The sun came out during the ambulance ride back to Northwest Arkansas. I remember staring at the blue sky through the ambulance windows as the vehicle traveled along the winding roads of the Ozarks.
Arriving at the rehabilitation hospital was like my own personal parade. I was wheeled into the building and passed between rows of cheering spectators. Someone leaned over the gurney and snapped my picture. In the photograph which was attached to my chart, I looked like a bewildered Who from a Dr. Seuss book.
Glimpsing a copy of that photo every day did absolutely nothing for my self-esteem. My grandmother always spoke of Rehab in reverent tones that implied it was a fabulous place to be; kind of like Hawaii.
For me rehab was no vacation. The first day I arrived, the staff installed me in a room then almost immediately plopped me into a wheelchair and rolled the me to the therapy gym. A therapist seated me on a therapy mat and handed me a plastic basket full of shower curtain rings. I had been bedridden for almost a month, so when she turned away I simply tipped over and reclined on the mat. I don’t believe my first day of therapy was very therapeutic. I was an uncooperative patient. Part of that is probably because the space where my brain had been was filled with cobwebs and layered with dust. I felt like a broken piece of furniture that could no longer serve its purpose. If someone had left me in an unused corner and thrown a sheet over me, I would’ve been perfectly okay with that.
The real work began on the second day when I met my team of physical therapists, who announced they were going to teach me how to walk again. I had not realized I couldn’t walk. The two young women wound a fabric belt underneath my arms and tightened it in the back. Called a gait belt, it gave the therapist a good handle to grip as they steered my lopsided body around. Lefty’s foot was fitted with a plastic sled-like device with a looped handle at the toe. This enabled the unresponsive foot to glide easily across the floor while one therapist guided it with the handle. Holding on to a rail with my right hand I took my first awkward steps. Just shifting my weight from foot to foot while moving my hand along the rail consumed all my attention. What I managed was not really walking but something more like Igor’s iconic lurch. One therapist guided lefty while the other held on to the gait belt to keep me upright and balanced.
After Several sessions I moved up to what is called a hemi Walker, it’s a walker that is used only on one side body. Now I had to move my left foot and my right and the Walker. My damaged brain did not recognize any pattern to these movements and I had a very difficult time getting everything to move at the appropriate time.
Next step in learning to walk again involved a machine created for Christopher Reeves after his horse riding accident. It is called an Auto- Ambulator (see photo above). I was strapped into a harness much like that of a a parachute which was attached to metal bars arched over a treadmill. Locomotive- like gears attached to my unresponsive leg at ankle and knee. These gears made my leg move in an appropriate walking gait. A full-length mirror was placed in front of me and as I watched myself walk I tried to imagine walking along a side walk in a beautiful park. This amazing machine retrains the muscles in your leg and re-establishes the connection between your brain and leg. It works so smoothly that I actually felt as though I was walking by myself again. Way cool.
I don’t believe Mr. Reeves ever got to use the machine he inspired, but many partially paralyzed patients have benefited from the Auto-Ambulators he funded. “Thanks Superman!”
After several sessions on the Auto-Ambulator, I graduated to a four-footed cane. Many stroke survivors have trouble with the toes of their affected foot dragging the ground and turning inward. A foot and ankle orthotic helps hold the toes up and the foot in a neutral position. I was walking relatively well, but required an enormous amount of equipment plus my physical therapists.
None of this happened as quickly as this makes it seem. I spent about six weeks in the rehab hospital. Every day I attended two sessions of physical therapy, two sessions of occupational therapy, and two sessions of speech therapy. Rigorous is an understatement.
The absolute worst part of each day was breakfast, the CNA would come help me dress plop me in a wheelchair and park me in the hallway until the green light was given from the dining room. Sometimes I sat alone in that dim hallway for what seemed a very long time. That was the loneliest I have ever been in my life. Luckily my sweet son made a huge effort to be with me at breakfast every day. Knowing he would be there soon was the only thing that kept me from breaking down in tears each morning.
Many of the emotions I felt during this time were completely new to me. I had never felt helpless. I had never felt lonely. I had never felt useless. I had never felt like a burden. I experienced all these emotions each and every day, it was the worst I’d ever felt in my life.
My daughter visited every afternoon to hang out and participate in some of my therapies. Anticipating her company encouraged me through the initial tough therapy sessions each day. I had a lot of visitors compared to my room mates. I was pretty lousy company, but my friends stuck with me, keeping me positive with little gifts of laughter.
If not for my devoted family and friends I might have simply given up. Many stroke survivors are so exhausted by the unrelenting demands of therapy that they simply accept life in a wheelchair as their fate.
There were days, I must admit, that I wished I wasn’t the 1% that survives a brain aneurysm bleed. But then a smiling friend or family member would appear to remind me how much I had to live for.