What I Saw After the Crash -- REHAB -Part 3

© 2005 by ltn72@charter.net -- All Rights Reserved

(Previous: What I Saw After the Crash -- REHAB -Part 2)

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I am learning to do things with one arm and one leg. The little TV in my room has a small walkman-type headset. I become pretty good at putting it on and taking it off using just my right hand. You have to first *flick/snap* it over your left ear and then settle the right earpiece in place. To remove, reverse. In my wheelchair I am ankling along now at a pretty good clip. Most of the time I am still in bed with the two machines whirring away. My right knee – to the not so suppressed delight of the doctors – is flexing better every day although I still can’t put any weight on it. My left arm is proving a problem. The elbow has over-calcified and the joint is frozen at about a 90 degree angle, so using my left hand for most things doesn’t work.

I get my hair washed for the first time since the accident. I am transferred to a special wheelchair. A cape is put around my neck and I am undressed. I am wheeled into a shower stall and a PCA uses a nozzle on a hose to wash my hair. I am dismayed to see it start running bright red as the last of the dried blood from my accident over a month before is re-hydrated and then washed away. The feeling is indescribably wonderful.

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I’ve been in rehab for five weeks. It’s a week before Thanksgiving and during one visit from Martha the doctor suggests that I go home for several days as a sort of trial run. Terror seizes me. What will I do if something goes wrong? What if I fall and Martha can’t get me back into my chair? What if I can’t get my chair into the bathroom? What will I do without my hospital call button? Here I am, a grown man and Vietnam vet being given a chance to go home after almost three months, and I’m scared and angry at myself for being scared. And worse. Tears are starting to flow! Tears! I’m crying and I hear myself telling Martha and the doctor that I’m afraid to leave the hospital, a place of objective misery. Tears have been very close to the surface since the accident. Martha starts to cry, too, bewildered and hurt at my reaction. A truly bad moment. After a minute I screw-up my courage and tell Martha that yes, I’d like to be home for Thanksgiving.

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It's home day. I am wheeled down to the first floor lobby and met by Martha. She has bought an extra-large hooded jersey for me and I struggle into it with help, my left arm still frozen and my shoulders still tight with non-use. Then my chair is pushed through the door and I am outside for the first time in over a month. The hospital is on a hilltop and cold air blasts me from a raw winter's sky. I shrink down into my chair. Then, the transfer board dance from my chair into the passenger seat in Martha’s car. Sitting up in a car! How wonderful! My friend John, who has come with Martha, collapses my chair and puts it in the trunk. The drive home is like a trip to Disneyland. It’s been almost three months since I sat in a car or saw anything except the inside of a hospital or ambulance. Look! A package store! Look! A CVS! Look! A bus! I feel like I’m in a child’s picture book.

We arrive home, a place I haven’t seen since the day of the accident. My flying friends have been busy. True friends. One has built a ramp from the cellar to the first step on the cellar stairs. Martha has rented a Stanna Lift and another friend – a contractor -- has installed an extra rail and an electrical outlet to power the chair. I am transferred from my chair to the lift and chug up the steps. At the top of the cellar stairs is another wheelchair, donated by yet another friend whose father had been an invalid until his recent death. Once in the second chair I start a tour of my own home. My little dog Mr. Spock – a Chihuahua-Dachshund mix with huge, pointed ears that stand straight up – wags happily next to my chair. On the other hand, several of my cats take one wide-eyed look at the chair and disappear.

I slowly tour my house. My friend whose father died recently has also loaned me her dad’s home hospital bed and she and her husband have installed it in the living room. They have also fitted sliding louvered doors to the door ways to keep the cats out when I go to bed. I don’t know what to say to all this kindness and concern. You really learn who your true friends are when things go sour. After I expressed my fears to Martha in the hospital, she went to Radio Shack and bought a wireless intercom set so I can call her at night if I need her.

We then go back to the family room to talk. Everything looks different from a sitting position and I can’t reach most of what I want. I have been sent home with a “grabber,” a yard-long device for grabbing things out of reach. We have dinner and watch some TV and then it’s time for me to lie down. I make the transfer from my chair up onto the bed with some effort and I’m beat. I take my two night time Percocet tablets. I hurt all the time from my injuries. I will never again take for granted feeling good. Martha goes upstairs to bed and I’m alone for the first time in nearly three months. No roommate. No staff just down the hall. No call button. The darkness and silence seem eerie. Street lights creep around the window shades with flickering amber fingers and I struggle up to a sitting position and peek outside. Snow covers the ground; lights shift and glimmer; cold tendrils creep around the sides of the window. Winter and night. I lie back and in moments am asleep.

