Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Guess what? We saved Elmo.
We. All of us. Doctors, surgeons, nurses, CNAs, physical therapists, occupational therapists, family, friends, co-workers, bosses, blog readers, Facebookers, basically the entire online universe.
We saved Elmo, and I’m gonna just sit and savor that for a bit.
On Friday night, Sept. 16, 2016, I fractured my left femur just above Elmo, my replacement knee. I lived in a wheelchair, facing hip-high amputation of my left leg, for about two years while I fought health care bureaucracy, cost-conscious HMOs, and myself to figure out a way to walk again. (Spoiler alert: Elmo won!)
I documented my adventures in remobilization in 49 blogposts. They’re awfully self-indulgent, occasionally icky, and probably only of interest to me, but on the off-chance that they help someone else with a catastrophic injury, I’m keeping them together here. If you don’t want to read them, that’s OK; I still love you. If you do, you might want to start from the beginning, on the archive page that lists all 49 posts.
Today was doctor day–formerly, the monthly “nope, it hasn’t started growing yet” visit that I grew to dread. Every new episode inched me that much closer to “Goodbye, The Leg. Goodbye, Elmo. See you on the other side…”
It changed last January, after Dr. Dan performed miracles and Dr. Rich took me under his wing. “The bone has started to grow.” “The bone is filling in nicely.” “You’ve got a good collection of callus there, Cynthia.”
And then today: “I don’t see the point in having you come in after this,” said Dr. Rich, “You’re well out of the danger zone; there’s no way we can call this a ‘nonunion’ now. Your bone isn’t completely healed, but it’s strong, it’s dense, you’re loading it down exactly as I’ve told you to, and that’s making it even stronger.”
“You’re done. It’s over. Get out, get a lot of fresh air and vitamin D. Enjoy your mobility.”
This is one doctor’s order I’m happy to follow.
I’ve still got twice-weekly physical therapy visits for the foreseeable future; nobody even PRETENDS that The Leg is–or ever will be–good as new. Physical therapy is critical if I’m to keep progressing.
Right now Elmo maxes out around 68 degrees of flexion, “good as new” would be nearly twice that. You need 90 degrees to descend a staircase properly. 90 degrees to sit comfortably, feet flat on the floor, for extended periods of time. 90 degrees to climb a mountain. 110 degrees to ride a bicycle.
“There’s been too much done to your leg, too much scarring, for us to intervene surgically [i.e., operate to remove all the built-up scar tissue],” said Dr. Rich, “The risk of shifting something or introducing infection is simply too great.”
So whatever additional flexion I achieve now will come through hard work, (a lot of) pain, and time, streeeeeeetching out all that scar tissue and contracted tendons.
I WILL get to 90 degrees. Eventually. The Leg has more stitchmarks and scars than Frankenstein’s Monster…but I’m eventually gonna get that sucker to a 90-degree angle.
I don’t expect a return to the old normal; I’m building a NEW normal right now. Often, my knee feels like a collection of loose cables–or maybe marbles–rolling around inside a tube. “That’s your muscles learning to work together again, and it will definitely get better,” says Brenda the PT, “But that ‘rolling around’ comment makes me worried about stability. Let’s do some more strengthening exercises.”
I’ll probably always have some pain at the surgical sites, especially when the weather changes. There are some mornings that rolling over and getting out of bed simply hurts too much.
And I may need to keep a cane nearby for the rest of my life, whether I actually use it or not. “If you call it a walking stick,” suggested Brenda, “It doesn’t sound so medical. But anytime you’re going long distances you may need it just as a third point of stability (the first two being my right and left feet).”
OK. The thing to remember here is that I still can look down and SEE The Leg, and I can walk on it. Over the last three months we’ve built up the muscles until I’m more pushing the walker than relying on it. My single point of contact with the cane is still wobbly–more strengthening exercises, please– and I must take frequent rests when I use it because quite frankly it’s painful. But the interval between resting points is getting longer and longer.
Focus: I can walk. That’s big.
It’s hard to explain just how big walking with a cane is until you’ve spent 18 months in a wheelchair. Everything, even my perspective has changed: The countertops, doorways, and windows we renovated while I was sitting now seem oddly low and small when I’m standing up. And I’m discovering that using them while standing is radically different from when I was lower to the ground.
For example, I’d decided NOT to put a blind on the thinnish fourth window in the new master bedroom window seat. It’s high enough up that someone outside would need a ladder just to see the top of my head (in a wheelchair), so what’s the point?
“Uhm, well…you might want to make sure you’re, er, fully dressed and, like, wearing clothes when you go into the bathroom now,” said The Resident Carpenter gently, blushing, “It was fine when you were sitting down but when you’re standing up and walking, well…er, uhm…the top half of you is pretty visible at night.”
Ooooooookay, then. I am NOT going to ask how he figured this out.
But that means I’m normal-ish. Mostly. I still retreat to the comforting arms of Tyrone Spiffy the wheelchair when I’ve simply done far too much and everything hurts, but it’s become a rare treat instead of the norm.
I’ve learned to listen to my body and–more to the point–trust it. To insist on a second opinion, and a third, fourth, and fifth if necessary.
I’ve learned that I’m an awful snob (the first step is admitting it). I’ve met people who were never in my worldview before, except maybe as amorphous “express deep sympathy, vote to help them, but keep them out of MY backyard” kinda folk: Gangbangers. Hookers. Drug addicts. Homeless.
