I had been out of the hospital for a little over a month. I was having dinner with my dad one Friday, when I received a call from a coworker asking if I wanted her ticket to an LSU game in October. I thanked her for her consideration but told her that there was probably no way I could go. First, I didn’t have transportation to Baton Rouge. Second, how would I be able to move around Tiger Stadium if I could make it there?

I hung up feeling defeated. The stroke had taken so much from me. I might never have a normal life again. What would I do for the rest of my days?

Then I began thinking, If you ever want a shot at a normal life, you have to start doing normal things. The last three months have been the biggest challenge you could imagine. You’re going to have to continue to fight just as hard for a long, long time. The first step in this journey is right now. You need to resolve to go to Tiger Stadium, then figure out the details. That is going to have to be how you attack life from now on. I called my friend back and accepted the ticket.

I knew my brother, Jonathan, and his wife were huge LSU fans. I texted him, What are you doing on October 3rd?

Going to LSU versus Central Michigan.

I have a ticket to that game.

Cool. Cool.

We should meet up.

Definitely.

I started eating dinner again. I told Dad about my new plan. He told me that he was happy that I was going to see my brother again Then it occurred to me that I should talk to my other brother and see if he wanted to go. So I called him right before I even finished my meal.

“Hello.”

“Hey, Ivory.”

“How’s it going?”

“I’m alright. Jonathan and I are going to the LSU game on October 3rd, and I was wondered if you wanted to go.”

“I think I might be free that weekend; who are they playing?”

“Eastern Michigan.”

“Yeah, my schedule looks clear. That sounds like fun.”

All three brothers had not been together since Thanksgiving 2011. Jonathan and Ivory had each seen me during my stay in the hospital, but it was never at the same time. This would be a great time. Although I had made strides after emerging from my coma, this was the first concrete event I had to look forward to.

When I got to therapy Monday, I told my occupational therapist my plan. She thought it sounded like a good goal. It would give me something to work toward. I threw myself into my exercises after that. I didn’t know how much muscle function I would regain over the next month, but I could build strength and endurance.

Ivory found tickets for himself and his girlfriend online. We decided that they would come down and drive me to Baton Rouge. There, we would meet up with Jonathan. I remembered a set of Christmas stockings Mama had made for us when we were in elementary school. The stockings she made for Ivory and Jonathan were red. Mine was green. At the time, I didn’t like having the odd color. Now I thought it would be reminiscent of childhood to have then wear purple or yellow, and have me wear the opposite color.

It was a long month of furious workouts, but Friday, October 2nd came at last. Ivory and his girlfriend, Sharon, came down from Saint Louis with Sharon’s son. They would spend the night, then we would all drive down in the morning. The plan was to get to town early and have lunch with Jonathan and his wife, Candice, before going to the game.

The next morning, I had Dad help me take a warm bath. When I was finished, I asked him to help me out. However, I got stuck again. Dad tried several times to pull me up – even using the gait belt – but he couldn’t get my body to budge. Apparently, we were going to need help. I had gotten used to Dad seeing me in the nude, but I was terrified of having anyone else see me naked. So I asked Dad to go get a pair of underwear from my room. We slipped it on, then we called Ivory.

When Ivory came in, I started to explain how I wanted him to help. He reminded me that he had been a medical officer in the navy and that he had been trained on how to use a gait belt. I counted to three and had him pull upward. We got me out of the tub without much effort. I went back to my room where Dad helped me to get dressed, then Ivory, Sharon, and I went outside with Dad. He snapped a few pictures of us, then the three of us climbed into the minivan got on the road.

After about an hour, we approached the state line. Since we were running about an hour behind schedule, we called Jonathan and told him how far behind were. We were going to be seated in different sections, so he suggested that we meet up after the game. Sharon, Ivory, and I stopped at the welcome center and had our pictures taken by the statue of the Louisiana state map.

An hour later, we drove into the Baton Rouge metropolitan area. Game day traffic had brought interstate travel to a crawl. It was even slower once we turned off onto campus. Parking was expensive and next to impossible. We had driven a few blocks past the stadium when Ivory spied a grassy field where people were parking for free. He drove onto it. I protested, saying that we should find an attendant, but he was not worried. My fear was that since I was still in a wheelchair, I could not run around looking for an impound lot in the event that the vehicle got towed. The stroke had left me feeling vulnerable. Undeterred, Ivory parked the minivan and we got out.

The ground where we parked was a bit rough, and Ivory never could have pushed the chair with me in it. Instead, I held onto one of the handles and used it as a walker until I got to smoother ground. Then I sat down in the chair, and he pushed me the three blocks to the stadium. We got through the gate and took the elevator up to the top.

When we got off the elevator, Ivory wheeled me to our section. Now I had to figure out how to get to my seat. I went to the right side of the section, so the guardrail would be on my right side. I asked Ivory to walk down in front me so I wouldn’t fall forward. Then I slowly advanced down the steps, each time stepping down with the left, then bringing the right one to rest beside it. When I got to my row, I realized that I could not safely sidle over to my seat. Since we were on bleachers, I asked every other person to stand up, so I could sit down on the end of a bleacher and slide across to my seat. The other attendees were very kind and obliged me. They cheered encouraging words to me, saying things like, “Now that’s a dedicated Tiger fan!”

We were so high up in the stadium that my head swam a little. I could see the Mississippi River meandering beneath the bridges. We snapped several more pictures before the game started. The first half was closer than anticipated, but I got the chance to participate in the cheers that I had only heard on TV. I didn’t have strong lungs, but I yelled as forcefully as I could. My voice gave out much of the time, but it felt amazing.

I still suffered from incontinence, so I decided to use the restroom at half time. Sine I still could only use a guardrail on the right side of my body, I slid to the other end. I wasn’t prepared for how tiring it would be to climb up to the top of the section. By the time I pulled myself all the way up the railing, I was sweaty and out of breath.

A security officer saw me and asked, “Is everything alright? Was there a fight?”

“Don’t worry. I had a stroke.”

“Just now?”

I wondered how he thought I could have just suffered a stroke and been this ambulatory and competent. “No, it was in June. That’s why I’m tired.”

We’d left my wheelchair at the top of the section. Ivory went over to get it. I was starting to get urgent signals that I had to pee. When he brought the chair back, I had him push me to the bathroom. The urge got stronger, warning me that I was about to wet myself. I slammed the door behind me, wheeled to the toilet, and stood up. I ripped my pants down, and a torrent of urine shot into the toilet. I felt so relieved. When I was finished, I washes my hand and returned to my seat.

Sharon told us that, while we were gone, a lady behind us had told her that she was a physical therapist. She couldn’t imagine one of her patients doing what I was doing. This made me feel proud, because I seldom felt like I was putting forth maximum effort. (I have a tendency to measure my exercise output against my former self. So it’s good to hear another perspective periodically.) The game had now become a rout, and I asked Ivory to go get me a hotdog. I figured eating solid food would make me less likely to need to urinate.

Once the game was over, we went down and met Jonathan and Candice at one of the merchandise tents. I had to purchase a few souvenirs and a gift for a friend. Jonathan and Candice walked in around the same time we did. Since they hadn’t seen me outside of a hospital bed, I rose to my feet and gave him a hug. I took pictures with both my brothers, and with all five of us. It was wonderful, all of us standing there together.

After I made my purchases, we decided on a place where we could grab a late dinner. There, we laughed and joked and talked about old times. For months, I had been a hospital patient. Now I was really starting to feel alive again. We kept talking until the restaurant closed. Then we went outside and continued talking. I didn’t say that much. Speaking was still very effortful for me and would leave me exhausted. But I enjoyed the feeling of being surrounded by love and family.

We stood there talking for about an hour, but then Ivory announced to Jonathan that we had to get on the road. We stopped at a gas station on the edge of town, and I had Ivory go in and buy me a large root beer fountain drink. Then we sped off into the darkness. Intermittent shafts of moonlight pierced the minivan, periodically illuminating my shopping bag. I took my treasures out of the bag one by one and admired them in the flickering light. These trinkets were parts of the new memories I would forge ahead to build.

Read more

We drove to outpatient physical therapy in Flowood. It was also a Methodist Rehabilitation Center provider. I was still not making my own medical decisions at the time, so I was just of the opinion that someone else was supposed to always tell me what the next step was in the treatment process. My trip to outpatient therapy was made with a sense of duty and the hope that maybe these people could tell me when it would be time to walk again.

I went to the waiting room, still in the wheelchair. (Whenever I went anywhere in the wheelchair, I was strapped in by a seatbelt.) Dad handed me a clipboard to fill out and sign intake paperwork. Although I still had difficulty staying within the lines on the forms, I was proud that I was finally developing the eyesight and fine motor skills to be able to fill out forms on my own again, because I had not been able to just two short months before.

When I was called back to the gym area of the outpatient facility, I marveled at how much more spacious it was than the one at the hospital. It had a larger floor plan with even more workout stations. To the rear, there was a tall staircase, leading to an upstairs area. I wondered how long it would be before I was climbing those stairs myself. I couldn’t wait to get started.

The first thing I had was occupational therapy. The lady who conducted it, Pam, had me do exercises with e-stim that would help me to use my triceps and fingers. E-stim moved my fingers a little and helped my triceps move forward a little bit, but it didn’t let me open my hand completely or extend my arm. Moreover, once the electronic stimulation was not being provided to my muscles any longer, I couldn’t control them at all.

