15 August 2019

The Power of Gratitude and Optimism for Overcoming Barriers

Over five years ago, I was involved in a cycling accident and sustained some serious injuries including a spinal cord injury. When I awoke in the hospital a couple weeks later, I was shocked to learn what had happened to me. At first, I couldn't make sense of it all. My entire self-identity had been twisted and turned inside out. Because I was paralyzed below the knees, my only mobility was via wheel chair and I had not even learned to use it yet. Every moment of the day, my mind reeled from one extreme to another and I didn't hold it together very well. I felt helpless and not in control of my body or my own existence. I saw the concern and helplessness in the eyes of my wife and daughters and friends. I didn't know how to help myself and they didn't know how to help me other than to provide me all their love and support. I was almost entirely dependent upon the nurses, doctors, PTs, OTs and techs to care for me. I didn't know it at the time, but this was true vulnerability and it was terrifying.


As I was introduced to my PTs and OTs at Craig Hospittal, they put me to work. I never knew exhaustion like the exhaustion I was experiencing from the work they had me doing. But my main doctor told me something within the first couple days of arrival at Craig Hopsital that has stuck with me even to this day. First he acknowledged my injuries and told me that most of them will heal in time. Then he told me to look around the hospital and take notice of how my situation compares to others -- I was extremely fit, I had broken bones that would heal, I had a family and a support system and there was a really good chance that, with a lot of hard work, I might walk again one day. Essentially, what he was telling me was to count my blessings. As I got to know other patients, I realized what he was saying.

I was in the hospital with people who had zero chance of ever walking again. Some of them had zero chance of ever even using their arms to hug someone again. It really broke my heart, but it also strengthened my resolve and opened my eyes in many ways. From that day on, I looked at my journey through life from a point of optimism.

There is a famous quote from the past about optimism that states:
A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty
I was lucky enough to be able to adopt and embody this type of thinking early on in my healing and it continues to propel me to this day. But there was a turning point where this optimism really kicked in for me.

Discovery of Movement

Early into my recovery, my friend and neighbor suggested that I visit a muscle activation therapist (MAT) who had helped her in recovering from various running injuries over the years. For those who are not familiar with MAT, it defines a non-invasive, systematic process for assessing and correcting muscular imbalances, joint instability and limited range of motion. MAT is very powerful because it jumpstarts muscles to get them functioning and operating at maximum efficiency. The process really boils down to some very specific sort of muscle manipulation/deep muscle massage that can be very painful but highly effective. Anyway, I went to see this woman who is certified in MAT and I'm glad I did.

I was still in the wheel chair at this point, so I had to make it into the building and into her office. Then I transitioned to her massage table so that she could assess my paralysis through this deep tissue muscle manipulation of my lower body. I was surprised at the amount of pain I experienced from the manipulation. My muscles had not worked properly in many months due to the paralysis and she was basically awakening them and the nerves that control them. As she worked through different muscles she told me that nearly all the muscles that she manipulated were actually working but they were just diminished due to the atrophy and the lack of use over time. At this moment, something clicked inside me and I broke into tears of joy! I was so overcome because I had experience with recovering from muscle atrophy. She comforted me and was very pleasantly surprised herself at the assessment. Although the optimism was triggered by what my doctor said to me, this message about my condition is where I began to feel like I was in control again. I could decide how hard to work out to get these muscles moving again.

Due to my previous experience with recovery from a couple knee injuries in high school, I knew the hard work necessary for such recovery. What I did not know was that this recovery was not months long, but years long. Here I am over five years later and I am still working hard every day to build muscles and encourage more movement in areas of my body that are still healing. Little did I know that the energy of optimism would lend itself to further gratitude as time went on.


Beyond just being optimistic, I have also been lucky enough to be thankful for many things from early on with my injuries. As I described above, my doctor opened my eyes to some of the upside to my situation. At that point, I had already been meditating for years to calm my mind. So I began to meditate frequently on gratitude and this quickly became a frequent exercise for me. I spend this time focusing on things in my life for which I am grateful, and this has really helped me to continue and improve my mindset to this day.

One of the worst things that someone with serious injuries can experience is a mindset of pessimism. I learned through experience that mindset can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, the mindset you choose to adopt can cause a cascading result throughout both your mind and body. This is not to say that a positive mindset will necessarily save you from a life-threatening illness or cure my paralysis. However, holding a negative mindset can certainly be a big barrier that prevents positive progress from being made. The strength of the mind over the body can be surprisingly powerful.

As I have mentioned before, the mantra of fake it 'til you make it has served me very well over time. Here's the bit of text from that link:
My wife Janene has always taught our girls that no matter what you're doing in life, you need to 'fake it 'til you make it'. This catchphrase helps you to feel confident and optimistic about something until you gain the necessary experience to actually feel genuinely assured that you have reached a successful point. Although she has always intended this for the benefit of our daughters, I have been able to internalize it and use it to my own benefit in my recovery. Repeating this statement in my head has taken me quite far and I continue to use it to this day.
Using this along with optimism and gratitude has gotten me to where I am today. I am lucky enough that my body continues to heal in various ways and that my family and friends continue to love and support me. Without these things in my life, I probably would not have made the progress I've made.

12 August 2019

My First Two-Wheel Ride Since My Spinal Cord Injury Five Years Ago

Yesterday, Janene took me for my first ride on a two-wheel bicycle since my injuries in 2014. I wasn't sure if I would ever be able to ride a two-wheel bicycle that I had enjoyed so much before the accident. It has been over five years since I've been on my mountain bike and the ride was glorious!

