After over a month of wearing the splint on my left arm all day, occupational therapy finally said that I was ready to start wearing it overnight. This coincided with my being released from therapy altogether. The occupational therapists showed members of the nursing staff how to put the splint on and take it off, so I wouldn’t need occupational therapy to help with it any longer.
Wearing the splint overnight meant that I was no longer burdened with having to wear it during the day. Likewise it meant that I wouldn’t be confined to the nursing facility most of the day. To be fair, the staff were not requiring that I not leave while wearing the splint; it was just so bulky that I couldn’t fit my coat sleeve over it. Not being able to wear a winter coat properly rendered going out in the Minnesota winter completely impractical.
One of the first places I wanted to start going was back to the gym. My favorite place to lift weights had been L. A. Fitness-Richfield. However, there had been some issue with my membership. I didn’t know why it was showing as inactive, but because it was paid through my insurance, I assumed that the miscommunication was there. When I had encountered a problem with the membership once before, it had taken two weeks for the information to be fully updated. I wanted to start working out immediately. Since I also had a paid membership to Planet Fitness in Mississippi, I transferred it to a branch in Minnesota.
The fitness machines were different from the ones at L. A. Fitness, so I had to design a new workout. I wanted to start adding more exercises. I had not been able to use my left triceps since the stroke. Triceps had been my favorite upper body muscle group before the stroke, so I didn’t want to accept that I would never work them again. I found a triceps isolation machine and committed to using it every other workout. I didn’t have much range of motion, and I had to try sitting and standing, as well as much twisting and cajoling just to get my arm into position. This would have been too frustrating to keep attempting, but I constantly reminded myself how dreadfully weak and stiff I had been when I started lifting weights again ten months ago. My body would learn to do all of these things again. It would just need time and persistence.
I had also always taken pride in my leg strength. Having grown up playing soccer, I loved jumping and lifting leg weights. Although I couldn’t use my left calf yet, I wanted to develop enough foot clearance to stop stumbling. While there were several exercises that I could use to strengthen my upper legs, I felt the best would be squats. I had tried squats when I first started lifting in the previous year, but I had always placed a bench between my legs to prevent me from falling. This made me feel safer, but it didn’t allow for full range of motion. While confined, I had been performing sidesteps. Each time I stepped outward, I would squat as deeply as possible, using the handrail in front of me to keep from falling. Because of this, I reasoned, I could squat more deeply without risking a fall.
When it was time to try, I had someone place the bench so I could barely touch the end as I squatted. Then I stepped into the smith machine and aligned my feet, letting the weight of the bar press down on my shoulders. I didn’t have the movement or flexibility I needed in my left arm to hold the bar with both hands, so I needed to concentrate on keeping my body centered. I went down slowly, inhaling deeply as I went. At the bottom of the movement, I could feel all the weight in my glutes. Then I exploded upward. It was easier than I had estimated, so I kept going until I had reached 15 reps.
I was playing music, so I couldn’t hear myself. But after the first set, I noticed that I was panting more deeply than I could remember. As a youth, I had heard people breathing this audibly during sports. It was so full of bass. I’d envied people who had such immense lung capacities. I imagined the sound of my breath thundering off the walls. If I could keep this up, it could aid in breath support for my speech. Working out was starting to feel really good. Before, I had felt as though I was simply trying to keep my body moving. Now it truly felt like I was starting to build strength.
Things were progressing very well with my weekly trips to Target, too. When I first began going, I would drive the motorized shopping cart with one hand. Lifting weights and wearing my arm splint had gradually helped me straighten my arm to the point where I could use two hands. After all of the sidesteps, I became strong enough to walk behind a regular shopping cart. I had gone shopping like this before, but I had always been with other people. If I stumbled and fell now, there wouldn’t be anyone I knew to catch me.