We finished our session with me lying down on my right side in front of a small, portable table in front of me. She asked me to place my left arm on top of the board. Now I had to push my arm forward for a few seconds. I couldn’t believe how much my shoulder still hurt. I tried to extend my arm for as long as she wanted me to perform the exercise, but it was still almost intolerably painful. She had me try doing this for several cycles, a few seconds at a time. When we were finished, I was relieved. I always worked as hard as I could during occupational therapy, but I was always happy when it was done, because it had never completely stopped hurting.

Pam had me sit up and transfer to the wheelchair when she was done with me. She strapped me back in and asked if I was able to wait unattended until the physical therapist was ready for me. I told her that I could. Having to have people ask whether I was okay to sit unattended while safely strapped into a wheelchair was infuriating. I wasn’t upset with the medical professionals. They were only doing their jobs. I was frustrated that a body that had been very athletic refused to respond to the commands I gave it.

Next, the physical therapist came to get me. Her name was Christa. Christa took me to one of the mats and told me that we would be doing more standing exercise in this phase of therapy. She unbuckled my seatbelt, put a gait belt around me, and helped me transfer to the mat.

She walked over to the closet and came back with a box and something that looked like a stick plant.

“Now I need you to stand straight up.”

I made myself as erect as possible.

“Now I need you to bend at the waist and put the rings in the box on each of the tree branches.”

She placed the box of rings on the mat to my right. The tree was positioned just in front of me and to my left. This meant that I would have to twist to the rear and right, then twist in the opposite direction, to my front and left. This was a lot more difficult than it looked. My body felt shaky, and Christa had to reassure me a couple of times. But I didn’t lose my balance, and ultimately, I was able to get all of the rings out of the box and onto the various branches of the tree.

After this was done, Christa had me reverse the process, taking each of the rings off of the tree and placing them back into the box. This part of the exercise was a little easier, but I was exhausted by now. I was sweating, and my body had started to cramp up. So when I was finished, Christa had me sit down on the mat. I rested for a few seconds, then she helped me to transfer back into the wheelchair and she pushed me back toward the front of the room.

We ended up in front of a large computer screen. She keyed in some information, then had me stand up. “In a second, you’re going to see some numbers and letters spinning around on the screen. I want you to hit them in numerical and alphabetical order. So, 1, A, 2, B, 3, C, and so on. The little cards will disappear every time you hit the right one, until they are all gone.

She restarted the display. Numbers appeared arrayed all of the screen in a disk pattern. The disk began to spin. Knowing the order and finding each of the individual numbers and letters was not a problem. My eyesight was still clearing up, and there wasn’t anything wrong with my cognition. I didn’t hit the wrong item very often. When I did, it was because balancing and moving my arm quickly enough were a challenge. After one interval, she had me repeat the exercise so she could record the higher of my two scores. After I completed the task, she had me sit back down in the wheelchair to wait for the speech therapist.

The speech therapist was named Robin. She wheeled me into an office for our session. I was expecting some voice work, but after talking to me for a few minutes, she decided that we should focus on cognitive tasks. First, she had me try Sudoku. I had never had anyone explain to me how Sudoku was played. Once she told me the strategy, it became quite compelling. In fact, after I completed one puzzle, we downloaded a Sudoku app to my phone so I could play it when I was at home.

Robin also had me try a computer version of Mahjong. I hadn’t played the game in years, but this version was easier for a person with vision problems because it highlighted the tile selected, allowing you to see your choice before you selected its mate. I was not able to solve the Mahjong game on the first couple of tries, but it became quite addictive. Before the session ended, she helped me to download this app, too.

I actually enjoyed speech therapy more than I thought I would. The various games we played were quite stimulating. It was exciting developing several strategies for each, the trying out each to see which allowed me to finish the game in the shortest amount of time. At home, I would spend hours playing each one. They had to be helping the problem-solving regions of my brain.

When we got home, I had the challenge of getting up the steps while exhausted. The two steps were not a problem, but stepping up off of the landing and across the threshold was a bit of a puzzle. The surface I had to step onto jutted out a little too far. It meant that I would have to take a large step to get safely onto a firm floor. However, my left foot could get trapped beneath the ledge, if I took a giant step with my right foot.

Dad stepped inside the house and got the wheelchair ready. Then he stood up to brace me from falling. Confused, I tried alternately placing each foot on top of the step first. This was proving to be quite the logic puzzle. Finally I realized that I should step up the way I had been taught: step up with the right foot, then pull the left foot up from behind.

When I tried this, my left foot became trapped. I fell forward into my dad, and we both came crashing to the floor inside. I lay on the floor feeling horrible. My body was durable, but I was frightened that I might have injured him. However, Dad revealed that he was unharmed. Now I sat on the floor, catching my breath and mentally preparing to get off the floor.

When I was ready, I had him position the chair right in front of me. Then I had him move my left foot so that it was flat on the floor. I was now able to push down on the floor with my left foot and the chair seat with my right hand. After a few brief seconds, I was able to raise myself high enough to quickly twist myself back into the seat. I was panting, but I was safely off the ground. Now I rolled myself back to my room.

* * *

One of the most depressing things about the stroke was how much weight I piled on. Although I had never been skinny, I had always been active. So my weight had stayed below 225 pounds. During the period I was confined to the hospital, I had slowly gotten up to 258! After I was released from the hospital, I had experimented with calorie control. First, I tried eating smaller meals. Then I tried eating healthier meals. But nothing seemed to be working. I became afraid that I might eventually gain even more weight and die of complications due to diabetes or heart disease.

I started lifting weights again in May of 2015. My weight didn’t change at first. But after about a month, I discovered that I had lost five pounds. Encouraged, I increased the frequency of my workouts to four times a week. Before long, I was below 150 pounds. I kept up the intensity, and I was down to 140 by the end of June.

The more weight I dropped, the more my blood pressure came down. My health was starting to seem like something I could control. So I made two resolutions. One, I would try to be down to 220 pounds by the end of the year. Two, I would try to convert to a pescatarian diet while I was in the South for the month of August. I reasoned that the pescatarian part would be easy because most of the restaurants in the South would have catfish or seafood offerings. And since the food would be good, I wouldn’t miss land food.

 

One of the first things I did after I got back to Jackson was go to Planet Fitness. I was able to design a good routine for myself. Also, I made sure to only eat at restaurants that had seafood on the menu. I spent the rest of the month working out and catching up with friends. I had not seen some of them since high school. I also was enjoying how much better I was able to move about. Indeed, the month of August 2017 was the best time I had experienced in the South since childhood.

Read more

Before the stroke, I had been a very active person. Lifting weights, playing sports, and working on my friend’s cattle ranch had kept me in much better than average shape. However, three months confined to a hospital had changed all that. During those months, my weight had ballooned to 258 pounds. I could not fathom how I would be able to take all of that weight off without being able to exercise. The helplessness made me depressed. As a result, I gave up and stopped caring what I ate.

The first Sunday night after I was released from the hospital, I had a large order of fast food for dinner. I could have stopped after I had two thirds of it, but I kept on eating until everything was finished. About an hour later, I could feel an urgent need to go to the bathroom. I yelled to my dad to grab the wheelchair. He brought it back to the side of the bed, and I transferred into it. He pushed me out of the door and down the hallway. I felt the manure start to push its way out. So I told him to forget me and go lift the lid on the toilet.

As soon as he got to the toilet, I felt the waste being pushed from my body. I did not have the muscle strength to hold it in. As I felt it pushing against my underwear, I yelled, “Dad, I’m using the bathroom on myself!” It just kept forcing its way out. I was horrified. Even though the torrent had started, I hoped that all of the mess could be contained until I got to the bathroom. “Help me get to the toilet!” He scrambled to get me out of the wheelchair and through two narrow doorways.

When I was safely at the toilet, I plopped down and let my insides just release themselves. I could hear the sputtering sounds of my bowels continuing to empty. My left foot began to vibrate like a flipper, drumming involuntarily on the cold, tiled floor. Once it was all over, I could see the little bits of excrement on the floor and on my leg. I felt disgusting, like the filth could never be washed off completely. Dad got towels and washed it all off of me. Then he cleaned up the floor beneath me and got me a pair of clean underwear.

He got me back into the wheelchair and pushed me to my room. I climbed into bed and turned on the TV. Under the covers, I was finally warm and clean. I had been out of the hospital and back at home for half a week. Tomorrow would be my first day of outpatient therapy.

The next morning, I decided to bathe before going to therapy. This would be the first time I tried showering at home. The day before I left the hospital, they had sold me a shower chair to take home. The shower chair is placed in side of the tub so the user can enter and exit the shower safely, without having to balance on a weak leg. Once inside, the patient is able to shower while seated so that there is less chance of a fall.

Dad tried putting the shower chair inside the tub as instructed, but it was too wide to fit. So he tried placing one leg outside of the tub so the chair could straddle the outer wall. This didn’t work either, because the legs were too short. Since this would cause the chair to wobble like a seesaw, we decided that using the chair would be too unstable to be safe. Instead, I told him that I would try bathing without the chair.

First, I sat down on the edge of the tub, with my back against the wall. I had Dad hold my left leg steady. Then I spun slowly, bringing my right leg inside the tub. Next, I braced my right hand against the corner where the two walls met. I told Dad to lift my left leg up and guide it into the tub. The entire process was precarious, so we did everything very slowly. But I was safely inside.

