One day in a moment of crisis, I made a decision to survive.
I did not ever expect to make such a decision. Just the week before, I had high hopes for a new beginning.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” my husband smiled. “We can just keep driving, head straight to Key West.” Instead, we walked into the hospital, my leg burning with sciatica, my back pinched tight with debilitating spinal stenosis. I signed the papers, changed into a hospital gown and was wheeled away for spinal fusion surgery.
I reminded myself that I had done all the standard interventions to avoid surgery – physical therapy, cortisone shots, acupuncture, spinal epidurals. But no intervention can reverse the spinal canal narrowing and subsequent squeeze on the nerves.
Yes, of course I knew complications were possible, but certainly that would never happen to me. Three days in the hospital, the surgeon had told me, and you’ll walk out tall and straight and pain-free. Probably. Maybe.
In the recovery room after surgery, I heard frightened voices through the hazy film of anesthesia.
“Come on, move your toes.”
“Why isn’t she moving her toes?”
An immediate MRI was ordered. A massive blood clot was found in my spinal canal, and I was then whisked back to the operating room. Such a spinal cord trauma can mean permanent paralysis if not treated quickly. My blood clot was discovered within a few hours after surgery but it had enough time to inflict major injury: to sever the sensitive connections between muscles and nerves in my lower limbs.
When I woke up from the second operation, I learned the horrifying outcome. I was unable to stand or walk. Worse, there was no way to determine how severe or permanent the damage would be.
I stared at the doctors in ICU. “My life is ruined,” I cried.
It will take time, the doctors said gravely. You’ll have to work very hard and be patient. The nerves will find a new connection eventually. Probably. Maybe.
I was helpless, needing assistance for the most basic things – to get out of bed, go to the bathroom, wash myself. I was in a fog of fear, so afraid of this catastrophe that instantly changed my life. My distress was so obvious I was put on suicide watch for six days in ICU.
Unable to return home, I was taken to a rehab hospital for the next two weeks. The doctors warned me that if I didn’t actively participate in my own recovery I could likely stay in a wheelchair forever. I looked at Allan, my loving husband of 27 years, who was trying so hard to be positive and motivating. But it was all up to me. It was simply inconceivable that I could accept the abrupt loss of my personal freedom and independence. My inner voice whispered that strength would come from my determination to get through this calamity.
Regardless of my motivation, it was easy to fall into a depressed mood. Allan suggested a strategy that proved to be helpful: allow myself up to three moments of self-pity per day, none of which could last more than two minutes, then accept my new reality and move on.
The daily physical therapy was hard work. I was taught how to transfer from a wheelchair to a walker. Even that simple move was frightening; my feet felt like two dead fish. I learned how to transfer to a toilet to a tub, to a car. Weight training was important for upper body strength in order to do all this transferring. I was instructed to use therabands to keep my feet flexed to prevent permanent foot drop.
The exercises from my lower legs were even more difficult because my feet and toes were useless. Will I walk again? I kept asking the therapists. Probably. Maybe. There was no answer.
I wore a back brace, strapped on a magnetic bone growth stimulator for 4 hours a day, got fitted for orthotic braces to keep my feet flexed, went to bed with velco-strapped booties. It was discovered I had another blood clot in my thigh, which meant daily blood monitoring. The lab tech arrived promptly at 4 a.m. every day.
Tension and anxiety made it difficult to sleep. When I did doze off, severe leg pain woke me up. What was that from? No one could say. Perhaps my nerves were trying to come back to life. Medication was necessary for everything.
It was a nightmare universe.
I returned home still in a state of helplessness. I rented a recumbent bike to build up leg strength and continued rigorous physical therapy three times per week. I did my own therapy twice a day, every day. One of my exercises was leg lifts. Allan would assist by lifting my leg as I tried to tighten my muscles. The turning point occurred weeks later when I was suddenly able to lift my leg a few inches without his assistance. The feeling of power and success from that one leg lift was incredible. I was on my way!
And sure enough, very slowly, my nerves and muscles did begin to reconnect. Over time with strength and feeling gradually returning to my toes and feet, I worked my way from a wheelchair to a walker and finally to a cane.
As my feet continued to get stronger, a therapist suggested losing the cane. If not, he said, I would depend on it forever. My feet were still weak, but they did hold me up. And thus began the next phase of my new normal.
Allan took me to the busy Aventura Mall, where I practiced walking without my cane, one cautious step at a time. I was very insecure, afraid of being near people, certain I would topple over if anyone got too close. The fear was often paralyzing. Sometimes I would stay rooted in one spot for a minute or more, then reminding myself how to move – one foot forward, then the next. People moved so quickly, paying no attention to the miracle of their feet. Just months ago, I used to be that way too. But like all new habits, practicing daily enabled real confidence to follow soon enough.
It is now ten years later. I still have some balance issues but can walk for miles mostly pain-free. I threw away all my high heels; a wedge with straps that grip tight is now my shoe of choice. I still continue regular foot and leg exercises as well as cardio and yoga. Staying strong has prevented many near slips and trips. I try to let go of the occasional flashbacks of bedpans, dead feet, and nights filled with anxiety and pain.
I began this story with my decision to survive when it would easily have gone another way. I close with my decision to live in gratitude. I’m grateful for what Allan has done for me, for what I have done for myself, and grateful especially for my wondrous legs and feet that take me wherever I want to go.
Harriet Levy is a guidance counselor.
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