. The reduction in calories meant that my body could burn fat if it got hungry enough.

Ivory and Sharon got in, and we all exchanged pleasantries. Before long, Ivory and Jonathan were talking almost exclusively about football. Jonathan watches college football and is a Louisiana State fan; Ivory follows the New Orleans Saints, a professional team. I’m the only one who is a fan of both. Not only is it a way for me to bond with each of them, but going to home games for each was a major step in my early rehabilitation. Everything about those trips challenged me – climbing stairs, talking and cheering, trying to follow the action with my eyes. It was exhausting, but I could practically feel myself getting better.

In the past, I had listened far more than I talked whenever I was with my brothers. I lacked the breath support to speak very loudly. I also spoke very slowly because I would. struggle to draw in breath before I spoke. It had been frustrating. I never told my brothers how alienated it made me feel. Now my voice was audible and easily kept up with the pace of conversation. It was so thrilling just hearing my there voice blend with the idle chatter. It had taken years of arduous work to produce a life that seemed casual to others.

We got a quick bite to eat that afternoon because Jonathan wanted to feed anyone who had gotten there early. He enjoys taking visitors to great local restaurants, so he already had plans for a late dinner once everyone else made it to Dallas. We ate at a Mexican restaurant near the house. The main highlight for me was letting Jonathan park in the lot. I had regained even more hip strength in the two month since I had seen my family; being dropped off near the building wasn’t even a question. It took me longer to get there, but I had no problem walking across the parking lot like everyone else.

I enjoyed my meal, but I tried not to eat my fill because I knew a wonderful dining experience was in store for us in a couple of hours. Candice was still at work, and Dad was just getting to town. So we finished eating and headed back to the house. When we got there, I had to figure out how to step up into the house.

There is almost a foot clearance from the rear walk to the interior. I had been to their house a little over a year ago and had no problem entering or leaving, I had even more strength in my legs now. It was just a matter of figuring out the order of movements. The amazing thing to me about the stroke is that I might be perfectly capable of doing something, but if I don’t program the steps of the process into my brain, I could still end up falling to the floor due to lack of muscle coordination.

I rotated my wrist, so I could grab onto the doorway with a reverse grip. Steadying myself, I stepped up with my right leg. Once my left leg was inside, I leaned forward so I couldn’t fall backwards. Now that I was safely inside, I found a corner to set my cane down. I was still committed to only using it when I went out. As with in my building, walking without my cane was the only way to keep moving forward in rehabilitation. When you’re safely among family and friends, that’s the time to push yourself. If you stumble while trying to move forward, there’s always someone to help you lift yourself back up.

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It had been a very productive year. I was getting stronger and healthier. I had just returned recently from a vacation in Mississippi, where I had gained even more confidence. But I had one concern: my brother Jonathan had recently invited me to Texas for Thanksgiving. While I was excited about coming down for another family vacation, it worked against my financial plans. I was on track to be three months ahead of my bills by the end of the year. Because I had worried about finances since the stroke, this had been an important milestone on my path to peace of mind.

Having very little control over my income, I really felt like skipping Thanksgiving. I was tired of feeling like a charity case. I wanted to come into 2020 not having to ask family to lend me a thing. But what created the dilemma for me was knowing how important it was for Dad. While I was in a coma, Dad had told my brothers how important it was to see us all get together as often as possible. He was now approaching 80 years old, so seeing us become closer had become even more of a pressing desire for him.

Jonathan knew my finances were tight and offered to buy my ticket. But I told him that it wouldn’t be necessary. I could afford to buy it myself. It would mean that I couldn’t pay for things as soon as I had planned, but I could fit the ticket into the following month’s budget. I would purchase the ticket at the end of October, then the following check could be used for vacation spending. Even if I were to fritter it all away, my bills were already satisfied through the end of the year. Telling Jonathan that I could pay for my own ticket made me realize that I was already as independent as I sought to be.

One of my primary worries before moving into my own apartment was whether I would be able to take care of my dog. Over the months, I had taken Mary out three times a day virtually without incident. I had especially feared bending down to pick up after Mary and falling over, but I did it on a daily basis without losing my balance. I also worked on my leg religiously. It became stronger, leading to even greater confidence.