Now I had Dad remove my underwear. This was the first time I was naked in front of anyone aside from medical professionals, and I felt extremely awkward. I asked him to start filling up the tub. The water languidly crept up around me, and it felt wonderful. It warmed my feet, then my waist, and then the lower half of my torso. I slid forward so I could fully immerse myself. I let my body sink all the way beneath, until only my head was above the surface. For about a minute, I gently moved my body beneath the surface, creating tiny waves that I imagined was washing the stench off me.

Next, I asked Dad to give me a soapy towel, so I could wash myself. I was able to scrub my own front and left underarm; he had to do my back and right underarm. When we had finished, the whole tub was murky from soap and dead skin, so I asked him to drain the tub. I sat forward and let the dirty water flow out. Then I turned on the shower head and let it wash the residue from my body. When I was satisfied that I was sufficiently clean, I got ready to climb out of the tub.

This presented several problems I hadn’t anticipated. First, my one good arm was on the inside, so I could not use it to push upward against the edge of the tub. Second, I had very little strength in my left leg, so I could not use it to help me generate any thrust. Third, I was wet, so I couldn’t generate any friction to help me. I asked Dad to brace my left leg. With my foot planted on the floor of the tub, I tried to drive myself backward and higher, so that I could get myself seated on the narrow rim of the tub. But I could only get myself up a few inches before my moist body grew tired and slid back down the steep decline. I tried this about three more times, then I gave up on this method altogether.

Next I told Dad to try pulling on my left arm to try to help me. When he did, I felt a piercing pain in my shoulder. I let out a shriek, and he stopped.

“You have to try grabbing at the elbow, so my shoulder gets support!”

But this was a fruitless effort too. I was discouraged, but then it occurred to me to use the gait belt. This would all Dad a way to pull my body upward without hurting me, and he could pull at my center of gravity for better leverage.

He disappeared to grab the belt from my room. When he came back with it, I told him, “Put it down along my left side.”

“I’m not gonna be able to wrap it around you.”

“Lower it and leave some slack. Then I can use my right to help string it around me.”

When this was done, Dad tied the belt and pulled upward. I tried to help him by pushing with my right hand. We both strained for several seconds, but we couldn’t get me out. We rested about a minute, then we tried it again. This time we grunted and gave it even more effort. But try as we might, we couldn’t get me high enough to get out of the tub.

Now I became dejected. I started imagining myself as William Howard Taft. My time without adequate exercise had caused me to be so fat that I was now stuck in a bathtub. We would have to call 911. In a few minutes, there would be several strangers swarming over my naked body! I tried one more time, pushing as hard as I could. Before I knew it, we had budged me just enough to get my butt up on the rim. We paused and caught our breath. Then I braced my hand against the corner again, so Dad could pull my left leg out of the tub. When it was out, I asked him to bear down on it with both hands, so it was firmly planted on the floor. After I felt it was secure, I swiveled and brought my right leg out. Finally, I was seated outside the tub.

Now it was time to put on underwear. Since I had always done so at the edge of a bed, I’d always been able to use a soft, wide surface. In the bathroom, the toilet was not wide enough, nor was the tub. Moreover, if I lost balance, there were too many hard surfaces where I could hit my head. Still, I was adamant about putting on some type of clothing before I went out into the hallway. So I got up and placed my hands on the vanity.

Next, I instructed Dad, “Okay, I’m gonna lift one foot. You slip the underwear over it. Then we can do the other one.”

I couldn’t get my left leg very high, but he was able to loop the opening over my foot. But when it came to do the right leg, I had difficulty trying to stand on just the left leg long enough. I would lift the right leg, then quickly have to stamp it down in order to keep from falling. After I tried this a few times, it occurred to me to try holding myself up by putting more weight on the vanity. However, because I was not able to use two arms, I couldn’t steady myself.

At last, Dad said, “I don’t think this is very safe.”

I knew he was right. “I don’t know how we can put these on safely,” I admitted.

“Me either.”

I sighed. “I guess we’re gonna have to do it in the bedroom.”

“Alright,” Dad said, and started opening the door.

“Wait! Can you check and see if Brandy’s out there?”

He went out and checked both of the front rooms. “I think she’s still sleeping.”

I sat down in the wheelchair and he put a towel over me. We rolled down the hall to my room. I transferred to the bed, where he helped me get dressed.

After we got me dressed, it was time to brush my teeth. Because the wheelchair couldn’t fit through the bathroom doorway, it would mean having to stand, walk in, and stand at the sink. Rather than risk falling, I had Dad stand at the sink and do everything for me. First, he put toothpaste on the toothbrush for me. When I was finished brushing, he handed me an empty cup to spit in. Next, he gave me a cup of water so I could rinse my mouth out. Then I used the spit cup again. After that, I used mouthwash, rinsed, and spat.

This would be our routine to get ready to go out in public most days. Now he wheeled me to the front door. I had him stand outside with his hands in front of my chest. I stood up, placed my cane just outside the threshold, and stepped down with my left foot, followed by my right. Now I walked a yard to the edge of the landing, He stepped down and held his arms out to brace me again. I stepped down the two steps, and I was at ground level.

Now I had to stand perfectly still so he could go back in and bring the wheelchair out. Once he wheeled me to the car, I was able to transfer myself to the seat. I struggled just a little to get the seatbelt on. When I was safely inside, Dad turned the key, and we were off to my next adventure in learning to live in the world again.

Read more

I was finally discharged on Wednesday, August 5th. It had been over two and a half months since my movements and diet were not carefully monitored. Unlike the majority of patients, I had not been impatiently awaiting my release from the hospital. Sure it would bring with it a greater amount of freedom. But to me, it also represented a line of demarcation: Up to this point, I would see rapid improvement; afterward, things might slow down, because I was no longer in an intensive inpatient environment. So, I acted as though I was also overjoyed to finally be going home to, even though I was terrified.

My dad and my nephew Braden took me out to eat as their first order of business. We went to Outback Steakhouse. Although I had regained the ability to walk, I could only do so tenuously, and under very controlled conditions. So I had to use a wheelchair everywhere we went. I wasn’t prepared for how it made me feel. Although, I had never looked down on people in wheelchairs, it was a completely different feeling now that I was in one. Sure, I had used one in the hospital. But that hadn’t mattered, because I was a patient. Now I was out in public. This was simply my body. I felt as though the only way people could see me was as someone to be pitied.

Once we were inside, we were seated next to a former high school classmate of mine. He recognized my father and introduced himself. He went on and on about his memories of Dad, who had no clue who he was. I remembered him well. I could still recall which elective class we took together, which hour it was, and who the teacher was. I could tell you what extracurricular activity he was involved in and which famous cousin he always bragged about. But he seemingly had no idea who I was. I assumed that it had to be because I was disabled. That felt humiliating.

When dinner came, I was relieved to finally be eating something other than hospital food. However, because I had ordered rack of lamb, I needed to separate the different ribs. I also needed to cut the meat up into smaller bites, as I had learned to do in the hospital, because my swallowing capacity had diminished. However, since I could not use my left hand, it meant that I couldn’t use a knife and fork. I asked Braden if he would cut my meat for me. He did nothing to make me feel lesser – the same as with my classmate – but something about not having the same abilities as the overwhelming majority of the people around me made me feel like less of a person. I felt like a spectacle, but I also felt invisible.

We went home after dinner. One of the first things I realized was that there was no way to enter the house without going up steps. When presented with this issue, I felt a sense of dread. The way we resolved this was by using the wheelchair to wheel me from the car to the steps at the front door. Once we came to the steps, I had Dad to lead me from the front by pulling on the gait belt. Braden pushed me from behind. So, even with my weakened leg, there was little chance of me falling.

Once inside, I was able to sit back down in the chair. They pushed me back to my room. I had lived in this room as a child, and I’d always wished it was bigger. Now everything seemed so far apart. It was disorienting. My mind began to imagine everything that would be a challenge. How would I get to the bathroom in time every time? Would I safely make it up and down the steps every time? And how on earth was I supposed to get in and out of the tub? It was all so dizzying that it made my head swim. I had Dad help me transfer from the wheelchair to the bed. Then I turned on the television for distraction and tried to go to sleep.

The next day, Dad announced that he and Braden were going for a ride around the city. He asked me whether I wanted to go. I was leery about going down the steps, but I loathed being home by myself even more. So I asked my father to help me to get dressed, and I was rolled out to the front door. I had one of them stand in front of me and the other behind me. Then we carefully walked down the stairs. When we got to the bottom, Braden had to run to the car, and my father had to go inside to grab the chair and lock the door. When they did so, they left me standing at the base of the steps, against the house, where I assured them I would be fine.

While I was standing there, I noticed that my shorts had started to fall down. Having the sort of brain damage I had really warped my sense of time and perception. I started worrying about my shorts coming all the way down. Would Dad or Braden be here to pull them up in time before people passing along the street could see them? I panicked and tried to do it myself. As I tried to shimmy in order to get them up around my waist, my left leg gave out and I came crashing to the pavement.

