I was finally getting into a regular rhythm now. I was going to outpatient therapy three times per week and traveling every fortnight. It felt like I’d been through a fierce grind whenever I finished a therapy session or road trip, but on the days between activities, I felt bored and eager. Since then, I have learned of the importance of resting after periods of intense exercise, but at the time, it didn’t seem like I was doing enough. So I was delighted when they informed me that it was time to graduate from outpatient therapy in mid-November.
I was hoping for a small ceremony that might cause all of the activity at the outpatient center to grind to a halt. I didn’t have any pretenses about how important I was. It was just that I was at a time when I felt powerless. My world seemed so small that – like a small child – I wanted every milestone to be celebrated with me, no matter how miniscule. However, there was no ceremony. A few of the staff members merely posed for a group photo with me. They had to work with other people who were trying to get their own lives back on track, so it was kind of them to help me document one moment on my journey.
The following week, we went to Quest Rehabilitation Center. The other two facilities were where they treated me for the acute effects of the stroke; at Quest, they would help me to work on the skills it would take for me to return to work. As I realized that AT&T was only required to hold my job for me for another six months, I became almost singularly focused upon the task of returning to work. If I needed to be cleared to return to work by May, I would be ready by February.
The thing that stands out the most about my first day is how arduous speech therapy was. A lot of the speech therapy in the hospital and in outpatient had involved cognitive tasks. Here, it was all breathing and speaking practice. And while this was specifically what I had wanted, it was draining. They trained me to breath from my diaphragm, to take in large gulps of air and to slowly exhale as I tried to speak in phrases with natural pauses. I practiced consonant drills and tongue twisters. At the end of each speech therapy session, my vocal chords would be hurting, and I would leave Quest speaking to people as little as possible.
Just before the first weekend in December, I suffered my first setback since waking up from my coma. I was walking toward the front door at the end of my session when I fell, bringing the physical therapist down with me. Several people rushed in order to help me to my feet. They wanted to have me kneel on one leg, then push myself up with my arm. This was very difficult, and I ended up flailing around as I had done at the hospital, when they had tried to teach me the proper technique to get up off the floor.
Finally, I cried, “Can I just have you each hold one of my arms and help me up?”
The psychologist answered, “That’s not the correct way to do it.”
“That’s how I do it at home!”
“You shouldn’t do it that way; you could injure their back.”
I was still trying to lift myself, and I kept falling. My frustration was mounting. Finally, I spat out, “Well I don’t have four people at home barking instructions, and pushing and pulling on me!” I tumbled onto my side, desperate for anyone to help me and not knowing when I would get up off the floor.
Realizing that I had to stop and compose myself, I quit moving and caught my breath. I asked someone to hold my left shoulder, since I couldn’t use my left arm to push myself off the floor. Next, someone else planted and braced my left foot. Yet another person grabbed a chair for me to balance my right elbow on. One of them counted to three, and I pushed upward with every muscle that could still function. My body rose just high enough for them to help me pivot onto the chair.
I was relieved and completely out of breath. The physical therapist got me a drink of water and told me to take deep breaths. The other workers went back to what they were doing, and the physical therapist asked me what happened to make me lose balance. I didn’t have a clue. With such a lack of control and awareness, everything had happened too quickly for me to even gather my thoughts. I just knew that I had fallen.
The next day, I had a morning physical therapy sessions. The person working with me was a substitute with whom I had never worked. She had me attempt a step exercise that I was not familiar with. My right foot got trapped, and I didn’t have enough movement in my left foot to correct. I tumbled onto the floor again. Embarrassed, but not thinking much of the incident, I left for my weekend in Memphis.
When I came back the followed week, they brought out a safety chair they wanted me to sit in, so they could wheel me to the back. Assuming that they would refuse to treat me otherwise, I consented. They had me perform standing and walking exercises that day before using the chair to bring me back to the front. I assumed it was a temporary thing.
However, over the next few weeks, it became obvious that they had no plans to stop using the chair. Every step I had achieved to this point had been exhausting, very hard won. So it felt insulting to be asked to move backward. If the staff at Quest were empathetic to my feelings of being a humiliated patient in their charge, they in no way made that empathy known. They seemed to be preoccupied with liability as opposed to humanity.
