Every day, BJ, my physical therapist would push me a bit further. She’d assess how I was doing, and adjust her approach depending on what it took to get me moving in the right direction. Some days, she’d start off easy, but others, she’d launch into me like a female R. Lee. Ermey, the drill instructor from the movie “Full Metal Jacket”. I didn’t know which version I was going to get when I wheeled myself down to the PT floor, but knowing I could get “Gunnery Sergeant BJ Hartman, my Senior PT Instructor” was usually enough to get me in motion.
After a few days of just getting up and down, BJ told me – “OK, enough up and down, we’re going to get you moving forward”. She directed me over to the parallel bars, and had me lock down my wheelchair brakes. I pushed up out of the chair, and slid my left foot forward. Keeping a lot of weight on my arms, I then pulled my right leg forward, and slowly shuffle-scooted my way to the end of the parallel bars. When I got to the end, BJ had me turn around and do the same thing back to my wheelchair. By the time I got in 16 feet of shuffle-stepping and arm-walking, all I could do was collapse back in the wheelchair, covered with sweat.
That was enough for the first day of actual forward motion. After a couple days, I graduated to something I thought I wouldn’t use for another forty years – a walker, complete with the neon green tennis balls on the front legs. I took one look, and said, “You’re kidding, right? ” BJ said, “Time to move up to something more your speed.” I gave her a side-eyed glare, but knew she was giving me a good-natured push in the right direction. Instead of hand-walking parallel bars, I was lifting my feet SLIGHTLY off the floor, and taking actual steps, even if most of my weight was supported by the walker. Each time, I’d push a little bit further, and when I could make it the full twenty feet across the room, BJ said, “Time to take off your training wheels.”
“Let’s ditch the walker.”
“You’ve got to be joking.”
BJ said, “You know me, I don’t do jokes. I’ll be here to catch you if you need it.”
Slowly, and with a lot of trepidation, I stood in place, as BJ pulled the walker about three feet in front of me. I felt glued to the floor, afraid to even budge, for fear that I’d fall to the floor like an overturned plate of spaghetti. It was all I could do to bring my left foot forward and stop.
BJ said, “Well, that was half a step – now bring your right foot forward.” I took a deep breath, fixed my eyes on the walker as a target, jut in case I started heading towards the floor….and cautiously…moved…my…right…leg…forward…..and stopped. I had just taken my first unassisted step in over two months. BJ started clapping, and shouted, “You did it!” and then said….
…”Now take another one.”
…and I did. I took 10 steps with the walker just out of reach, then that was all I could do. But for now, it was enough.
Every day, I’d wheel myself back up to my hospital room, and Peace would be there waiting to ask how I did that day. Some days were better than others, but she always had a smile and a positive attitude, no matter what kind of day I had. She made sure I knew about any visitors, phone calls or cards and letters I got. I also got to know a little bit about her family, and her life in Ghana before she came to the United States. Even though I had a lot of challenges in front of me, some of those seemed to pale in comparison to the struggles she went through to make a new life in this country – but Peace never complained, no matter how grouchy I got. She’d just gently remind me that I looked like I was doing better, even if she didn’t know what kind of progress I was making downstairs.
…and I was continuing to make progress. I could walk about 10 feet unassisted, but that was about a far as I could get before needing to take a break. Over time, however, I could do multiple stretches of 10 feet, or a lap around the interior of the room. BJ started working with me on more practical tasks, telling me – “At some point, you’re going home, and you’ll need to do a lot more than we’re doing here.”
At first, it was hard to comprehend – going home. I’d been in the hospital 2 1/2 months, and it really felt like ‘home’ at this point. I missed my family terribly, though, and that gave me a bit of a boost to keep working harder in physical therapy. In the PT room, they had a cutaway passenger car interior, where I practiced opening the door, transferring out of my wheelchair and climbing in and out of the car, closing the door, and putting on my seatbelt…then doing the reverse. I worked on that over and over, because I really missed driving a car, and wanted to get back to it.
We worked on skills that I’d need in the real world, like stepping up and down off of a curb, pushing a shopping cart and reaching for items on shelves. We practiced how to get myself up from the floor in case I fell. I had to use a lot of arm strength and sweat to do it, but eventually, I could get myself up off the floor, if I really had to.
Over time, I got to know some of the other patients in physical therapy. There were patients of all ages and all conditions. I met an older gentleman who had suffered a stroke, and lost the use of his left arm and leg. I met a younger man who had been in a motorcycle accident, but who hadn’t been wearing a helmet. I met a landscape laborer, who had fallen off a ladder. We were all at different ages and physical impairments, but we shared in the battle to get well and improve our strength enough to take at least the first steps towards getting back to normal.
“Back to normal.” I thought about that a lot, wondering what the new “normal” would be. My life, as well as my family’s, had been turned upside down by this. At some point, I’d be going home, and I’d have to learn how to re-adjust to the rest of the world, taking things one step at a time. It was hard to think about how far I still had to go, so I just focused on the first steps in front of me.
But for now….it was enough.