The whole thing happened so quickly that I have to reassemble it in my mind. I felt the shorts fall down my butt. I reached down to pull them up. I heard Braden yell, “Uncle Michael!’ Then I was lying on the ground clutching my bad shoulder. I had fallen right on it. It hurt, but not as much as I would have expected it to. Dad and Braden ran over to help me to my feet. I told them that I wasn’t hurt, and they helped me to my car. They wheeled me to the car, and we went for our ride. During our long trip around Jackson, the pain in my shoulder quickly subsided, but a dull sensation never stopped radiating from my humerus.

Throughout my entire ordeal, my friend, Howard and his parents were indispensable. Since the time I had moved into his house in March, before the stroke, I had planned to give him my father’s phone number. However, I had never gotten around to actually texting it to him. So when I found myself unable to move or speak during the stroke, I had no idea how anyone in my family would know what was happening. Later I would find out that Howard was the one who had gone to the gym to pick up my car and clothes. He was the one who had hosted my parents when they came down from Jackson. And his parents had fed my parents during the days they were on the coast. He is the closest thing I have to family in Gulfport.

I also began seeing my brother, Ivory, more frequently. He and his girlfriend, Sharon, had come down to see me when I was in my coma. They came down from their home in Saint Louis again after I had been transferred to Select Specialty Hospital. In fact, I once overheard Ivory tell Sharon, “This is the first time I’ve seen Michael every month since we were in high school.” We really hadn’t seen one another most of our adult lives, so it meant a lot that we were finally part of each other’s lives.

Ivory had three children who lived in Vancouver, Washington. Each one came out to visit Granddaddy for a month or longer that summer. Briana, the middle child came while I was still in Select. She told me one day that my being in the hospital was helping to bring the family together. This was something I didn’t want to hear at the time. In my mind, not being in a more physically active role meant that I could no longer be a subject in the drama of life. My ego was not ready to accept a diminished role. Since then, I have come to realize that this is a rather limited way to think. In fact, I have come to appreciate that I can be an inspiration to others.

Braden’s turn to visit came in late July. He was the youngest and the most soft-spoken, but always very helpful and respectful. He shot several of my videos, including the first footage of me walking. Whenever I needed to be pushed in my wheelchair, or when it needed to be packed or unpacked from the trunk of the car, Braden was there to help. Because of his intelligence, kindness, and willingness to help, I told him that he would be an ideal candidate for a patient care position.

Brandi is my brother’s first born, and she was the last to come. She arrived in August and would be staying to attend college. We would both be starting the next chapter of our lives at the same time, under on roof.

So, while the stroke and the three months following it had been disorienting and had changed the course of my life, I had a good support network. It would not be nearly as difficult to put my life back together as it would be for others. I am truly fortunate to have the quality of people I have in my life.

* * *

I was on vacation in the South for the entire month of August 2017. One of the most important things I wanted to do was go to New Orleans. Although I had been there several times since leaving the hospital, I had to use a wheelchair each time. My desire was to be able to walk around the French Quarter without assistance. I wanted to walk on the crooked sidewalks and cobblestone streets with confidence and without care.

m

We left at noon on Thursday, August 24. Three hours later, we were in New Orleans. The first place we stopped at was Pat O’Brien’s. I hadn’t planned to dine there; I just wanted to pick up souvenir Hurricane drink glasses. Dad found an empty parking space directly across the street from the restaurant. The air was steamy and the sun was bright. I had to walk through the shadows of a dark walkway that opened into a large courtyard. There were tourists laughing and talking. It made me feel like a normal person again. To get the glasses, I had to go to a small bar off to the right. I walked up and told the bartender which glasses I needed. He grabbed them, rinsed them out, and boxed them up.

The next order of business was to find my friend, Heidi. Heidi was someone I’d met in a Facebook group, when I’d created a meme from a comment of hers. We had agreed to meet at Acme Oyster House. However, when we got a couple of blocks from the restaurant, we ran into road construction. We parked in a garage so we could walk the rest of the way. When we emerged from the garage, we realized that we couldn’t walk straight to the restaurant. Instead, we had to walk a full block out of the way in order to get around the construction. This gave me a chance to really test my endurance.

We finally made it to Acme, Heidi was waiting outside. We had been waiting to meet for almost a year. We went inside and got a table. I ordered the oyster po-boy and poured a ton of Tabasco sauce on it. We joked, took pictures, and talked politics. It felt like we had known each other for years. When we were finished, I told Heidi about my desire to go down to the Riverwalk to take a picture in front of the bridge. So she volunteered to drive Dad and me over to the river.

When we got out, we had to walk over a set of train tracks and past the mall to get to the river. I stepped onto the ties gingerly at first. I was surprised at how steady my footing was. I walked across the tracks with ease. The step presented no challenge either. Then I walked past the mall, until I could see the Crescent City Connection bridge. I walked the few hundred feet to the guardrail, where I could take a picture. I had dreamt of this moment for over a year. Now it was happening. I was surrounded by the sounds and smells of New Orleans. The murky river crawled next to me. Walking was an afterthought. Heidi snapped the picture I had been dying to take.

After we said our goodbyes to Heidi, Dad and I headed to the French Market to meet my cousin, Rosalind for dinner. We found a parking space and had to walk two blocks to get to the restaurant. We walked past all of the little shops that my brothers and me used to peruse as children. There was still a mix of new and classic toys and other merchandise in the windows.

We finally arrived at French Market Restaurant, where Rosalind had assured me that I could order a platter of fried oysters. We had a lot of disagreements whenever I came down to visit New Orleans while growing up, but I had always admired Rosalind for her intelligence. She had always been a voracious reader and a straight A student. Moreover, she also belonged to a writing circle. We talked a lot about what had happened during childhood, the years since, and Hurricane Katrina. I told her about the blog I was planning and that I really wanted her input as an editor.

When dinner was over, Dad and I walked back to the car. We drove back along I-55 in the blackness, just as we had done when I was a child. I uploaded all of the pictures I had taken that day. It felt so thrilling that I would not need a wheelchair to enjoy New Orleans again.

Read more

After I was able to walk about twenty feet using the handrails, I stopped and rested before returning to the gym by walking down the opposite side of the hall. I could only walk for short intervals, because my left leg was only partially functional. So we practiced having me walk twice a day. Each time, we would break the sessions up into about three periods of walking an increased distance. The neurologist – pleased that I was now walking – said that he would contact the insurance company to ask them to authorize another week’s stay.

Then one day, Andrew announced, “Today we’re gonna try walking with a cane.”

He presented a cane to me that had four points on the bottom. I had seen these before, but I had never imagined needing one myself. However, I had just progressed from a wheelchair to walking. So since it was part of a transition back to regular walking, I decided to give it a try. The only way I had seen people use a cane was stepping down with the weak leg, and simultaneously striking the ground with the cane. However, people using this method always used the cane on the same side of the body as the compromised leg. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hold the cane with my left hand, so I was bewildered.

Andrew instructed me, “Okay, what you have to do is step with the cane first.”

I struck the floor with the cane.

“Now bring your right foot forward to right beside the cane.”

I took a small step forward, bringing my right foot to rest right next to the can.

“Now bring your left foot right up to where your right foot is.”

Now all three – the cane and both feet – were parallel to each other.

“Go ahead and take another step.”

I repeated the same pattern: cane, right foot, left foot. Then he permitted me to keep walking. I began keeping time in my head. 1-2-3, 1-2-3. My right foot would kick the two feet on the inside of the cane. This would throw off my rhythm, and I would have to start the cycle over again. We kept drilling over and over, until I had the rhythm down, more or less.

I was feeling more confident, but not easy enough to look up from my feet. The next morning, he had me try to look forward. This was a bit of a distraction, and I had to keep looking down at my feet in order to make sure that I didn’t trip. This took a great deal more concentration, because it added one more element to the three movements I was already trying to focus on. Now my rhythm was more like: Head up-1-2-3, Head up-1-2-3. I walked this way a few more times. Then Andrew let me go to my other therapies. They felt like resting compared to walking, because they did not entail the strain of supporting my own body weight while trying to exercise.

Andrew wheeled me back to the part of the hall just outside the gym, and I walked the familiar route from the gym to the cafeteria. To this point, all of my walking had been done on what I considered a back hallway. Now Andrew proposed that we keep walking to the side of the hall that contained the nurses’ station and all of the patient rooms.

As I walked toward the nurses’ station, I tried to make sure that I didn’t trip. Head up-1-2-3. Head up 1-2-3. I was still terrified that I would fall, except this time there would be witnesses. I tried to keep my eyes on the nurses’ station, while all the time I kept counting in my head. 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Now the nurses started to look up and take notice. As they did, each one would offer words of encouragement. I still couldn’t keep my eyes from drifting to the floor. So while I understand in retrospect that it I was only hearing a few people, my mental image is that most of the staff were gathered around the station and there was a crescendo of applause.

After passing the nurses’ station, I sat down in my chair and rested. I felt quite satisfied with myself. It had taken two months to get to this point, and the journey had been anything but easy. I recalled those couple of day when I had been disoriented, unable to speak, and in complete denial. My left arm had been so sensitive that I could scarcely bear allowing someone to touch it. Until a few days before, I had lived with the very real fear that I might never walk again. Now I was certain that in time I would transition from the quad cane to a regular cane, then from the regular cane to full independence. I could scarcely wait.