Some people have said to me, 'But you have been out riding since then, how were you riding if this is your first two-wheel ride?' This is true, I have been out riding in the last five years, but not on a two wheel bicycle. I actually have a three-wheel bicycle. Let me explain.

My Three-Wheel Bicycle

For some people with a spinal cord injury (SCI), depending on the severity of the damage, it can completely compromise one's sense of balance. Sometimes this is a permanent change and sometimes it is temporary. You just don't know until you wait long enough for the shock to calm down in your body (this takes about six months typically) and the healing has begun. But, as I have learned, spinal cord injury healing can go on for many years and some things can take longer than others to repair themselves and return movement and sensation. Anyway, because we were not sure if my sense of balance was going to be compromised or not and, because Janene was well aware of my passion for cycling, she wanted to get me back on a bicycle as soon as possible back then.

So, sometime within the first year after my injuries, Janene got me the most amazing three-wheel bicycle I have ever seen. It is a Mission Cycles Tribrid shown in the image to the right. This bicycle has disc brakes and gears similar to a two-wheel bicycle and although it's heavier than a two-wheel bicycle, it's actually pretty light compared to other three-wheel bicycles I've seen in the past. (In a previous life, I probably would have conspired to jump this three-wheel bicycle off a ramp or something!) However, the first big challenge that I had to overcome with even the three-wheel bicycle was finding a seat that I could sit on for any duration of time.

My Bicycle Seat Saga

Because my SCI occurred mainly in the lower lumbar spine, it also affected the sacral spine and therefore the nerves in that area. The sacral spine controls much of the movement and sensation below your waist. One of the issues I encountered was the nerves that control all my gluteal muscles and, to some degree, my perineum were all compromised. This meant that the muscles controlled by these nerves stopped working which caused tremendous muscle atrophy resulting in the muscles shrinking to almost nothing. So, the muscles in my butt and my crotch were compromised which made sitting on just about any surface very painful and difficult. Fortunately, these muscles just barely began working within five months of my injuries and have now recovered to some degree today. However, to this day, I still have special cushions to sit on and even with them I cannot sit still for very long. This made sitting in general very difficult for me, let alone on a bicycle seat. In fact, I need to wear two pairs of cycling shorts now for my stationary bike and my mountain bike. Even then, I can only make it for about an hour. But, at least I am able to ride now!

Prepping For the Ride

Internally, I have been excited but nervous about getting back on my mountain bike. Long before my injuries back in 2010 or 2011, I had purchased this really nice Yeti mountain bike (see the photo to the right). I have had several other mountain bikes, but not one this nice. It made riding off-road trails sooooo much nicer due to the full suspension and the general geometry of the frame. It's a superior uphill climbing cycle. Anyway, I have been thinking about riding this bicycle for a long time. I even hopped on it once before but was in such pain from the seat that I had to get off it within 30 seconds. So, I knew what I was up against with the limitations of my body and I had already been thinking about how I would overcome these long enough to get in a real ride duration. But getting my mountain bike ready for the ride was quite comical. It was as if all the forces in the universe were conspiring against me.

My mountain bike still had the original seat and clipless pedals on it, so I knew that I had to change these out. But before I could start on those, I had to fix the flat tire that I had on the rear. I had pumped up the wheels a couple weeks prior and realized I had a flat. Pretty easy to fix. So, I got a tube last week and swapped that out pretty quickly yesterday. Then I started working on the seat.

We had found a seat for the three-wheel bicycle that worked well enough for me to ride it for about 30 minutes. So, I decided to grab the seat off the three-wheel bicycle and move it to my mountain bike. What I remembered as I was trying to mount the seat on the Yeti seat post was that the seat rails were a non-standard width and didn't exactly fit on the seatpost. Hmm, well I now remembered that I had to do the same thing on the three-wheel bicycle, so I just did the same thing on my mountain bike. With Janene's help, I got the seat mounted. Next, I moved on to the pedals.

In working to remove the clipless pedals on the mountain bike, I realized right away that I had to find my allen wrenches. After a hunt around the house, I found a different set but it didn't have an allen key big enough to remove my pedals. So, I called one neighbor and there was no answer. I called another neighbor and he said come on over and let's figure it out. He loaned me the correct size allen wrench. Then I had to actually break the seal to the pedals to remove them. This was no easy task, but we eventually conquered it. Now I needed to find one of my helmets.

This is where things get tricky. Since my accident five years ago, we have moved our master bedroom twice (once to the main level and once back upstairs). Additionally, last year we had to pack up everything on the first floor of our house and move out due to the remodeling. So, finding my cycling tools, helmets, cycling clothes, etc. required me to dig through many boxes before I was able to locate what I needed. I could not locate the helmet that I was searching for, so I still need to find that one. But anyway, two hours of prep work and we finally got ready and out the door for the actual ride!

The Actual Ride

Once we got rolling, I realized that I can still ride! Getting on and off the bike is not so easy for me and I had to lower the seat because I cannot move my ankles at all with the braces on my lower legs. But once I got moving, everything went great and we had a really good ride.

One thing that I used to love about cycling was climbing hills. I could climb for hours and I loved it. But yesterday I quickly realized that even small hills were quite the challenge for me. Actually they are a very good challenge and I really want to do more of it. But I'm far from being ready to take on my favorite ride in Boulder County -- Flagstaff Mountain.

I was so thrilled to be able to feel the movement of being on a bicycle again. Now I can't wait to go on my next ride.