I had proven myself to be capable of handling Mary’s daily needs The only question was whether I could take care of her health needs. Her health insurance was automatically withdrawn from my bank account; I had to take her to the vet twice a year in a community car that I rented by the hour. The same neighbor who drove me to the vet also helped me to administer Mary’s pills.

Then one day, the neighbor started having schedule conflicts. After a week, it was past time for me to give Mary her monthly pill. So one morning, I decided to pill her myself. I punched out a pill and called her over. I pried her mouth open and released the pill down her throat with the same hand. As soon as I thought the pill was safely in her digestive tract, I clamped her mouth closed. After I was satisfied that she had probably swallowed the pill, I released her mouth. She coughed and spit it out. I was a little dejected, but I scooped up the pill, dried it off, and tried again. This time, I shoved it even farther down her throat. I clamped her mouth again. After a few seconds, I released it. This time, she she yawned a little bit, but she didn’t spit it back out. I felt so proud.

It snowed the next day. Although snow can be a challenge for my footing, I wanted to take Mary out to the backyard so she could play in it. I’m usually not able to go out into the backyard once there is a lot of snow because they don’t shovel anywhere but the front of the building. But there was only a dusting on the ground, so I was able to go out.

Once Mary reached the basement door and saw white stuff on the ground, she became very hyperactive. I worried that she would get too excited and pull me down, so I kept her leash short and walked towards a table. The patio wasn’t too slippery, but I didn’t want to risk falling. Once at the table, I secured myself by holding the back of a chair. Snow had frozen to it overnight, leaving me no choice but to sit on it.

After I was safely seated, I let Mary’s leash out. She rolled around a little, but she didn’t seem to be enjoying herself that much. It was probably just the fact that she could tell that it wasn’t much snow.

I was much more confident walking onto snowy ground to pick up after her than I had been last year, but I still had some anxiety. I set my cane down, pulled a plastic bag out of my jacket pocket, spread the bag over my fingers like a glove, then walked over to the spot where she had pooped. The waste was clumped together and sitting atop the thin layer of snow, making it easier to scoop up than it would’ve been in warmer weather. I spread my feet, went down, and gathered it up in one scoop. I stood up and walked very carefully. I didn’t feel as though I was going to fall, but I didn’t want to grow overconfident and slip. I threw the bag away and walked back to the building, breathing a sigh of relief once I made it back inside.

Soon my flight was a week away. I made a list of a few things to do so I didn’t forget anything. It was all pretty mundane stuff – which days I wanted to shave my head, how many blog posts I needed to write, how many groceries to buy. A lot of people would describe me as being “anal” for actually putting all of these on a calendar, but this was a way for me to maintain a sense of order. I scheduled when I was going to hand Mary over to the dog sitter, what time my ride to the airport was supposed to arrive at the building, what time I was scheduled to arrive at the airport, and my flight times. While I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary to schedule every event of the week leading up to the trip, doing so would alleviate my anxiety. Knowing that I could cross items off a list would give me one less thing to forget every day my trip drew nearer.

With everything I needed to do typed into my calendar, I was able to relax and enjoy the days. I went out to eat at my favorite Caribbean restaurant; my final workouts became more intense yet more satisfying; I even planned out my workout goals for the rest of the year. Knowing that every event was accounted for freed up my time because I always schedule twice as long as any event will actually take. Even though there appeared to be more to do each day, Mary and I spent much more time together and went out as many as four times a day.

Reducing worry about my schedule probably seems silly to the average person. But consider this: I almost died of a stroke due to high blood pressure. Then I gained about thirty pounds of fat. My doctors put me on an aggressive diet and prescription plan. While I was doing physical therapy several hours each day, it was nothing like the amount of exercise I was used to getting. I was now cutting calories and exercising on my own again. Reducing stress factors such as worrying about whether I was going to get x, y, and z done before flying out was just one more way to ward off a potential stroke.

As I had done before, I found an elderly resident to take care of Mary while I was gone. It allows her to stay in a familiar building, and it gives retirees companionship. To make sure he was going to have no problems with her, I took her to visit his apartment and had him walk with us a couple of times. Since Ron doesn’t use a cane, he was able to walk her places I could not. I felt this was also important in helping her to enjoy her time without me.