After I had rested in the chair for a few moments, Andrew asked me if I wanted to try walking to the other end of the hall. My father and my nephew, Braden, had just arrived. So I asked Braden to take a video of me with my phone. When I watch videos of me walking those first few days, I am astonished at hour far I’ve come. My foot was dragging so badly; I appear to be four inches shorter, because my body is bent in a permanent half-squat; my voice still sounds very artificial despite weeks of speech therapy. It took so much work to get to where I am now.

By the last Thursday in July, I had been walking around a week. The mandate came down stating that I would be discharged the following Wednesday, August 5th. I acted excited to finally be leaving, but inside, I didn’t feel quite ready. I had just started walking again, and I only imagined all of the different places out in the world where I might fall and get injured. The recreational therapist asked me where I would go for my first meal out of the hospital. The first thing I could think of was Outback. After over two months of being fed through a tube, and lately only eating hospital food, I could imagine the fatty rack of lamb with salty Cabernet sauce. The prospect of eating out gave me something to look forward to. If nothing else, I wouldn’t be on a special diet.

The following Monday, Andrew and I were in the gym doing physical therapy. He told me, at the end of the session, that there might be times when I would fall down at home.

“Today we’re gonna teach ya how to get back up on a couch or a bed.”

He lowered the mat until it was about two feet off of the floor then he had me get down on the floor beside it.

“Now, you need to try to get yourself up on your knees and elbows.”

I tried squeezing my trunk to make it easier to get my left knee beneath me. I just didn’t have the strength to get my leg under me.

After I had been trying to accomplish that for a while, Andrew said, “Stop. We’re gonna try this a different way. This time, try getting up on your elbows, the try to get that left knee underneath you.”

I rolled onto my right side and braced myself on the floor with my elbow. Then I rolled back to the left and tried to support my upper body on my elbows. But try as I might, I could’t get my left arm parallel to my right. Instead, my left would swing inside to the middle of my chest, while my elbow would flare outward. Thus, I could not generate enough thrust on my left side to bring my trunk of the mat. To compound matters, I was growing tired, and the whole thing made my left shoulder hurt each time I tried to put weight through it.

To his credit, Andrew tried different ways of explaining how I should tackle the problems. None of these worked. He explained that it would be simple once I could get myself up on three points of contact with the floor. Then I could get my left elbow on top of the mat. This would allow me to rest some of my body weight on the mat. I tried several times, but I could not elevated my left side to get my elbow over the edge of the mat. I became desperate and pleaded with Andrew to help me to pull my left leg under me and hold it in position. He told me that as badly as he wanted to help, that would interfere with my learning the technique and that I would feel helpless if I fell at home and he wasn’t there to help me.

I rolled and writhed on the gym floor until I was drenched in sweat and completely out of breath. After it became apparent that I was not going to find a way to pry my way back onto the mat, Alex helped me back onto it so I could get into a seated position. Then I transferred to my wheelchair. I let him push me back to my room so I could rest before dinner. This was one of the few times after I was strong enough to perform exercises on my own that I tried as hard as I could but still ended up feeling like an abject failure.

Betsy, as my occupational therapies, was tasked with trying to help me to be as independent as possible in my daily life. She had previously tried to teach me how to dress myself. Now she asked me to dress myself each of the last three mornings before I would leave the hospital. I had little trouble getting my pants on. That was merely a matter of getting my left foot into its pants leg, then pulling the pants leg up to my knee. Then I could kick my right leg through, the same as I had always done. After that, I would use my right arm to pull up each side of the pants until they were around my waist.

Nothing else was remotely easy after this. Putting on socks was difficult because I had originally always used to hands to open each one and get my foot inside. Now, with one hand, I couldn’t create create a large enough opening to get my foot inside. We had tried a popular technique that involved placing the sock over a tube that had a cord leading out of either side. I was supposed to sit on the edge of the bed, hold the cord, slip my foot into the tube, pull the sock around it. Then I should be able to draw the tube out of the top of the sock, leaving the sock in place over my foot.

I was unsuccessful at this method primarily because the tube was much wider than my foot. So I still needed two hands to get the sock open wide enough to fit over the tube. Also, while it was easy enough to get my right foot into the tube, I still could not move any of the muscles below my left knee. This meant that I couldn’t move my foot toward me. So Betsy showed me another method. Get the sock over my big toe. Then stretch the sock over the second toe, then the toe next to it, and so on. Each time you only needed one hand, because you only needed to create an opening large enough to get one toe though. This technique was not without its problems. I would often get the sock over one or two toes only to have it fly off when I tried stretch it over more, because the elastic was like a rubber band. But once all the toes were inside, the only challenge was getting the sock over my heel. The entire process was time consuming, but it could be accomplished through patience.

Putting on a shirt was the other part of dressing that I needed to master. Betsy taught me to put my left arm through the bottom and find the sleeve. Then, I could use my right arm to grab the left hand so that it would be like shaking hands with myself.

“Bring the left sleeve over your elbow. Then you can put your right arm through the other sleeve, and use it to bring your head through.”

This was not simple, but it was also something I would master over time. So by the time discharge day arrived, I was able to put on every piece of clothing by myself, except fot my left shoe. My favorite nurse and my parents packed up all my things and loaded them into the car. It was time to return home.

Read more

I was making personal connections. My vision was clearing up enough to read Facebook stories, and I saw many stories about me. However, the communication was one-way, because I could not see well enough to type yet. I still felt isolated from everyone but family, hospital workers, and a few select friends. My eyes were not working properly; I still could not walk; I had no use of my left arm. I had no way of knowing what my life would look like in the next few weeks, or after I was discharged from the hospital. It scared the hell out of me. With all of this swirling around in my brain, I had to tell others. It was time to start reconnecting with more people.

The Mississippi atheist Facebook group of which I was a member had made a special effort to be there for me. They had come to visit me in disproportionate numbers. My friend Meagan – though in graduate school in Arizona – had explicitly called on group members to visit me. Several members from the Jackson branch began trickling in to see me after I awoke. And of course they had sent me a plethora of cards and letters.

I know many people have awful opinions about atheists. There are assertions that atheists have no morals, are all bitter and spiteful, or are otherwise heartless. I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Like many stereotypes, these are mostly unfounded. The members of this community are mostly moral and empathetic. These are human beings who are just like any other human beings, except that they have one belief that differs from religious people. And when you disregard all of the trappings of theology, it’s fundamentally no greater difference than that between a Hindu and a Muslim or a Buddhist and a Christian. It’s simply someone’s declaration that they believe that the universe was created differently than the way you do. No one did more as a group to make me feel more loved and connected.

So, on July 12h, I decided that my first Facebook post would be to this group. My eyesight, while it had cleared up significantly, was not perfect. The motor skills of my right hand were coming back as well. However, when I tried to combine the two, my hand-eye coordination was terrible. I kept hitting the wrong keys. When that wasn’t happening, my double vision would cause me to misspell words, because I could not tell when there was a letter in the wrong place. It was a maddeningly laborious affair, and I wanted to give up several times because I had to type and retype almost every word over and over and over again. But I stuck with it, and after about fifteen minutes, I had succeeded in posting “I am officially alive!”

There was nothing fun about typing that post. And while it was satisfying after I had finished it, I did not relish the thought of having to do something like that again. As painful and exhausting as they could be, occupational therapy and physical therapy were less tedious than trying to muster the coordination it took to type one sentence on a phone screen. The only reason why I could stand sticking with the effort was the realization that after more weeks, it would become easier and easier.

The comments quickly began coming in. There were responses about how all of the goat sacrifices had worked or that the place had gone to hell without me– all of the sarcasm was just what I needed to feel more normal, as I had been living with the nagging feeling that I might suffer another stroke, and this time it would prove fatal. I cannot say why I had this feeling, but it probably had to do with not understanding what my body would do at any given time, and not feeling like the catastrophe could really be over. The majority of comments were well wishes and warm expressions of joy that I was back.

Everything that the Mississippi atheists did made me feel like a loved member of a caring community. In the coming weeks, even more of them would stop by to introduce themselves and spend time with me. Because it was a statewide group, and I had lived on the coast, I had only met a handful of the members from the Jackson chapter.

Once I was eventually released from the hospital, we would even have happy hour each Thursday. And that would have the effect of continuing to make my life feel normal. My recovery would not have progressed nearly as quickly without the unending amount of compassion shown by the Mississippi atheist community.

Concurrent with my more fully re-engaging life, I started experiencing vivid dreams of walking again. One recurring dream I had was one where I was walking around New Orleans. I would begin by walking around the French Quarter with a small tourist group. We would arrive in a chartered bus to the front door of a two-story art museum. We would walk through this museum for an hour or two. Afterwards, we would leave the museum and explore the various restaurants and shops around the section of the city. When we had finished, we would go down to the Riverwalk. There, I would pose for a photograph in front of the Crescent City Connection bridge, with my hands held up, pretending that I was holding up the span. Each time I woke from this dream, I would discover that I still could not walk. I would keep it to myself, but I fantasized about the day when I could actually walk in New Orleans. I planned to go to the Riverwalk on my own legs and have a picture taken of myself with that iconic bridge in the background.

Another recurring dream I had was of playing indoor soccer in my adult league at the University of Minnesota. I would arrive at Bierman Hall with friends. They would take off their warmup pants and start changing into their equipment. Suddenly, I would notice that I had also brought along my lipstick-purple Lotto soccer bag. I would also realize that I was able to stand and move my left arm at will. So I would sub in for my friends’ goalkeeper during the second half, and play the remainder of the match. Afterward, I would be able to finish rehabbing my muscles myself, and my life could return to normal. Inevitably, I would wake up with excitement, only to discover that the left side of my body was still not responding to the commands I fed it.

