By February I was really starting to hit my stride. I was no longer having difficulty waking up by 7:00. If I had a ride to the gym scheduled, I seldom canceled it. My strength, stability, and balance were steadily improving. I was consistently a month ahead of deadline with my blog. Mary was visiting once or twice a week and making friends. My weekly trips to Target were becoming a lot easier. Living at Chateau was allowing me to safely and fully reintegrate into the community.
Around this time, the occupational therapist ordered a rigid cloth-covered splint for my left arm. It came in two parts: The lower section was a sort of board designed to keep my fingers spread and my wrist from bending inward. The upper part fit around my arm from just above the wrist to just below the shoulder. It was designed to remove the permanent bend at my elbow.
Because my arm had been severely bent for over two and a half years, its muscles and connective tissues had become tight. So wearing the splint for too long would become quite painful. I would have to wear it a couple of hours per day until I built up tolerance, then increase the time I wore it by a couple of hours each successive week. By the time I got to the point where I was wearing the splint six hours per day, it was too difficult to make it to therapy and to the gym every day. Instead of going to the gym, I began exercising in the hall.
I would wake up each morning and try to do sidesteps before breakfast. Using a handrail in the hallway, I would place my feet together. Then I would take a broad step to the side. With my feet wide apart, I would perform a squat. Next I would bring the other foot together with the first foot. I would stand straight up before performing the next sidestep. I would do this the length of the ten-foot handrail, then go back in the opposite direction. Every time I did this, I would try to complete five circuits. At first I couldn’t go that low on squats, and I would find myself panting heavily after two passes, but I noticed that my gait quickly became more stable from incorporating all of the muscle groups associated with vertical and lateral movement.
I could feel my glutes and inner thighs tighten after sidesteps. The exercise helped me to correct the posture that had suffered since the stroke. To capitalize on this, I would next practice walking up and down the hall. Although I missed the thrill of the weight machiness, this time spent focusing on legs exercises was invaluable in correcting my stride. I would find – after I returned to the gym – that these exercises would assist me tremendously when I returned to lifting leg weights.
At first I was only able to drive to use the motorized shopping carts with one hand, because my left arm would slowly bend. But between lifting weights and wearing the splint, my arm was gradually straightening out more. One evening, after I settled into a cart, I decided to try to reach out and grab the handlebar with my left hand. To my surprise, it no longer required much effort. I didn’t have any trouble keeping my hand on the handlebar, either. I rode around the store gleefully, shopping and dreaming of the day when I would be able to extend my hand all the way.
I now had a system for my Target visits. I would schedule about two hours. For the first thirty minutes, I would shop. Then I would check out and go to Starbucks. I would blog for an hour or so. When I had about a half hour left, I would go downstairs to use the bathroom. Then I would drive the cart over to the entrance and wait for the Metro Mobility driver to arrive. When I had begun going to Target, I had often worried about urinating on myself or not being ready when my return ride arrived, but I quickly became so proficient that I often found that I had too much time on my hands.
Shopping now felt a lot less chaotic. I wasn’t in a hurry to find everything and make my purchases. Instead, I could actually enjoy the experience, taking time to wander and look around. To stave off any issues, I began going to the restroom as soon as I got to the store. That way I wouldn’t be encumbered by merchandise. At the end of my trips, I’d head to the door about fifteen minutes before my rides arrived. That was still more than enough time to pack, get downstairs, use the restroom again, and get to the door.
Willa began to bring Mary to see me more often. Mary soon attracted quite a following. She would come for three hours at a time, during which we would walk up and down the hall. She would go into the therapy room and the store, where staff members would fawn over her and feed her snacks. I would take her to visit patients who were confined to their beds. Ambulatory patients loved to play with her. There were even patients who asked about her by name yet didn’t know mine.
Seeing the way patients and staff alike lit up when Mary was around caused me to think more realistically about having Mary certified as a therapy dog. My intentions at first had been purely personal. If Mary were certified, she could travel with me or live in apartments that didn’t normally allow pets. Now I wanted to share her with other people. It warmed my heart to watch their faces light up with joy. I wanted to take her to a hospital and a nursing home each week. It would be good for people who needed a little more happiness in their lives.
