I had been out of physical therapy for my left leg since last year. So now my quest to move beyond needing a cane was completely self-directed. I needed a cane because the muscles below my knee were very weak. I walked with a brace to help my foot lift off the ground, but now the muscles of my upper leg were so strong that I might be able to lift my foot high enough by brute strength.
The brace ran from the top of my calf down along the back of my leg and beneath the sole of my foot. It not only kept my toes from dragging but also stopped my foot from twisting when I walked. My biggest issue was that, without the brace, I couldn’t step down with my heel. The brace made certain that my stride was a natural heel-toe motion every time I stepped.
But while this made walking easy, it wasn’t helping me to develop the independence I needed to walk without the cane. For instance, I was lifting leg weights much better with my new brace. But while the rest of my leg was getting stronger, my ankle was not. Because the brace was stabilizing it and providing support through all movement, the ankle didn’t have to absorb any shock or stabilize itself. I also wanted to be able to feel the pressure of the floor against my toes and the ball of my foot. As it was right now, there was too much padding between my foot and the floor. My leg would need to feel the movement and strain of working out again.
To accommodate the brace, I’d had to order shoes a size larger. These had felt bulky and lifting weights in them had taken some getting used to. My right foot would sometimes slip around inside its shoe if it had to be elevated. But the larger shoes seemed to make balance easier by providing a larger surface area against the floor. So I ordered a pair of Nikes that were a half size larger than I normally wore. That way, it wouldn’t be such a dramatic difference when I switched between shoes. To ease the transition, I planned to work out for an hour with the brace, then shift to the smaller shoe and work out for a half hour. This way my ankle would get a lot of feedback while in correct position, then I could work on strengthening it while trying to hold it in the correct position. After a few weeks, I would gradually spend more time without the brace until I was ready to walk without it.
My shoes were scheduled for delivery the second Wednesday in April. Since UPS generally just leaves my packages outside my door, I didn’t schedule any trips outside of the building for that afternoon. It would mean that I had to spend a lot of time around the apartment feeling restless, but I didn’t want anyone stealing something that I had designed and paid for.
I waited around all day. Mary was happy to have my company and she was even happier to get to spend additional time outdoors. I was not receiving email updates about the shipping progress of my package as I normally would have, so I kept opening the door, hoping to see a box sitting in the hallway. I knew I could count on Mary to bark if she heard someone outside the door, but I was just too eager to sit still. By 5:00 pm, there was still no package. I went online and chatted with a representative at nike.com. His query revealed that the shoes had never left the warehouse in Vietnam, so he ordered rush shipping on them and assured me that I would receive them in three to five days.
I began receiving shipping updates by text message the following morning. The first one estimated that they would be delivered on Tuesday. It was Saturday, so I went to the gym for three straight days and worked out with renewed intensity. I wanted my left leg performing at optimal level to get an accurate sense of how well it could do with and without the brace. This would help me strategize how to begin working out safely in my new shoes.
The shoes were finally delivered on Tuesday afternoon. I tore then out of the box and placed them next to my current shoes for a size comparison. They seemed to be the same length, prompting me to wonder if I had ordered the wrong size; these were supposed to be smaller because I would wear them without a brace. I slipped them on, and I could instantly feel how snug they were. They were a half-size smaller than the shoes I had been wearing but a half-size larger than my normal size. I was confident that I had made the right choice; I would be able to shift between each pair during the same workout and not feel disoriented.
I was eager to begin working out in the new shoes, but I knew I had to wait until the following week because I wanted my ILS worker with me in the gym for safety. I decided to test them out by walking around in my apartment with the laces untied. This went better than I thought, so I went down to the assisted living office to have them tied. After that, I went down to the basement to practice walking.