I would be thoroughly dejected each time I woke up. But just as when I projected ahead to the day when I would be able type easily on Facebook again, I would press forward during my therapy sessions, as I now had concrete goals.

* * *

I traveled back home during the month of August this year, 2017. It was the second anniversary of my finally being discharged from hospitals and the first anniversary of my moving back to Minnesota. This would present my first opportunity to try walking around the familiar territory of the South after a year of rehabilitation in Minnesota. To compound the excitement, my sister-in-law, Candice was pregnant with her and Jonathan’s first child, and she was due to deliver the week I arrived.

She delivered twenty-three hours before my plane touched down in Dallas. The next day, my father picked me up from DFW airport, and we stayed at Candice’s and Jonathan’s place overnight. The following day we would go to Baylor Medical Center where we would visit the couple and their baby. I had been Best Man at their wedding eight years prior. So I always felt as though I was linked to their happiness and success as a couple.

When we got to the maternity ward, Jonathan greeted us and told us that there were some minor complications with the baby. Candice was still exhausted from labor. She was holding my new niece, so I asked if I could take pictures with her the baby and Jonathan. Candice gave the baby to Jonathan. He and I sat down on the bed and faced the window, so the light source would be to the rear of my cellphone. To my surprise, Candice climbed out of bed and took the picture for us. (I had really expected my father to take it for us.)

She snapped a few pictures of Jonathan lovingly holding his daughter. She is lying in the crook of his right arm, looking tiny and helpless. He is pointing to the head covering she is wearing. The print is a fleur-de-lis pattern in purple and yellow, because they are die hard LSU fans. In fact, when Parker goes home, she will sleep in a room that is purple and gold. I am on Jonathan’s right side. My stroke affected left arm is mostly hidden from view. I am looking down at Parker with a curious expression on my face.

Our visit ended abruptly after this, when a group of specialists entered the room to perform a procedure on the baby. We were asked to go down the hall to a waiting room for the sake of privacy. There were no complications, but what they had to do still ended up taking longer than we had anticipated. At that point, we had to leave altogether. Dad did not want to get home too late, being that he was the only driver. I was disappointed, but I had planned to come back and spend three days in Dallas before I flew back to Minneapolis anyway. We said our goodbyes and Dad and I got on the road.

The trip from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex would be a six-hour straight shot along I-20. It wasn’t dotted with any particular tourist attractions, so I spend the time listening to YouTube broadcasts. However, it happened to also be a poor Sprint coverage area. So I eventually fell asleep about an hour outside Dallas and I didn’t wake up until we crossed the Mississippi River into Vicksburg. Vicksburg was about forty-five minutes from north Jackson. By the time we left the dark from one metro area, it seemed like we entered the light of another. So it seemed as though I was getting back home, and entering my room in no time.

This was the same room I had come home to when I had left the hospital a year earlier. I had come home in a wheelchair with legs so weak that I would only risk transferring between the bed and the wheelchair if they were right next to one another. This was the room where I had taken my first steps without the help of the cane or the wheelchair, and where I had practiced taking thousands of steps to add up to one or more daily miles.

I sat down on the bed and thought about how far I had come – in recovery and in miles – over the last twelve months. Getting up from this bed and going to the refrigerator had once felt like a long and perilous journey. Now it was almost a casual stroll. Going down the hall to the bathroom had once required the use of the wheelchair. Now it was as simple as getting up and walking. I had worried that I would never walk or use my left arm again for the rest of my life. Now, I was back working out in the gym, and I was even lifting weights with that very same arm.

I would be in the South for the entire month of August and would visit many people in Jackson, on the Gulf Coast, and in New Orleans. That night, I lay down listening to the buzz of the voices on the television. My mind would barely let me sleep for thinking about all of the family and friends I would see in the coming weeks. How I so looked forward to basking in the glow of their love. I couldn’t wait to show them how far I had come!

Read more

When I started writing this blog, I wanted to tell you about my life and progress after my stroke. However, I also wanted to give backstory which would help the reader understand how I came to this point. Nonetheless, my life has continued to move forward while I’ve been writing about the past. Therefore, starting with this post, I will begin splitting the contents of my blogposts. Half will continue to be the story of my initial recovery; the other half will be about what I am currently doing to keep my life moving forward. My hope is that this will not only inform people about the unique details of my story, but it will also serve as inspiration for what can happen moving forward after coming back from the brink of death

During the first few weeks after I came out of the coma, I was very disoriented. Although I could verbally interact with other people, I had a hard time connecting to where I was spatially. I can only describe what I mean as being in a sort of dream state. Some nights, I would think I was going to a steamy room where the hospital did its laundry. Other times, I would imagine myself moving through the building at night. During others, I would think that I was trying to move between two levels of a bunk bed. However, during the entire time, I was confined to a bed.

This generally was the way it was while I was at Select. After I go to Methodist, I became more aware of what my body was actually doing. Instead of fantasizing about nighttime escapades, I was aware that I was in bed, working out in the gym, or transferring to a wheelchair. And once I began working out in earnest, I became more aware of what was going on around me. Often I would fall or bump into things, and it would happen so fast that I would look up, not knowing how it had happened. But I was aware that it was my body participating in real actions.

Exercising was difficult and very exhausting, but was something I looked forward to each day. It had been painful when I first started. But while there was still some pain in my shoulder and hand, that was only in my affected arm. It wasn’t like the days immediately following my coma, when everything had atrophied and my entire hurt. Now I enjoyed ending the day sweaty and panting. It meant that I was getting back to normal.

However, I was still feeling very isolated. People like my family or my friend Val would come to see me. But other than those brief moments of joy, I felt very much shut off from the isolated world. I have always been an exceedingly social person, so this was harder for me than it would have been for the average person. One way I combatted this was by talking more. At the time, my lungs were very weak, and my speech was labored, due to the lack of breath support. Although I had suffered asthma since birth, it wasn’t until after the stroke that I knew what the proverbial “elephant on your chest’ sensation was like. Each time I tried to speak, I could feel intense pressure in my lungs. As a result, I would not speak much when I was not prompted to do so.

Not wanting to be alone meant that I would have to change this behavior. While at Methodist, I began to laugh and talk with the staff much more intentionally. Since they were the people around me most of the time, they were the most convenient social outlets. Moreover, I realized that friendly patients will often have a better care experience than cranky patients or patients who do not stand out. It’s not that care providers are out to give people bad care, it’s just that they are human beings who also have bad days, experience long weeks, and go through burnout. If I could say things to lighten the mood, it would make the person helping me feel more energized.

I don’t mean to give the false impression that I was always pleasant. There were times when I was irritable, frustrated, or argumentative. There were several occasions when I was stubborn just for the sake of being stubborn. But overall, if I wasn’t being moody that day, I tried to maintain a good demeanor. In fact, even if I was in a foul mood, it seldom lasted for more than an hour.

My friends had begun writing to me while I was in the coma, and every week my dad would bring card and letters from my friends all over the country. Heretofore, I had felt as though my suffering was a very private affair. The rest of the world must have been going on without me. These correspondences let me know that people actually cared and were concerned about me. I wondered how so many people had even discovered my plight, since I wasn’t on Facebook and hadn’t called or texted to anyone.

There were so many cards from people who had never met me, and I found it befuddling that they had found my address. Others were people I had known personally but hadn’t seen for years. Some lived on the Gulf Coast; many lived in Minnesota and Wisconsin; several lived scattered around the country; but almost none of them lived in Jackson. We placed them in a large wicker basket. Had my vision been good, I would have read through them repeatedly each night. But I had to rely on my dad’s eyesight.

Then one day I realized that my vision had gradually begun to get better. Where before I could only read around one screen of computer text or half a page, I was now able to read for longer intervals. Additionally, where reading off of a smaller screen had been even more tedious, I could now even manage that for short periods. I began asking Dad to bring my phone every other day so I could read Facebook. I was not up to the task of typing yet, but at least I could read what people were saying about me.

After a week or two, I had grown eager to finally talk to someone over the phone. I knew that my voice might be terribly difficult to understand, as I often had to repeat myself in public. Nonetheless, I wanted someone in a different state to hear the sound of my voice. So I called my friend Allene, one of my oldest and dearest friends one Thursday. She was the one who had set up my Gofundme account, and she was the one who had given out my address and kept everyone abreast of my progress.

To my surprise, she had no surprise understanding me. She said, “I didn’t know if I was doing enough.”

“You did more than enough. You kept everyone informed. Plus you helped with starting the Gofundme account.”

“I wanted to donate more, but I couldn’t.”

“No, really. I’m really just amazed.”

“Most people gave around fifty to a hundred bucks. Your friend, A gave the most. I don’t know who that is, but he gave two hundred.”

“He played safety at the U. I used to call him the ‘Hindu Hitman.”

We talked for a time longer, then she asked, “Do you need me to come down there?”

“What for?”

“I don’t know. I just wanted to see if I could help. I’ve been doing nothing but sending out résumés, but
I haven’t found a job yet.”

“You just finished nursing school. You need to focus on finding a job.”

“But I know I could do something.”

“You don’t know anything about Mississippi. Plus, I’m in the hospital right now. I have a hundred people taking care of everything I need. Trust me everything is being handled.”

