Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How Faith Works

My therapist told me of a stroke patient who doesn't believe exercise will help; therefore she doesn't do it; therefore she doesn't get better. Our beliefs shape our reality.

There have been times in recovery where I've been unable to see how I'm going to get from A to B – from not being able to stand on my own to running. From not being able to open my fingers to typing. In times of doubt, faith has been the only tool that keeps me trying.

Faith is tough for an analytical, proof-based person like me. It requires a leap away from logic.

In high school I participated in an assembly featuring a hypnotist. With a dozen kids on stage, I closed my eyes and made a conscious decision to do as the hypnotist asked. I felt in complete control of my mind and choices. He asked me to stand and become stiff as a board. He told me he was laying me on a table and putting a book on my stomach. I felt the table under me, and the slight pressure of a book on my belly.

This picture from the 1981 yearbook shows what the audience saw: My tiny self propped between two chairs – one under my head and one under my feet – and a grown man standing on my unsupported stomach.

If I had opened my eyes, I would have collapsed. I think faith is like that. When I have doubts, I try to close my critical eye and find the willingness simply to follow suggestions.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Task at Hand

I've been told that recovering use of the hand after stroke is "tricky." When I question occupational therapists that I like and trust about my prognosis, their faces become shielded and their speech careful. Almost two years into recovery, I appreciate why predictions in a case like mine are unwise. So much depends on my willingness to perform hours and hours of boring, demoralizing exercises.

The 4 1/2-minute film below shows me performing my current hour-long exercise routine. I've edited the long pauses required to unclench my fingers after each effort to use them. The routine is a variation of grasping and releasing POOF balls, which I've done almost every day for the past 20 months. If you find the film tedious, then it's a good representation of what it feels like to rehabilitate my hand. Progress is agonizingly slow.

But I am making progress. I think back to three months post-stroke when, summoning all my concentration, I could just twitch my middle finger. Still I want more.

I've been reluctant to write about rehabilitating my hand. Writing brings clarity and I haven't wanted to look too closely at the hope and dogged determination that keeps me going. I fear not recovering my hand. I fear being foolish for continuing to try past the point of progress. That point hasn't come yet, but as I approach my two-year anniversary, I feel an urgency to push myself to the next level of achievement.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Breaking Barriers

In "Getting Better vs. Getting It Done," I wrote about the struggle to use my affected hand in performing daily activities. A comment on the post prompted me to ask "Why don't I use my left hand?"
1. I’m afraid of breaking something. With my unreliable grip, I once dropped a glass bottle of sparkling juice. Which leads me to…
2. I don't want to cleanup a mess. I tried holding the cap of the laundry detergent in my left hand while pouring the liquid with my right; the cap tipped, spilling detergent between the washer and dryer. Which leads me to…
3. I’m tired. Using my affected hand requires more concentration. If I'm tired, I'm less likely to push myself. And I'm more likely to be tired if I’ve had incidences like #2.
4. I'm in a hurry. Using my left hand slows me down, especially if it results in incidences like #2, which can follow #1 and are more likely to happen if #3.
5. I don’t want to hurt myself. My finger sensitivity is still minimal, so I don't reach into dishwater to grab a knife, or try to pick up the lid of a pot on the stove. I’ve been doing simple ironing, but I practice first with a cool iron. This only works because I'm not #4. I might have all my Christmas napkins put away by Labor Day.
6. Inability. There are things I can't do yet – like open my fingers when my arm is stretched above my head.
7. Habit. After 23 months, I'm on autopilot with my right hand and assume #6.
Now that I know why I don't use my left hand, I can develop strategies to break these barriers to progress. Awareness of a problem is the first step toward its solution.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Like Father, Like Daughter

My father recently survived his third stroke. My siblings and I decided he could no longer live alone amidst the cows and corn of rural Wisconsin. My sister located an assisted living near her home in Houston. My brother flew to Wisconsin in a snowstorm to pack Dad's treasured things. And I joined Dad last week in Houston to help him settle in.

After my stroke Dad stayed with me my first month home from the hospital. He chauffeured me, helped me shop, and bore the emotional upheaval as I started to adapt to this huge change in my life.

I flew to Houston on my own, drove a rental car, stayed in a hotel. I did little exercise. By the end of the week, my left side was in spasm and I could barely walk. After working so hard at recovery, I was disheartened to realize I could lose so much of what I've gained during times of stress and exhaustion. Sitting with Dad in the home's communal dining room, I sometimes felt I fit in better than he among the walkers and wheelchairs.

Dad still has physical abilities; he lost his driver's license and has trouble communicating. I chauffeured him and helped him shop. During our final excursion to Best Buy, I plonked down in the store-provided wheelchair and Dad pushed me around as we sought to locate a corded phone without too many confusing buttons. "People probably think I'm here to help you," Dad said. "But you're really here to help me."

Being able to help made my discomfort bearable. While I wasn't able to carry boxes or assemble furniture, I was well-equipped to share the emotional upheaval as Dad started to adapt to this huge change in his life.