The evening before my trip, Ron and I walked Mary in the backyard one last time. I let him do all the walking while I handled the cleanup. He fed her turkey meatballs and let her wander up and down every hill. The last thing we did was climb the steps to the upper patio. We sat down at one of the patio tables and let Mary root around in a pile of leaves. There was the rustle of the leaves, the sideways red-orange light of the evening sun, and the unseasonably warm November breeze. I wouldn’t need to worry about a thing. For a moment, it was perfect.

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After several days recovering from lung and ear problems, I was finally at full strength. I went down to the gym ready to start pushing myself hard again. When I got down to do leg press, I started warming up with a 10-pound weight. I breezed through two sets of 25. Since that was unbelievably easy, I decided to try 35 pounds. This was more weight than I had done on just my left leg since my stroke. I pushed and the weight went up slowly. It wasn’t terribly difficult, so I repeated it nine more times. When I finished, I was panting and proud.

Leg press was scheduled to be my last exercise of the day. I kept pushing myself, I could probably do another set. But not having gone this hard in years meant that my leg might be too weak when it was time to bend down and pick up after Mary. But it worried me more to think about how slow my recovery had been. So I rocked back and did another set. My leg gave out after eight reps, but I was satisfied with myself.

My leg didn’t feel weak once I finished the workout and cooldown,or during the ride home But as soon as I got home and ate lunch, I suddenly felt drained. I went to bed and slept for two hours. I might have continued sleeping until after dark, but someone woke me juMst after 4:00. When I realized how late it was, I decided to get dressed, go downstairs to get my 5:00 pill, and take Mary out.

Since I knew it was going to be cold outside, I pulled on my shoes and grabbed one of my winter jackets. The fingers of my left hand hadn’t regained their dexterity, so I would have to have them tie my shoes and zip my jacket downstairs. I was about to leave my apartment and get on the elevator, but I remembered something I had to get. I whirled around and started toward the bedroom.

I moved so quickly that I forgot how loose my shoes were. I started falling to my right, corrected instinctively, but then fell to the left. This time, I couldn’t catch myself. I came crashing right down on top of my modem. For a second, I couldn’t move. I caught my breath and rolled over on my back. My side hurt, but there was no blood, and I didn’t think I broke anything. I rolled over and crawled to the bedroom so I could stand up, using the bed for stability. Once I was back on my feet, I went downstairs to get help with my shoes and jacket. I planned to take Mary out for the evening, then I could go to the hospital if I needed to go.

My biggest worry was that I would fall over while trying to clean up after Mary. It hurt to walk or even to breathe, so I felt as though it wouldn’t take much for me to lose balance. Squatting down put immense pressure on my rib cage, so any movement could shock my muscles enough to give out. I kept imagining myself fallen over helplessly in the backyard, waiting for someone to help me up.


I formulated a plan: I would try to make it through the night. If I could, I had an appointment with my ILS worker. He could just drive me to the hospital. If I didn’t stop hurting that night, I could call 911. Regardless of when I decided to go, I needed to take Mary out for the evening. She couldn’t make it through the night if I went into the hospital indefinitely. As long as she went out at 8:00 pm, I could make arrangement to have someone take her out in the morning.

I hooked Mary’s leash on and walked to the door. Before leaving the apartment, I did three practice squats. Once I was satisfied that I could bend down safely, I led Mary outside. Walking was still painful, so I didn’t venture out onto the grass. Instead, I sat at one of the patio table and let her wander around on her own. We stayed out for fifteen minutes. This was long enough for Mary to do everything she had to. I took her back upstairs and took off my jacket.

I checked myself all over to see whether I had any injuries. My lower left side still was on fire. Each time I breathed, it hurt so much that I gasped. I noticed that there was purplish, congealed blood over my left ear, but I didn’t notice any deep cuts. My neck hurt slightly when I turned my head to one side. Nothing felt too serious, so I went over to get ready for bed. I climbed into my bed and rolled over on my back. It hurt to breathe, so I tried not to breathe deeply or move around at all. I let the CPAP machines do most of the work. My sleep wasn’t restful that night, but I did sleep.

