I had entered the new year in my best shape since the stroke. I’d lost 19 pounds in 2019 and was committed to dropping 15 more in 2020. My workouts were getting far more intense; I was doing more work and taking shorter rests between sets. This might seem like a good time to level off, but I felt like I was just getting started.. Phase 1, to me, was when I woke from my coma and did my first two years of rehab. During that time, I was just getting my body accustomed to moving again. Phase 2 was the next two and a half years. It was the period where I started going to the gym again.
Phase 2 would be the longest time span of my focus on physical rehabilitation because it was after I had learned to walk again but before I really felt strong and competent. When I had first begun going to the gym, I could barely move any weight. I constantly worried about tripping and falling. Bending down was even more of a nightmare because I was never sure whether I was going to be able to stand up safely. Phase 2 had been frustrating because, while I knew that I was working out regularly, I couldn’t prove that I was getting significantly better.
Toward the end of 2019, I was able to kick up my workouts to a higher gear. Having notice that a few months of lunges was increasing my ability to lift my left leg, I decided to start challenging myself to push more weight on leg exercises. Since leg press was my favorite, I started with ten pounds and tried to increase by another ten pounds every other week. My ultimate goal would be to get to 90 pounds by March.
I wasn’t trying to cheat, either. A full set would start with both legs pushing for five reps. Then I would drop my right leg and try to do ten more reps with the stroke-affected leg. This was the mindset I had learned when I was initially taught to lift weights years ago: “If you can’t lift the weight slowly and with high reps, you can’t really say you can do it.” So in my eyes, a set had always been a minimum amount of eight reps. Anything else was considered a half set. For every half set, you had to do another half set before you could move on to the next exercise.
Although this might sound excessive, it had definite real world implications. The first time I needed to buy dog food in January, I got to the dog food aisle and selected a medium-sized bag. In the past, I would have slid the bag off the rack and down into the shopping cart. But now, wanting to test my strength and flexibility, I maneuvered it onto my shoulder. It felt like nothing as my thighs absorbed far less weight than I regularly squatted. I stood there for a few seconds, feeling stronger and more independent.
Another change I noticed in my leg was in flexibility. When I first woke up from my coma, my left leg was entirely straight and rigid. My toe pointed so straight that they would have to force shoes on my foot. It took years of walking on this foot to get it to relax. After that, my leg would only remain straight early in the morning or when getting in vehicles.
This posed such a problem that I only rode in the front seat. If I sat in the back seat, I would have a hrad time getting my leg inside the door. The driver would have to help me by grabbing my foot and bending it into place. The leg wouldn’t go in immediately; it would be involuntarily rigid, then it would slowly become more pliable, like a deflating balloon. After the tone relaxed, my leg could be pushed into place. Since some of the drivers preferred to have me sit in the backseat, this was another victory for me.
When I started doing squats without a leg brace, I noticed my leg slowly start to become more flexible. The same was true for presses and lunges. My ankles started bending to absorb the shock more easily as resistance increased. I wasn’t able to bend my ankles voluntarily, but the joint became like a spring. It would allow my foot to stay in contact with the floor, then the foot would spring up and allow me to easily step forward.
The next time I rode in a Metro Mobility SUV, I told the driver that I was fine sitting in the rear. He offered to help, but I was fine. I sat down and drew my right leg inside. Then I grabbed my left leg and pulled it inside without any difficulty. When we arrived at the gym, I was able to hop right back out. I walked into the gym even more excited now. With every set of leg weights, I would make it easier to get in and out of the vehicles.
In the next few days, I would go out to eat at various international restaurants. I thoroughly enjoyed the flavors and atmospheres. Walking around the dining rooms was so much easier, and my voice was so much stronger. Dining out was something I could enjoy even if I wasn’t yet completely recovered.
In the gym, I was gaining more confidence every week. Instead of waiting for help, I was carrying my own weights and setting up my own workout stations. Between workouts, I was constantly coming up with additional exercises to try because more and more of my muscles were “waking up”. I was apprehensive and excited, as I had no idea when I would finally reach my limits. Whatever the case, it’s not like I was planning to stop getting stronger once I stopped regaining control of new muscle groups. Working out wasn’t a means to an end. It was a way of life.
I had my first occupational therapy session in early January. When the therapist asked me my goals, I told her that I wanted to regain the abilities to flex my wrist and control my triceps. Knowing that she might need more concrete goals to send to the insurance company, I told her that I wanted to regain the abilities to cook, wash dishes, sweep, and shovel. Working towards these tasks would allow the therapists to draw up strategies that would engage the desired muscle groups.
My therapist wrote up a plan for eight sessions. She gave me the option of one or two sessions per week. I told her that I wanted two sessions per week. If I could get help retraining my arm and hand twice a week – with as much as I was working out – I would be able to come up with all sorts of exercises to complement what I was doing in occupational therapy. Whether or not I did any additional occupational therapy visits, I would develop strategies over the next month that would continue to help me move forward.
After I accepted that this might be my one and only shot at occupational therapy for a while, I devised a plan: My month of OT would end in late February. As long as I continued the same plan in the gym, I would reach 100 pounds on single-leg press in mid-March. In late March, I would have my quarterly round of Botox injections. At that point, I would ask to be referred to physical therapy. This way, I would have the brute strength to maximize my therapy..
Going forward, I had no idea whether I would show enough progress to warrant more therapy, But I would get the most out of every minute I was allotted. I was enjoying working out and going out for social engagements. I would have an amazing life, even if my progress stopped this month. But I would never stop fighting for more.