Friday, July 30, 2010

Lessons Learned

The experience of life changes greatly when you become handicapped. I lost the use of my right leg for four months due to a skiing accident. I also aggravated my bad back further reducing my mobility. I entered a new world that required grand adaptation and produced frustration. Life is not easy when you do not have a full spectrum of physical resources.

I could not walk without crutches. I could not bend over very easily. I could not drive or wash or go to the bathroom as I used to. Dropping something on the floor was a disaster. Reaching for an object high or low presented big problems. Going up long flights of stairs was impossible. Venturing out to the store or the library now became tasks I’d ask other people to do.

The world became much smaller. Several steps from my home-base bed to the bathroom were an unpleasant challenging journey. I would first have to garner the strength to sit up and then boost myself up onto my crutches. I was very cognizant of my balance. If you suddenly sway back or forward, you might crash and bruise. I always wore shorts to make undressing possible. Each and every move required deciding what my next hand hold would be.

Washing came after the first few weeks. Since I could not rely on both legs, I developed a method of leaning on my elbows and washing myself with a bath towel. A large white plastic cup brought water over my head so I could wash my hair. My feet were especially hard to reach and clean. This required assistance. Graceful I was not. The day I became full weight bearing and could finally take a shower was a triumph.

I could no longer control my destiny. Trips to and from physical therapy had to be handled by my very patient wife. The library became a place where I could order things but then would have to patiently wait until someone else could pick them up. Even small things, like getting something off the shelf, would require a request of another. It was frustrating, depressing and demeaning.

Food also became an issue. I could not stand long enough to cook. If I dropped a crutch, I would have to slowly hop and lean to retrieve it. On a couple of sorry occasions, I had to crawl dragging my body on the floor. What a horrible fate. I remember, early on, being very hungry nearly constantly. I would have muffins on the side of my bed during overnights for a quick snack that required no mobility. If my dog ate my muffin, it would be a long night.

I listened to a lot of radio; more than I could ever imagine. National Public Radio, our treasure, was a good companion. My old pal, Steve LeVeille, hosts a talk show overnight on WBZ 1030 AM from Boston. I had nights where I would listen for his full five hours and then some. Television has become simply unwatchable except for re-runs of M.A.S.H and Cheers. My timing was excellent in one respect. I got to see every minute of the Vancouver Olympics.

Deep concentration was not possible for long periods of time. I became quickly distracted by discomfort, boredom or pain. I read in short passages. My writing came to a standstill. Days were very long. Often, I would start with several hours of physical therapy followed by a short lunch and then sleep. I would work out two or three hours a day at home. I’d have dinner and then feel restless until dawn. I slept poorly waking many times at night. Being awake and sitting quietly in the dark became a regular passage daily.

I also developed a tough hide receiving well-wishers comments. One old friend remarked: "You know, we are at the age where sometimes we won't completely recover from serious injuries like that." Thanks for the words of encouragement! I had to pinch myself to remember to find new compassion in what I said if our roles were reversed - if I were making the comments. People who are struggling are very sensitive to words. Kindness amplifies. Harsh truth sometimes bites.

Physical therapy was a pivotal event that required great stamina. My early morning visits would last as long as four hours. I would endure difficult exercises with lasting repetition. My therapists did incredible work that produced amazing results. They had one not-so-simple task: Teach me to walk again. There was a time where it was hard to believe that I ever would. I lost all musculature in my leg and especially around my knee. After months of work, my first steps were worthy of a bad TV movie. It was the first light at the end of the tunnel.

I was blessed with good fortune. I knew, after months of hard work and patience, I would be whole again. What if I didn’t repair? What if this became the way of life I would always have? I became very aware of handicap parking spots and handicap access in buildings. Ramps, lifts or elevators are essential for feeling equal with the rest of humanity. How important these installations truly are. Now I understand why.

One morning, I was being dropped off at physical therapy somewhat worried about slipping, with my crutches, in the snow. Two chatty ladies, cozily sitting in a big, white luxurious SUV, occupied the convenient handicap spot having their coffee and using their cell phones. I had to limp many more steps uphill to reach the entrance of the therapy center. I waved my crutches at them in anger. They looked guilty as if they had just been busted. Hopefully, they learned a lesson.

I’m still coping and adapting to my inabilities. I put my shoes up on a counter every night to be assured that I’ll be able to reach them in the early morning as I get ready for work. I always have Advil and aspirin available for pain control. I constantly calculate what I can reach or achieve. I’m much less shy about asking for help.

I have a great new respect to all who thrive in spite of handicaps. They are strong willed, brave and resilient. They inspire me to do better, to be thoughtful of everyone around me and to be very thankful for all the capacities I have. I woke up this morning. I could walk, talk, see and hear. Now, more than ever, I am truly thankful.

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