We’ve been thrown together almost constantly, in hospitals, at trauma centers, and in rehab places–and I’ve discovered that not only are they real people in my world, but they’re–for the most part–really GOOD people. Friendworthy.
We talk to each other. We listen. In many ways, they saved my life. They gave me role models for doggedly, stubbornly doing the next thing when it was obvious I would never get my old life back. They are the ultimate survivors, facing huge odds and a lot of prejudice, yet they seem to find happiness without money, time, or prospects.
Maybe I’m only taking baby steps in tolerance, but I’m taking them.
I’ve learned that when something bad happens, NOBODY gets through without family and friends, not even me, and it doesn’t take long to figure out who those folks are. My mother has patiently stuck with me through ALL my (legendary) tantrums.
My sister shepherded me through flights and hotels and non-glassland travel that frankly terrified me to bits when I was getting all those second opinions. My other sister moved mountains of research to find answers.
The Resident Carpenter–someone I only knew as that tall dude demolishing my back deck–has somehow become the big brother I always wanted, a rock enabling me to come home and thrive.
My friends–Bob, Roxy, Carol, Kaitlyn, Aaron, Kim, Nancy, Gary, Gary, Dorothy, Brenda, Nancy, Apple, Barbara, Abi, Kathy, Mason, Emily, Carla, Ron, and about a million others, online and off–propped me up, took care of my home and animals so I could focus on healing, visited, drove me around, cheered me up when I wasn’t sure I could do this anymore.
Kinda humbling to learn that nobody really is an island…right? So much for my beloved independence!
I’ve learned that I took far too much for granted. You can lose your mobility–and a helluva lot more–in a heartbeat. NEVER put off your bucket list. NEVER push work ahead of the rest of your life…unless you just love your work (which, actually, I do).
My left leg is a tremendous, hard-won gift from half the known universe, so it’s now up to me to make the most of it. Bucket lists front and center! Now I’ve got a HUGE garden in the backyard and a menagerie–marine fish, cats, a dog, dozens of squirrels and raccoons and owls and coyotes and fox and osprey and god knows what else–living with me.
I’ve gone fishing, and I’ll go again.
I’m going to go camping…I think. I’m still not clear on what happens when there’s no such thing as room service. Or a bathroom. The Resident Carpenter assures me that camping will strengthen my leg and infuse my soul with…something. We’ll see.
Now that we have Sherman the Tank (AKA a Chevy Suburban) I’m ditching the sensible car and buying something sporty that you can’t even get a WALKER into, much less a wheelchair.
I’ve been driving around to all the sportscar places and sitting in roadsters (when you can’t bend your leg much, getting in and out of low, tiny cars can be, er, CHALLENGING…), and I’ve narrowed things down to “any car that I can actually get The Leg into.”
So far, the best seems to be the Porsche Cayman S. All I have to do now is find a good used one four or five years old (have you SEEN the price of a new one?), empty my bank account and cross my fingers…
Stay tuned for THAT adventure…
I’m diving into work with renewed zest. After two years of never knowing when I’d be out again for surgery and rehab, my team can finally give me REAL stuff to do. Yay!
And I’m doing three impossible things every day. Three things that I couldn’t have done a month ago, or sometimes even a week ago. Today’s three:
#1: I walked six blocks on the walker today, down the hospital corridors, and into Dr. Rich’s exam room. Last visit I could only get there on Tyrone Spiffy the wheelchair.
#2: I did x-rays standing up! That has been impossible since the fall–I have to lie on the table (which is painful) and let the X-ray tech try to compensate for odd angles. Not today…I sidled and inched and straightened and bent to command.
#3: I parked the car, walked ONLY with the cane about a block, all the way around to a restaurant’s front door for a late lunch. It was a little TOO late; they’d closed 15 minutes early and were no way going to open the doors for little ol’ me. I peered inside and saw them determinedly making “shooo” motions.
I was delighted. They thought I was a Normal, easily able to stride back to the car and find another restaurant. I was hurting like hell on that walk back…but I made it.
Then I hit up Bullseye, talked to folks there (who seemed amazed that I was upright. Well, heck, so was I). We discussed an upcoming casting project that will be too big for Dennis the Denver.
More on that one when I start making the molds.
We’ve got a new studio to trick out, so that we can find Dennis the Denver Kiln somewhere under all that lumber and demolition stuff. Sculptures to make. Drones to fly. Sea fish to learn about.
And I’m thinking that, maybe, it’s time to wind down the Elmo series and concentrate on fun stuff.
Heaven knows what other bees I’ll tuck under my bonnet this summer. The Resident Carpenter WANTS bees, or rather to set up a beehive (yeah, like THAT’s gonna happen). String up lights in the new patio and have a party. Chow down on blueberries and cantaloupes and brussels sprouts and tomatoes and corn and make cherry pie from the gazillions of little cherries growing in the backyard.
Nathan can HAVE the zucchini. Yuck. Fortunately, he also hates beets so I’ve been spared the spawn of the devil.
Make glass. Figure out the new waterjet cutter (if it EVER gets here). Sculpt up a storm. Take a couple of art classes. Make jewelry. Rebuild my entire studio, the garage, and finish the new coldworking shed. Learn how to drive a Porsche PROPERLY.
I intend to enjoy every minute of the rest of my (mobile) life. Thank you, thank you, thank you…everyone.
*Well, OK, The Resident Carpenter is doing virtually all the work in the backyard, but there’s one little bedful of lettuces, French sorrel, and herbs that I planted ALL BY MYSELF.