I was thoroughly surprised at how easy walking was. I had expected that I would be able to lift my leg higher. This would help to eliminate the problem of foot dragging. But I had anticipated having a problem with my foot drooping. Quite the contrary, every time I stepped, my toe pointed upward and my heel struck the floor first. My foot no longer had a tendency to twist when I walked either. It was just as I had hoped: the brace had retrained my foot to stride properly, so my brain was remembering what to do even when I was no longer wearing it. This reassured me that I would eventually be walking and exercising exclusively in regular shoes again.
The following night, something truly chilling happened. It had been raining all day. Since the skies were overcast and dreary, I had only let Mary out to use the restroom and come right back in. I wanted to let her out one more time, but I was feeling unmotivated. Then I heard a loud thud. At first I thought a transformer had blown. When the lights failed to go out, I decided to get up and take Mary out immediately. I didn’t want to wait until there was lightning, driving rain, or an elevator outage. I would have to choose between the risk of her having an accident indoors and the risk of me slipping down in the storm.
After we were in the elevator, a building worker got on in a panic, then got off on the ground level. For a brief second, I saw a gathering of emergency workers. While I could tell that something serious had occurred, I wasn’t deterred from continuing to the basement and letting Mary out. Once we were back inside and headed up in the elevator, an assisted living worker riding with us explained that someone had jumped out of a window and committed suicide. “Yeah, they say he was up on the 19th flo’.”
“What side of the building?”
“He landed on the roof above the front door. So it had to be outta 902.”
“That’s right above me! I bet that was that loud sound I heard.”
“Probably so. You could hear it all over the front half of the building.”
I lived in 302 and was one floor above where he must have landed.
When we reached my apartment, I unleashed Mary then walked over to the window. The whole scene was surreal. The man lay there with his arms stretched out to the sides. He had one knee bent and his hips were turned in a natural way. His head was against the surface as if upon a pillow. Except for what I knew had happened, he could have merely been sleeping.
The same assisted living worker I had just seen in the elevator had often told me about people who had chemical dependency issues or who otherwise suffered from loneliness and depression. Until recently there had been several suicides a year in the building. Someone would just grow tired of life, go up to an upper floor, and jump out of a window.
I could see how easy it might be to lose all hope in this building. Most of the people – myself included – suffered from a serious mental or physical illness. Most of us didn’t work full time. Most of the non-residents who came into the building were staff or Hennepin County social service workers. All of the residents lived on fixed incomes. There was enough money to live on, but not much to do other things with. There was isolation and a concentration of human misery. You had to find things that motivated you to keep on living, because there were not enough external incentives.
Working on my blog gives me the drive to keep moving forward. It keeps me sharing my successes and my days. My blog isn’t so much for my recollection as it is a way to reach out and inspire others. It’s easier not to feel isolated when you know that there are others reading your words and using them as a source of strength or cheering you on. So the blog has become less of a job and more of something I feel called to do.
Another thing I love doing is going through my photos. If I view them in chronological order, I can see the progression of my recovery. I might start with pictures from when I was confined to a hospital bed. Then there are pictures after I was released but still in a wheelchair. There are pictures from when each of my brothers first saw me stand. I even have a picture of my niece as a newborn and the photos from a year later when I could finally hold her myself. Taken individually, these are nice photos, but the main thing that keeps me going is seeing how far I have already come.
The final thing that keeps me going is that I literally keep going. I have a dog I am responsible for. I feed her twice a day and I have to let her out three times a day. This means that I have to dress, walk, bend down, and maintain my balance no matter how I feel. There are days when I feel groggy. There are days when I feel down. But I have to clear my head enough to know that I won’t end up on the ground.
I also try to get up and go somewhere every day. Most days I go to the gym, where strengthening my muscles has an obvious physical recovery purpose. But my body keeps building natural endorphins as well. People will often stop and greet me, and strangers often interrupt me to tell me how much I inspire them. When I’m not at the gym, I will spend my outing at a doctor’s appointment, physical therapy, shopping, or at a movie or restaurant. These are opportunities to work on passive rehabilitation. I have to walk, talk, force my eyes to focus. These skills and the small victories that come from improving them might seem insignificant, but they are the practice and the process of living a post-stroke life.