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Now that occupational therapy was winding down, I would only have to go in once every couple of weeks to have my arm measured and splints adjusted. It was going to be up to me to wear the splints each night. I wanted to help speed the process along by going to the gym most days of the week. There I would find exercises that would keep my arm and shoulder engaged. I had come into the year already doing several upper body exercises, but I now wanted to do some that more specifically targeted my shoulder and triceps.

The first machine I’d located was the lateral shoulder raise. I had done this one time before. It was difficult, but I had managed to get four sets of ten reps each. This time, I noticed that my shoulder was sore, so I dropped the weight down to 20 lbs and increased my sets to 15 reps. My shoulder was still a little sore for the first few reps, but by the end of the first set, the pain was gone. I realized that simply moving the joint was the most important thing. As I used it more during the coming weeks, I would gradually be able to lift more. Stretching a muscle group is the first step to strengthening it.

The next muscle group I wanted to work was my triceps. I desperately wanted to strengthen that region because I would never be able to actively straighten my arm if my triceps couldn’t overpower my biceps. Because of the crook in my wrist, I couldn’t perform the vast majority of the triceps exercise that I was used to. Every time I tried to grip the handle of a machine, my wrist would collapse, rendering me unable to do the exercise. This frustrated me to no end, but I kept trying different exercises until I settled on one that felt more productive. That turned out to be triceps extensions.

With triceps extensions, I would lie down with my back against the bench and lift a dumbbell over and behind my head. Once in this starting position, I would lift the weight. This strengthened my triceps and even increased my flexibility. But what really bothered me was that not being able to open my left hand caused me to grip the dumbbell improperly. I was trained to always pay attention to correct form, so I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I might be cheating my body. I kept doing this exercise twice a week, but I wanted another to do the other two days I worked out. That’s when I discovered that one of my gyms had a reverse dip machine.

Triceps dips had once been my favorite exercise. I would do them until my arms burned. But after the stroke, there was no way my left wrist would allow me to support my body weight with my arms. But seated dips could be a compromise. I sat down on the machine and tried to grip the handle with my left hand. Because of the weakness in my grip and the inflexibility in my wrist, I couldn’t do the movement properly. I rested my forearm against the handle and did the exercise by flexing against my elbow. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the compromise I would have to make until they adjusted my wrist splint. It was a way to keep moving forward.

It was hard for me to not become impatient. If I hadn’t shown restraint, I would have been in the gym every day, trying to get myself fully recovered as quickly as possible. On the days I wasn’t at the gym, I was able to see just how far I had come in my ability to perform daily tasks. One of the first things I thought of was sweeping and shoveling. My wrist had finally become flexible enough that I could do more than hold a broom; I could now actually sweep with it. If I practiced sweeping every day, it would build even more mobility in my arm and shoulder. So I went to the grocery store and selected a sturdy broom. Lifting it up, I rotated it until I was satisfied that my wrist would allow me to use it.

The winter hadn’t been nearly as severe this year. The snow began melting in February, allowing me to walk Mary in the backyard sooner. I bundled up against the cold and took Mary out for a stroll. I could tell the difference right away. The months of increased weight and frequency of lifting had made my legs stronger. I walked Mary all around the yard. Stooping over to pick up after her no longer held any sense of peril. Falling down just wasn’t much of a danger. And even if I did fall, practice had shown that it would take fewer than ten seconds to rise back to my feet.

Surveying the backyard, I could still see a little snow, but it would be gone in a couple of weeks. When it was fully melted, I could finish mastering the terrain. In 2018, I had compromised, walking Mary on the pavement. Last year, I had started walking her all over the flat part of the grass and had even ventured up the stairs to the upper patio. This year, I would start walking up and down the hills. I would also commit to climbing the stairs every day. This would be the year when I would lose my fear of walking Mary anywhere.

The next Tuesday I had to go vote. The only problem was that I was scheduled to go to the gym that day. I didn’t want to mess up my rehab schedule, but I wanted to do my civic duty as well. So I scheduled a ride to the gym through Metro Mobility and told them to schedule my return ride to drop me off at the polling place. Not knowing how long the lines would be, I scheduled myself to be there for two hours. My first ride was scheduled for 9:15 am; my last ride was scheduled for 4:00 pm. I was going to be out all day. I normally got drowsy every afternoon, so staying awake might be a challenge.

I kept my workout relatively short that day. My primary goal was to hit the milestone of four full sets of 80 lbs on the leg press. I loaded a 45-lb plate on the machine for my warmup. Then I walked over a grabbed a 10-lb and a 25-lb plate. For the first time, I walked across the floor with a weight in each arm. I had avoided this before for fear of falling. I didn’t have my cane or a free hand in case I needed to catch myself. I was basically performing walking lunges. When I’m healthier, I’m going start doing actual walking lunges carry 25-lb plates in each arm. This will go a long way toward continuing to develop my balance, speed, and confidence.

When I finished lifting, I had about an hour to wait until my ride would arrive. I walked over to the snack bar and had a fruit smoothie. While I was there, a club attendant sat down to ask me about my stroke. I told her about the entire ordeal from the stroke until I moved back to Minnesota. She confessed that she was afraid to do cardio and elevate her heart rate because of medical concerns. I advised her to consult a cardiologist if she really wanted to get advice about a safe level of activity for her body. After that, she had an ideal job for following the doctor’s advice: all of the cardio machines were equipped with heart monitors. She could use them to stay within the range her doctor prescribed. Before leaving the gym, I wrote down the title of my blog. She could read about my concern and struggles to achieve the correct level of cardiovascular health.

