It was January 2018, four months until the third anniversary of my stroke. I had moved cross country, started working, figured out transportation, and successfully made it in Minneapolis for more than a year. Presently, I had food, shelter, medical care, and rehabilitation therapy. I was even going to the gym several times a week. These were all of the basic things I needed for survival, but I wanted more. I wanted to be able to do things like walk my dog and move around the city without having to be in controlled environments. To put it another way, I wanted to become an active participant in life again.
I had gone to Starbucks to blog once. Because I had control issues, I had taken my backpack and laptop with me each time I had gone to the restroom for fear that they might be stolen. I checked and rechecked my pockets several times an hour, because I was terrified of misplacing them. Incontinence was always a concern as well, so I went to the restroom more frequently than I had to, just trying to head off emergencies. I spent a significant part of my first trip to Starbucks packing and unpacking all of my belongings around trips to the restorative.
After my first trip, I had successfully walked across four lanes of traffic, and hadn’t fallen, wet myself, or had anything stolen. With these triumphs, my anxiety about going out alone had come down. I realized that I could go out and about without disaster becoming inevitable. I decided to make going to the coffee shop a weekly thing. I also decided to start making weekly shopping trips to Target. This would allow me opportunities to walk, blog, and handle money, so I wouldn’t be nervous when the weather changed and I could be out every day.
The first time I went to Target, I had to figure out which was the closest. Google advised me that the main store downtown was the closest location. Since it was less than a mile away, I knew a trip via Metro Mobility would be less than a half hour, even if they had to drop off other riders along the way. I only had to purchase a few items: disposable razors, socks, deodorant, toothbrushes, mouthwash, and snacks. I had been to the main store years ago, but I had no idea where these items would be stocked now. My biggest fear was that the bus to return home would arrive before I had checked out, and I would be stranded. So I called Metro Mobility and booked a trip for 90 minutes, figuring that the timeframe could accommodate any disaster.
The bus dropped me off at Target a half hour ahead of schedule. I found a motorized cart behind the registers and sat in it to do my shopping. I couldn’t reach the handlebar with my left hand, so I used my right to stretch my left out. I was able to close my left hand around the handlebar, but my grip was weak, and my arm kept snapping back. Finally I grew sick of trying, and just drove with one hand.
The snacks were easy to find. They were conveniently located in the back corner of the first floor. The socks were in menswear at the front of the store, so I found those next. Toys were in plain view of menswear. I bought a $10 Lego set to assemble as part of my occupational therapy, and as an homage to the memory of my mother. All of the toiletries were on the second floor. I found them all within a few aisles of one another. All of my shopping was done, and I still had over an hour left before my ride was scheduled to arrive. I went through checkout on the second floor then headed over to Starbucks.
The first thing I noticed was that the Starbucks wasn’t really spacious enough to accommodate anyone driving a motorized shopping cart. There was just enough space for me to drive up to the register, but there would not be enough for me to swivel around and return to my seat after I was done. Instead I drove the cart to the edge of where people line up for the register, then got out and walk. The whole time I was worried about someone stealing the things I had purchased (The fact that I could no longer run left me terrified that a thief could grab anything I owned and get away easily). After I had paid for my drink, the barista agreed to bring it out to met.
I found a seat near the doorway to the store. So that I could truly relax, I took my bags out of the shopping cart and placed them next to me. I drank my frappuccino, imagining that I could bring my laptop and work on my blog, while surrounded by the intoxicating sights and sounds of downtown Minneapolis. Although the idea seemed wonderful, it would add an indispensable item for me to worry about having stolen. I went back to listening to my videos and taking in the atmosphere.
I finished my drink about thirty minutes before my ride was scheduled to pick me up. I piled all of my purchases back into the cart and drove to the elevator to the street level. The restrooms were behind the registers, so I drove over and asked a team member to watch my things while I went to use it. After I stood up, I found that walking was surprisingly easier than I assumed it would be. I went to the latrines, the sink, and back to the cart quickly and safely. Then I drove over to the store entrance so my driver could find me easily. The whole time I kept thinking, “Before I’m discharged from transitional care, I will be walking through Target instead of riding on a cart.” That’s the way physical rehabilitation works: You always pursue multiple milestones so you don’t become frustrated at how slow you’re progressing towards any single goal.
