As I got stronger, I began to get tougher physical therapy assignments. I literally had not stood on my own for over a month. Each day, I’d roll out to the elevator, and go downstairs for physical therapy. The initial exercises were pretty easy. Flexing my feet, raising my lower leg, or even wiggling my toes. Every exercise, no matter how small, was an important step. Because my long-term capability wasn’t yet known, I was introduced to some tools to make life easier to manage. I was already familiar (and grateful) for handrails in the bathroom. The occupational therapist introduced me to other tools, like sock aids that allowed me to put on and remove socks without bending over. She also taught me to use a grabber tool that helped me retrieve items that were dropped or too far away to pick up.
Physical therapy was conducted in a large room that, at first glance, looked like it might be used for gymnastics. There were parallel bars, rings and mats everywhere. After watching for any length of time, it was clear that none of the participants were ready for the Olympics. There were patients with all kinds of challenges, from knee replacements and minor injuries, to patients like me, or even those recovering from stroke or traumatic brain injury.
Everybody had their own set of challenges to deal with, and I was no exception. I hadn’t put any weight on my legs for over a month, and they were visibly thinner than they were prior to the accident. My physical therapist, BJ, was friendly, but stern. She let me know from the first time we met that she was going to be pushing me to my limits. BJ helped me work on some basics – how to turn myself over in bed. She taught me how to get in and out of my wheelchair more easily. She showed me how to do things that would give me more independence while in my wheelchair.
After a couple weeks, BJ said, “It’s time to get you out of that chair.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re going to stand up”.
I thought, “No way” – I had been in a wheelchair for a month, and had no strength in my legs. BJ however, wasn’t going to let me off easily. She put a harness on my upper body to keep me from falling, locked my wheelchair in place, and said – “let’s work on getting up.” She stood on one side to steady me, and the harness was going to keep me from falling. I braced my arms on the wheelchair, and moved the foot rest out of the way. I took a deep breath, and started to push up…..and….nothing.
I fell back in the chair, and BJ said – “Get up.”
I put my arms down, pushed…pushed and pushed…..
…and fell back in the chair.
“I can’t do this.”
“You’re not getting out of here until you stand up.”
“Do it again.”
Over and over, I tried to push up, and each time, I’d fall back into the chair. I kept begging to quit, and BJ kept pushing me further. After about 20 tries, I said I’d try once more, but that was it. I gripped the arms of the wheelchair, and pushed my weight forward. BJ steadied me from the side. My face turned red as I strained to make my legs work like they hadn’t in over a month. I bit my lower lip as I held my breath, pushing harder, and harder, when suddenly….
I locked my knees into place, and stood. BJ held my shoulders tightly and said, “You did it!” I said, “Yeah – because you weren’t going to let me go back to my room until I did.” She smiled, and helped me sit back down. She let me catch my breath, and said,
“Now, do it again.”
Not wanting to keep this torment going on forever, I shakily stood again, locking my knees in place, and holding on to the rails or dear life. I could feel the harness tighten up as I tottered back and forth on my quaky legs. I stood 4 times before I finally collapsed into the chair. BJ said, “Not a bad job, today. I’ll see you in the morning.” She disconnected the harness, and I wheeled myself back to the elevator and back to my room.
Trying to stand was scary. I was afraid it would never happen again, and now it did – 4 times in one day. I thought about all the times I had taken that ability for granted, and never thought about it much, until that ability was taken away. Over the next week, I stood again and again. I didn’t go anywhere other than up and down. It became a game to see if I could get myself vertical before BJ had to growl to get me moving. I started to use the parallel bars to get in and out of the chair. I continued to work on my other exercises, building my arm and leg strength, wondering when I might be able to do more than just stand.
In some ways, it was enough for now. It made getting in and out of bed easier, and it certainly made going to the bathroom easier. I wasn’t able to take a shower yet, but I was able to do a better job of washing myself and doing more self-care. I even started interacting with other patients and my mood improved enough to take more visitors. My sister flew in from the Midwest to spend several days visiting, which made me feel even more like I wanted to get back to real life.
By this time, I had been in the hospital for two months. I’d had a number of visitors from work, my neighborhood and even my home town. I didn’t like being in the hospital, but at least I was making progress, and it seemed like ages since the night of the accident, even though it had only been eight weeks. I started to wonder how long I’d be in the hospital, and for the first time, considered what it would be like to go home, and how soon that might be.
Physical therapy continued to build my strength, and BJ kept pushing me harder. One day, I pushed up out of the chair, and thought,
“Well, would you look at me. I’m standing…..still”