Friday, September 30, 2011

A-Team: The Miraculous Mira

I lie on my back and watch Mira work on my arm – her eyes half-closed as she listens to my body with her fingertips, searching out my cold places, my twisted tendons. She coaxes my spastic muscles into their proper place … snap! She is sculpting me. She is an artist … a healer … a life coach. For me to call her masseuse would be to ignore her decades as a physical therapist and what seems to be her personal connection with God.

Mira came to me as a gift from my brother who had done some free legal work for her. When she first arrived at my door, I was expecting a massage. Yes, she soothed my traumatized body, but she also addressed my spirit. She added me to a list of patients on whom she meditates nightly; and at each of our appointments she offers her visions to me as messages of hope. "I know, it sounds ooga-booga,” she says in her thick Croatian accent.

Whatever it is, my appointments with Mira are the best part of my week. I always feel more hopeful afterward and have noticed marked improvements in my body wherever she focuses. Mira takes on only select patients – a baby with leukemia, a new amputee, an elderly man so deprived of touch he cries in her hands. I think she is one of the most generous, loving people I have ever met. She actually gave one of her kidneys to a friend: "Whats I need two for," she asks and rolls her eyes skyward. “Thanks God.”

Monday, September 26, 2011

A-Team: A is for Arbi

I had been Arbi's chiropractic patient and a member of his gym for years. I always knew he had healing hands. What I didn't know was that he could do more than crack my back. After the stroke, he put my gym membership on hiatus. I called him in February to say I was ready to come back. He wanted to train with me the first time.

"You don't have to do this alone," he said. "I'm right here with you Рthrough good times and bad. We will do this together." I dropped my blas̩ physical therapist and have been working with Arbi since.

Three times per week, Arbi and I do an hour of weight training in the gym. My former PTs focused solely on my leg. The problem with that approach is that the wires on my left side are crossed: I exert my arm, my leg moves. Arbi trains my whole person to teach me simultaneous control over multiple muscle groups. The video below shows us working together in July 2011 – 15 months post-stroke. (My wonderful sister-in-law behind the camera.)

After the gym, Arbi treats me with electrical stimulation, which tires my spastic muscles, allowing him to stretch them – more effective than what I do on my own because the very effort of self-stretching makes me tense. Arbi has filled me with hope that we can beat my hated spasticity. I am so grateful to him, I volunteered to help launch his new website: Editing the testimonials confirmed my impression that he's a swell guy. Plus, he's a Trojan fan … and buff.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A-Team: Mother Teresa

Transferring to Teresa's care for occupational therapy meant changing facilities and a cross-town drive twice weekly. Teresa did not wrench my fingers open like the Witch OT, she caressed them until they unfurled like petals in her palm. As she stretched and massaged my arm on her desk, I talked of my despair and tears appeared in her bright eyes. Her compassion set her apart.

Teresa did not say my hand would return to normal, but she helped me believe it could progress if I worked at it. And I have worked – always diligent, but not always successful. One session Teresa dropped items on the floor for me to pick up. I wound up sobbing on the linoleum in total frustration. She crouched and held me.

"Am I your only patient who has breakdowns?" I asked.

"You’re the second one this morning."

That gave me some compassion for Teresa.

Teresa's been an OT for 17 years. She says most stroke patients don't do their exercises. One day I asked her about the difficulty of strengthening the muscles that open the fingers. "How have your other stroke patients dealt with this?"

"Marcelle, I've never had anyone come as far as you."

"Well, that doesn't give me much hope," I said.

She looked me in the eye. "You've restored my hope."

And so I have given her what I came seeking and found in the first place. Now as I struggle through the tedium of rehabilitation, I'm not doing it just for myself, but for Teresa.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Assembling the "A Team"

I had several bad experiences with healthcare professionals assigned to my case: An occupational therapist, a neurologist, and a physical therapist who, though he specialized in neurological conditions, should be rehabilitating buff guys with sports injuries. My progress was simply too slow for him, and I left every session heavy with his disappointment.

Fortunately, previous medical problems taught me I don't have to work with the first provider assigned to my case, that I need to trust my instincts, and that I need to act as my own advocate no matter how much I want to lie down and play the sick patient.

The professionals I choose to work with have several things in common: They listen, they respect my instincts, and they are able to clearly communicate their knowledge to me.

My medical team consists of:
1. Occupational therapist (covered by insurance)
2. Exercise physiologist/chiropractor (not covered)
3. Massage therapist (not covered)
4. Acupuncturist (covered)
5. Doctor of Physical Medicine (covered)
6. Neurologist (covered)

I call the first three my "A Team." Each of them has done as much for my emotional rehabilitation as my physical. In the 21st century, doctors who don't understand the importance of attitude – and their influence over it – should consider an alternative career … pouring cement, perhaps.

I've talked to people who have trouble finding the right health care provider. My advice: Keep looking. A good one makes all the difference.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Even as a woman, and a small one at that, I never felt defenseless. I felt (rightly or wrongly) that I had enough strength, lung and brain power to get myself out of risky situations.

That guy who reached for me on a dark street in Copenhagen? An elbow to the face without even breaking my stride. That guy who snatched my friend's bike one night on the USC campus? I gave chase and bellowed so loudly that half a dorm was after him in no time.

I have the kind of mind that prepares escape plans. As a kid I used to lie in bed and imagine what I'd do if a murderer came in my window. As an adult: What if a snatcher grabbed my purse? Or something happened to one of my nieces while I supervised them in the park? Or my nephew was floating face down in the pool? I always felt confident that I could handle these situations.

Now I am keenly aware of my vulnerability. I can't run. I can't swim. I can't carry a child. All I can do is yell (and if the bad guy holds still maybe bash him with my cane). I sometimes have the foolish delusion that because of my disability I am off-limits. But I know at this point the only real strategy I have is to count on the goodness of other people – not to threaten me in the first place, and to step in and help me if I need it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Parking Lot Stalker

Recently at Trader Joe's, a car ahead of me pulled into the last handicap spot. I idled behind and watched as a gray-haired man stepped out and strode into the store. No cane, no limp.

It’s not the first time I’ve done this – hovered to judge a person who has snaked a parking space from under my nose. I have turned into a parking lot stalker. I never used to be this way. I used to pull around those waiting for a close spot to be vacated when plenty of open spaces were on offer at the end of the lot. I judged them as lazy and delighted in my willingness to exercise.

Inside Trader Joe's, I looked for the gray-haired man in the blue jeans and lumberjack shirt, rehearsing what to say to him. "Hello, you took the last handicap spot." Surely I would not need to say anything more. One look at my cane and brace would say it all: I deserved that space more than you did.

I decided not to confront him just before I spotted him cruising toward the cashier with his few items. Who was I to judge his need? Perhaps he has some invisible disability that's troublesome when he's tired. I decided it was not worth the risk of being that most offensive of combinations: both righteous and wrong.

After all, I had found a suitable space in the next aisle only 20 yards along. And I was perfectly capable of walking that extra distance. In fact, I probably benefited from the exercise.