“I knew Mississippi has problems with racism and health care. It never really hit me until I realized that it was you who might not be getting good care. Then I just got scared.”

“I understand that. But I was in a coma before. That was definitely a time to panic. But I’m awake now, and can speak again. So I can advocate for myself now.”

Allene is a worrier. That’s what she does. She’s also the type who wants to take care of everybody in the universe before dealing with herself. It took some amount of cajoling and some amount of joking just so she could see that I was safely back to my normal self. But eventually she stopped being as worried, and she felt okay with not coming down.

After that conversation, I began trying to have one each night. One was with my old teammate and friend, Amir. He had moved to California to pursue a career in acting a few years earlier, but the vast majority of friends whom I hadn’t met through adult league soccer were people I’d met through him. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I do know that afterward, Allene told me that he seemed overjoyed, and that she was really happy I had called him.

On another occasion, I talked with a childhood friend named Kimberly. She was from a family that had attended my church when I was a child. Like a third of our congregation, their family was from the North. These families come down to Mississippi to provide education, health care, other types of expertise, or even labor in the poor communities. It was a multiracial congregation whose social mission was known by the term, “racial reconciliation.” Kimberly’s family was from Minnesota. My father had helped her father to score a job as an adjunct professor at Jackson State University, where my dad had tenure. All this was unbeknown to me at the time I was a child. I didn’t find that out until Kimberly and I reconnected years later.

Kimberly and I had a long conversation that was filled with nostalgia and hope. I told her all the details of my stroke and recovery. It was easy talking to her, because she had also just completed nursing school. My family was really caring, but I was talking with someone who already knew the process and the vocabulary whenever I spoke with her or Allene. Given that speaking took so much effort in general, it was just so much easier when I could just have a conversation without having to describe each procedure or define what every medical term meant.

The following week I decided to go back on Facebook. Several of the letters I had received were from my Mississippi atheist group. During the first week after I had emerged from the coma, I had gone through a state where I was not sure what was real and what was a dream. And as such, I would try not to wake up. I would shut my eyes tight and try not to let the people in the real world know that I was awake. I just had a vague fear that something bad would happen if I didn’t wake up properly. Well during that time, my father would read to me. At times, he would read his articles from his weekly column in the Jackson Advocate – the local African American community newspaper. Sometimes he would read things that he had brought from my bookshelf at home. Still other times, he would simply bring letters I’d received. The way I knew that I was not dreaming was when I began hearing poems that could only be from Neruda’s Heights of Machu Picchu. Then I started hearing the names of members from the atheist group. The poetry collection was obscure, and the atheist group was secret. I realized my father could not be making any of this up.

In retrospect, that could have simply been part of another elaborate dream. But it was enough to make me want to wake up and start interacting with the world again. I wanted to get back in touch with everyone – specifically with the Mississippi atheists – to tell them that I was alive, and that nothing of my personality had been altered.

My intent had been to start telling you about my current life. But there is so much backstory to write about, that it’s easy to get carried away. I am already exceeding my weekly word count.

Read more

My routine was becoming monotonous. I would wake up every morning; have something to eat (I was only allowed to have liquids and foods that did not require a lot of chewing); go to therapy, where I would watch e-stim move my arm and leg and get very excited; come home at night, trying to move the same muscles without the e-stim machines; go to sleep heartbroken and bored.

After about a month of being conscious, one day I was performing an exercise that had become routine: Andrew, my physical therapist would have me lie down on my back. Next, he would place a bolster – a soft pad about a foot or so high – beneath my left leg. My foot would fall limply. He would then attach electrodes to my quadriceps. When he switched on the e-stim unit, my leg would shoot upward. My job was to try to straighten my leg as the machine performed the same task, and hold it for a few seconds after the e-stim switched off. The motion would be repeated for several intervals over a ten-minute session. The idea was that my mind would eventually be able to control the leg muscles by itself.

For weeks, I had tried to hold my led up after the e-stim switched off, only to have my leg drop weakly as soon as the machine stopped assisting. But finally one afternoon, I was able to keep my leg elevated after the assistance had stopped. Then I was able to keep it up again. After I was able to maintain leg elevation several times, I tried lifting my leg without stimulation. I was able to move it upward ever so slightly, but I knew what that meant: Even if I only had a slight amount of strength in it, I would eventually be able to walk again. I could not wait to tell people.

I don’t remember which of my brothers I called first, but I yelled the same message, “I … MOVED … MY … LEFT … LEG!” The conversations I had with each were rather short. They each expressed pride in the accomplishment. But it wasn’t what I’d hoped for. When you are the one who has been lying in hospital beds for four weeks, dreaming of the day when you might be able to use your leg again, very few people can adequately mirror the joy you experience when you are finally able to move it on your own for the first time.

I was delighted that I could move my leg again. Although I was still in a wheelchair, I would practice using the leg as often as possible. Whenever it was time to transfer between the wheelchair and a mat or bed, I would try to use the opportunity to stand on my left leg as long as possible. When I was in bed at night, I would kick my leg as high as I could several times. I reasoned that, as weak as my leg was, even tiny amounts of movement would be the same as strenuous exercise. It would increase my strength by the same percentage as weightlifting would a strong leg.

Betsy assured me that my arm would soon come around. She explained that the leg is the first thing to start working. Then the arm follows. With either joint, the pattern you recover movement in is proximal to distal. In other words, your shoulder and thigh are the first parts to begin functioning at your command; the fingers and toes are last. (I have since learned that it takes more brain cells to operate an arm than it does a leg, and the same is true for fine versus gross movements. So the brain normally begins by controlling the muscles that are easiest to control.) I saw still impatient for when my arm would start responding to my command. Knowing the scientific reason behind why things would take a bit longer to function was only a small consolation. A concrete timetable would have made it easier to sleep at night.

Then one Friday night, while I was watching television with a friend, she noticed my left thumb had begun moving.

“You’re moving your thumb!”

“I am!” I couldn’t believe it was happening. All those weeks trying to move my fingers to no avail. Now my thumb was moving without my deliberate action.

“Try to do it again.”

For the next hour, I just tried wiggling it. Sometimes it wouldn’t respond. Other times it would. Before long, my forefinger was also moving. I tried opening my entire hand, But the rest of the fingers were not ready to cooperate. So, by the time I was ready to fall asleep, I could basically perform an acute angle pincer motion very slowly.

I proudly showed this to Betsy. She was happy for me, and she began doing other things for my arm. One technique was fastening a long, foam-rubber pad to my left arm rest. Then she would place my forearm in a splint. Then it would be strapped down to the pad for one or two hours at a time. In this way, my hand would be stretched and my arm would be held away from my body. Otherwise, my
handwas clenched in a permanent fist and my elbow was drawn close to my body.

My arm was also involuntarily bent at a permanent 90 degree angle. Betsy explained that this was called “tone.” It is caused by the biceps constantly firing. As a result, the triceps cannot overpower it and extend the arm. Thus, she would have to stretch my arm every day. Some days, she would do it by stretching it manually. Other times she would do it by attaching the e-stim electrodes to my triceps.

Then one day Betsy told me that she was going to have me go upstairs with another occupational therapist named Josh. The next day, he would put me on a device known as the e-stim bike. She told me that I was a good candidate for this apparatus because I liked to work hard. At this point, I had heard this line so many times that it was becoming a cliché. Nonetheless, I was in the right mental state that it was just the motivation I needed. I suspect that Betsy knew that my mind was as malleable as a child’s. Flattery was the best encouragement.

The following day, Josh took me to a gym on a different floor. He explained that this was the brain injury ward. The stroke ward didn’t have its own e-stim bike. The machine didn’t look anything like I had expected. I had imagined something akin to a recumbent bike. This device didn’t resemble a bike at all. It was more of an upright terminal that had pedals, hand pedals, and a monitor.

Josh strapped my chair to the bike, then he placed my left hand on the hand pedal. He ask me to hold the other with my right hand, and try to pedal. My left hand slipped off. So we tried it again. It fell off a second time. After that, Josh decided to strap it to the pedal. After that was done, he attached electrodes in pairs along my forearm, my biceps, my triceps, my shoulder, my rhomboid, and deltoid.

When the electrodes were in place, he turned on the monitor and began manipulating the bars on the screen. Each bar was a setting that corresponded to a muscle group.

“Tell me when you can feel each one. Then let me know when it starts to hurt.”

A jolt shot through my forearm. “I can feel it now.”

“Let me know when it gets to be too much.” He pressed the up arrow until I told him to stop.

We repeated this process with each muscle group in question, until each setting was entered into the computer. Then he saved my profile into the computer. After that, he unstrapped me. We weren’t going to actually exercise today. It took half an hour just to set me up.

The following day, we got on the bike. An image of a bicycle rider appeared on the screen. I felt the e-stim began to fire. Then the machine started pedaling in reverse. Again with e-stim, my instruction was to assist the device in moving my muscles. I felt my shoulder, arm, and back begin to jump. My grip began to tighten around the pedal.

At the bottom of the screen, I saw percentages show up on either side. Josh told me that I needed to pedal with each hand evenly. My goal should be to keep the indicator on each side at 50$%. Then the percentages – which always totaled 100% – would even out. That is how I would know that my left arm was working. This was difficult, and I could only keep the left side firing at 20 – 35%. Nonetheless, my arm was working as hard as it had in two months. My shoulder hurt every time it extended. But I fought through the pain. I was happy to be using my left arm.

