Adjusting to the new “Normal.” – Chapter 15

By the end of December, I was allowed to drive short distances, and was released back to work. Driving was something that I had sorely missed over the past few months. It’s strange to think that I was so dependent on it. Being able to drive on my own was a huge step in my independence, even though I was grateful for my handicapped placard.

I could walk, and do strength-building exercises, but I was still wearing my TLSO brace 24 hours a day. I could take it off to shower…and that was about it. As soon as I could, I had to put it back on. 

BUT…I was allowed to go back to work, which was a huge moment for me.  Because I was classified as ‘disabled’ until then, I wasn’t even allowed to look at e-mail, which was strange, because my hands and eyes worked just fine. I made the mistake of telling the disability coordinator that I read a work e-mail, which made them go nearly apoplectic.

My first day in the office was a little overwhelming. I was able to drive in, park in the garage, and take the elevator up to my floor. The receptionist saw me step off the elevator, and started to run up and give me a hug, but the brace seemed a little intimidating. I let her know it was OK – I wasn’t going to break.

My boss was glad to see me back, as was my team. They all had to take up the slack while I was out, and with me back in the office, they’d be able to focus more on their jobs, and less on doing mine.

Everybody I met at the office was enthusiastic to see me back at work, and I got to tell the same stories over and over again…because it seemed like everyone wanted to hear the details, even if I didn’t (again). 

I also had to explain about the brace, and my limitations – in an office job, there weren’t too many, but if someone held a door for me, I was going to take them up on their offer of help. I was careful not to drop any pens or paper at work…because getting all the way down to the floor wasn’t a guarantee that I’d be able to get back up off the floor without any assistance. 

My first days were rather short – I was able to come in for a couple hours at first, then add days / time as I got stronger.  For the most part, the days were routine. I got to work from home a couple days a week, which was helpful.

At home, I’d get out several times a day to walk.  As I walked more, I was able to build up more strength. I was allowed to sit without the brace, and only had to wear it when I was standing for more than a few minutes. Eventually, I was allowed to sleep without the brace.

The first night without the brace was a little scary, but I seemed to adjust after a few evenings, and I even got to take a real shower without it. My surgical scar had healed, and even though it was a bit itchy, I appreciated just standing under the shower head and feeling the hot water wash over me. 

I also took advantage of using the hot tub at the local recreation center. If I was sore from walking or physical therapy, it really helped my relax my sore muscles. I did, however, get a lot of strange looks as I walked to the pool in my TLSO brace. At this point, I was used to all the strange looks, and when I noticed someone staring a bit too long, I made a game of asking them if they’d like to try it on. I didn’t get any takers, but I did get a few red faces as they turned away. I chalked it up to part of the experience.

In March, I had to fly for business…and wondered how I’d get through the airport.  At the metal detector machine, the TSA agent ordered me to take off the brace. I hadn’t tried to stand very often without it, so I didn’t know what would happen – if I’d be OK, or if I’d flop over like a rusty door hinge.

Fortunately, I didn’t fold like a cheap lawn chair….and while I still had to wear the brace, I was getting used to being part of ‘real life’ again. I was also surprised that my spinal hardware (2 titanium rods and 4 screws) didn’t set off the metal detectors. If I went through an X-ray machine myself, they could see that I was literally bolted together.

Over time, I got to reduce my day time spent in the brace. I went down to 8 hours a day, then 6, then 4, and by May, it was only needed if I was going to be on my feet a lot, or if I felt tired when standing. Because I had lost weight, we also had to re-form the brace and tighten the straps so that it fit well enough to be useful. 

I was also glad to say goodbye to my assist rails for the bathroom. By this point, I was able to get up and down fairly well, and getting rid of the hand rails made me feel a bit more competent…and that I wouldn’t have to call for help if I couldn’t get out of the bathroom on my own. At that point, it joined my walker, cane and crutches in the garage. I was glad to remove any reminder of the hospital stay as quickly as I could. 

My handicap placard expired soon, and when I asked Doctor Childs if I needed it, he asked me – “What do you think you need?” I replied that “Really, I’d rather park like everybody else.” If I didn’t have the brace on, I would get all sorts of dirty looks, a nasty note on my windshield, or even the occasional confrontation. More than once, I had to pull my shirt up to show my long scar to someone who didn’t think I should be parking so close to the front of the lot. 

While a lot of things still felt strange, I just wanted to be ‘normal’ again.

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