The Year I Wanted

I almost died of a stroke in 2015. That year, I spent almost three months in hospitals. During that time, I began doing a lot of physical and occupational therapy. The process was painful and exhausting, and my progress seemed agonizingly slow, but it was progress. I emerged from the hospital able to walk again, and that seemed like magic. I hoped to be recovered after a year. After a year of going to therapy three days a week, I was getting better, but it was clear that I would be nowhere near fully recovered in one year. So in 2016, I moved from Mississippi back to Minnesota, hoping to improve my chances.

In November of that year, I finally became eligible for insurance in Minnesota. I wasted no time starting rehabilitation at a local hospital. Walking continued to improve with physical therapy. My therapist even helped me to transition from a quad cane to a regular cane. Occupational therapy focused more on performing everyday tasks like dressing myself. However, the occupational therapist often helped me with exercises for my hand and arm. I stropped showing significant progress after April of 2017, so therapy ended. I was happy that I had come farther since returning to Minnesota, but it was nowhere near where I wanted to be.

May 18th would be the second anniversary of my stroke. I wasn’t fully healed, but I at least wanted to be back in the gym by then. Since my insurance would allow me to work out at most local gyms, I went to the closest one I could find. The first time I went, I was a little intimidated. Every gym I had worked out in since the stroke had been a physical therapy gym. The machines were designed for people who had difficulty moving; there were grasping bars everywhere; you could always find a professional to help you. Here you were on your own. If you couldn’t operate a machine by yourself, you needed to do another exercise that day. The one thing I worried about most was falling. I wasn’t afraid of injury; there would be plenty of strangers rushing over to help me. I just didn’t want to be embarrassed. Or worse, I didn’t want anyone suggesting that I didn’t belong here.

For the first month I worked out, I could barely use any of the machines. I had to walk around to the few I thought I could use and make determinations through trial and error. It took me around three trips, but I came up with a rotation of maybe six exercises for the legs and back. In an hour, I would get through three or four of these before it was time to go back home. I was barely able to move any weight those days, and many mornings I would wake up and cancel my trip because it was mentally draining to even think about trying to lift weights. But overall, I was encouraged that I was doing something physical again. I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was doing more than anyone else expected.

I worked out for the rest of the year. I gained confidence as I lifted two or three days per week. In August, I went home to Mississippi for a month. While there, I joined Planet Fitness, so I could continue my recovery. After a month, I flew back to Minneapolis. Since I had recently moved out from the house where I had been living, a friend let me sleep on her couch until I could find my own place.

After I got settled in, I transferred my Planet Fitness membership to Minnesota so I could continue the same workout routine I had started in Mississippi. I had gotten quite a bit stronger now, but I was still not equipped to live on my own. One day, I was rushed to the hospital because I had difficulty walking. While I was there, I spent more time pondering what I would do about housing and trying to live with my dog than concentrating on trying to get better. The second day I was at the hospital, a physical and an occupational therapist came by and worked with me. On the third day, they told me that I was being moved to the inpatient physical therapy ward for a week.

While I was in the hospital, my friend Karine kept Mary at her home in Sleepy Eye, Minn. After I was released, I went out to live with Karine and Mary. When I got there, I started doing outpatient therapy twice a week. I also began going a gym in New Ulm – the largest city in the county. I got to each of these places because there was a ride service for disabled citizens in that county. Any independence I have gained is because insurance pays for gym memberships and there is a ride service for the disabled in every county. After a month, I was discharged from therapy. I flew home to Mississippi to finish out the year. I wanted to get strong enough to live on my own.

After I arrived back in Minnesota, I ended up back in the hospital. This time, they released me to a transitional care facility where I would receive physical, occupational, and speech therapy every day. After my therapy plan was done, the county helped me to find an apartment with public housing, and I moved into a building in the shadow of downtown. This would be the first time I lived alone with Mary. I was worried about finances, physical recovery, and taking care of Mary.

I started doing outpatient therapy twice a week. I complemented this by going to the gym two days a week. After Mary moved in, I began taking her out a minimum of twice a day. I still worried about falling and dropping her leash, so I would only take her out in the enclosed area behind the building. I felt like I was moving at a snail’s pace, but this was how 2018 ended – exercise, walking, trying to budget, taking care of Mary.

With the new year of 2019, I had some specific goals I wanted to meet. If I could have waved a magic wand and healed my body entirely, I would have. But I knew recovery was going to be a long-term project, so I came up with a few incremental ways to progress.

One of the first big obstacles I had to get over was using my crutch … as a crutch. Having received a new stabilizing leg brace meant that walking was going to be much easier. It would help me lift my toes automatically when I strode. It would allow me to walk without my ankle wobbling. Knowing that I had all these things working for me as I walked meant that I didn’t need my cane to stay upright. In February, I designed a pair of personalized shoes that could fit over my brace. The day they arrived, I took them down to the basement to practice walking. Scared as hell, I took ten small steps. I slowly pivoted and walked back to the chair.

Now that I knew I could do it, I practiced walking to the mailbox, the community room, the lobby – any short distance, just to get used to the sensation of walking without a cane. By the end of the year, I was walking around other people’s houses without my cane. I felt that I had largely mastered walking indoors unaided. I would still use the cane in larger indoor spaces, but I would try to discontinue that in 2020, when I mastered outdoor walking.

The new brace and shoes helped me walk and work out much better. However, the brace did severely limit my range of motion. I couldn’t point my toe with it on, nor could I slide my foot to reset it while performing squats. Furthermore, as long as I was always wearing a brace, my ankle wouldn’t redevelop the ability to stabilize my foot. So I designed a pair of shoes that I could work out in without wearing my brace. I ordered them a half-size larger than normal so the difference wouldn’t be so dramatic for my right foot, which was never the foot wearing the brace.

The first time I wore the new shoes, my left foot did slide around a little inside the shoe, but I was able to get through the session. My other major concern had been whether the toes on my left foot would drag without the brace to lift them. They didn’t. Wearing the brace had apparently trained my brain to lift my toes with each stride. My ankle felt highly unstable, but I didn’t fall, and I was highly pleased at how much better my foot moved during the workout,

What I really enjoyed was how much easier squats were without a brace. With the brace, squats didn’t feel natural. Without it, my ankle was free to move because my foot was always planted firmly. Soon I was putting up so much weight that I wondered if my right leg was doing most of the work. To counteract this tendency, I decided to try doing lunges. This way, one foot was forward while the other was behind.

The first time I did lunges was draining. Every rep I did with my left leg forward, I felt like I would pass out. I switched and did a set with my right leg forward. My toes felt weird because they weren’t used to being in that position. I tried to drive my body upward with my foot. With my left leg in this new position, I could feel all of the muscles activate, from my calf to my glutes. As awkward as these workouts felt early on, over time, they were just what I needed to regain confidence and leg strength.
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When I first started walking Mary, I would take her to the edge of the patio. Then I would sit at one of the tables and let her wander out onto the grass. I would venture out to pick up after her, but I was terrified of going out too far. I made it my goal to be able to walk Mary to the wall and go up the steps to the upper patio by the end of the year.

After six months of walking without a cane, working out without a brace, and doing lunges until I choked, I started walking up the steps forward and coming down backwards. I started walking Mary all over the backyard. By just going to the gym every week, and focusing on nothing but the specific set of each exercise,tiny steps had added up to my reaching every goal I’d set for myself in 2019, it was time to think about what I wanted to get out of my body next year.

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