Before the stroke, I had been a very active person. Lifting weights, playing sports, and working on my friend’s cattle ranch had kept me in much better than average shape. However, three months confined to a hospital had changed all that. During those months, my weight had ballooned to 258 pounds. I could not fathom how I would be able to take all of that weight off without being able to exercise. The helplessness made me depressed. As a result, I gave up and stopped caring what I ate.
The first Sunday night after I was released from the hospital, I had a large order of fast food for dinner. I could have stopped after I had two thirds of it, but I kept on eating until everything was finished. About an hour later, I could feel an urgent need to go to the bathroom. I yelled to my dad to grab the wheelchair. He brought it back to the side of the bed, and I transferred into it. He pushed me out of the door and down the hallway. I felt the manure start to push its way out. So I told him to forget me and go lift the lid on the toilet.
As soon as he got to the toilet, I felt the waste being pushed from my body. I did not have the muscle strength to hold it in. As I felt it pushing against my underwear, I yelled, “Dad, I’m using the bathroom on myself!” It just kept forcing its way out. I was horrified. Even though the torrent had started, I hoped that all of the mess could be contained until I got to the bathroom. “Help me get to the toilet!” He scrambled to get me out of the wheelchair and through two narrow doorways.
When I was safely at the toilet, I plopped down and let my insides just release themselves. I could hear the sputtering sounds of my bowels continuing to empty. My left foot began to vibrate like a flipper, drumming involuntarily on the cold, tiled floor. Once it was all over, I could see the little bits of excrement on the floor and on my leg. I felt disgusting, like the filth could never be washed off completely. Dad got towels and washed it all off of me. Then he cleaned up the floor beneath me and got me a pair of clean underwear.
He got me back into the wheelchair and pushed me to my room. I climbed into bed and turned on the TV. Under the covers, I was finally warm and clean. I had been out of the hospital and back at home for half a week. Tomorrow would be my first day of outpatient therapy.
The next morning, I decided to bathe before going to therapy. This would be the first time I tried showering at home. The day before I left the hospital, they had sold me a shower chair to take home. The shower chair is placed in side of the tub so the user can enter and exit the shower safely, without having to balance on a weak leg. Once inside, the patient is able to shower while seated so that there is less chance of a fall.
Dad tried putting the shower chair inside the tub as instructed, but it was too wide to fit. So he tried placing one leg outside of the tub so the chair could straddle the outer wall. This didn’t work either, because the legs were too short. Since this would cause the chair to wobble like a seesaw, we decided that using the chair would be too unstable to be safe. Instead, I told him that I would try bathing without the chair.
First, I sat down on the edge of the tub, with my back against the wall. I had Dad hold my left leg steady. Then I spun slowly, bringing my right leg inside the tub. Next, I braced my right hand against the corner where the two walls met. I told Dad to lift my left leg up and guide it into the tub. The entire process was precarious, so we did everything very slowly. But I was safely inside.
Now I had Dad remove my underwear. This was the first time I was naked in front of anyone aside from medical professionals, and I felt extremely awkward. I asked him to start filling up the tub. The water languidly crept up around me, and it felt wonderful. It warmed my feet, then my waist, and then the lower half of my torso. I slid forward so I could fully immerse myself. I let my body sink all the way beneath, until only my head was above the surface. For about a minute, I gently moved my body beneath the surface, creating tiny waves that I imagined was washing the stench off me.
Next, I asked Dad to give me a soapy towel, so I could wash myself. I was able to scrub my own front and left underarm; he had to do my back and right underarm. When we had finished, the whole tub was murky from soap and dead skin, so I asked him to drain the tub. I sat forward and let the dirty water flow out. Then I turned on the shower head and let it wash the residue from my body. When I was satisfied that I was sufficiently clean, I got ready to climb out of the tub.
This presented several problems I hadn’t anticipated. First, my one good arm was on the inside, so I could not use it to push upward against the edge of the tub. Second, I had very little strength in my left leg, so I could not use it to help me generate any thrust. Third, I was wet, so I couldn’t generate any friction to help me. I asked Dad to brace my left leg. With my foot planted on the floor of the tub, I tried to drive myself backward and higher, so that I could get myself seated on the narrow rim of the tub. But I could only get myself up a few inches before my moist body grew tired and slid back down the steep decline. I tried this about three more times, then I gave up on this method altogether.
