Shaking Hands with Myself

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.

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