Rehab starts real early—7 a.m. Per usual, however, I was up at 6:30 and figured I’d ask the nurse for something I could wash up with to get the day started.
“Sorry. Therapy has you scheduled for a shower this morning; they want to see how you handle that and getting dressed.”
‘Okay, I thought, ‘I guess we’ll be working on that whole “walking” thing later.’
As promised, my occupational therapist, Kathy, arrived shortly thereafter, and perkily confirmed her plans for me — showering, brushing my teeth and getting dressed. I thought, ‘This isn’t going to go well, but what the hell — let’s give it a shot … should be fun.’
Getting from wheelchair to shower bench was a struggle but not bad; getting dressed was a different story. I was able to get my shirt on without too much effort, but my shorts, socks and shoes weren’t as easy. I was quickly taught the following rule: weak side in first, then the strong side; then reverse when getting undressed. I take direction very well, so after a couple of tries I was okay at it.
Next, the gym. First up: making a figure eight in the air with my affected left hand. How did it go? Picture someone walking through the spider web they didn’t see and trying to get the web off. Not a pretty sight. “Okay, let’s have you bounce this ball four times with your left hand and then catch it.” I gave it a try; it was harder than holding on to a handful of bumblebees. “But I’m right handed,” I said, trying my first (and last) excuse during rehab. She quickly grabbed the ball and, left handed, demonstrated the 1-2-3-4-catch perfectly. She looked me in the eye and said, “So am I.” I thought, ‘Boy, do I have some work to do.’
Next up, physical therapy with Jenny and Stacey. (I figured I got two of them because I’m a big dude and they’re a couple of tiny ladies.) “The first thing we’re going to do is see how you do with standing, so let’s get out of that wheelchair.’ See, what some people forget is that, for me, on a good day, getting out of a chair is pretty close to a 325-lb. dead lift ... and this was not a good day. I was able to stand, broke a little sweat doing it, but I did it. Next, they had me go up and down two steps. I made it down the 12 steps in my house during the stroke, so I was sure this would be a piece of cake.
I think they saw my confidence, so they decided to push me a little. “Let’s try you in the E-Track.” The E-Track is a system where they put you in a harness, suspend you from the ceiling, and you walk without a walker. They got me out of the chair, hooked up and put a full-length mirror at the end of the hall so I could see how I was doing. As we were about to get started, they asked, “What’s so funny?”
“When I look in the mirror, it looks like you two are taking Shrek back to the castle,” I replied. That got a quick chuckle, then we got to work.
“Shoulders straight, fire your core, relax your left arm, spread your feet farther apart, lift your left foot higher, breathe and relax.” These were all commands given to me as I was trying to walk, and all I kept hearing in my head was the Christmas tune from the Claymation special, Santa Claus is Coming to Town: “Put one foot in front of the other, and soon you’ll be walking across the floor; put one foot in front of the other, and soon you’ll be walking out the door.” So how was I doing? Think newborn baby giraffe, and that will give you some idea.
Inpatient therapy lasted about two weeks, two hours in the morning and one hour in the afternoon, every day. I quickly adopted the mantra, “An inch is as good as a leap; progress is progress.” I took every day as a positive step forward on my long journey to recovery. “How many steps did I take today?” quickly became “How many feet did I walk today?” and bouncing a ball and catching it became making a grilled cheese in the therapy suite kitchen (left-handed, of course).
Then it was time for graduation day — one last session of physical and occupational therapy for final evaluations. Piece of cake, right? Wrong.
First up, occupational therapy. It started with another shower evaluation, and I nailed it. Then it was on to the gym where they tested me on everything from getting out of bed to getting on and off the toilet — tedious but necessary tests, and I aced them all. Just when I thought I was going to have a little down time before physical therapy, Kathy set a tub of strength putty in front of me and said, “Let’s have you work on this for the remainder of your time.”
I said, “We both know my hands are strong as hell.”
“That just means you won’t have any problems getting out the 12 pennies I buried in there, right?”
“No ma’am.” is all I could say.
I knew physical therapy was going to be different. I won’t say I mastered using the walker, but I was pretty darn good at it, so I wondered what they had in store for me that last day. “You’ve done so well since you’ve been here that we thought we’d throw a couple of big challenges your way on your last day. Ready for some yoga?”
Up until that moment, I’d lived my life with two rules: 1. Big men don’t dance, and 2. Big men don’t do yoga. But I said, “Sure, I’ll try it.”
They had me do a yoga move called “threading the needle” that’s done on all fours and works balance and core strength. Three sets of seven later, I was covered in sweat. “How was that?” they asked.
“It SUCKED,” I replied, “but I did it.”
The next challenge was stairs. Sweet, this should be easy. Wrong! They took me to the stairwell and told me we were going down and up two flights, 20 steps, 40 steps with the round trip. I was immediately nervous about it because these were the real deal, but that quickly went away when they assured me I wasn’t going to fall because someone was going to be in front of me and behind me the whole trip. It took a while to get it done — and it, too, sucked — but I finished it.
I was released the next day. As I continued my healing journey on my own, things began to suck less. Walking feet quickly became walking miles; I ditched the walker for a cane; and things with my left hand became a bit easier. I still have a long road ahead of me.
This stroke was a huge bump in the road for me, and I’m approaching it with the same mentality as I approached alcoholism, bankruptcy and myriad other “bumps” along the way.
Things happen all the time, good and bad; it’s part of the balance of the universe. But you can’t get too wrapped up in the bad. My father used to say, “Take 10 minutes to grieve and then move on.” My stroke happened, and now it’s time for me to do the work to make sure it never happens again. Life is messy; all you can do is grab a broom, clean it up, and move on.