As predicted, my ride to the polls arrived to the gym a little late, but it still dropped me off before I was scheduled. There were no lines. Plus, my left leg was a lot stronger than it had been four months before. So I was prepared to stand in long lines if necessary. I moved with speed and confidence through the process. I was so proud of how far I had come in just a few months. I had to call Metro Mobility for an early ride home. They picked me up before the time they were originally scheduled to drop me off there.

I went home that evening to work on my blog. Right before I began writing, I received a Facebook anniversary picture notification. The photograph was one from three years ago. It was of several friends and me during my first visit back to Mississippi. I look very happy, but I was secretly terrified that my weight had gone up so much since the stroke and might never come back down. In my mind, I am hopelessly obese and a candidate for another serious stroke.

This is why I spend so much time walking around shopping and trying to keep my body moving when I’m away from the gym. My goal isn’t just to recover muscle function; I want to address the health factors that lead to stroke. My body fat needs to come down significantly. My balance, energy level, and speech will be better simply by reducing it. And, of course, I need to lower my blood pressure.

Every time I walk Mary, climb stairs, walk around Target, or force my body to get out of bed, it is a struggle against feeling helpless. I can still remember waking up in a hospital bed and fearing that I might have another stroke. I recall looking at my expanded waistline and feeling like there was nothing I could do to stop it from getting bigger. Every second provides a chance to make decisions about how to manage my body. Even if I sometimes go with instant gratification, I have already made the choice against helplessness.

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Now that I was coming to the end of the period where I needed to go to occupational therapy every week, I tried to focus and get the most out of every session. I would start by going downstairs to the lobby thirty minutes before my taxi arrived. After the taxi dropped me off at therapy, I would walk carefully to the front, not wanting to stumble in front of other patients and professionals. After I was checked in, I would sit in the waiting room, listening to music and stretching my left arm in anticipation of doing as many exercises as time would allow.

One morning as I was coming in, I thought I faintly heard someone call my name. My music was blaring loudly in my ears, so I kept walking, imagining that I was hearing things. A few seconds later, I heard someone say my last name. Now I was sure that I wasn’t hallucinating. I looked around and saw someone coming towards me. It was Katie; the county housing worker who’d helped me find and move into my apartment.

She introduced herself as though she thought I didn’t know who she was. This seems to happen quite often – a person sees me in a public place and thinks that I don’t recognize her. I think it’s just a symptom of the stroke. My eyes are slow to focus, particularly when I turn my head quickly. I probably looked confused because my eyes will dart around to help me to maintain balance. I feel awful when people think I don’t recognize them. I hate how disappointed they look, and it makes me feel like I don’t have adequate control over my facial muscles. I feel like I’ve failed other people and myself.

Katie hugged me and told me that she had been following my progress in my blog. She was very proud of how far I’d come and how hard I was still working. It’s times like these that keep me taking pictures and videos every time I go to the gym. There are still many mornings when I feel drowsy. I’ll look out the window and see the snow coming down, and just want to roll over and go back to sleep. But knowing that I have an audience and people who follow my progress gives me the motivation I need to get to the gym. If I don’t post videos, there’s no proof that I braved the cold that day. I can’t let people think that I didn’t give it my all that day.

Whether it’s the gym, socializing, or therapy, I try to be enthusiastic with whatever I do. I plan what I want to put my body through each day. I try to have my phone on hand so I can document a lot of it. In addition to the blog, I want to eventually start a website that demonstrates how people can exercise after catastrophic injury. I want to write a memoir about my experiences. My ultimate goal is to become a motivational speaker and stroke educator. I see it as my role to help people learn to avoid and overcome strokes.

That evening, my friend Allene came over from Wisconsin. She had tickets to see a show in Saint Paul, so I told her that she could crash on my couch. Mary is always delighted whenever she stops by. Instead of sleeping in bed with me, Mary prefers to spend the entire night hugged up next to Allene. In Mary’s mind, anyone who walks in the door is primarily there to visit her. No one fights her on that assumption.

I normally feel like a liability when Allene comes to town. In the past, I couldn’t walk that far without getting tired, and even after I had gained a lot of leg strength, it still took a tremendous amount of time and effort to climb into her SUV. So I would have to wait for her to go and park her car or to go pick it up. Then, whenever it was time for me to climb inside, I would have to tiptoe, scoot backwards into the seat, and shimmy until my left leg was inside. I cannot tell you how frustrating this was for me. I would constantly think, What if we had to leave in a hurry?

But by this visit, I had come quite a long way. I was leg pressing 80 pounds and mounting the stationary bike with no assistance. When Allene drove up, the only reason why I stayed at the building instead of going with her to find parking was that I wanted to grab a shopping cart so I could help her unload her bags. I knew that my speed and strength had improved so much that I could take her things up to my apartment and be back down before she arrived at the front door.

When Allene and I got back to the apartment, Mary was so excited to see her that she came bounding out of the apartment. Mary waited for her to sit down on the couch and climbed into her lap. Since Allene had recently injured her ankle, she was in a walking boot. She elevated her foot on my stool, giving Mary enough room to nestle against her all evening.