Next I told Dad to try pulling on my left arm to try to help me. When he did, I felt a piercing pain in my shoulder. I let out a shriek, and he stopped.
“You have to try grabbing at the elbow, so my shoulder gets support!”
But this was a fruitless effort too. I was discouraged, but then it occurred to me to use the gait belt. This would all Dad a way to pull my body upward without hurting me, and he could pull at my center of gravity for better leverage.
He disappeared to grab the belt from my room. When he came back with it, I told him, “Put it down along my left side.”
“I’m not gonna be able to wrap it around you.”
“Lower it and leave some slack. Then I can use my right to help string it around me.”
When this was done, Dad tied the belt and pulled upward. I tried to help him by pushing with my right hand. We both strained for several seconds, but we couldn’t get me out. We rested about a minute, then we tried it again. This time we grunted and gave it even more effort. But try as we might, we couldn’t get me high enough to get out of the tub.
Now I became dejected. I started imagining myself as William Howard Taft. My time without adequate exercise had caused me to be so fat that I was now stuck in a bathtub. We would have to call 911. In a few minutes, there would be several strangers swarming over my naked body! I tried one more time, pushing as hard as I could. Before I knew it, we had budged me just enough to get my butt up on the rim. We paused and caught our breath. Then I braced my hand against the corner again, so Dad could pull my left leg out of the tub. When it was out, I asked him to bear down on it with both hands, so it was firmly planted on the floor. After I felt it was secure, I swiveled and brought my right leg out. Finally, I was seated outside the tub.
Now it was time to put on underwear. Since I had always done so at the edge of a bed, I’d always been able to use a soft, wide surface. In the bathroom, the toilet was not wide enough, nor was the tub. Moreover, if I lost balance, there were too many hard surfaces where I could hit my head. Still, I was adamant about putting on some type of clothing before I went out into the hallway. So I got up and placed my hands on the vanity.
Next, I instructed Dad, “Okay, I’m gonna lift one foot. You slip the underwear over it. Then we can do the other one.”
I couldn’t get my left leg very high, but he was able to loop the opening over my foot. But when it came to do the right leg, I had difficulty trying to stand on just the left leg long enough. I would lift the right leg, then quickly have to stamp it down in order to keep from falling. After I tried this a few times, it occurred to me to try holding myself up by putting more weight on the vanity. However, because I was not able to use two arms, I couldn’t steady myself.
At last, Dad said, “I don’t think this is very safe.”
I knew he was right. “I don’t know how we can put these on safely,” I admitted.
I sighed. “I guess we’re gonna have to do it in the bedroom.”
“Alright,” Dad said, and started opening the door.
“Wait! Can you check and see if Brandy’s out there?”
He went out and checked both of the front rooms. “I think she’s still sleeping.”
I sat down in the wheelchair and he put a towel over me. We rolled down the hall to my room. I transferred to the bed, where he helped me get dressed.
After we got me dressed, it was time to brush my teeth. Because the wheelchair couldn’t fit through the bathroom doorway, it would mean having to stand, walk in, and stand at the sink. Rather than risk falling, I had Dad stand at the sink and do everything for me. First, he put toothpaste on the toothbrush for me. When I was finished brushing, he handed me an empty cup to spit in. Next, he gave me a cup of water so I could rinse my mouth out. Then I used the spit cup again. After that, I used mouthwash, rinsed, and spat.
This would be our routine to get ready to go out in public most days. Now he wheeled me to the front door. I had him stand outside with his hands in front of my chest. I stood up, placed my cane just outside the threshold, and stepped down with my left foot, followed by my right. Now I walked a yard to the edge of the landing, He stepped down and held his arms out to brace me again. I stepped down the two steps, and I was at ground level.
Now I had to stand perfectly still so he could go back in and bring the wheelchair out. Once he wheeled me to the car, I was able to transfer myself to the seat. I struggled just a little to get the seatbelt on. When I was safely inside, Dad turned the key, and we were off to my next adventure in learning to live in the world again.