The Recovery: Risen From the Wheelchair

I don’t remember much from my time in the hospital. I was in and out of consciousness, either all too aware or not at all. I remember the pain though. And the helplessness. It didn’t really hit me until late into the first night in the ICU. Technically, it was morning. It was two am, and I had to pee. They had taken everything else, cut away and discarded so that my broken body could be more closely examined. My favorite sports bra, my Old Navy sale leggings, my blue tank top. Even my socks, all lying bloodied and tattered in the trash. Underneath my hideously ugly hospital gown, I wore only my underwear. They had allowed me to keep them on, as if I was an infant clinging to a lacy Victoria’s Secret teddy bear. I hadn’t cried yet. Not when I fell, not while I was being carried out, not on the gurney rattling through the halls. Now, all was quiet. I rose out of a warm mist of morphine; comforted by the soft and sleepy glow from the hallway and the quiet patter of footsteps. But I wasn’t comfortable. I had to pee. I knew that simply getting up and walking to the bathroom was out of the question. And I couldn’t even get my own underwear off. Stubbornly, I tried to hold it. No use. I had to pee. Now. Reluctantly I pushed the red button on my bed that would call a nurse. Not ten seconds later I heard the soft patter of feet, a door creaking open, and the swoosh of my curtain being pushed aside. To my dismay and embarrassment, the nurse was male. He smiled gently at me and asked what I needed. “Um, I gotta, um. I have to pee”, I stuttered out. Both his eyebrows flew up as I explained to him that I had refused a catheter, wanting to save the little shred of independence I had left. “I see…. well, I’ll see what I can find.” He came back a few minutes later carrying what looked like a walker mixed with a punch bowl. The contraption, what I would later call my “pee-seat”, was actually just a bed pan with legs. I thanked the nurse as he stepped outside the curtain to preserve some of my dignity. He shouldn’t have bothered. First I couldn’t get my underwear off. In a desperate last stand for independence, I insisted that I cut them off myself. As I dropped the bit of fabric into the offered trash can, I felt naked in more than one way. The last of my independence and dignity was gone in a shred of pink lace. I was exposed. And the underwear was the least of my obstacles. I tried to roll to my side, tried holding my legs to move them manually. Nothing. Finally, exhausted and desperate, I muttered shyly that I needed help. With the same gentle smile, the nurse began to scoop me up. The smile fluttered as I cried out in pain. He called for back up. Two more male nurses came rounding the corner as I flopped around with just my ugly hospital gown for privacy. At this point, I thought for sure I was going to pee the bed. Luckily they sensed the urgency, and hoisted me over the bed pan in a net of arms. I was in a horrific amount of pain, but didn’t really care. All I wanted was to pee. I tried to relax and waited for the sweet release of my bladder. Nothing. The nurses turned their heads away as I closed my eyes and imagined waterfalls and leaky faucets. Nothing. My muscles were so shocked from my fall and were so tight around my shattered pelvis that I could do nothing to relax them. I couldn’t pee. Up until now, I hadn’t cried. Not when I realized my legs weren’t working, not having to move for x-rays, not while laying on the gurney waiting for morphine. But now, I couldn’t pee. I just wanted to do one thing, a simple enough thing, and I couldn’t do it. The dam broke, but it was the wrong dam. I cried now. I sobbed in the arms of the male nurses, hovering over the plastic bed pan and shivering in my god-awful hospital gown at two in the morning in the ICU. Though I wouldn’t have thought so at the time, step one of my recovery was completed that morning. It wasn’t quite the release I was wanting, but it was a release I needed. I needed to cry. I needed to start grieving.

 

The rest is mostly a blur.

Because I was over eighteen, no one had notified my parents yet. It was day two in the ICU at about ten am when I decided that it was time to call my mom. I was drugged out of my mind, and in a fog of morphine thought that the first thing she needed to know was that I wasn’t in pain. So when she answered the phone the first thing I said was “ma! I’m on alotta morphine!”, which is when my energy gave out and I thrust the phone into the doctor’s expectant hands. I slipped back into unconsciousness thinking that I had handled that perfectly, when in fact my mom was now having a panic attack.

It could be night, or it could be day. There is no way for me to tell.