They were still asleep when I got ready to go to the gym the next morning, but even if they hadn’t been, Allene was in no condition to work out. It wasn’t a very chilly day, so it didn’t take a lot to warm me up. Rather than doing a lot of heavy weight, I concentrated on keeping my heart rate up. I took very little time to rest between sets; the idea was to keep my body hot and sweating all the time. I kept my body moving right up until my ride came to take me back home. I climbed up the steps feeling like a warrior.

That evening, we went down to the suburbs to take a friend of Allene’s out to eat. Allene had known her since she was an adolescent next-door neighbor and had taken her under her wing, eventually helping to guide her through the college admissions process. When I had tripped and fallen during my first visit back to Minnesota, each of them had taken one of my underarms and helped me back to my feet. The parking lot today was cold and icy, but I took great pride in walking across it. They were there if I needed support, but I was determined to show them that I could make it on my own.

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After I got home with my splint, I got help putting it on. Then I went up to my apartment and hung out with Mary while I let my arm grow accustomed to wearing it. I knew it would take a week to grow accustomed to it, so I resolved to keep it on until my arm grew sore. I sat down on the couch and began petting Mary as I waited for the splint to start pinching. After one hour, I still felt fine. So I decided to wear it for a total of two hours.

After two hours wearing the splint, my arm wasn’t sore or bruised. I was happy with the result but eager to speed up the rehabilitation timeline. It had taken almost two years following my stroke to start lifting weights again. It had taken longer than that to go from the point of barely working out to where I was now. My next great stride would be after I regained the ability to straighten my wrist and elbow. Only then would I be able to do all of the various upper body exercises again.

As with my upper leg, once I was able to start working my chest, shoulders, and triceps in earnest, I would be able to better assess where I was. Having the ability to tell how much strength I had lost would allow me to formulate workout plans with the ultimate goal of rebuilding these muscle groups. And because I had transportation, gym memberships, and time, all that was required of me were diligence and patience. I decided to accelerate the orientation period with the splint so that I could begin wearing it overnight on Sunday rather than waiting until Wednesday.

On Saturday I had nowhere to go. So I decided that I might as well put the splints on for four hours. I called down to the assisted living office and asked them for assistance. They told me to wait about half an hour. After I hung up the phone, I started thinking about the fact that my ultimate goal was to regain my independence. If I were ever going to do that fully, it would require that I master the ability to put the splints on by myself. So I grabbed both of them and tried to put them on before the staff person arrived to help me.

I put the wrist splint on first. Since I had already been using it for over a week, it took me no time before it was strapped into place. The elbow splint was the more complicated part; it fit unevenly over the wrist splint. Then I had to apply the two large straps over the triceps and wrist respectively. The hardest part was strapping the elbow pad in place. That required threading two small straps through buckles that were positioned right next to the hinged elbow joint.

Now that the entire machinery was on my hand, I imagined that I was a cyborg. Playing with the mechanism to loosen or lock my arm into place felt like a game. I extended my arm then locked the splint. Next I unlocked it, took it off, and set up my phone camera. Now I took a video of myself putting the splints back on. First the wrist, locking the elbow splint at a 90 ° angle, the fishing all of the straps into place. I unlocked the elbow splint and extended my arm, and locked it again. I happily called down to the assisted living office and told them I no longer needed help with my splint.

I was very pleased with the results of the elbow splint. Even if it was slow for my liking, I could see the improvement in my arm almost immediately. The elbow splint straightened my arm so much that I started to notice that my wrist was still severely bent. You wouldn’t notice it when I when I was wearing the two splints with one another. But if I was wearing the elbow splint alone, my wrist was very crooked. It was so bad that the plastic end of the splint often dug into my wrist.

I was really worried about this because my arm started becoming really sore overnight. The elbow splint didn’t fit neatly over the wrist splint. So I would feel a pinching in my forearm. I would try to endure the pain by fidgeting with it. But it would hurt so much that I would have to try and twist it every ten minutes or so. After an hour, it would still be agitating me so much that I would finally just remove the wrist splint just to get some relief. But even that was only temporary. I would end up just removing the elbow splint too.

While this helped me sleep through the night, it was obviously not the permanent solution I was looking for. So the next time I went to occupational therapy, I asked the therapist whether it was time to adjust the wrist splint. She told me that it wasn’t; but she did want to look at whether it was time to adjust the elbow splint.

In order to do this, she had me stand up and let my arm hang to the side so she could measure how straight I could get it. She told me not to force it; just let it hang by my side for a few minutes, and it would relax and straighten further. After a couple of minutes, she adjusted my elbow splint from level 2 to level 3, then she had me stand so she could measure the angle. When she measured, my elbow was 10° more straight. She assured me that I would see even more improvement over the next few weeks. This renewed my enthusiasm. If my elbow could go up one level every few weeks, I could graduate to level 7 by May. During that time period, my wrist splint would eventually be straightened. I could have the range of motion to be bench pressing again before summer!

Once I started sleeping in the splints regularly, I could appreciate the impact right away. As I’d been doing for a year, I would rise and take Mary out to use the restroom. In the past, this required a great deal of alertness and concentration because my grip wasn’t as sure due to my body feeling half asleep. Sleeping in the splints allowed me to wake up with my arm muscles already more relaxed. Not having to wait for them to loosen meant that I could dress immediately and go outdoors.