I felt powerless, so I began complaining and displaying a bad attitude. When this had no effect, I began swearing loudly and regularly, because I assumed that it would offend their Bible Belt sensibilities. Eventually they wanted to have a talk with me about my treatment plan. I asked shortly into the session how long it would be before we could stop using the chair.
The psychologist said something like, “We have to make sure that you’re safe.”
I was profoundly annoyed, because I felt like he was insulting my intelligence. It wasn’t like I didn’t already understand the liability issue.
At the end of the meeting, an elderly woman said, “We’re gonna have to ask you to watch your language.”
I fired back, “The chair makes me uncomfortable, so I guess we’re all just going to have to deal with things that make us uncomfortable.”
They ended the meeting. Their body language didn’t suggest that anything had been resolved. We were at a stalemate. I needed their services. They needed my insurance to keep paying. It was little more than a transactional relationship. I don’t think there was animosity, but neither party was happy.
Outside of therapy, I was continuing to get back to a normal life. I had overheard my brother, Ivory, tell his girlfriend that this was the first time he’d seen me every month since we had lived together, plus I had not seen his new home in St. Louis. We decided that I would come for a week in January. This would be another cause for nervous optimism: I had been on several road trips, but this would be my second time away from home. It would mean coping with negotiating a completely different living space.
The thing I remember most about the trip north was first seeing the open faces of the hills of southern Missouri. I always feel close to the Mississippi River when I see bluffs. It was dark when we arrived at Ivory’s house. I had to walk up an inclined driveway, then step up into the house. That seemed a little intimidating, but I was able to step my right foot over the threshold and lift myself inside
My room was at the end of the hall. Even though I had to walk over carpets, I didn’t have trouble walking. The bed was low to the ground, which would make it easier to dress at bedside because my feet would be squarely on the floor. I had to place my urinal atop a chest of drawers, so standing and urinating would be something I would have to do very carefully. Finally, the wall plug was too far away for me to lie in bed with my phone. Ivory brought an extension cord in for me to use. Now I was able to go to sleep knowing that the room was set up to accommodate every need I might have.
I didn’t go anywhere Sunday or Monday. Instead, I concentrated on walking 6,000 steps each day. I would get up around 9:00, go to the kitchen and eat breakfast at the island. During the course of the meal, I would try to walk back and forth between bites, until I had my first thousand. After breakfast, Ivory would switch on ESPN and use his company laptop to work from home. I would walk intermittently, getting my next 2,000 steps in by lunch. After lunch, I would walk another 2,000 steps, getting rid of some calories in the bargain. Then I could casually walk the last 1,000 steps during the NFL night game.
On Tuesday afternoon, we went on our first sightseeing tour. Ivory drove me down to University City and showed me where the colleges were. Then he took me to Ackert Walkway so I could get a picture of the Chuck Berry statue. Ivory had to park the minivan, so I walked up to the statue by myself. It felt a little unnerving to walk the twenty feet or so alone, but I was proud when I got there. I steadied myself by holding onto his guitar. When Ivory got there, he snapped several pictures.
The next day, we went downtown. First, we parked and walked down to a park so I could get a picture of the Gateway Arch. I was surprised at how easy it was to walk. After we left the Arch, he dropped me off across the street from Busch Stadium. This was the first time I would have to cross a street. I was still very slow, so it took me two cycles of the traffic light to get across. However, there was virtually no traffic, and I made it without incident.
When I got to the stadium, I was awestruck by the statues of legendary Saint Louis Cardinals. I paused to take several pictures, then went inside to the gift shop. The entire experience felt surreal because this was a storied stadium for a storied franchise. Moreover, just half a year ago, I had been lying in bed dreaming about the day when I would walk again. I finished most of my 6,000 steps before I ever got back in the minivan.
The week in Saint Louis offered many moments that were challenging and intimidating. But most of all, it was inspiring. I did a lot of walking indoors and outdoors; I fell off the couch twice and was able to lift myself back onto it; I had to figure out the layout of the house and plan how to move safely around it. When I returned to Jackson, it was with the knowledge that it would be possible to live away from home.