Growing Stronger

Around the end of May, I started adding more exercises to my repertoire. My workouts were slowly helping my left shoulder loosen up. Every week I did this, my shoulder pain decreased. I had come a long way since the days when moving my arms hurt. I performed lat pulldowns, to stretch out my shoulder because the heavier the weight on the machine, the more it would pull my arms upward. Some days I would allow my arm to simply hang from the bar for the passive stretch. I was very satisfied to be moving forward.

When I had begun doing this exercise, it was hard just working out with 25 pounds. In a couple of weeks, I had advanced to 50 pounds. In order to get into starting position for this exercise, I would reach up, pull the bar down to me, and get my left hand positioned correctly along it.
As I increased the resistance, I often had to ask people to pull the bar down for me. Otherwise I couldn’t grasp it successfully with my left hand. One person who helped out immensely was a gentleman named Brad. He saw me struggling with the bar one day, and he quietly came over and held the bar in place for me until I could grip it correctly. He enthusiastically offered to help me through my last four sets. When we were done, he offered to help me with any other exercises I needed.

Seizing upon this, I asked him to go over and get one of the Smith machines so I could try doing squats. With Brad’s help, I was able to settle into position on the machine this time with my trunk only slightly rotated to the left. Watching myself in the mirror, I twisted my body to the right and reset my feet.

As I performed my first squat, I found it surprisingly easy. It wasn’t as exhausting as I’d imagined it would be. So I kept going until I reached ten reps, at which point I had become very winded. However I convinced myself to go for five more. Once I hit fifteen, I was gasping so hard that I was afraid that I might pass out. But as I racked the weight, I realized that I was in no danger. This was just the hardest I had pushed myself since the stroke.

I could feel my left leg quiver during those last few reps. The sweat was copious. I had to consciously remember to inhale each time I went down. But when I had finished, I felt like a champion. I repeated this for two more reps. Brad would come over between sets to help me to get into position, and of course shout encouragement. This was the first time it had remotely felt as though I had a partner. It made me want to give maximum effort, because I knew that someone was watching. It was tiring, but I felt so alive.

After we finished, Brad asked if we could take a picture together. I told him that I was planning to put it on my blog. He agreed, because here was one more stranger who was happy to walk with me on my journey back from the precipice.

The following week, I went back to Courage Kenny for my next round of Botox injections. I was getting my normal injections in my arms and legs when it occurred to me to have the doctor inject me near my scapula. I figured that once the muscle relaxer spread, it would allow my entire shoulder region to loosen up. I wasn’t sure how much this would allow me to move my arm independently, but I had visions of being flexible enough to perform squats without assistance.

I told the doctor my plan, and I showed her some of my workout videos. We agreed that it would be of some benefit if I filmed additional video in a few weeks. This would show just how much flexibility the Botox had helped me to achieve. It could serve as documentation in case the insurance company ever decided to review for medical necessity.

The following week, I was back in the gym. When it came time for me to attempt squats, there was no one to assist me. I tried backing up to the bar to do it myself. However after I had gotten both of my hands into position, the tightness in my left shoulder still caused me to lean slightly to that side. I tried untwisting my body, but it didn’t work. Once my arms was wrapped around the bar, my torso became quite rigid. I did a half squat as a way to test whether this posture would work, only to feel far too much pressure in my lower back.

I racked the weight and shimmied out from under it. This wasn’t going to work unless I could find help. I looked around the gym for several but found no assistance. After a while, it became clear that I wasn’t going to get to do two-handed squats that day. So rather than waste any more time, I did a few with one arm, promising myself that the arm would be loose enough by next week to try again.

A week later, I gave squats with the Smith machine another try. It still didn’t work, because my left shoulder wouldn’t allow me to adjust my body yet. Remembering another technique I had used before, I exited the work station then approached the bar from behind. This time I grasped the bar like I would a pair of handlebars. I slid my head and neck beneath it, then walked my body forward. When my body was fully underneath the bar, I stood up to let my shoulders take the weight of the bar. I readjusted my feet so that they were shoulder width apart. Everything felt natural, so I proceeded to do my first 15 reps.