I had made sure to get a letter from the doctor when I was inpatient in January stating that Mary was my emotional support animal. Although dogs weren’t allowed to stay at the facility, they are allowed to visit if there is proof of immunizations and a letter from the physician. I did have reservations about her visiting, because although Mary adores humans, she has never been to obedience school. She doesn’t respond to many commands, and she loves nothing more than roughhousing with male dogs. Having her visit people in a skilled nursing facility might be a mistake.
Mary was staying with my friend Willa in Northeast. Willa brought her to see me one Tuesday evening. I had not seen Mary in about three weeks, and I had very little outside stimulation, so I looked forward with an overwhelming amount of anticipation. It was just after dinner when Willa and Mary arriving, so I was sitting in the dayroom. When Mary saw me, Willa let go of the leash. Mary sprinted over and began licking me. Willa told me that she could pick Mary up in a few hours.
I hugged and stroked Mary for a while, then I stood up, put her leash in my left hand, and tried to walk her. My grip was not very strong, and my arm was pretty stiff. I couldn’t guide the leash, but Mary was pretty good at figuring out where I wanted her to walk. We walked all the way to the end of the hall and all the way back. That took a great deal of my energy, and I sat down to rest. I knew that Mary was young and very energetic, so I committed to walking her down the hall two more times.
A few people came up and asked if they could pet Mary. I told them that she would love it. Mary was eager to interact with patients, but she was remarkably gentle. Her only issue was trying to maneuver around the wheels and stirrups so she could gain access to people sitting in wheelchairs. A few of the patients suffer depression, but they were positively giddy when interacting with Mary. By the time Willa came to take Mary home, several of the patients were asking when she could come again.
My trips to the gym were going very well, too. Every morning before I left, I would have to unlock my closet and grab my coat. When I first began this ritual, I would have to try for several minutes to balance the lock so that the keyhole was facing upward. Then I would have to push the key in. Invariably I would knock the lock over and have to start the whole process again. I would go through this cycle several times before I finally unlocked the lock, never knowing how long it would take me to get it right.
In addition to unlocking the lock, I would put on my coat, sign myself out, and wait for the elevator to go down to the ground floor. I would write very slowly to make sure the words were legible. Putting on my clothes was always more difficult if I hurried. We only had one elevator in the building, so you never knew how long it might take. With so many variables, anything could go wrong and cause me to miss my ride. To avoid this, I would get ready thirty minutes before my ride was scheduled to come.
After I had been going to L.A. Fitness again for a few weeks, I started running into people I knew. One was my friend Julio. Julio was someone I had known from soccer, so I asked for a little help with leg presses. I wore a brace on my lower left leg to stabilize my foot when walking. While it helped me a great deal, it constricted natural movement when I lifted leg weights. I needed to wear it to the gym, temporarily remove it, and place it back on before leaving. Julio works out of town quite a bit, so we decided to try working out together on a Sunday.
On the day we finally met up, I sat down on the leg press; Julio removed the brace and tied my shoe. He took a video of me performing one set. I pushed more weight, and I was able to bend my leg more deeply than I had in almost three years. After I had finished five sets, he congratulated me on all of my hard work and assured me that he could tell I would regain my strength. I thanked him deeply for the support. The leap I had taken forward was measurable this time.
One of the biggest hurdles at the time was taking a shower. It was cold outside, and I had a dread of getting wet and getting a chill. I also didn’t have a robe or shower shoes. So the whole affair just seemed far too inconvenient. It was still early in my stay, so I didn’t have a lot of balance or energy. Convenience and falling still factored heavily into most of my daily decisions. I had also been reluctant to shower because I dreaded needing help to do so. Had I been at home, I could have walked to and from the shower in privacy, eliminating the need for a lot of clothing. In a facility with other patients, I needed someone to walk alongside me and keep me covered – at least for now.
One day I finally worked up the courage to ask for help taking a shower. The CNA prepared the shower and brought me a hospital robe. Once I got to the shower room, I saw that there was no wall on one side of the shower, causing me to wonder how the water stayed in. There was a shower chair, but it was so high that I couldn’t bend over safely while seated. The CNA put down several towels on the floor to catch the excess water that didn’t make it down the drain.
When the warm water began cascading down on me, it felt so wonderful that I wondered why I had avoided the shower for so long. The CNA poured body wash on a washcloth. As she lathered up my body, I could smell my skin take on the scent of the body wash. When everything was done, I felt fresh and full of life. I was inspired to think of the day when I would be able to stand up and do the simple things in my life without assistance.