I have a serious breathing disorder: asthma. Whenever someone tells me that you can’t die of asthma, I ask if I can put them in a choke hold because obviously, humans don’t have to breathe. My mother died due to a severe asthma attack one November morning in 1983. I come down with a bad lung infection or two every year between September and December. Since that’s right around November, I always associate her asthma attack with my own seasonal allergies and asthma.
Years ago, when I tried to be macho and invulnerable, I would take over-the-counter medications and try to fight off the infection. Invariably, I would still be coughing up phlegm after two weeks, so I would bite the bullet and go in to urgent care. The treatment was always the same: two albuterol breathing treatments, then sent home with prescriptions for a steroid and antibiotics. By the third day on prescriptions, I had usually begun feeling well enough to return to my normal physical activities. I would find myself lying on a weight bench or standing on a goal line, wondering why I hadn’t just gone in and taken care of the problem immediately. I could’ve avoided the disruption to my lifestyle altogether.
After I suffered the stroke, my lung strength was even more compromised. Before the stroke, being sick would make it difficult to sneeze or exhale forcefully. Post stroke, I didn’t even have to be sick to be unable to cough, blow, or whistle. If I got sick, I would just go to urgent care on the second or third day. Once there was mucus buildup in my lungs, there was no way I could generate the wind to expel it. Antibiotics would kill the infection; steroids would help me to expel it
In August of 2018, I got an early lung infection. The doctor at my follow-up appointment issued me a home nebulizer. This seemed like such an obvious remedy that I wondered why no one had thought of it before. Now when I woke up feeling a little congested, I could give myself a breathing treatment before a serious infection set in. But being a creature of habit, I forgot to use the home nebulizer the next two times I got sick. I used it the morning I decided to go to the hospital. But by then, it only offered temporary relief. I still required medication.
In December 2019, I woke up with a sore throat. I cleaned and sterilized my CPAP machine. This helped me to feel a little better the next morning. So I repeated the cycle and started keeping water on the window sill so I could refill the humidifier if I woke up in the middle of the night. By the third morning, I was waking up with mucus buildup. This time I finally remembered that I owned a nebulizer. I felt better immediately, so I put off going to the hospital. I woke up the next morning feeling even better, so I took another breathing treatment and went about my day. Over the next few days, I improved a bit more every day. On New Year’s Day, I woke up completely symptom-free. I took a final breathing treatment for prevention. I have felt wonderful ever since.
During the second week of the year, 1 went down to the basement rec room in order to take stock of my current abilities. When I began walking without my cane last January, I had done so in the basement. I had received a new leg brace the month before that was so bulky that I needed to order large training shoes to accommodate it. I ordered a custom pair so I could monogram an inspirational message on them. On the day the shoes arrived, I wore them downstairs. In the basement, I recorded a video of myself walking so I could see what my stride looked like and track my progress.
Last year, I had walked slowly, trying to maintain good posture. I concentrated on trying to step with my hip and lift my toes every time I advanced my left foot. It was a struggle, but I felt myself doing better than I had recently. But when I reviewed the recording, I looked a mess. I was still having a devil of a time lifting my left foot off the ground. To compensate, I was swinging my left leg out to the side. I was also leaning to my right in an effort to get more leverage.
I had felt so embarrassed. But I dutifully up loaded the video to Facebook. I also took a still image for my blog. As hideous as my posture was, I would be so proud when I could juxtapose it with pictures of me in later years.
During the year, I had started lifting more weight with squats and leg presses. I had also added lunges to my training regimen. This increased the difficultly level of each training session. I would always perform these heavy leg exercises at the end of a session. I would have to talk myself into doing them, but as I persevered, my balance improved. I was able to lift my leg much higher as well. These things together gave me the endurance and confidence to walk even greater distances.
Now that it was a year later, it was time to reevaluate my gait. I went down to the basement and set up my camera again. I walked from the rear of the room to the doorway, turned and walked back toward the camera. This time, when I took stock of my gait, I was a lot prouder. I wasn’t lifting my foot that high, but I was clearing it consistently. My posture was erect, because I didn’t need to lean to one side. Nor did I kick my leg out. I was simply striding from my hip. It didn’t require any additional effort. Not having to concentrate so hard on walking would allow my brain to focus on other things.
When I had gone to have my Botox injections in December, I told the doctor that my only rehab concern was my arm. I wanted to be able to straighten my arm and lift my hand above my head. This would entail using my triceps. But in order to start working my triceps, I would need to be able to bend my wrist back at least 200°. I slept in an arm splint every night, but that was only designed to keep the wrist in a neutral position (less than 180°). At this angle, I couldn’t perform any pressing exercises because the force would be pushing in the wrong direction. So I asked the doctor for a referral to occupational therapy.
Since occupational therapy targets upper body tasks, I reasoned that this would be the place to start for anything arm related. Getting help to stretch the wrist and arm would be optimal. If they could show me a few exercises and help me to order a replacement for my broken e-stim machine, that would still be a positive outcome. The worst that could happen was that they would tell me they couldn’t do anything for me.
When I had gone to occupational therapy in the past, I had always had stiff arms and a lot of shoulder pain. So a lot of my time in treatment had been dedicated to trying to slowly mobilize my joints while relieving pain. This was a necessary process, but my goal was to get to the point where I was actually exercising again. I might never regain full muscle function, but part of my quality of life would come from continuing to push past my body’s limitations.
I had also been drowsy a lot in occupational therapy. When I had gone in past years, it had been on days when I was just waking up — and these were days when I was starting therapy at 10:00 or 11:00 am. Just as with stiffness, I felt like lethargy robbed me of the chance to get the maximum out of my therapy sessions. Not being able to work hard meant that I couldn’t assist the machines as they flexed my muscles for me. So when they measured my arms and shoulders, their notes wouldn’t reflect adequate progress. If the notes didn’t indicate significant improvement, the insurance company would stop my treatments.
Going to occupational therapy was obviously the best way to keep recovering arm function. Because I had always been a self-starter in the gym, I would take videos of the various exercises I was doing in the gym to try and coordinate them with therapy. I figured that their expertise was invaluable, even if we didn’t seem to be accomplishing much on the equipment in the therapy gym. Medical experts have been observing and studying the body for years. It was my job to be in the best shape for them to try their ideas.
I committed to doing biceps and triceps exercises every workout. I would work my biceps to depletion. Then, hopefully, that would allow me to work my triceps. At a bare minimum, it would get me used to working the arm every day. Part of the reason why my leg was getting better so quickly now was that I was always using it. The key was to make continuous arm movement a part of life, too. Then, in therapy, my arm would just be doing a little more work than it was always doing anyway.