I purchased my airline ticket to New Orleans in late July – almost six weeks in advance. Back then, it seemed like it would take forever for my vacation to get here. Life seemed so monotonous. I busied myself by blogging, working out, and going to physical therapy. Then I took a couple of weeks off to let my body rest, file government documents, and to go to medical appointments. I tried to stay busy, and before I knew it, there were fewer than two weeks left until my flight. Now I could start my final preparations.
One of the issues I’d had when traveling before was that I seldom traveled with enough money. There always seemed to be too much to pay for prior to leaving. I had fixed expenses like rent, phone, and medical insurance. But one thing I knew I could control was my food expenses. Knowing that I had a food delivery coming thirteen days before my trip, I went to the grocery store one last time to supplement the food in my fridge.
My ILS worker and I went one Friday afternoon. I felt like walking that day because my leg had become much stronger. As I wheeled my shopping cart around, I couldn’t help but notice how much better I was walking. My posture was more erect. Undoubtedly, my speed had increased. I didn’t bang my shins on the bottom of the cart as I had done before. Thanks to all of the miles I was logging on the stationary bike, I felt my feet hitting the floor with a natural rhythm that allowed me to concentrate on finding my food items as opposed to on keeping a steady pace.
I whipped up and down the aisles, reading the signs overhead and negotiating the crowds in front of me. It became like a game as I backed up, turned, and spun. I calculated the prices of each item as I placed it in my cart; I checked the time on my cellphone; I handed the phone to my ILS worker to take video so I could track my progress. This shopping trip was fun. Unlike earlier trips that had been tiring, I wasn’t dragging my left foot or trying to rest my weight on the cart. I had the energy, strength, and awareness to make it a game like I used to before my stroke.
After we left the grocery store, my ILS worker drove me to a fast food restaurant. He wanted to drive up to the front door so I could get out safely. But I told him to park the car. I felt like walking. It occurred to me that I should only take special accommodation when my body couldn’t handle normal tasks. So I walked around the building, like everyone else. Also like everyone else, I stood in line to place my order. I had my ILS worker bring my food to the table because I didn’t want to drop it. But while I waited for him, I draped my left arm across the bench, so I could stretch my shoulder.
It used to hurt when I did this a year ago. Now I am always stretching it whenever I think about it. It is no different from my leg in that it requires as much exercise as possible when I’m not at the gym. This is how one keeps muscles loose and active. Recovery is made that much easier when you make sure the muscles are always prepared for exercise. And while I can’t lift my hand above my head voluntarily yet, I am able to actively use my arm in ways that I couldn’t just a month ago. This is obvious in the gym when I have to move heavy weights or set up to do lunges and squats.
After I let my arm hang for a few moments, I tried straightening it. This is an ideal position for working the triceps. The arm is limited to one plane of movement, so the elbow doesn’t flare out when tone kicks in in the biceps. This felt more rewarding than a lot of other triceps exercises, because I could actually feel the muscles firing, if ever so faintly. I flexed my triceps, closing my eyes and dreaming of a day when I would be able to extend my arm or do pressing exercises again.
The next morning when I got on the bus, I made sure to hold on to the grab bar with my left hand the whole time on the way to the gym. As I did, my biceps loosened up. As the tone in my left arm relaxed, I began to regain control in my triceps. I flexed them constantly until I arrived at my destination. I got off the bus excited about my workout.
Now that I had been back in the gym over two years, my workouts had become a lot more focused and efficient. I usually can get twenty minutes of cardio and five weightlifting exercises in without too much planning or rest between sets. I had already mastered stationary bike riding. Now I wanted to begin setting up on my own at a different gym.
The first thing to do was make sure I didn’t fall. I walked over to a bike, grabbed onto the handlebar with my left hand, then bent down to place my cane on the floor. Still maintaining a hold with my stroke affected hand, I adjusted the seat to a comfortable height. Once I got settled back into the seat, I rotated the pedals so the one on the left side was close to the floor. Then I carefully maneuvered my foot into the stirrup. The right side was much easier. I added resistance and began pedaling. As I rode, I marveled at how much muscle control it had taken to simply set myself up on the bicycle. Just performing the limited exercises I could on a consistent basis had allowed my body to expand and begin mastering other movements.
Next I went to the leg curl machine. My goal with this movement is no longer to build a lot of brute strength in my calves and hamstrings; it’s to retrain my leg to bend so that it’s more natural when I walk. I was barely able to lift my leg on this exercise before. But now that I was regularly riding the bike and performing lunges, I had trained my calf to respond. As I pushed myself to complete three sets, I could feel my foot rising a little higher.
Next in the rotation was leg press. This is a brute strength exercise that I use solely to make it easier to stand or to lift my foot while walking. The mechanics of this exercise are deceptively simple: draw your knee towards you, then kick it back out explosively. However, there’s more to it for me. I rotate my foot until it’s pointing toward the ceiling. As I bring the weight towards me, I keep going until I feel pressure in my glutes. Then I extend my leg slowly, trying to feel my calf working. Finally, I try to point my toes a little at the end of each rep. This how I try to make sure that as many leg muscles as possible are working.
Now it was time for the upper body part of my workouts. I started with lat pulldowns. When I do this exercise, I concentrate on trying to return mobility to my left shoulder. Because it is so constricted, I try to exaggerated the up-and-down movement while limiting the range of motion for my right shoulder. Any strength I gain in my latissimus dorsi is secondary to regaining flexibility in my shoulder.
As usual, I finished my workout by performing lat rows. This is another back exercise I use to help with shoulder mobility. When I first started this exercise two years ago, I had very little range of motion. Over the last few months, I have concentrated on stretching my left arm as far as I can at the top of the movement. Then, trying to keep my trunk rigid, I pull the weight towards me, tucking my elbow and trying to pull it was far back as possible. Now my shoulder is much looser and my grip strength has improved dramatically.
With my workout finished, I went to the locker room to retrieve my things. Where it once took me a few minutes fumbling with my pad lock to open it with one arm, I was now adept enough to slide the key in without moving the lock around. I used to make sure I had thirty minutes to open my lock, gather my things, use the restroom, and walk to the door in order to wait for my ride. These days, fifteen minutes was far more time than I needed to comfortably accomplish everything.
I slipped my backpack over my left arm, then I ran my right arm through the other strap. My left shoulder had become so dexterous during the last six months that I could quickly pull it off and on. I stood up and walked out to the front door. All the leg muscles I had just worked would have felt depleted in the past. These days, all I could notice was my increased walking stability even without my leg brace. My ankle was flexible but stronger; my calf fired a little as well. I couldn’t wait to walk around down south with renewed vigor. Every week, I was becoming more like the energetic person family and friends knew before my stroke.