The first set was a warmup set to make sure that I could perform the squats safely. Now I went up to 25-pound weights. I did two sets of 15 reps with these, then I added 5-pound weights for one set. After that, I did one set of 35 pounds. Four working sets left me feeling depleted. But it was a great feeling. I could now perform normal squats any day I went alone to the gym. I felt so empowered.


During the past month I had also started doing additional triceps exercises. Where I had seen very limited success with seated triceps extensions, I had started doing standing extensions. The best way to describe this exercise is to say that it looked similar to pushing down the plunger on a dynamite charge. Because my left arm was so weak, I had to use relatively light weight in order to preserve correct form. I would use my right arm to balance the apparatus, while I concentrated on pushing as hard as I could with my left.

When I began doing this exercise, I was able to do 15 pounds very gingerly. I’d been very shaky and had leaned a little too much on the bar. This had lessened my ability to concentrate adequately on the correct muscle group. Nonetheless I had to rely on my body weight in order to complete the exercise. I would perform this exercise every time I went to the gym, and eventually I was using less of my own weight and gradually growing stronger. Over the next month, I got to the point where I was using 40 pounds of resistance.

My triceps were nowhere near strong enough yet, but between the exercises and wearing my arm splint every night, I felt like I wasn’t completely wasting my time. The splint was keeping my arm straight each night. I was able to straighten it a little more each week. Where I could tell the most difference was in my ability support my own body weight with my elbow. While in Mississippi, my therapists had asked me to try to rest on my elbows. Each time I tried, I had collapsed. Now I had enough strength in my triceps to brace myself and stay upright.

My success was not without setbacks. One night I was lying in bed, when I began to feel uncomfortable. I was lying on my right side when all of a sudden I had to roll over on my back. After a few seconds on my back, I decided that I would be better off on my stomach. I was having one of those bizarre nights when your bones feel too heavy for your flesh and always sink, causing you pain.

As I rolled over on the narrow bed, I tried to elevate my body so that I was spinning in place. This didn’t work. My feet got tangled in my sheets, and I ended up falling on the floor. It would have been disorienting enough had I merely fallen on my side of the room, but I fell through the curtain that was supposed to act as a partition between my roommate’s side and mine.

I rolled around until I could get free of the curtain. As I did so, I heard several of his personal items hit the floor. While I writhed around trying to get up one one knee, I prayed I didn’t knock over anything sharp or wet. Finally I got my left foot planted on the floor. Next I got up on my right knee, placed my right arm on the bed, then pushed myself up to sit on the bed. After all of this activity, it didn’t matter what position I fell asleep in for the rest of the night.

A couple of days later, I went out for dinner. When my Metro Mobility ride arrived, the driver pulled the bus so far forward that he was beyond the pavement. Once he got out, I asked him to back up, so I wouldn’t have to walk through mud. He complied and got back in. I decided to help speed up the process by sidling to my left. That way I would already be in position when he opened the door.

I must not have picked my left foot high enough, because I tripped and fell sideways. It felt like I was falling in slow motion, but I fell to my left, so I couldn’t brace my arm to break my fall. My elbow hit the pavement with a heavy thud. I stepped quickly onto the bus so the medical staff couldn’t be alerted to come out and prevent me from leaving.

Inside the bus, while the driver sterilized and bandaged the wound, I had time to replay what had happened in my mind. I should have just waited behind the rail. I should’ve picked up my left foot higher. I should’ve held the railing as I stepped sideways. There was one thing that was obvious about both recent falls: I still needed to concentrate on the mechanics of what I was doing. My body was getting stronger every week, but I still had to be mindful of the ways in which it was compromised. I had come a long, long way, but the journey continued.

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