Mary loved being out early. The trails of the nocturnal animals were still fresh. Some of the creatures were still lurking. Mary would dart and pounce without warning, jerking on the line. My arm had enough give that it could better extend, lessening the tension on the leash. At the same time, my grip had gotten stronger and I was able to rotate my wrist more easily. So walking Mary early in the morning actually became a joy. I could go out and let the cold morning air rejuvenate me, secure in the knowledge that I could effortlessly control Mary’s leash.

Most days now, when I was finished with my morning duties, I went to the gym. Whereas in the past, I had to sit in the front of the bus in order to use the safety bar to stretch my arm, now my arm was already stretched from being in the splint all night. I could sit anywhere in the vehicle and enjoy the trip. This made for a much more relaxing ride. I could engage in conversation or watch videos on my phone. I didn’t have to go through the effort of preparing my body for the workout.

The brief time I’d been using the splint even made my workouts better. Since my arm wasn’t so tight, I was able to flex my bicep more. This allowed my arm to go down farther on each curl. It also let me curl more weight on the way up. The movement was still stiff and very limited, but there was enough progress to keep me striving for more.

My next exercise was triceps extensions. Because my range of motion would increase with the strength of my triceps, it was vital to keep engaging this muscle group. It is important to remember that at one time I couldn’t even bring my arm behind my head with help because my arm was so tight. Now my focus became to push the dumbbell back until it cleared my head, then to let it dip down as low as possible. Then I could slowly lift it up and over my head in a controlled motion. I was only able to go up to a 15-lb weight, and the movement was still jerky. But just like with bicep curls, the goal was to keep performing the exercise a minimum of twice a week so that everything I was doing would come together, resulting in greater arm flexibility.

The last thing I had to do that day was legs. I would be performing lunges and squats. As always, I had to use the Smith machine. I slid my arms over the bar and let it come to rest across my back. My left arm and shoulder were so pliable that I was able to go right into a deep squat. I no longer had to worry about the balance and spacing of my arms; I could concentrated solely on the placement of my feet and the work of my leg muscles. As I went down as low as I could, I felt the toes of my left foot come alive. They wiggled, gripping so I could maintain my balance. As I pushed upward, I felt my calf heat up as energy moved through it, contributing to the lift. Every muscle and every piece of equipment I added was working toward the goal of making my body whole again.

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It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest that I began associating February with winter. Growing up in the Deep South, I had seen it as a mild month right before Spring Break. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, it was a period of brutal temperatures where people had to find something to do besides hunker down and await warmer weather. When I was younger, I would pass the time with indoor sports and weightlifting. Sports were no longer an option. But now that my body was functioning better again, I threw myself back into exercise.

Now that my occupational therapy was in full swing, they were constantly adding new exercises for me to work on. The first one they had me try was for weight bearing on my affected arm. I had to place my forearms on a kitchen countertop. Once my upper body was positioned above my arms, the therapist had me move my feet backwards until only my toes were in contact with the floor. This would stop the force of my weight from routing through my thighs. Now she had me do ten modified pushups.

I’d assumed that this exercise would be simple, but it was unexpectedly difficult . I had been working out very hard. Indeed, that was the only reason why the therapist said that I looked strong enough to attempt the exercise. But the movements I’d been doing were designed to isolate individual muscle groups and to work them in specific planes. Therapy is about relearning to move the body functionally. The movements I practiced here were about reintegrating the various muscle groups so that they would allow me to move my body naturally again. The goal was to work at it until I no longer had to actively think about coordinating the different parts of my body again.

Next she had me sit up on the edge of an elevated therapy mat. Then she gave me a hoop with a bar fixed on the inside. I was to roll the hoop back-and-forth as far as I could in either direction. The idea was to try and regain the ability to rotate my wrist. After I had been going for a time, she instructed me to try initiating the movement from my elbow. This was counter intuitive, but I tucked my elbow and concentrated on spinning the hoop. As I did, it became easier. I realized that this was an exercise designed to prevent my elbow from flaring out to the side when I moved my arm along a certain plane.

The last thing she had me do was to lie on my back and, using my cane, push with my right arm to see how far I could stretch my left. My left arm was tight and mostly resisted. But overall, the session was a success. I had a series of new exercises I could work on at home and I would learn more in the coming weeks. As I walked away from the office, I was already calculating how I would integrate what I had just learned into my upper body workouts.

Occupational therapy was a lot more productive now that I was going through it while also doing outside exercise. I was so happy that I’d found the lateral shoulder raise machine at the gym. I was using it every other time I worked out. In just two weeks, I’d progressed from lifting 10 pounds to 50. When I looked in the mirror, my shoulders were level again. It became more difficult to put on my backpack because my left arm wasn’t pinned to my body, so my back was wider. I even found it easier to rest my body weight on my left arm because I no longer experienced shoulder pain.

The increased range of motion also made it easier to perform any exercise that required my arm to be elevated. This was particularly true for lat rows. In the past, I could only due this exercise with limited range on my left side. I would be able to pull the lever all the way to my body with my right arm, but my left arm would stop a few inches short. I could have used less weight, but too little weight wouldn’t do anything to work my right side. I could’ve gone with less weight on just my left side, but I didn’t want to exacerbate the issue of asymmetry. So I went with a compromise weight of 25 to 35 lbs.


Now I sat down and warmed up at 25 lbs. I went up every set by increments of 5. When I got to 45 lbs, it was still remarkably easy. The only reason why I didn’t continue to add more weight was because of time constraints. I had completed five working sets, and it was time to move on to a different station. But this exercise felt so easy that I will warm up on 35 lbs in the future. That will allow me to add a set, and as my splint stretches my wrist more, I will be able to work out with even more weight.