I woke up before 6:00. My side still hurt, so I didn’t want to move around too much. I stayed in bed until 6:30. Then I slowly got dressed. That’s when I noticed that my right thumb hurt too. It was so sore that I needed someone to help me button my jeans. The assisted living worker came up with my 7:00 meds. After taking my meds, I took Mary out for her morning walk. Once I was back indoors, I felt loose enough to take a shower and dress myself. Now all I had to do was wait.

My rib cage was still hurting when my ILS worker arrived early in the afternoon, so I asked him to drive me to the hospital. I didn’t feel as though I was in any danger; I just wanted to get any testing done so they would be able to give me something to alleviate the pain. I also wanted to get all diagnoses out of the way so I could be discharged before 5:00.

The triage nurse was from northeast Wisconsin. He saw the yellow on my hat and warned me that he couldn’t treat me if it was a Vikings hat. I told him that it was a Pittsburgh Penguins hat, but I could bring in something with a Vikings logo next time. When he told me his hometown and graduation year, I asked him if he knew a couple of people who had gone to college with me. He said that he didn’t, but that really wasn’t the point of my question. I have several friends in health services. It is my aim to make people’s shift as stress free as possible. You tend to get better care when stopping by your room is a pleasant experience for someone who is routinely overworked.

I weighed in at 242.5, fully clothed. He said that he would list me at 240 even. I decided to call myself 241 so it would give me incentive to keep working. My systolic blood pressure was in the 140s, but that was probably due to walking a lot and from the stress of pain. I assumed it would come down after I was resting in a room. They sent me back out to the waiting room. I was relaxed now: any time I make it to a medical facility, I know I’m somewhere where treatment is only a few feet away, so it puts me at ease.

It was a busy day in the emergency department, so it took them about an hour to get me to a room. Someone eventually came out wheel me to radiology. When we got there, he wanted to start by x-raying my left elbow. Because I hadn’t been sleeping in my arm splint, we couldn’t get my arm to lay flat. He ended up taping my arm down to the table. It was very tense at first, but it relaxed eventually, and he was able to get the pictures he needed.

The next thing he needed was front and side pictures of my ribs. Although this might have been difficult a year ago, I was now able to stand up and walk without requiring a cane. At various times, he asked me to turn, walk away, or walk toward the panel. I was never in any danger of losing my balance. I could have stood, turned, and walked as much as he needed me to.

When they finally took me to a room, the medical assistant put a robe on my bed and left, telling me that I could put it on in private. At first, I was a little upset: someone else had always tied the gowns on for me because the stroke had made tying them myself impossible. Now I realized that this was an opportunity to try doing it for myself. I put the two lengths of string in my left hand, looped one end around twice, and pulled it tight. Now I slipped my left arm through the sleeve, and pulled the gown over my head.

The doctor came in shortly. She told me that my x-rays were negative. She gave me a prescription for ibuprofen to deal with the inflammation. I went home and took it easy for the next few days. I got to spend more time with Mary, but by that weekend, I was back in the gym. My life was so much more manageable because of all the time in the gym. I wasn’t about to let a little thing like bruised ribs keep me from attacking my goals.

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I almost died of a stroke in 2015. That year, I spent almost three months in hospitals. During that time, I began doing a lot of physical and occupational therapy. The process was painful and exhausting, and my progress seemed agonizingly slow, but it was progress. I emerged from the hospital able to walk again, and that seemed like magic. I hoped to be recovered after a year. After a year of going to therapy three days a week, I was getting better, but it was clear that I would be nowhere near fully recovered in one year. So in 2016, I moved from Mississippi back to Minnesota, hoping to improve my chances.

In November of that year, I finally became eligible for insurance in Minnesota. I wasted no time starting rehabilitation at a local hospital. Walking continued to improve with physical therapy. My therapist even helped me to transition from a quad cane to a regular cane. Occupational therapy focused more on performing everyday tasks like dressing myself. However, the occupational therapist often helped me with exercises for my hand and arm. I stropped showing significant progress after April of 2017, so therapy ended. I was happy that I had come farther since returning to Minnesota, but it was nowhere near where I wanted to be.

