Living Thankfully

As November was coming to a close, I realized that it had been 3.5 years since I had almost died of a stoke. I was lifting weights or going to some kind of appointment almost every day of the week. With that kind of schedule, it was easy to get caught up in the minutiae of walking, climbing in and out of vehicles, and exercising. It always felt like I was walking too slowly, having difficulty getting my left foot past an SUV door, or not lifting enough weight to really make a difference. Now Thanksgiving Day was approaching, and I tried to take the opportunity to reflect on everything I had overcome.

It can take some effort for me to allow myself to sit back and congratulate myself for my hard work. I had always remained active for my age, so to me, going to the gym was just something I was supposed to do. And every minute I wasn’t in a weight room, at work, or walking my dog felt like a wasted moment. So taking time to reflect made me feel like I was milking the time off from regular life duties.

But recovering from the stroke did require a lot more downtime than I was used to. I was willing to push my body hard, but it required a lot of rest to repair itself. While I was in the gym, I could push myself very hard. It often felt like I wasn’t doing much at all. But after I got home, I would climb into bed to rest. I had never been one to sleep much, but these workout sessions would cause me to pass out in ten minutes. I would generally wake up one or two hours later. I seldom experience muscle soreness, so the amount of sleep my body required was my gauge for how hard I had worked.

In May of 2015 I had gone into the gym to get a quick workout before work and ended up falling into a coma. I was unresponsive for ten days, during which things were so dire that my parents were advised that they should consider pulling me off life support. It must have been an agonizing decision for them, because there were no guarantees that I would be able to move or feed myself if I ever did wake up.

I emerged from my coma in a hospital bed in Jackson after ten days unable to speak or move my left arm or leg. Pain radiated through my left arm, from my shoulder to my fingertips. There was a feeding tube in my stomach.

Over the next few days, I began practicing sitting up and doing basic hand movement exercises. They performed a tracheotomy so I could begin speaking again. Soon after that, they began helping me move from my bed to a wheelchair. This was painful, but it was necessary to get my body working again. Soon I was going down the hall to workout at a therapy gym, doing speech exercises, and learning to eat a diet of liquids and purees. These activities were exhausting, but they were just a prelude to the couple of months I would spend in a rehabilitation hospital.

I was moved to the rehabilitation hospital in June. My evaluations started the day after I moved in. I still remember how large and inaccessible the room seemed. I was afraid that I would never walk again. My days were filled with draining exercises. Occupational therapy focused on trying to regain the use of my left arm, and everything I did caused excruciating pain. Even speech therapy left me feeling completely exhausted. As daunting as it was, I threw myself at the task of therapy week in and week out, determined to do my best to regain muscle function. Some days I couldn’t stop coughing; other days I exercised so hard that I wet myself on the gym floor. But I felt like every day was my last chance to ever walk again.

Most nights I would lie awake until well past midnight, wondering how normal my body would ever be again, Whatever other abilities I could regain, I at least wanted to be able to lift weights again. I didn’t have an obsession with my image, I just wanted to regain some sort of control over my body. Also, the weight room had always been a sort of Zen setting for me. Even more than before my stroke, lifting weights would help me achieve peace.

I can still remember the first time I was able to move my left leg. I was so excited that I called each of my brothers individually yelling, “I JUST MOVED MY LEFT LEG!” I had to keep performing leg strengthening exercises for almost a month before I was finally able to take my first steps. I practiced walking for a week and a half before I was finally discharged. I was happy to finally be leaving the hospital, but I was also terrified.

I went home to my Dad’s house in Jackson to the same room where I’d grown up, but even as a child I had never felt satisfied in Mississippi. And now that I was spending most of my hours in a bed or a wheelchair, I felt more desperate. I had set a goal of returning to Minneapolis. I was determined to make it work.

I began outpatient therapy the Monday after I got home. The therapists made me do more standing and bending exercises. The progress seemed incredibly slow, but I was gradually gaining leg strength again. One reason why many people don’t get better is that they don’t get much activity outside of physical therapy. To combat lethargy, I began traveling at least every other weekend.

Traveling meant frequent restroom breaks to deal with my nagging incontinence, the chore of climbing in and out of the car, the strain of merely sitting upright at a restaurant table, and passing out from exhaustion on the trip home. I visited several states and even spent time at my brothers’ homes. I seldom felt like I had enough mobility on those road trips, but they had the desired effect of keeping my body moving.

At home, I set a goal of a mile a day – walk in small increments of a hundred steps or so until I achieved that goal each day. In addition to increasing my leg strength, the walking broke up the monotony of my days and burned calories. The height of joy came the day I told the physical therapist that I only used the wheelchair when I came to therapy, and she told me that meant I no longer needed it.

I knew that I would get better health care in Minnesota. Now that returning to my job was no longer an option, I would need to rely on Minnesota’s superior social safety net to afford it. Public transportation would also be better in Minneapolis. The idea of moving there so soon after my stroke still seemed daunting, so I decided to visit for my birthday – late April. I could spend the rest of my time concentrating on rehabilitation and growing accustomed to travel, so I could be ready to travel on my own and live for two weeks away from home.

From the time I got to the airport, I was determined to succeed. After I touched down in Minneapolis, I spent the next fortnight traveling around and getting comfortable with living life in the city. Reconnecting with many old friends at restaurants and parties felt wonderfully life affirming after almost dying a year earlier. By the time I boarded the plane for my flight home, I knew I would be able to move back to Minneapolis soon.

When I stepped off the plane from Minnesota, I was a week away from the first anniversary of my stroke. A year before, I had been much stronger than the average person my age. Then I was completely helpless and lying in a hospital bed. Over the past year, I had begun speaking, walking, and using my left hand. The pain had subsided from my hand and forearm. Now the only part of my body that was still experiencing pain was my left shoulder. I was stretching that shoulder more each therapy session. There would never be an ideal time to move, but I was ready to take my life into my own hands.

I would move back to Minnesota in August. My first task was to find a part-time job. This led to me having health insurance, and by November I was in physical therapy in Minnesota for the first time. I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing that much, but I was. I was finally able to fully dress myself. I transitioned from a quad cane to a single-point cane. By the time that therapy ended in April, I was farther along, but not as progressed as I wanted to be.

Since my insurance plan paid for a free gym membership, the first thing I did was go out and sign up at the nearest fitness club. I started working out again less than two years after my stroke. I could still barely move my left arm, and I couldn’t push much weight with my left leg, but the important thing was that I was back in the gym. Less than two years before, just walking was a dream. Now I was walking into a weight room again.

It took over a year of going to the gym several times a week, stretching, and receiving Botox injections, but I was soon able to push past even more boundaries. My grip increased, so I could walk my dog while holding her leash with my left hand. My left leg regained so much strength that I am now able to bend over and pick up after her when we walk. I’m able to perform proper squats now that my shoulder is limber enough to get my left hand into position. Most of all, I no longer have to worry about tripping and falling because of a dragging left foot. Walking is no longer a perilous chore.

I had to live with family after the stroke. Once I moved back to Minnesota, I still had to live with other people for safety and financial reasons. I also had to rely on others to help me care for my dog. In July I moved out on my own. Now I care for her and am able to cook for myself. Every week I gain strength and master more tasks. I am overjoyed every time I make a modicum of progress. For all of the things I have yet to master, I am humbled when I think of where I was three years ago.

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