The wonderful thing about increased shoulder mobility was that it didn’t only make upper body exercises easier. It also worked when I wanted to use the Smith machine to do squats and lunges. In the past, I’d often had to start the exercise with my left shoulder being a little tight. This could cause me to twist my body to the left, which could result in loss of balance or spinal injury. With the shoulder working better, it was pliable enough for me to slide the arm into place and start lifting correctly right away. Because of improved balance, I was able to get lower on every rep. This helped me to recruit my calves and ankles. As I walked away from the machine, my steps required even less concentration than they had moments ago. Working my shoulder was going to help me to resolve a balance issue.

When I went back to occupational therapy on Wednesday, the therapist told me that my elbow splint had come in. When she presented it to me, I was surprised. Since the person who’d cast my arm had used the same gauze as the one who had done my leg spliednt, I was expecting the splint to also be a plastic shell. Instead, this one had a lot more metal. It reminded me of the type of armor that baseball players wear.

Looking at all the straps, buckles, and moving parts, I asked her whether this was the sort of equipment I would be able to work out in. She responded that it was for passive use only. After my arm was ready, she would give me something I could lift weights with. We tried putting the splint on my arm. It really pinched my forearm. Since the DME representative who made it was still there, the therapist asked him to widen it. When he brought it back, the splint fit comfortably.

I had brought my wrist splint along in case my therapist was ready to adjust the wrist. She told me that she wanted me to try wearing both splints together first. I was able to put the wrist splint on by myself, so she had me put that on first. Then she helped me put the larger splint on over it. The larger splint stretched from my wrist all the way up to my underarm. Although it wasn’t as bulky as I thought it would be, it would definitely be solid enough to hold my arm straight.

This splint was a little more complicated than the cloth one I was used to. She showed me where the adjustment hinge and locking mechanism were. She unlocked it, had me get my arm to a slightly more extended position, then locked it in place. The dial settings were 1 to 7, 7 being the point where my arm would be fully extended. If I’d been able to set the plan the program, I would’ve started with the splint set to 4. But she told me that we needed to start on 2. I would have to wear it for one hour on the first day, then wear it for an additional hour each day.

We played with it a few times so I could learn how to show staff members how to help me put it on. Taking the splint off was so simple that I could do that unaided. The most difficult thing was learning how to use the locking mechanism correctly. The final thing she helped me with was to put a sweatshirt on over the splint. The splint was so sleek that the sleeve went right over it. I took it back off right away. Although I could wear the splint outdoors, I didn’t care to because I would only be wearing it when I wasn’t using my left arm.

I went home and had the assisted living staff help me put on the splint for two hours. Although it was more than the recommended one hour, I was eager to get started. The next morning, I went to the gym and worked my biceps and triceps for an hour. That evening, I wore the splint for an hour beyond the recommended time period. I was going to continue being aggressive at restoring the strength in my arm.

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Now that I was back in occupational therapy, I felt reinvigorated. No longer did I feel like I was alone in pursuing physical rehabilitation. Everything I did voluntarily in the gym could be supported and guided by a professional. I was going to the gym four days a week. Even if I didn’t feel like lifting heavy, I would easily be able to complete an upper body workout. So while I might not do legs every time I went to the gym, my shoulder and arm were engaged every session.

The continuous attention to the arm in the gym was part of my plan to get it working again. Noting that my leg was working out through general use, even when I wasn’t at the gym, I surmised that I needed to find ways to keep my arm engaged. Although you can never predict how much muscle function you’ll recover, I’d been told that the more I kept my arm actively engaged in day-to-day tasks, the more likely my brain was to build new neural pathways to restore voluntary movement. Since I was going to therapy two days a week, there were six days every week where my arm was in use.

I loved how much work my arm and shoulder were getting each week, but the drawback was that working out could contribute to involuntary tone. Exercise would allow me to use my muscles a lot more but at the expense of them feeling tighter when at rest. Luckily, the therapist had given me a folder full of stretching exercises for the assisted living staff to help me do every morning. After we started doing these I realized that my back and shoulder were remaining even meor loose than I’d expected from the combination of stretching and exercise. I told them that it would be more productive and less time consuming to just stretch my arm every morning. They were delighted because it cut down their workload considerably.

Between the morning sessions and my stretching my arm every time I traveled on the bus, my arm was getting straighter. One morning, the person stretching me remarked at how much more pliant my arm was. He didn’t have to use a lot of pressure to get my arm over my head and back down to my side. When I went to the gym later that day, I noticed how much easier lat rows and lat pulldowns were. I had regained so much range of motion on my left side that I was pulling down evenly on both sides.

When I arrived for my second week of therapy, my therapist informed me that my wrist splint had arrived. She adjusted the splint and showed me how to take it off and tuck the velcro pads so they wouldn’t lose their stickiness. This was something to be concerned about because I have dog fur all over my apartment. That night I went home and carefully strapped the splint over my arm. Because of its rigidity, I was able to get it onto my arm twice as quickly as my old splint.

The last piece of equipment they were giving me was one I hadn’t known to ask for. They were fitting me for a molded plastic elbow orthotic. Just as with my foot orthotic, the representative wrapped my arm in gauze. Unlike with my leg, he wrapped my arm all the way to the shoulder to cast for a large plastic sleeve. I would sleep wearing the orthotic and the wrist splint every night. It would gradually become easier to stretch my arm every subsequent morning. After enough nights wearing this rigid apparatus, I would be able to lift weights and use my arm in other ways again.