May 18th would be the second anniversary of my stroke. I wasn’t fully healed, but I at least wanted to be back in the gym by then. Since my insurance would allow me to work out at most local gyms, I went to the closest one I could find. The first time I went, I was a little intimidated. Every gym I had worked out in since the stroke had been a physical therapy gym. The machines were designed for people who had difficulty moving; there were grasping bars everywhere; you could always find a professional to help you. Here you were on your own. If you couldn’t operate a machine by yourself, you needed to do another exercise that day. The one thing I worried about most was falling. I wasn’t afraid of injury; there would be plenty of strangers rushing over to help me. I just didn’t want to be embarrassed. Or worse, I didn’t want anyone suggesting that I didn’t belong here.

For the first month I worked out, I could barely use any of the machines. I had to walk around to the few I thought I could use and make determinations through trial and error. It took me around three trips, but I came up with a rotation of maybe six exercises for the legs and back. In an hour, I would get through three or four of these before it was time to go back home. I was barely able to move any weight those days, and many mornings I would wake up and cancel my trip because it was mentally draining to even think about trying to lift weights. But overall, I was encouraged that I was doing something physical again. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was doing more than anyone else expected.

I worked out for the rest of the year. I gained confidence as I lifted two or three days per week. In August, I went home to Mississippi for a month. While there, I joined Planet Fitness, so I could continue my recovery. After a month, I flew back to Minneapolis. Since I had recently moved out from the house where I had been living, a friend let me sleep on her couch until I could find my own place.

After I got settled in, I transferred my Planet Fitness membership to Minnesota so I could continue the same workout routine I had started in Mississippi. I had gotten quite a bit stronger now, but I was still not equipped to live on my own. One day, I was rushed to the hospital because I had difficulty walking. While I was there, I spent more time pondering what I would do about housing and trying to live with my dog than concentrating on trying to get better. The second day I was at the hospital, a physical and an occupational therapist came by and worked with me. On the third day, they told me that I was being moved to the inpatient physical therapy ward for a week.

While I was in the hospital, my friend Karine kept Mary at her home in Sleepy Eye, Minn. After I was released, I went out to live with Karine and Mary. When I got there, I started doing outpatient therapy twice a week. I also began going a gym in New Ulm – the largest city in the county. I got to each of these places because there was a ride service for disabled citizens in that county. Any independence I have gained is because insurance pays for gym memberships and there is a ride service for the disabled in every county. After a month, I was discharged from therapy. I flew home to Mississippi to finish out the year. I wanted to get strong enough to live on my own.

After I arrived back in Minnesota, I ended up back in the hospital. This time, they released me to a transitional care facility where I would receive physical, occupational, and speech therapy every day. After my therapy plan was done, the county helped me to find an apartment with public housing, and I moved into a building in the shadow of downtown. This would be the first time I lived alone with Mary. I was worried about finances, physical recovery, and taking care of Mary.

I started doing outpatient therapy twice a week. I complemented this by going to the gym two days a week. After Mary moved in, I began taking her out a minimum of twice a day. I still worried about falling and dropping her leash, so I would only take her out in the enclosed area behind the building. I felt like I was moving at a snail’s pace, but this was how 2018 ended – exercise, walking, trying to budget, taking care of Mary.

With the new year of 2019, I had some specific goals I wanted to meet. If I could have waved a magic wand and healed my body entirely, I would have. But I knew recovery was going to be a long-term project, so I came up with a few incremental ways to progress.

One of the first big obstacles I had to get over was using my crutch … as a crutch. Having received a new stabilizing leg brace meant that walking was going to be much easier. It would help me lift my toes automatically when I strode. It would allow me to walk without my ankle wobbling. Knowing that I had all these things working for me as I walked meant that I didn’t need my cane to stay upright. In February, I designed a pair of personalized shoes that could fit over my brace. The day they arrived, I took them down to the basement to practice walking. Scared as hell, I took ten small steps. I slowly pivoted and walked back to the chair.

Now that I knew I could do it, I practiced walking to the mailbox, the community room, the lobby – any short distance, just to get used to the sensation of walking without a cane. By the end of the year, I was walking around other people’s houses without my cane. I felt that I had largely mastered walking indoors unaided. I would still use the cane in larger indoor spaces, but I would try to discontinue that in 2020, when I mastered outdoor walking.

