The Struggle Is the Beauty

Now that I was back in occupational therapy, I felt reinvigorated. No longer did I feel like I was alone in pursuing physical rehabilitation. Everything I did voluntarily in the gym could be supported and guided by a professional. I was going to the gym four days a week. Even if I didn’t feel like lifting heavy, I would easily be able to complete an upper body workout. So while I might not do legs every time I went to the gym, my shoulder and arm were engaged every session.

The continuous attention to the arm in the gym was part of my plan to get it working again. Noting that my leg was working out through general use, even when I wasn’t at the gym, I surmised that I needed to find ways to keep my arm engaged. Although you can never predict how much muscle function you’ll recover, I’d been told that the more I kept my arm actively engaged in day-to-day tasks, the more likely my brain was to build new neural pathways to restore voluntary movement. Since I was going to therapy two days a week, there were six days every week where my arm was in use.

I loved how much work my arm and shoulder were getting each week, but the drawback was that working out could contribute to involuntary tone. Exercise would allow me to use my muscles a lot more but at the expense of them feeling tighter when at rest. Luckily, the therapist had given me a folder full of stretching exercises for the assisted living staff to help me do every morning. After we started doing these I realized that my back and shoulder were remaining even meor loose than I’d expected from the combination of stretching and exercise. I told them that it would be more productive and less time consuming to just stretch my arm every morning. They were delighted because it cut down their workload considerably.

Between the morning sessions and my stretching my arm every time I traveled on the bus, my arm was getting straighter. One morning, the person stretching me remarked at how much more pliant my arm was. He didn’t have to use a lot of pressure to get my arm over my head and back down to my side. When I went to the gym later that day, I noticed how much easier lat rows and lat pulldowns were. I had regained so much range of motion on my left side that I was pulling down evenly on both sides.

When I arrived for my second week of therapy, my therapist informed me that my wrist splint had arrived. She adjusted the splint and showed me how to take it off and tuck the velcro pads so they wouldn’t lose their stickiness. This was something to be concerned about because I have dog fur all over my apartment. That night I went home and carefully strapped the splint over my arm. Because of its rigidity, I was able to get it onto my arm twice as quickly as my old splint.

The last piece of equipment they were giving me was one I hadn’t known to ask for. They were fitting me for a molded plastic elbow orthotic. Just as with my foot orthotic, the representative wrapped my arm in gauze. Unlike with my leg, he wrapped my arm all the way to the shoulder to cast for a large plastic sleeve. I would sleep wearing the orthotic and the wrist splint every night. It would gradually become easier to stretch my arm every subsequent morning. After enough nights wearing this rigid apparatus, I would be able to lift weights and use my arm in other ways again.

With all of the work I was putting my body through each week, my daily life was becoming increasingly normal. For instance, the weight I’d gained from the stroke had been mostly around the waist, throwing my balance off so severely that I couldn’t sit on a chair unless it was low and had a back. This made sitting at bar stools and hi-top tables out of the question.

Working out and losing weight had strengthened my core, even though I wasn’t targeting the area. It also gave me the ability to square my thighs and plant my feet firmly on the floor. So when my neighbor offered to give me a stool from the set he had in his apartment, I decided to give it a try. I was wary at first. But as I sat down on it, my body felt in control. I didn’t fall backwards or sway to the sides. My back maintained its posture all by itself. I was even able to bend down and pick up things without falling forward.

That weekend I went to dinner with my friend Sandra. She loves international cuisine, so she is a perfect dining partner. We went to an Indian restaurant that was rated the best in the Twin Cities. The last time we had been here was a year ago. Back then I was still dragging my left foot. As a result, Sandra had needed to drop me off at the door before going to park the car. Once we were in the dining room, I’d needed to sit opposite from the wall so I didn’t trip sitting down or standing up.

My leg was now so strong that it didn’t require much effort to lift my foot as I walked down the sidewalk, so Sandra was able to find a parking spot without first letting me out. Having stronger legs gave me a narrower gait, which allowed me to walk sideways through an area of sidewalk that hadn’t been properly shoveled. Inside the restaurant, I was able to stroll around the table and sit next to the wall. The food was delicious. Sandra couldn’t believe I ordered a spice level 5. I told her the story of how I’d doused a pot of spaghetti with an entire bottle of Tabasco sauce in an effort to regain my tolerance for spicy food after my stroke.

The next day, my friend Lacey and her husband Chris had a Southern Sunday dinner for all of the people we knew who’d moved up from Mississippi in the last couple of years. Since I had to walk up a long, steep driveway, I had the Metro Mobility driver help me walk up to the house. I wasn’t too worried that I would fall. It was just a precaution because I didn’t want to trip and scare anyone.

The food was amazing! I had my fill of fried catfish, macaroni and cheese, and cheesecake. There was more, but I tend to select a few dishes I really like and have multiple helpings of those. Most of us had never met each other, but we were a house full of people from the Hospitality State, so after about ten minutes, there were no strangers. The dogs got plenty of affection and the children played video games. And although things were supposed to go from about noon until 3:00, I didn’t get home until 11:00. I was so stable walking around the house in socks that it just felt natural to linger a spell.

My body was responding so well to exercise that I was tempted to go to the gym every day. But it’s always important to give one’s body time to rest. Even though I hadn’t gone to the gym since Friday, going out and walking for hours was taxing on my body. I could’ve gotten to the weight room, but my workout would have been extremely flat. I spent the next couple of days hanging out with Mary and doing things around the house. I wore my wrist and elbow splints more hours than I was scheduled so I could speed through the period I had to wait before the therapist could adjust it.

On Wednesday I finally went back to the gym. I started with ten minutes on the stationary bike. After my warm up, I did four sets of 15 on leg press. Next I went to the lateral shoulder raise, where I pushed my shoulder to do sets of 30 pounds. After this, I felt so pumped that I went right to the leg press, where I was up to 70 pounds. This was so difficult that I couldn’t complete a single set of ten reps. That was fine, though. The struggle was the success.

I was now finished with the leg portion of my workout. I wanted to finish up with another arm stretching exercise in anticipation of going to occupational therapy the next day. I went over to the lat pulldown machine, grasped the bar with a wide grip and pulled it down with a smooth, even motion. Each time the bar went back up, I felt my underarms stretch. At the end of every set, I would let the bar pull my left arm up, stretching it as much as I could. Each time I did this it was the straightest my arm had been since the stroke.

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