With all of the work I was putting my body through each week, my daily life was becoming increasingly normal. For instance, the weight I’d gained from the stroke had been mostly around the waist, throwing my balance off so severely that I couldn’t sit on a chair unless it was low and had a back. This made sitting at bar stools and hi-top tables out of the question.

Working out and losing weight had strengthened my core, even though I wasn’t targeting the area. It also gave me the ability to square my thighs and plant my feet firmly on the floor. So when my neighbor offered to give me a stool from the set he had in his apartment, I decided to give it a try. I was wary at first. But as I sat down on it, my body felt in control. I didn’t fall backwards or sway to the sides. My back maintained its posture all by itself. I was even able to bend down and pick up things without falling forward.

That weekend I went to dinner with my friend Sandra. She loves international cuisine, so she is a perfect dining partner. We went to an Indian restaurant that was rated the best in the Twin Cities. The last time we had been here was a year ago. Back then I was still dragging my left foot. As a result, Sandra had needed to drop me off at the door before going to park the car. Once we were in the dining room, I’d needed to sit opposite from the wall so I didn’t trip sitting down or standing up.

My leg was now so strong that it didn’t require much effort to lift my foot as I walked down the sidewalk, so Sandra was able to find a parking spot without first letting me out. Having stronger legs gave me a narrower gait, which allowed me to walk sideways through an area of sidewalk that hadn’t been properly shoveled. Inside the restaurant, I was able to stroll around the table and sit next to the wall. The food was delicious. Sandra couldn’t believe I ordered a spice level 5. I told her the story of how I’d doused a pot of spaghetti with an entire bottle of Tabasco sauce in an effort to regain my tolerance for spicy food after my stroke.

The next day, my friend Lacey and her husband Chris had a Southern Sunday dinner for all of the people we knew who’d moved up from Mississippi in the last couple of years. Since I had to walk up a long, steep driveway, I had the Metro Mobility driver help me walk up to the house. I wasn’t too worried that I would fall. It was just a precaution because I didn’t want to trip and scare anyone.

The food was amazing! I had my fill of fried catfish, macaroni and cheese, and cheesecake. There was more, but I tend to select a few dishes I really like and have multiple helpings of those. Most of us had never met each other, but we were a house full of people from the Hospitality State, so after about ten minutes, there were no strangers. The dogs got plenty of affection and the children played video games. And although things were supposed to go from about noon until 3:00, I didn’t get home until 11:00. I was so stable walking around the house in socks that it just felt natural to linger a spell.

My body was responding so well to exercise that I was tempted to go to the gym every day. But it’s always important to give one’s body time to rest. Even though I hadn’t gone to the gym since Friday, going out and walking for hours was taxing on my body. I could’ve gotten to the weight room, but my workout would have been extremely flat. I spent the next couple of days hanging out with Mary and doing things around the house. I wore my wrist and elbow splints more hours than I was scheduled so I could speed through the period I had to wait before the therapist could adjust it.

On Wednesday I finally went back to the gym. I started with ten minutes on the stationary bike. After my warm up, I did four sets of 15 on leg press. Next I went to the lateral shoulder raise, where I pushed my shoulder to do sets of 30 pounds. After this, I felt so pumped that I went right to the leg press, where I was up to 70 pounds. This was so difficult that I couldn’t complete a single set of ten reps. That was fine, though. The struggle was the success.

I was now finished with the leg portion of my workout. I wanted to finish up with another arm stretching exercise in anticipation of going to occupational therapy the next day. I went over to the lat pulldown machine, grasped the bar with a wide grip and pulled it down with a smooth, even motion. Each time the bar went back up, I felt my underarms stretch. At the end of every set, I would let the bar pull my left arm up, stretching it as much as I could. Each time I did this it was the straightest my arm had been since the stroke.

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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.

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I had entered the new year in my best shape since the stroke. I’d lost 19 pounds in 2019 and was committed to dropping 15 more in 2020. My workouts were getting far more intense; I was doing more work and taking shorter rests between sets. This might seem like a good time to level off, but I felt like I was just getting started.. Phase 1, to me, was when I woke from my coma and did my first two years of rehab. During that time, I was just getting my body accustomed to moving again. Phase 2 was the next two and a half years. It was the period where I started going to the gym again.

Phase 2 would be the longest time span of my focus on physical rehabilitation because it was after I had learned to walk again but before I really felt strong and competent. When I had first begun going to the gym, I could barely move any weight. I constantly worried about tripping and falling. Bending down was even more of a nightmare because I was never sure whether I was going to be able to stand up safely. Phase 2 had been frustrating because, while I knew that I was working out regularly, I couldn’t prove that I was getting significantly better.

Toward the end of 2019, I was able to kick up my workouts to a higher gear. Having notice that a few months of lunges was increasing my ability to lift my left leg, I decided to start challenging myself to push more weight on leg exercises. Since leg press was my favorite, I started with ten pounds and tried to increase by another ten pounds every other week. My ultimate goal would be to get to 90 pounds by March.

