Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Six Months

Six months.

That’s how long it’s been that I’ve been figuring out how to deal with a spinal cord injury. And six months feels like a milestone, for a few different reasons.

Here’s why. Last Sunday I went back to work. There didn’t ever seem to be a question about whether I’d be able to work again - it was mostly that we didn’t know when. The doctors say, and the research seems to point to, the reality is that the first six months after a spinal cord injury are the most important for recovery. So we decided a long time ago that I’d focus almost exclusively on recovery for the first six months. Then, a few weeks ago, it started to feel like I’d recovered enough mentally and physically to be able to pay attention to both physical recovery and starting to work again.

Here’s why. We’ve gotten mostly moved into our new house. No, the boxes aren’t all unpacked. No, the garage and basement storage spaces aren’t quite organized the way they ought to be. No, we don’t have every piece of furniture exactly where it should be. Yes, we just recently got some of the art hung on the walls. Over the month or so since we moved in, this space has started feeling more and more like home.

Here’s why. Last Saturday I participated in an organized bike ride event again. It was a fundraiser for the hospital where I did the first five weeks of post-ICU rehab. During the ride, another group of cyclists passed the group I was with. I snuck out of our group and held on the back of the other group for a few minutes. Without knowing it, that group helped me feel more like myself.

Here’s why. More than all the rest. I’ve been ridiculously lucky to have been surrounded by a community of people who picked me up and carried me when I was most broken.

The community of people, some of whom I don’t have any idea who they are, stepped up by giving money to help us be able to pay bills while I was on disability leave from work.

The community at the gym where I used to work out stepped up by carrying heavy things. And when I was ready, buying me beer and whiskey. And by recognizing the struggle someone who likes to be active might have with reduced mobility.

The community at the church where I’m the pastor stepped up by praying. Continually. Relentlessly. And by sending handmade cards and posters and get-well thoughts that I could use to decorate my hospital room and my heart.

And most significantly for me, my family carried me when I was broken. The children in my life treated me like normal, but a little more gently. My parents showed up at the hospital, and at the other hospital, and in our tiny apartment, and as chauffeur, and in continual messages of support (including my dad always waving at me, but with just one finger).

More than anyone else, my wife isn’t giving up on me. She promised me in the ICU that we were gonna get figure this all out together, no matter what. And we’re figuring it out.

I’ve talked a lot in the past about the importance of community, and about the truth that it’s ok for people who are in need to rely on those who love them. I said that from a purely theoretical and theological perspective. In the past six months I’ve experienced that truth - the truth that it’s better to live this life as part of a community than to be isolated.


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

I Place My Foot Carefully: A Reflection on Moving

“I place my foot carefully
            out of necessity
      so that my progress is
      unhindered by a misstep
            a stumble

using my hands well
      is critical
      they’re instrumental
            in maintaining good balance
      and help facilitate
            forward progress

it takes concentration
      my body knows
      when my mind wanders
      then brings all of me back
            to focus
            on the next step

when it all works together
      I get where I’m going
            and revel in
      success achieved”

was written about climbing Class 3 ridges in Colorado’s high country; also applies to recent excursions along city sidewalks.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Lamenting and Rejoicing: Some Thoughts on Goals

“What are your goals for fitness if you join this gym?” the coach/owner asked me when I applied for membership.

“I want to be able to do whatever I want, whenever I want to” was my reply. (It was only later on that I added “I want to be able to get off the toilet when I’m 90” to the list of goals.)

For a while I felt like I’d accomplished that goal (the first one – I’m not 90 yet). I wasn’t the fittest; I wasn’t the fastest; I wasn’t the strongest. But there was a good chunk of time when I felt like there wasn’t much I wouldn’t have been able to get up and go to at a moment’s notice.

That all changed about four months ago. Today there are a bunch of chairs that I can’t stand up from without hoisting myself with my arms. Today I can’t walk without limping; I can’t run; and if I’m on the floor, standing up takes a lot of effort and concentration (and isn’t always a successful endeavour on the first attempt).

My current physical condition feels like a problem. Now, I’ve been known to say that the solution to every problem is to do more squats. Not strong enough? Do more squats. Bad day at work? More squats. Failing classes in school? More squats. Just got dumped by your boyfriend or girlfriend? Squats.

Today, though, I can’t do a single squat.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot that I am able to do that I couldn’t do before. Three months ago I spent most of my time in a wheelchair. I rejoice in the physical capabilities I’ve recovered.

At the same time, though, one of the things that gets me more than most of the rest is that I used to be able to participate in the activities; now I find myself a bystander, watching from here what’s happening over there.

My fitness goals are still the same as before. And so, I lament what I haven’t recovered. Yet.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Continuing Recovery

I came away from my skiing accident broken. The knee that was injured (ACL and MCL) is part of the same leg that has been most significantly affected by the Spinal Cord Injury. It really didn’t work at all for at least a couple days. And when I started to be able to use it again, regaining muscular control was complicated by the fact that the ligaments weren’t doing what they were supposed to.

