Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ten Steps

For more than a decade, I've belonged to a women's group that gets together every Saturday morning. We meet in a Craftsman-style house. There are ten cement steps leading up to a broad wooden porch. The steps are uneven with no railing up the right-hand side. Post-stroke, when I first tackled those steps, I climbed only with my strong leg, using my cane for balance and pausing often to rest.

Each week my Saturday women would stand on the porch watching like nervous mothers and exploding into smiles when I reached the top stair. In time I found the courage to climb leg over leg.

A couple months ago I set a goal of climbing the stairs without my cane. One of my Saturday women would climb beside me so that I could grab her if I lost my balance. Last weekend I tried for the first time to climb alone. I lost my balance on the eighth step and called for help. Then I went back to the bottom and tried again. That second time I cleared the tenth step. My Saturday women hugged me and we cried.

A long time ago my first boss taught me this: "Marcelle, you're going to encounter two kinds of people in this world – those who pull you up and those who pull you down. The ones who pull you up are 'Balcony People' and those are the people you want in your life."

She was right and I found mine standing on a porch.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

To the Rescue

Almost two years have passed since my golden retriever died. My subsequent stroke prolonged the grieving-before-replacement period because I am now incapable of walking a dog, training or cleaning up after it.

But after much fawning over friends' dogs, I decided that the benefits of daily interaction with my own would outweigh the challenges. Clearly, I could not manage a puppy ... but an elderly adult?

I searched the online pounds and rescue organizations and discovered Bella, a nine-year-old Golden Retriever found in a park in Taiwan. Filthy and emaciated, she was nursed back to health over the course of a year. In July she was flown to the United States because she had a better chance of adoption here.

I fell in love with Bella before I met her. I identified with her fight for survival and the drastic changes in her life. The thought of helping her filled me with gladness and hope. Her healing power had taken hold already.

My husband and I made an appointment to meet her. She had ear infections, fleas, worms, a bleeding teat, a massive fat lump on her chest, and she didn't smell good. We brought her home anyway.

Four baths and as many vet appointments later, she's looking and smelling better. She lies by my side as I write this – a reminder of the extent to which we must sometimes go to give life another chance.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Out of my Closet

I used to joke that when I retired I was going to wear nothing but flat shoes and expandable waistbands. But when I quit working, I still liked the way I looked in high-heeled shoes. And elastic waistbands feel so frumpy.

But the stroke has given rise to this once comic version of myself. Waistbands with buttons and zippers are just too fiddly. And my week ankle requires the stability of a flat, solid shoe. The stroke has speeded me toward that moment in all our lives when we realize we are no longer attractive in that particular way that might cause someone to take notice of us across a room.

I can see the upside to facing this moment a little early in life. There is no danger that I will become "mutton dressed as lamb." But more than that, there is the relief of stopping the pretense … of easing the unreasonable demands I made on my body: "Well, if I hold my belly in, these don't look so bad." Or, “I can wear these shoes if I don't have to walk too far."

Recently a friend helped me clean out my closet. Goodbye high-heeled shoes and strapless sandals! Goodbye 501 jeans with the button-up fly and the unforgiving waistband! From now on style will be sacrificed to convenience and comfort. Who knows what I might do with the space in my brain that I free from focusing on my own reflection?

Monday, October 10, 2011

The A-Team vs. My Bicep

The bicep is the most powerful muscle in the arm. When it becomes spastic, the stroke survivor's arm curls. Working against the bicep to straighten the elbow and use the hand becomes difficult or impossible. My bicep was inflexible as stone for more than a year.

Fourteen months after my stroke, The A-Team finally agreed that my shoulder had "opened," and that we could tackle my bicep. On Tuesday, July 19, The Miraculous Mira massaged my arm like she was tenderizing beef. "Your bicep will open within the next 10 days," she told me.

On Wednesday I reported this to A is for Arbi, who put me on the shoulder and chest press machines in the gym to stretch my bicep. Electrical stimulation on my arm that day triggered spasms that had me shuddering for half an hour. Arbi then stretched my arm by holding my elbow in place, turning my hand palm upward, and bending it backward at the wrist.

On Thursday Mother Teresa did her own brand of stretching and massage, twisting my forearm outward (supination). She taught me to stretch with a pillow under my tricep, palm turned upward. I started assuming this position for sleep.

I did my part: I exercised, I stretched, I believed. And Saturday night in a relaxed state as I settled down to sleep, I heard the first crack.

My bicep cracked twice that night – loud, like a knuckle. It felt wonderful. And now it is open – soft as a puppy's tummy. Onto my forearm…

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Unbrace Yourself

I left rehab with an Ankle-Foot Orthosis (left) to support my ankle and keep my foot from dragging. I hated it. I hated having to wear long socks in hot weather. I hated having to put on a brace and shoes in the morning just to walk to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. I hated wearing shoes that were two sizes too big so they could fit the brace.
I googled alternatives and found the Freedom Soft Footdrop Brace (center). I discussed it with my since-dismissed physical therapist who said it wouldn’t give me enough support. I ordered it anyway (July 2010, $120). By allowing more ankle flexibility, my muscles strengthened.
When I started with Arbi (Feb. 2011), he said, "Marcelle, why are you wearing shoes that are too big for you? No wonder you walk funny." He directed me to a sports brace (right). It was only $20 and I could wear it with my regular shoe size!
The first few days wearing that brace my foot felt like it was going to roll over and break off at the ankle. I questioned Arbi – but he was firm and so was the brace. Within weeks, my ankle strengthened and, in July 2011, I stopped using a brace. Period.
I read in a fellow survivor’s blog that she had become dependent on her AFO because it had prevented her muscles from developing. I don't know if what I did would work for everybody. But I am glad I ignored the skepticism of my first PT and trusted Arbi enough to follow his advice. Half the battle is knowing who to listen to and when to listen to yourself.