I wasn’t trying to cheat, either. A full set would start with both legs pushing for five reps. Then I would drop my right leg and try to do ten more reps with the stroke-affected leg. This was the mindset I had learned when I was initially taught to lift weights years ago: “If you can’t lift the weight slowly and with high reps, you can’t really say you can do it.” So in my eyes, a set had always been a minimum amount of eight reps. Anything else was considered a half set. For every half set, you had to do another half set before you could move on to the next exercise.

Although this might sound excessive, it had definite real world implications. The first time I needed to buy dog food in January, I got to the dog food aisle and selected a medium-sized bag. In the past, I would have slid the bag off the rack and down into the shopping cart. But now, wanting to test my strength and flexibility, I maneuvered it onto my shoulder. It felt like nothing as my thighs absorbed far less weight than I regularly squatted. I stood there for a few seconds, feeling stronger and more independent.

Another change I noticed in my leg was in flexibility. When I first woke up from my coma, my left leg was entirely straight and rigid. My toe pointed so straight that they would have to force shoes on my foot. It took years of walking on this foot to get it to relax. After that, my leg would only remain straight early in the morning or when getting in vehicles.

This posed such a problem that I only rode in the front seat. If I sat in the back seat, I would have a hrad time getting my leg inside the door. The driver would have to help me by grabbing my foot and bending it into place. The leg wouldn’t go in immediately; it would be involuntarily rigid, then it would slowly become more pliable, like a deflating balloon. After the tone relaxed, my leg could be pushed into place. Since some of the drivers preferred to have me sit in the backseat, this was another victory for me.

When I started doing squats without a leg brace, I noticed my leg slowly start to become more flexible. The same was true for presses and lunges. My ankles started bending to absorb the shock more easily as resistance increased. I wasn’t able to bend my ankles voluntarily, but the joint became like a spring. It would allow my foot to stay in contact with the floor, then the foot would spring up and allow me to easily step forward.

The next time I rode in a Metro Mobility SUV, I told the driver that I was fine sitting in the rear. He offered to help, but I was fine. I sat down and drew my right leg inside. Then I grabbed my left leg and pulled it inside without any difficulty. When we arrived at the gym, I was able to hop right back out. I walked into the gym even more excited now. With every set of leg weights, I would make it easier to get in and out of the vehicles.

In the next few days, I would go out to eat at various international restaurants. I thoroughly enjoyed the flavors and atmospheres. Walking around the dining rooms was so much easier, and my voice was so much stronger. Dining out was something I could enjoy even if I wasn’t yet completely recovered.

In the gym, I was gaining more confidence every week. Instead of waiting for help, I was carrying my own weights and setting up my own workout stations. Between workouts, I was constantly coming up with additional exercises to try because more and more of my muscles were “waking up”. I was apprehensive and excited, as I had no idea when I would finally reach my limits. Whatever the case, it’s not like I was planning to stop getting stronger once I stopped regaining control of new muscle groups. Working out wasn’t a means to an end. It was a way of life.

I had my first occupational therapy session in early January. When the therapist asked me my goals, I told her that I wanted to regain the abilities to flex my wrist and control my triceps. Knowing that she might need more concrete goals to send to the insurance company, I told her that I wanted to regain the abilities to cook, wash dishes, sweep, and shovel. Working towards these tasks would allow the therapists to draw up strategies that would engage the desired muscle groups.

My therapist wrote up a plan for eight sessions. She gave me the option of one or two sessions per week. I told her that I wanted two sessions per week. If I could get help retraining my arm and hand twice a week – with as much as I was working out – I would be able to come up with all sorts of exercises to complement what I was doing in occupational therapy. Whether or not I did any additional occupational therapy visits, I would develop strategies over the next month that would continue to help me move forward.

After I accepted that this might be my one and only shot at occupational therapy for a while, I devised a plan: My month of OT would end in late February. As long as I continued the same plan in the gym, I would reach 100 pounds on single-leg press in mid-March. In late March, I would have my quarterly round of Botox injections. At that point, I would ask to be referred to physical therapy. This way, I would have the brute strength to maximize my therapy..

Going forward, I had no idea whether I would show enough progress to warrant more therapy, But I would get the most out of every minute I was allotted. I was enjoying working out and going out for social engagements. I would have an amazing life, even if my progress stopped this month. But I would never stop fighting for more.

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I have a serious breathing disorder: asthma. Whenever someone tells me that you can’t die of asthma, I ask if I can put them in a choke hold because obviously, humans don’t have to breathe. My mother died due to a severe asthma attack one November morning in 1983. I come down with a bad lung infection or two every year between September and December. Since that’s right around November, I always associate her asthma attack with my own seasonal allergies and asthma.

Years ago, when I tried to be macho and invulnerable, I would take over-the-counter medications and try to fight off the infection. Invariably, I would still be coughing up phlegm after two weeks, so I would bite the bullet and go in to urgent care. The treatment was always the same: two albuterol breathing treatments, then sent home with prescriptions for a steroid and antibiotics. By the third day on prescriptions, I had usually begun feeling well enough to return to my normal physical activities. I would find myself lying on a weight bench or standing on a goal line, wondering why I hadn’t just gone in and taken care of the problem immediately. I could’ve avoided the disruption to my lifestyle altogether.