My aunt Vicki arrived a few days after my mom did, along with two of her friends who happened to live in Flagstaff. She and her friends babysat me as my mom ran around campus getting the proper forms filled out and returning textbooks. My aunt’s friends were very nice, from what I can remember, and were named Sherrie and Karen. To my drugged out self, they looked exactly alike. They slipped in and out of the room like soft shiny dolls, bringing me chocolates I couldn’t eat and telling me stories I couldn’t focus on. I called them both Sherkaren.

Snatching at butterflies that aren’t there while my mom quizzes the doctors on the effects of percocet.

My mom can no longer eat double-stuffed oreos. While I was in the hospital, I seemed to be constantly surrounded by an army of food trays. I couldn’t eat any of it. I threw up everything I tried to digest, and there was an air bubble formed by the impact of my fall that made swallowing very painful. I don’t really remember the details of it, I just remember throwing up. A lot. So I was very excited when my mom brought a pack of double-stuffed oreos to my room and I was able to eat one. I waited for the nausea, but it didn’t come. I was ravenous. It had been about four days since I had actually digested anything, and I inhaled the oreos. I ate an entire sleeve before I felt it. The nausea. I groped for my barf bucket and threw my face into it just in time. Pure double-stuffed oreo. It looked like a double oreo milkshake, and smelled like one too. My mom threw away the rest of the oreos, never to buy them again.

All I wanted was a shower. No matter how much pain. I tried to use the handicap shower chair, but I didn’t do it right. The bathroom flooded, and I cried.

One afternoon I was more alert than usual. And once again, I had to pee. This time I was determined to pee one hundred percent under my own command. My pee seat was only a few inches away! I could do this! I was feeling confident and independent; I was on my way to recovery! Onward! I sat up and immediately threw up, then passed out.

The bruise was huge. Where I hit. It scared me.

The pain was there always. I was on morphine, percocet, and oxycodone and still the pain was there. Comfort was an impossible luxury, and most of my time awake was spent adjusting pillows and rolls of blanket. As much pain as I was in, I savored those rare moments of alertness. Just to be there with the world. Even with the pain.

It stung when I cried because of the cuts encircling my right eye. I joked to everyone that I was going to have an awesome Mike Tyson scar. But it stung when I cried.

I hate jello. I absolutely hate it. Nothing edible should jiggle like that. One morning I woke up and seemed to be surrounded by cups of the stuff. There were only about two cups on the food trays, but I was delusional. To me there were thousands. Small shiny pillars in a rainbow of colors, quivering threateningly at me. They commanded the room, seemed to consume it. I was trapped. When the nurse ran in to answer my call button, I was passed out. A small mound of jello lay shuddering in a heap on the floor, the plastic container rolling gently towards the bedside lamp.

My moon boots were meant to increase my circulation so that I wouldn’t get a blood clot. They came with a medical name and a medical explanation. I pretended I was an astronaut.

Blood thinner shots are just awful. I needed them so that my blood wouldn’t clot from my fall, but I still hated them. I had them twice a day, and they had to be administered in my abdomen, right below my belly button. And they hurt. I would squeeze my mom’s hand and look at her so I wouldn’t have to look at the needle. But then she would look at the needle and have this expression of pure horror, so looking at her didn’t really help. The shots left a huge dark tender bruise behind and made me feel like throwing up. Which I did, every time.

My mom is a warrior. When I called her from the hospital that second day, she immediately made a flight to Flagstaff. She likes to joke that that phone call was the worst and best phone call of her life. My mom was a school administrator at the time, and apparently the phone call had gotten her out of a miserable meeting with a parent. She has taught special education for twenty-five years now. You have to be a certain kind of person for this job. You have to be patient and understanding, but also assertive and straightforward. This is my mom. These qualities came in handy during my hospital stay, and during the rest of my recovery at home. She was the one who handled all my physical therapy appointments, got everything out of the doctors there was to be got, and marched all through campus doing everything necessary for a smooth withdrawal process. But a smooth withdrawal process is still a process. There were papers to be signed, faxes to be faxed, documents to be collected, and offices to be waited outside of. And everyone has a breaking point. My mom was in the campus Starbucks getting a much-needed coffee when the friendly barista looked up at her and chirped, “hello! How are you doing today?”. Such a simple question, but one that carries so much weight. And my mom had reached her breaking point. Students in line craned their necks at the woman up front crying into her espresso. This happened outside the student bookstore, getting lost in the Union, and in the waiting area of the transcript office. Though she probably didn’t think so at the time, this was a good step in her own recovery. She needed to cry. She needed to start grieving.