The new brace and shoes helped me walk and work out much better. However, the brace did severely limit my range of motion. I couldn’t point my toe with it on, nor could I slide my foot to reset it while performing squats. Furthermore, as long as I was always wearing a brace, my ankle wouldn’t redevelop the ability to stabilize my foot. So I designed a pair of shoes that I could work out in without wearing my brace. I ordered them a half-size larger than normal so the difference wouldn’t be so dramatic for my right foot, which was never the foot wearing the brace.

The first time I wore the new shoes, my left foot did slide around a little inside the shoe, but I was able to get through the session. My other major concern had been whether the toes on my left foot would drag without the brace to lift them. They didn’t. Wearing the brace had apparently trained my brain to lift my toes with each stride. My ankle felt highly unstable, but I didn’t fall, and I was highly pleased at how much better my foot moved during the workout,

What I really enjoyed was how much easier squats were without a brace. With the brace, squats didn’t feel natural. Without it, my ankle was free to move because my foot was always planted firmly. Soon I was putting up so much weight that I wondered if my right leg was doing most of the work. To counteract this tendency, I decided to try doing lunges. This way, one foot was forward while the other was behind.

The first time I did lunges was draining. Every rep I did with my left leg forward, I felt like I would pass out. I switched and did a set with my right leg forward. My toes felt weird because they weren’t used to being in that position. I tried to drive my body upward with my foot. With my left leg in this new position, I could feel all of the muscles activate, from my calf to my glutes. As awkward as these workouts felt early on, over time, they were just what I needed to regain confidence and leg strength.
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When I first started walking Mary, I would take her to the edge of the patio. Then I would sit at one of the tables and let her wander out onto the grass. I would venture out to pick up after her, but I was terrified of going out too far. I made it my goal to be able to walk Mary to the wall and go up the steps to the upper patio by the end of the year.

After six months of walking without a cane, working out without a brace, and doing lunges until I choked, I started walking up the steps forward and coming down backwards. I started walking Mary all over the backyard. By just going to the gym every week, and focusing on nothing but the specific set of each exercise,tiny steps had added up to my reaching every goal I’d set for myself in 2019, it was time to think about what I wanted to get out of my body next year.

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I was feeling really good about how strong my body seemed lately. My workouts were going extremely well; I was getting around town easily; I was even finding a reason to get out of my apartment each day. The only thing that wasn’t going according to plan is that I wasn’t staying awake all day. Contrary to my plan to stop taking afternoon naps upon returning home from Mississippi, I was still feeling sleepy after my daily trips to the gym. A year ago I had taken this as proof that my body was recovering; now it felt unnecessary.

One thing causing my sleeping problem was that my CPAP machine wasn’t working properly. The mask needed to be replaced; I had had it for over a year. Since it wasn’t adjustable, it was losing its elasticity. Where it had fit tightly over my nose before, it was allowing so much air in that I wasn’t sleeping comfortably. I would have to twist and turn in bed just to get the mask to stay on my face long enough to fall asleep. Inevitably, I would roll over at some time during the night, causing the mask to slip off and me to wake up gasping.

There was also a problem with the humidifier chamber. One day I had to pry it open its hatch to fill it with water.. After I finished filling it, it wouldn’t shut. It took me fifteen minutes to finally force it closed. It worked all night, but I had the same problem the next night. When Allene came to visit, she noticed that it was off its track. She realigned it so it would open and shut properly. It worked correctly after that, but that didn’t resolve my sleep issue. Luckily, I had made an appointment for a sleep consultation.

I took my CPAP machine as instructed so they could download its data. They soon called me back to the exam room and took my vitals. My weight was still in the mid 240s, but my blood pressure was exceptional. I revised my weight goal for the year to 240 lbs. By the end of 2020, I could easily bring it down to 230. With the amount of stationary biking I do at the gym, I really expect the doctors to put me on a less aggressive blood pressure regimen. Any additional weight loss and physical rehabilitation should be more manageable at that size and flexibility.

The doctor looked at my CPAP report and told me that the unit was working fine. His recommendation was to keep the machine set the same and get fresh supplies. An employee got me a new mask, filters, and humidifier chamber. I went home and took a nap that afternoon. I slept better than I had in a year. Over the next few nights and subsequent days, I slept as much as possible. My brain needed to recharge.