After I suffered the stroke, my lung strength was even more compromised. Before the stroke, being sick would make it difficult to sneeze or exhale forcefully. Post stroke, I didn’t even have to be sick to be unable to cough, blow, or whistle. If I got sick, I would just go to urgent care on the second or third day. Once there was mucus buildup in my lungs, there was no way I could generate the wind to expel it. Antibiotics would kill the infection; steroids would help me to expel it

In August of 2018, I got an early lung infection. The doctor at my follow-up appointment issued me a home nebulizer. This seemed like such an obvious remedy that I wondered why no one had thought of it before. Now when I woke up feeling a little congested, I could give myself a breathing treatment before a serious infection set in. But being a creature of habit, I forgot to use the home nebulizer the next two times I got sick. I used it the morning I decided to go to the hospital. But by then, it only offered temporary relief. I still required medication.

In December 2019, I woke up with a sore throat. I cleaned and sterilized my CPAP machine. This helped me to feel a little better the next morning. So I repeated the cycle and started keeping water on the window sill so I could refill the humidifier if I woke up in the middle of the night. By the third morning, I was waking up with mucus buildup. This time I finally remembered that I owned a nebulizer. I felt better immediately, so I put off going to the hospital. I woke up the next morning feeling even better, so I took another breathing treatment and went about my day. Over the next few days, I improved a bit more every day. On New Year’s Day, I woke up completely symptom-free. I took a final breathing treatment for prevention. I have felt wonderful ever since.

During the second week of the year, 1 went down to the basement rec room in order to take stock of my current abilities. When I began walking without my cane last January, I had done so in the basement. I had received a new leg brace the month before that was so bulky that I needed to order large training shoes to accommodate it. I ordered a custom pair so I could monogram an inspirational message on them. On the day the shoes arrived, I wore them downstairs. In the basement, I recorded a video of myself walking so I could see what my stride looked like and track my progress.

Last year, I had walked slowly, trying to maintain good posture. I concentrated on trying to step with my hip and lift my toes every time I advanced my left foot. It was a struggle, but I felt myself doing better than I had recently. But when I reviewed the recording, I looked a mess. I was still having a devil of a time lifting my left foot off the ground. To compensate, I was swinging my left leg out to the side. I was also leaning to my right in an effort to get more leverage.

I had felt so embarrassed. But I dutifully up loaded the video to Facebook. I also took a still image for my blog. As hideous as my posture was, I would be so proud when I could juxtapose it with pictures of me in later years.

During the year, I had started lifting more weight with squats and leg presses. I had also added lunges to my training regimen. This increased the difficultly level of each training session. I would always perform these heavy leg exercises at the end of a session. I would have to talk myself into doing them, but as I persevered, my balance improved. I was able to lift my leg much higher as well. These things together gave me the endurance and confidence to walk even greater distances.

Now that it was a year later, it was time to reevaluate my gait. I went down to the basement and set up my camera again. I walked from the rear of the room to the doorway, turned and walked back toward the camera. This time, when I took stock of my gait, I was a lot prouder. I wasn’t lifting my foot that high, but I was clearing it consistently. My posture was erect, because I didn’t need to lean to one side. Nor did I kick my leg out. I was simply striding from my hip. It didn’t require any additional effort. Not having to concentrate so hard on walking would allow my brain to focus on other things.

When I had gone to have my Botox injections in December, I told the doctor that my only rehab concern was my arm. I wanted to be able to straighten my arm and lift my hand above my head. This would entail using my triceps. But in order to start working my triceps, I would need to be able to bend my wrist back at least 200°. I slept in an arm splint every night, but that was only designed to keep the wrist in a neutral position (less than 180°). At this angle, I couldn’t perform any pressing exercises because the force would be pushing in the wrong direction. So I asked the doctor for a referral to occupational therapy.

Since occupational therapy targets upper body tasks, I reasoned that this would be the place to start for anything arm related. Getting help to stretch the wrist and arm would be optimal. If they could show me a few exercises and help me to order a replacement for my broken e-stim machine, that would still be a positive outcome. The worst that could happen was that they would tell me they couldn’t do anything for me.

When I had gone to occupational therapy in the past, I had always had stiff arms and a lot of shoulder pain. So a lot of my time in treatment had been dedicated to trying to slowly mobilize my joints while relieving pain. This was a necessary process, but my goal was to get to the point where I was actually exercising again. I might never regain full muscle function, but part of my quality of life would come from continuing to push past my body’s limitations.

I had also been drowsy a lot in occupational therapy. When I had gone in past years, it had been on days when I was just waking up — and these were days when I was starting therapy at 10:00 or 11:00 am. Just as with stiffness, I felt like lethargy robbed me of the chance to get the maximum out of my therapy sessions. Not being able to work hard meant that I couldn’t assist the machines as they flexed my muscles for me. So when they measured my arms and shoulders, their notes wouldn’t reflect adequate progress. If the notes didn’t indicate significant improvement, the insurance company would stop my treatments.

Going to occupational therapy was obviously the best way to keep recovering arm function. Because I had always been a self-starter in the gym, I would take videos of the various exercises I was doing in the gym to try and coordinate them with therapy. I figured that their expertise was invaluable, even if we didn’t seem to be accomplishing much on the equipment in the therapy gym. Medical experts have been observing and studying the body for years. It was my job to be in the best shape for them to try their ideas.

I committed to doing biceps and triceps exercises every workout. I would work my biceps to depletion. Then, hopefully, that would allow me to work my triceps. At a bare minimum, it would get me used to working the arm every day. Part of the reason why my leg was getting better so quickly now was that I was always using it. The key was to make continuous arm movement a part of life, too. Then, in therapy, my arm would just be doing a little more work than it was always doing anyway.

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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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