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Thanksgiving Day. I had to go to the bathroom in the night and managed it with some difficulty. The wheelchair barely fits into the bathroom and it’s beating the crap out of the low woodwork. I’ve discovered that if I roll in backwards and put the transfer board onto the edge of the toilet, using my right elbow as a lever on top of the washing machine, I can slither down onto the toilet. Getting back into my chair is more difficult, but doable. Silent victories in the middle of the night! I have not had to use the intercom to call for help.

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Daylight arrives and Martha comes into the living room and helps get me dressed in the jogging suit she bought along with the “hoodie.” It’s going to be big, easy clothing for a while. Sneakers, too. I wheel into the kitchen and Martha and I talk as she prepares a meal for the holiday. There will be about ten of us. I can’t believe how good the turkey smells after months of hospital milkshakes and meatloaf! I beg little nibbles as Martha cooks.

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Family arrives and I get the big “Welcome Home!” from everyone. They’re really glad to see me home again. My young nieces and nephews seem huge from the vantage of my wheelchair. Several brave cats want to sit in my lap so that’s busy, too. The meal is wonderful and I feel so good. I am acutely aware of the toll this episode has taken on Martha and hate to see her work so hard, but her family is her religion and she loves having people over for holidays. I have enough use of my hands at this point to eat without too much difficulty and my left foot and ankle are stronger with repeated use. I drop something only once or twice.

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As dinner ends I am suddenly overwhelmed with tiredness and ask if I can be excused. I ache all over and am shaking with fatigue and my fractures are singing an unhappy song. I go back to the living room, get into bed, and am asleep in seconds. There’s nothing like rehab to bring-on sleep. I awaken several hours later just in time to see everyone off.

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Back to the hospital for the final week. Having had such a good time home I am now really eager to go home for good. Or at least until the next operation. My left elbow still has to be bone-sawed apart and a new elbow fashioned (there are no artificial elbows yet available). I feel sick just thinking about it, but it has to be done if I ever want to fly an airplane again or even button a collar button on my shirt.

The last week passes with more physical therapy and my last visits with the psychologist. My mind is clearer all the time and he tells me that the doctors are very pleased that my brain appears to have “rewired itself around the injured parts.” Some people are lucky and that happens. Some are not and their head injuries are permanent. I again thank God. The psychologist reminds me that recovery to as far as I will go is going to take a long time and that I will likely be frustrated and angry some of the time. I leave his office thinking about that.

In physical therapy I have regained about 50% use of my right hand and about 20% of my left. My left leg is strong enough to stand on briefly (I can manage for about half a minute before it folds) but my right leg is still toast and I am warned not to put any weight on it for at least another month. I can feed myself and wipe my ass and nose by myself. I can ankle myself around in my chair. I can get into and out of bed by myself. I have learned to open my medicine bottles with just my right hand if the lids aren’t on too tight. I can drink out of a bottle by holding it to my mouth with my right hand while balancing it on my left forearm, the left hand still 12 inches from my face. I cannot get dressed without help. I can sometimes tie my shoes if I can prop my feet on something and then bend towards my feet. I can pick at a computer keyboard a key at a time. I am alive, a wonderful feeling adults ignore until something bad happens to them.

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And its Discharge Day. I leave the rehab hospital for the last time, again riding passenger in Martha’s car. I take with me my grabber, plus a wire-doohickie for buttoning shirt buttons with just one hand. Also my plate-guard and crip spoon. Also plastic casts on my left arm and right leg. I do not yet know how horrible my arm operation will be or that it will take almost two years before I am well enough to go back to work. I do not yet know how tough re-learning to walk will be, or that it will be another three months before I can make it up the stairs in my house (on my ass) and again sleep in my bedroom with my wife or get to the bathroom and, sitting on a “crip seat,” take a shower. I have not yet had my first visit from my in-home PCA and been sponge-bathed as the invalid I am. I have not yet received the hospital bill and laugh crazily when I see it is for more than $ 287,000 despite my having an HMO (A "dirty little secret" is that if you are injured your HMO expects every dime of care repaid to them). But for the moment, things are good.

Next: “My Left Arm”

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