My trips to Target would go as follows: I would select a cart, then spend about thirty minutes shopping. Watching my pedometer, I would push my cart around the store until I approached one mile. I would go through the second floor checkout. Then I would transfer my things to a motorized cart, which I would drive over to Starbucks. Usually I would buy a Frappuccino and hang out in Starbucks for at least an hour. Sometimes I would take my laptop and blog; other times I would sip and people-watch. Half an hour before my ride home arrived, I would drive downstairs and use the bathroom. Then I would drive my cart to the area just inside the store entrance and wait by the security kiosk.
When I first started shopping upright alone, my left arm couldn’t extend very far and my grip wasn’t strong. So as I pushed the cart, my hand would drift slowly from the edge of the bar to the center. This would make it difficult to control the cart. I couldn’t bend my left knee or ankle either. So when I tried to advance my left foot, it would often bang into the cart. After about ten minutes of pain, I would become annoyed and just start pushing with my right arm. I could control the cart more easily like this, and I could extend my arm enough to walk without my left foot hitting the cart. One day, I would be able to control a cart with a more normal gait, but for now I was excited to just be walking through Target.
Now that I was finished with rehabilitation therapy, it seemed like every other aspect of life was becoming more urgent. A representative from the business office stopped by to inform me that there was a question about the funding for my stay. I assumed that this had to do with my insurance. Since my insurance was administered by the State of Minnesota, I told him that I would go down to the Hennepin County social services building to address the issue.
Knowing that they usually had to perform a review of my employment and financial records every six months, I went to the bank and got statements from my checking and savings accounts. I also had my employer email pay stubs from the last four months. This was all I had ever needed to submit in the past to keep my insurance. Not knowing how long the lines might be, I scheduled my rides for Metro Mobility to have me there three hours the following Monday.
When I had gone to the services building in the past, I had always required special accommodations. For the first year, I had always borrowed a wheelchair to get around. After I stopped using the wheelchair, I had been allowed to bypass the winding line. This time I didn’t need a wheelchair, and I had enough strength and endurance to walk through the line.
I was one of the first people to get to the second floor, so my number was called almost as soon as I sat down. I told him that I was looking to have my insurance reinstated, and he told me that he would route me to speak to my team. When they called me, a lady took me to her office and asked me a ton of questions, then she keyed my info into several forms. After that, she sent me to another window. I told the new person what I was there for, and she collected my bank statements from me. I told her that I only had email copies of my pay stubs, and she sent me to a computer room to print them off.
After the whole Kafkaesque affair, I still had an hour to burn before my bus arrived. My favorite tacquería, Pineda Tacos was just across the street, and I would be missing lunch. I began fantasizing about having a burrito. This wasn’t the first time I had thought about just walking over and eating, but I had been afraid to risk walking over. In the past few months, I had successfully crossed a four-lane street and had begun doing some serious leg work in the gym. So I felt up to the challenge.
I went out the front door to plan my trip. While I had assumed that Pineda was in a building directly across the street, it was actually about one block up as well. I would have to cross two streets. I walked up to the intersection. Lake Street had never seemed so daunting. Luckily, there was a traffic island in the middle. I waited for the light to change, then leisurely walked to the island. The light was still green by the time I made it there. Since I was moving so efficiently, I decided to finish crossing in cycle.
I turned and crossed the second street, then I walked along the strip mall to Pineda. Because I was no longer on the street, I felt safer. I walked faster, knowing that I could lean against the wall if I needed to catch my balance. Before long, I had made it to Pineda. At this point, it was only 12:05. There would be plenty of time for me to make it back to the Hennepin County building for my 1:00 ride home, so I ate at the tacquería.
I ordered a burrito with meat marinated in salsa and a Jarritos to drink. The gentleman in front of me offered to carry them to my table. I sat down in one of the colorful booths and carefully used my right hand to open my burrito while steadying it with my left hand to keep it from falling. Around twenty teenagers came in; presumably South High School had just let out for lunch. Outside the cars were rushing along the frigid streets, beneath a sky that was the color of metal.
I bit into my food. The interplay of flavors made me feel so alive. I was beginning to feel like a part of the city again.