It was snowing in Flagstaff when I was finally discharged from the hospital. The soft flakes made everything more difficult, but I was glad for the snow. It was beautiful. It was like the mountains were saying goodbye.

 

You would think that going through the airport in a wheelchair would be easier. It’s not. They make you walk through the scanner. Walk. People are awfully impatient at the airport, especially in the security line. They grumble about having to move for a wheelchair, they grumble about me getting to go to the front of the short line, they grumble about having to wait as a TSA agent drags me through the scanner as I wince in pain. Grumble grumble grumble. The takeoff and landing were the worst parts of the flight. I’m just glad I didn’t throw up. My moms new husband, Rafe, picked us up at the airport along with Ava, our mini aussie shepherd. My mom and Rafe had gotten married only a few months earlier, and I felt guilty for intruding on their newlywed life. But Rafe was more than caring, and had built ramps all throughout the house so that I could wheel around in my chair more easily. He had even decorated and painted my new room to look exactly like my old one in the town I grew up in. He and my mom put their best efforts into making me feel at home in a strange city. But I didn’t know anyone in San Jose, and couldn’t exactly go anywhere on my own. I felt alone, and I felt like a burden.

I was bored. I was still on percocet, oxycodone, and Ibuprofen 800, so I was pretty spacy. Luckily, my physical therapy exercises required little brainpower. So that’s what I did. I wasn’t supposed to be doing pt exercises outside of the pt office, but I really just had nothing else to do. And I so badly wanted to climb again. Hell, I just wanted to walk again. I just wanted to be able to stand up and reach something on a shelf. Like my favorite tea. And a mug. Basically, I just wanted to make a damn cup of tea under my own power. It’s good to have goals.

At night, I dreamt of falling. I woke in a frenzied panic almost every night, sweating and breathing heavily. I became an insomniac, for fear of my dreams. I slept in small increments during the day, or not at all. I used my extra nighttime hours to continue with my pt exercises, to read, and to draw. My love for art blossomed during this time, and I often stayed up late into the night to finish a piece. I would wake up with my heads on sheets of paper instead of cotton, markers and pens sprawled over the bedspread. My art took my mind off of falling, and I slept a little more peacefully after a night of drawing.

One morning I woke up with a sore throat. I didn’t think much of it as I drank a cup of warm honeyed milk, assuming that would do the trick. It didn’t. As I wheeled around that day, I didn’t do many pt exercises. My throat was killing me. Eventually my tonsils had swollen so much that I was having trouble breathing, and I called my mom. I ended up having an emergency tonsillectomy that night. Once again I woke up in the hospital, cheeks bulging and in a fog of pain and drugs. I was so sick of this. Lucky for me, I already had a wheelchair to leave the hospital in. When we got home, I felt sick. Anesthesia does that to me. I’ve always felt nauseous after a surgery, but this time it was different. Something wasn’t right. I wheeled over to the toilet just in time to throw up. By seven that night, I had thrown up twenty-six more times. It got to the point where I couldn’t even drink water without throwing up, and I was throwing up the lining of my stomach. I grew incredibly weak and couldn’t even lift my head. All the throwing up had made my body dangerously dehydrated. Once again, it was back to the hospital. I don’t remember the ride over, but I do remember sitting slumped in my wheelchair in the ER watching the Little Mermaid on their TV. So much water. I was so thirsty. I sat there in my chair and glared at Ariel. She didn’t know how good she had it. Finally I was brought into a room where I was assessed and given four bags of IV fluids to rehydrate my body. I was also given anti-nausea pills and a sticker of a frog giving me the thumbs up. I think they thought I was twelve or something; I had lost a decent bit of weight since my accident. Or maybe they thought that because I was in a wheelchair I was mentally disabled as well.