After sleeping most of the next two days, I started waking up refreshed, so I decided to start going to the gym again. This time when I went it was with even greater energy than I had found recently. Getting full nights of quality sleep meant that I no longer woke up feeling like my head was in a fog. I had often felt like climbing back into bed after letting Mary out; now once I was out of bed, I was up for the morning.

I would take a shower, then have a very modest breakfast. After eating, I would find that I had plenty of time before I had to go downstairs to wait for the bus. So I would normally sit on the couch and pet Mary for half an hour. Once I got on the bus, I would stretch my left arm by holding onto the bar. So by the time I hit the gym, my body was ready to go.

I was now warming up with thirty minutes on the stationary bike, then transitioning right into weightlifting. My leg was getting stronger, so I was partnering two heavy leg exercises every session. I started to notice that I was able to lift more weight each week. This translated into the ability to lift my left leg higher. Now when I walked, I almost never worried about falling. I concentrated lifting my left leg with my glutes and hamstring, flexing my calf, and stepping down with the heel. It was a lot to think about, but it meant that I was progressing along the path to recovery.

These workouts were so intense that they felt intoxicating. I would often set goals for weight and number of repetitions, then feel so pumped that I would exceed each. The more I lifted, the more I wanted to lift. I had come a long way over the last four years, but I still had a long way to go. As a result, I seldom saw the need to take it easy. So I usually rode home enjoying the fall colors of the city, but as soon as I got home, I would sleep a couple of hours.

Things were going really well for about two weeks. Then I started waking up with sniffles. The problem with having a runny nose while requiring a CPAP is that the mucus which would normally drain through the nose is forced back into one’s head. So I would spend all day gradually getting better only to place the CPAP mask over my nose and cause the congestion again. Now I had a dilemma. If I didn’t use the CPAP, I wouldn’t be able to breathe through the night. If I used the CPAP, I wouldn’t be able to breathe the next morning. I didn’t want to stop breathing for too long while I was asleep, so I opted to keep using the mask.

After a few days, the morning congestion started causing a sore throat. I decided that I would need to go to an urgent care soon. The only problem was that I didn’t know how long I might be there. If I took Metro Mobility, I would have to be ready to go at my predetermined time, otherwise the driver was required to leave without me. I could opt to take a taxi home, but I was low on cash and didn’t want to spend the money. I started calculating: If I go to the E. R. instead, maybe I can get my insurance company to pay for a taxi home. If I wait until my Medicare reimbursement check arrives, I can afford it outright.

I figured if I went to urgent care, they’d give me a couple of breathing treatments, then give me prescriptions for steroids and antibiotics. That was when I remembered that I owned my own nebulizer! I could give myself a few breathing treatments and hopefully not require a trip to a medical facility. So I called down to the assisted living and asked them to give me a breathing treatment. After ten minutes, my chest felt less congested. Since my breathing was still a bit labored, I asked for another. When the second one was done, I felt like moving again. I jumped in the shower for a few minutes and emerged feeling good as new.

Over the next three days, I would use my nebulizer three times a day. The congestion went away and I started to feel good again. I even went back to the gym a couple of days in a row. I didn’t work out as hard as normal; because I had recently been ill, I went about half speed. Then one night, I woke up with a stabbing earache. I knew exactly why: When I get respiratory infections that are only treated with steroids, I will respirate hard enough to blow the infection out of my airways. But it will gather in my ears and lead to an ear infection. Then I have to get antibiotics. I struggled through two nights until I had another visit scheduled with my ILS worker. Then I had him drive me to the emergency room.

When they took my vitals, not only was my blood pressure excellent, but I was down to 243 pounds. I had lost 15 pounds this year! This weight gain had started to feel permanent after the stroke. But then I had lost about 12 pounds through great effort. I had stagnated around 246. When that was my weight at the sleep consultation, I felt more disappointed than I like to admit. But now that I was only three pounds away from 240, my spirits were lifted again.

The physician’s assistant came and and examined my ear. She determined that I had an external ear infection. She wrote me a prescription for antibiotic ear drops. After two days of treatment, I felt good enough to go back to the gym. I was determined to lose the three pounds by the end of the year. And who knows what else the future holds?

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