30 July 2019

Five Years Later...

Earlier this year in April, I reached five years since my spinal cord injury. Although this anniversary passed nearly unnoticed by many people around me, the value of what I have experienced in these five years still weighs heavy on me most days.

Back in April, I thought about writing this post, but I passed over it for some reason I can no longer recall. Most of the time I live my life in the new ways to which I have become accustomed and I'm able to deal rationally with most things that come up. But a couple weeks ago, I was driving to a hiking spot in Boulder County and I came across a cycling event. As I saw more and more riders it really threw me for a loop emotionally and I was so overcome I had to pull over. I see individual riders all over Boulder County all the time and I'm fine with that. I have accepted the fact that I cannot cycle the way I used to do so often. But I guess seeing all the people riding together for an event was a strong reminder of something I used to love and I still really miss. Anyway, this experience got me thinking and I figured I should write up something about the fifth year anniversary of my injuries because it's still very much always in the background (and sometimes the foreground) of my life.

Experiencing such traumatic injuries and going through the recovery was a profound experience for me physically, mentally and emotionally. As I just described above, there are still some life changes that get to me. There are big physical things like cycling events and even little physical things like the difficulty (or impossibility) of getting down on the floor to play with our puppies. Such physical limitations are something that I've learned to deal with the most. It's the mental and emotional stuff that still creeps up and surprises me from time-to-time.

Gratitude

As I have stated in a previous post, I still experience a tremendous amount of gratitude for the people in my life and for the experience that I've been through. Without going through something like this, it's difficult to understand what I mean. But recently I was reminded of it again by my fellow paraplegic friend John.

John and I meet up periodically since his own injury in 2017, but this time was a bit different. It was right before July 4th when he and I last hung out. John is doing amazingly well adjusting to life in a wheel chair. At one point, John paused to look me in the eye in a way that he never has. He then thanked me for something that I offered him early in his experience that he said he still holds to this day and it gets him through many daily difficulties. What I offered him was a statement that I learned from my wife Janene and that is, 'fake it till you make it.' He said that he didn't understand the value of this statement at the time, but since then he has grabbed ahold of it as a sort of mantra to move forward in his recovery and his life. I was quite touched that it has worked as well for him as it has for me.

In the last couple years, I have a newfound enjoyment in hiking. Although I cannot hike trails the way I used to (I used to run them!), I still get a lot of enjoyment out of the challenge of a trail and from being outside. I also find the solitude of hiking very comforting and I even seek out trails that are less busy for this reason. I used to say that cycling and running were both a form of meditation for me and now I've found that hiking can be the same for me.

But, overall, I think most about the positivity and support I continue to receive from family and friends. Without this, I would not be where I am today. I feel very fortunate to have so many people supporting me.

Improvements and Acceptance

So much of what drives me forward are the small gains that my body has made over the last five years. My nerve pain has improved dramatically over time, but it is by no means gone. The strength in my lower body has also improved dramatically over time, but by no means is my body at 100%. Such improvements and the positivity of the people around me are the hope that keeps me moving forward. But I have also had to face the fact that my body will never be the same.

Acknowledgement and acceptance are two related but very different concepts. Acknowledgement of my limitations is important, especially when it comes to gauging improvements on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month and even year-to-year basis. But acceptance of my limitations is a whole different level. While I have certainly accepted my injuries, what is not so easy to accept is some level of permanence of these injuries. This is a complex issue that has taken me quite a while to tease apart.

While I acknowledge the injuries to my body and I accept the fact that they happened, it is still difficult to accept the severity of these injuries as permanent. Consider a bone fracture. Relatively speaking, under optimal conditions, bone fractures do heal over time. However, healing a bone fracture oftentimes means immobilizing the joints around the bone fracture. The result of such immobilization is that the soft tissues around the fracture (e.g., ligaments, muscles, nerves, tendons, etc.) wind up experiencing damage due to the immobilization that lasts much longer beyond the healing of the original bone fracture. This soft tissue damage is a side effect to the actual injury, but it is the side effects that require prolonged physical therapy and hard work to overcome. It is these side effects that I am still dealing with today. Having spent two weeks lying in a bed in the ICU and then nine months in a wheel chair really took its toll on my body.

When movement begins to appear with a muscle for me, it doesn't mean that I can suddenly shed my leg braces and run down the street. It means that you can just barely see a flicker of movement in a muscle and it takes all the effort that I can possibly muster toward that muscle. Once this very minor movement begins to appear, the real battle is against the muscle atrophy and this is very, very difficult to overcome. It feels like no progress is being made and really requires a lot of mental focus not to be outdone by my own pessimism. Because such recovery requires a tremendous amount of consistent and diligent work over a long period of time, many people give up pretty quickly. I know I certainly have times where I feel like giving up. But I also know that the reward of regaining movement will not be affected by what I do on any given day, but is mainly affected by my long-term, consistent habits over time. In other words, it's about the long-term trend of the improvement. So, I keep telling myself that this is a marathon, not a sprint. I do my best to keep faith in the choices I make regarding my physical therapy, knowing that it's only going to make a difference over time. Much easier said than done.

Change is Constant

Looking back over the last five years, our family has undergone many changes. Five years ago, Bailey was 11 years old and Jade was 16 years old. Bailey was in elementary school and Jade was in high school and Janene was still working for the Colorado State Public Defender. Today, Bailey is in high school, has her drivers license and is beginning to consider university while Jade is about to enter her last semester of university to complete her student teaching and will then graduate. Janene has since retired from her position with the State and has opened her own private law practice. This a lot of change, albeit these are normal changes.

For me, life has changed quite a bit in the last five years. For the first nine months, I was in a wheel chair. This alone was quite jarring to me and everyone around me for a variety of reasons. One of the most difficult parts was not being at eye level with people and therefore always feeling vulnerable and somehow 'less than' what I once was. I still remember the first time that I walked in the hospital using a walker and with the help of two physical therapists. I couldn't believe how different the perspective was from my wheel chair vs. standing upright to shake someone's hand and look them in the eye. I remember thinking, 'I want this back!' This moment was a big motivator for me to learn to walk again using arm crutches, although it took an immense amount of hard work over those nine months. Since that time, I have spent the last four-and-a-half years focused on getting stronger and gaining better balance and more movement. It has meant doing some form of PT nearly every single day, so it has really become a way of life for me. I am very lucky to have gained much more strength throughout my lower body and even regained some movement. But the journey is far from over. I'm still hopeful that I will gain more movement in time so I just need to keep going.

It is also fascinating to look back at the videos that Janene took while I was learning to walk again. When I began trying to walk while I was still in the wheel chair, I was barely able to stand on my own with the arm crutches. As I tried to walk, I was literally throwing my legs forward to take steps. Over time, I progressed bit by bit toward actual walking with a more normal gait and somewhat normal strength. For me, it is shocking to see how weak my body was through this initial time period. It's always a reminder of how far I have come.

Onward to the next five years!

1 comment:

  1. Always great to hear an update on your progress. I was amazed at how well you could walk when I saw you. The amount of work to get there must have been massive. Keep up the impressive work!

    ReplyDelete