In addition to that leg hardly working at all, I’d lost most of my cardiovascular fitness while I was laying in the ICU for ten days – so much so that when I started PT, five minutes of balancing on my knees wore me out enough that I needed a breather. And while I made huge gains during PT, I spent most of the next five weeks in a wheelchair.

So when the inpatient portion of post-accident rehab was done, I had virtually no stamina. When I was discharged and able to be home again, every couple hours I’d have to stop what I was doing so I could lay down for a while. And when I wasn’t resting, I really wasn’t doing very much of anything except being more upright than horizontal.

It felt like a blow to my identity to need rest after a couple hours of simply existing in the world. I’ve never been the fittest guy around, but for years I’ve been able to spend a whole day going nonstop without really taking a break. Further, there are numerous times when I’ve strung together seven days like that in a row.

The physical recovery I longed for was that the mostly-broken leg would work again, and that I could regain most of the stamina that I’d lost.

Finally, over the past week or so, I’ve felt a beautiful confluence of healing. Our trip to California forced me to not stop for almost the whole day for a few days in a row ... which served to increase my stamina. And just this past week, one of the muscles that hasn’t worked for months finally started engaging again ... which allows my whole body to work more like it’s supposed to.

Add to that the fact that I’ve recently been able to start going on longer bike rides – bike rides on an actual bike, instead of that silly spin bike in the gym. It’s a good thing, because I’m registered for a 50k bike ride in a couple months.

The bike ride is a fundraiser for Craig Hospital. Craig is a specialty hospital which treats spinal cord injury and brain injury patients. I was inpatient there for five weeks, and continue to do Physical Therapy there as an outpatient. The staff there does phenomenal work. I’d encourage you to support Craig by making a contribution through my Pedal 4 Possible fundraising page

I’m not quite ready to take on the course I’ve registered for. Lucky for me I have time to build enough stamina between now and then.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

On A Bike Again

I got on a bike again.

It was awkward, and slow, and tough to start & stop, and scary. I can only manage about 60% of the speed I once was able to maintain, and have stamina for maybe 20% of the distance.

But I can ride a bike again.

A year ago, I started figuring out how to spend more time riding than I had before. Racing a road bicycle, riding more challenging mountain bike trails, plotting bikepacking trips through remote and beautiful places, learning how to ride and race on a velodrome, and seeing how quickly (and how slowly) I could make my two-wheeled commute.

A day ago, I struggled at the end of an easy six mile ride that we had taken a 20 minute break in the middle of.

But I was on a bike again.

One day, in a flurry of broken bones up and down my back, all the planning and preparation and fitnessing drifted away like a dandelion puff ball on the current of a kid’s breath, and the bikes gathered dust for a while. Since then, I’ve figured out that I can lash a crutch to my bike so I’m able to walk when I get where I’m going. And it’s joyous to be able to move in a way that I’ve loved since before the age of 10, when I was skidding coaster brakes on gravel roads.

I’m getting back on bikes again.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Ski Accident Recovery: Out of the Torso and Neck Braces

Good news today. The neurosurgeon (who didn’t do surgery on me) told me today that the fractures in my spine are healed enough to not need the braces any more.


I’ve been counting down the days for a couple weeks and counting down the hours for four days, waiting for the moment when I’d be free of those constraints. And I’ve been dreaming and worrying that I’d be sitting in the exam room and the doctor would tell me that I wasn’t healed enough to get rid of them.

Fortunately for me, we got good news today.

And then I experienced myself getting really slow and tentative, because this is all so new.

See, I’ve been in that turtle shell for so long that I’ve become somewhat dependent on it. All the muscles underneath the brace, which I haven't really used for months, have weakened to the point that I expect I’ll be exhausted by simply sitting up in a chair. And even though it was a pain to put on, take off, and exist in, I feel really vulnerable without the protection it provided, like I'm in danger of breaking.

But it’s time, and I’m thankful for being able to take the next step in this recovery that I’ve been working on for a few months. Right now, though, after being free of the braces for less than three hours, I think I’m gonna go take a nap.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Ski Accident Recovery: Reflections on getting off the toilet

I used to tell people that I did my best to stay fit because I want to be able to get off of the toilet when I’m 90 years old. Thing is, today, at age 48, I have trouble standing up from the toilet without assistance.

Yep. I spent years riding bikes and running and swimming and hiking and climbing and playing volleyball & basketball – and I spent most of my 40s lifting and gymnasticsing and HIITing so I could be in good shape. Today, however, I walk slowly and with a limp. And I haven’t been this weak since … maybe, ever.

It feels unfair, that after the work I did to gain fitness, it’s gone in a moment. One day I had the physical capacity to do almost anything I wanted to do. The next day I didn’t get out of the ICU bed. And when I did get up days later, I couldn’t stand up even with help from four people.

I don’t expect this to be my permanent reality. I’m stronger today than I was at the end of March. I’m stronger today than I was in early May when I was released from the hospital. I’m probably stronger today than I was last week. In the ‘clouds and silver lining’ category, that makes me happy.

So, I suppose my current project is similar to my project before the accident – get stronger, get fitter, so that I have an easier time getting off the toilet at 90 than I do at 48.