Now that I was feeling like more a part of the community, I began trying to go more places and increase my variety of activities. One thing I began doing was going for a weekly haircut. Before the stroke, I had shaved my own head about once every four days. After the stroke, my arm movement was so severely limited that I could no longer hold a mirror behind my head, so I couldn’t see what I was doing when I tried to shave the back of my head. I had to go to a barbershop.
I enjoyed the camaraderie at Brookside Barbers in Saint Louis Park. Whenever they shaved my head, the left me looking so sleek and healthy. However, twenty dollars was a lot to spend on a haircut in my condition, so I only went there about once every two weeks. After I moved into Chateau, I began having it shaved every week. With all of my basic needs being met, I felt that I could justify spending a little extra on my personal appearance if it meant feeling happier and more motivated.
The barbers always noted my progress and encouraged me. I shared my blog and my pictures with them. They always had plenty of questions about my plans or my living situation. It was a source of pride that every few weeks I could walk around the shop more easily. One day I will walk into that shop without a cane and sit in a barber chair without any assistance. I will tell them about how arduous the journey was, and we’ll laugh about everything life will yet have in store.
My roommate suffered several health problems. He was an amputee who shook violently at all hours of the day. Every couple of hours he had to be changed, so the room smelled almost constantly. Except to go downstairs for periodic smoke breaks, he seldom got out of bed. He yelled at staff regularly. It was probably just because he was in pain and wasn’t resting well; and it didn’t help that his family members were all out in the suburbs.
All of this made it near impossible for me to sleep. The lights came on every few hours, accompanied by conversation that often escalated to yelling. Once the staff members were gone and the light had been switched off, the light and noise of the TV supplanted them. I had put in a request to change rooms the first week I was there. It was denied without much review, perhaps because I had not described the problem in detail. When I went to my first patient care conference, I enumerated all the ways I was being denied sleep and how I worried that it might compromise my rehabilitation. After this, they admitted that they had not been made aware of the severity of the problem.
Before my care team had a chance to act, my roommate became violently ill. They determined that there was a toxic buildup of fluids in his body. They called 911, and against his protests, took him to the hospital for more tests and observation. I slept better that night than I had in months. I wasn’t happy that he was in distress, but I was desperate for sleep.
I assumed that he wouldn’t be back Sunday, either, because the hospital might not be able to run certain tests before Monday. He didn’t come back Sunday or Monday, and I was thoroughly refreshed after three nights of uninterrupted sleep. By Wednesday, he had still not returned, and the staff informed that he had been moved to a facility closer to his former home.
I was by myself for a little over a week, all the while hoping that I wouldn’t end up in a similar roommate situation, before they moved someone into my room. He seemed friendly, but I could never figure out what he was babbling about. I would later discover that this was a mild dementia. This was exacerbated by a drug binge. A couple of days after he moved in, I caught him smoking in the room. I told him that this wasn’t allowed, and he put it out and went downstairs to the smoking room.
One morning he asked, “Can you crack the window?”
“What for?” I asked.
“I wanna get me a little smoke before breakfast.”
“You can’t smoke in here. That’s what the smoking room is for!”
“I just want to get me a little puff.”
“It doesn’t matter. This is a non-smoking building.”
“But the man last night told me I could.”
“What man told you that?”
“The bald-headed, white dude.”
“I know Jim. He wouldn’t have told you that!”
He insisted that Jim had, but I knew that no staff member had advised him to smoke on the wing – especially not simply because going downstairs would have been too inconvenient. We went in circles with this argument a few times, but ultimately we came to an understanding: No smoking in a no-smoking room. Aside from that one thing, he and I were well matched. He required more assistance than I did, but that need diminished. He slept more deeply than I did, which I envied, and it meant that he did not wake up very often and hit his call light. Best of all, he is remarkably easy going and has a great sense of humor. After we resolved the smoking disagreement, every other misunderstanding was handled with a diplomatic, “It bothers me when you ____. Could you please try not to do it?”
Now I had a home life that was conducive to my efforts at rehabilitation. I was able to relax at night, perform my therapies at any time, and wear my arm splint throughout the day. Some days I went to doctor’s appointments; some nights I went to Target to shop. Several times each day I would go over to the handrails and perform my sidestep exercises
Each time I would step wider and squat deeper. All of the leg muscles I seldom used were activated. With each step my body became stronger and more alive.