After twenty minutes, the machine slowed and cycled through a cool down. My shoulder hurt less, and after about five more minutes, Josh unstrapped me from the machine. My shoulder stopped hurting immediately, because while it was no longer being stretched, the endorphins were still present. My hand and forearm tingled. My entire arm felt alive. I felt accomplished. Josh wheeled me back down to my room. I passed out from exhaustion, though it was only 2:30.

I was satisfied that my arm and leg were going to get stronger. The only thing that was still bothering me was incontinence. From the time I had awakened, I could not control my urination. At Select, I had frequently just urinated while lying in bed. However, my physical therapist there had given me a urinal. He didn’t really know how to use it, so it was trial and error for me. It didn’t make sense at first, because I couldn’t understand how it could be angled and not have one in end pointing against the gravitational flow of liquid and urinate. Invariably, the urine would wash out and spill on me. However, I soon reasoned that, if I rolled over on my side, I could pee downward into the urinal. Also, with it flat against the sheets, urine would not flow back through the neck and out onto the bed.

So I now had my method of urinal use down. The next issue was actual controlling my urine stream. Because of the problem with incontinence, even though I knew how to use the urinal, it was a major challenge to get into position in time. So I would feel the signal and start rolling over. With my weakened abdominal muscles, it would generally take about four tries before I could twist onto and stay on my side. During this time, my need to urinate would quickly accelerate to emergency. I would grab the urinal and try to stuff it over my penis. As I did this, it was always with a sense of panic and discomfort. Half of the time, I would hear the urine patter on the inside of the plastic receptacle, and a I would relax, exhaling with delight. The other half of the time, I would misfire or I could not get the urinal in place at all. I would feel bitterly disappointed as I felt the sheets slowly fill with warm liquid.

By the time I arrived at Methodist, I confident that I had the proper technique once I could insert my penis into the urinal, but I still couldn’t control my urine stream. Often I would try to piss, and nothing would come out, no matter how long I lay there, try to force myself. Then, less than hour later, I would have little warning before my shorts would end up covered in urine. It was so uncontrollable that I finally began having people wheel me to my room between therapy sessions. I didn’t trust myself to use regular restrooms yet, and I never wanted to be far from my urinal for long periods. The muscles it took to regulate voiding were the last ones I would have to start developing the ability to control.

Read more

After respiratory therapy, I was wheeled back to the 5th floor. The transportation worker now took me to speech therapy. The lady I was to work with gave me a psychological battery, including memory and cognition tests. I scored very well on these. I was pleased with our interaction, and I looked forward to working with her again. I couldn’t wait to see what kind of speech exercises we would try.
On the next day, I arrived at speech therapy optimistically. She began by giving me more games and puzzles to do. I worked through these tasks, expecting that we would soon get to the speech part of speech therapy. Then she asked me do Sudoku. I became irritated. I told her that I didn’t want to do it. I had just gotten a voice again, and I wanted to use it. All of the games could wait until later.
After I told her that I didn’t like Sudoku, and I refused to do it. She suggested other games. I began to feel like she was wasting a lot of my time. Here I was in speech therapy, and I had a voice that needed retraining. The one thing that had not suffered was my mental capacity. The session ended badly, and I went back to my room.
That night, while I should have been resting, I lay in my hospital bed becoming more and more angry. I understood that she had a course of treatment she had to pursue, but I was the patient. Over the past few weeks, I had lived through just about the worst ordeal that I could fathom. I still couldn’t walk; I couldn’t move my left arm. The one ability I had regained was the power of speech. I desperately wanted to work on that, so at least one facet of my life would start to feel normal. I resolved that I would tell her the next day that it was time to begin working with speech.

When it was time to start speech therapy again, my brother, Ivory and his girlfriend, Sharon came with me. I was excited, because I hadn’t seen him in four years, and this was my first time meeting Sharon. I wanted to be able to sit and have a conversation with them, but speaking was still difficult. Still had no breath support. My weakened airways caused me to have a very faint voice. I would overcompensate by trying to speak as forcefully as possible. So my volume never wavered, and my pitch never rose or fell. Always, speaking was exhausting.
She began the session by giving me more sheets. I told that I was here for speech, and that she was trying to practice psychology, instead of doing what I was asking her to do. She responded by pulling up the speech therapy curriculum from a university’s website and commanding me to read it. I looked at the screen, and my eyes began swimming wildly. The double vision was slightly better, but I had tried to read anything from a screen since the day my father had brought me my phone.
I told her that I was having vision problems.
She fired back, “There’s nothing wrong with your eyesight.
I thought of how, just days earlier, the doctor had simply looked at me, and remarked that I had double vision. Now I was angry. told her that I was not going to do anything else until we started doing things that were speech related. She told me that the doctor had assigned me to her, and that I had no choice but to work with her. At this point, I began thinking, I’ve worked for two insurance companies; I’m trained in HIPAA. There’s no way in hell you can force me to work with you. And this is the last time I will.

The following morning, while I was in the gym for physical therapy, my nurse practitioner came by to ask how things were progressing. Told her that everyone else was treating me well, but that I wanted a new speech therapist. She asked me to try and get along with my present one.
I told her, “I’m a patient; not a coworker. I’m here to get healthy. Medical law states that it’s not my responsibility to try to get along with her. I want a different speech therapist”
I can’t remember what she said after this. But it was calm and accepting. The next time I went to speech therapy, it was with someone different.

At the time, I was unaware of everything that speech therapy entails. I have since learned that rehabilitation therapists divide the body into three regions of treatment: physical therapists work the legs; occupational therapists treat everything between the waist and the neck; while speech therapists tackle everything from the neck up. But despite her being correct about her function, I feel that her behavior was completely unprofessional. People in an inpatient setting experience a profound sense of loss of their freedom and control of their surroundings. It is never a provider’s job to enter into petty verbal altercations so she can prove the patient wrong. If someone comes to you at their most physically and emotionally vulnerable state, being empathetic to their emotional state of loss is also part of your job. You must seek to help them preserve their dignity.
Many people do not have the background or the mental wherewithal that I had to advocate for myself. It bothers me that some do not have knowledge of what their rights are.
* * *
I had also met my neurologist my first week there. He was kind of short and stocky, and he wore black cowboy boots. When I asked him about them, he explained that while he was born and spent most of his life near Washington, DC, he had spent his high school years in Texas. And when you grew up in Texas, you took on certain things Texan.
I liked him. He was good natured and quick-witted. We got along well. I could tell through our interactions that I was regaining the ability to express myself. I was, at appropriate times, friendly, sarcastic, stern, or observant. It felt like I was now able to participate in the world around me.
This was vital, because so much over the last month had been a blur. I was not the person in charge of making my own financial or medical decisions, and I could not direct much else. My father decided which hospitals I was taken to. He decided whom to pay and how. I wasn’t the one to apply for short term disability. My brother had driven my car up from the coast. My locus of control was very external, and I had to rely on other people to keep me healthy and financially solvent.

From the day of the stroke, I had been worrying about the fact that I had to get back to work, so I asked the doctor how long it would be before I would start walking. He told me that he couldn’t guarantee anything. I replied that I understood that, as a medical professional, it would be irresponsible of him to declare an outcome. But I assured him that, when my discharge day arrived, I would be able to walk out of the hospital.
We only ever had one unpleasant exchange. As many of my other providers before him, he had developed the habit of addressing my father when discussing my progress. I became annoyed by this one Friday, because I knew what I had been through, and I had fought to reclaim my ability to interact competently with the people around me.
I told him – more curtly than I had intended, “Don’t always to talk to him. Talk to me. I’m the patient!”
Instantly felt guilty. Had I sounded angry? Cruel? Whatever the case, he seemed rather sheepish. I made sure not to ever take that tone with him again. Nonetheless, that was the last time he failed to direct his comments toward me.

My disagreements with staff members became less frequent after this. I knew full well that they were only here to help me. Most of my jobs had featured some form of customer service, and my coworkers and I had always hated that some customers viewed service people as people who had to suffer abuse, because the customer was in a foul mood. I never wanted to hold a caretaker responsible for my bad day. So I would joke to lighten the mood every chance I got.
I must have been successful, because it seems that everyone I worked with thereafter laughed at least once during each interaction. People could also see my determination, and they would try out new equipment on me. The years of sports and weightlifting had given me a great deal of stamina, and physical therapy simply was nowhere near as painful or exhausting as everyone assured me it would be.
One day, I worked on the Nustep machine so long and so hard that I urinated on the gym floor. My physical therapist – now I knew him as Andrew – laughed it off, and asked me not to do it again. It was after this episode that I realized that I should do something about my incontinence. So I began going back to my room to try to use the restroom between therapy sessions. Most of the time, I would hold the urinal or sit on the toilet, pushing as hard as I could, but nothing would come out. Other times, I would still have accidents. But while my underwear and my shorts might be a mess, I never left another puddle.
Betsy,and my psychologist even had a computer placed in my room. As I understood, this was a privilege very few patients were ever afforded. I don’t know how true that was, but it made me feel special. But after those two encounters, it seemed that staff members always thoroughly enjoyed their time working with me.
With all of the major distractions out of the way, I was mentally able to concentrate on what I felt I had come there for: to learn how to walk and use my left arm again.

Read more