 

It was interesting to me how differently I was treated in my wheelchair. It was pretty black and white. People either were way over the top with sympathy and helping me (I can blow my own nose, thanks though), or they completely ignored me and almost seemed to go out of their way to act like I didn’t exist. Two contrasting examples that come to mind both happened at the mall. The mall in San Jose is massive, has a ton of stores and, best of all, tile floors that I could roll around on easily. Many days after my mom got off work we would drive the five minutes to the mall so that I could get out of the house and be around people. One day we were grabbing some food from the food court and I was wheeling around searching for an open table while my mom ordered. To my delight, I found an actual handicap table with no chairs specifically for wheelchairs. An older man had pulled up a chair to it and was eating a burger. “Excuse me”, I said, about to ask him if he would mind sharing the table. It was a large table, easily seating six, and my mom and I were happy to share in the crowded food court. The man looked up at me and jumped sideways about three feet. “Oh!” he gasped, “I’m so so sorry! I’ll move! I’m so sorry!” “Hey it’s fine, you can sit-” I started, but he was not having it. “No no no! I’m so sorry! So sorry!”. I thought the guy was going to start crying at any second. Amid my protests that he was welcome to join and didn’t have to move, he ended up buying our food, getting us napkins, and offering to actually play caretaker while I ate- holding a napkin under my chin, holding my bowl of thai noodles up to my face. It got pretty annoying. He eventually left after apologizing a couple hundred more times. I knew his heart was in the right place, and that he was only trying to be kind. But it didn’t feel like kindness. It felt humiliating. He hadn’t bothered to ask why I was in a wheelchair, and just assumed I was born wrong or had a disease. He also talked to me like I was an infant, and I’m sure he thought I was mentally incapacitated as well. He made me feel weak. I already knew I was helpless, I didn’t need it to be on such vivid display. I was a person, not some pathetic shriveled animal.

The second incident actually happened just outside the mall. It was a busy Friday, and the parking lots were packed. Even the handicap spots we relied on were full, some with unmarked cars with no handicap placard. Finally, we drove around to the bank that was in the same lot as the mall. The bank and the mall share the same lot, and it’s difficult to tell who’s spaces were whose. To be safe, we parked in the spot closest to the mall and furthest from the bank, even though all of the bank’s spots were empty. Now was the fun part. Getting out of the car, wrestling out and setting up my wheelchair and pillows, and actually sitting in the chair was a whole process in itself. In the middle of this process, as my mom was wrangling with the wheelchair and I was slowly using my hands to move my legs to the side, a hulking man in a bright yellow traffic vest marched up to us. “You here for the bank?” he barked at us. “Oh, no, we’re going to the mall. All the handicap spots were full” my mom explained, smiling up at him, wheelchair in hand. “Can’t park here” the man said gruffly. “Oh but…. there’s no other parking and no one is parked here, we just thought-” “Well, you thought wrong. Can’t park here.” My mom looked around at the huge empty lot around her and sighed exasperatedly. It wasn’t easily getting out and setting up the wheelchair on her own, and now she had to put it all back. Meanwhile I was gingerly moving my legs by hand, inch by inch, back into the car. “Look lady, you’ve gotta move. Now”. I peered up at the man, loathing him for speaking to my mom like that. “We’re going”. My mom tried to sound nonchalant, but her voice cracked and a single tear slipped off the tip of her nose. “Hey how about helping my mom with my wheelchair?” I asked, infuriated. “I’m on the clock. Not my job.” As he turned on his heel and stomped off, I thought grimly about how lucky he was that I wasn’t exactly at my full physical peak. “Man, if I could move better I woulda clocked him one right in the-“ I stopped as I noticed my mom leaning against the car, face in her hands. She sighed one long shuddering sigh, ran her fingers through her hair, and went back to loading up my chair with red-rimmed eyes.

It wasn’t always bad. Eventually I got sick of people staring but not asking what happened, and I made a sign for my chair that said “don’t fall off cliffs”. The sign actually helped a lot, and more people started coming up to me and asking what the story was, or saying “haha yeah, whaddya do that for?”. Another thing that got me plenty of stares was my back brace, which looked like a giant plastic corset. So I printed out a photo of Scar from my favorite Disney movie, The Lion King, and typed one of Scar’s lines from the movie underneath the photo: “Forgive me for not leaping for joy, bad back you know”. I figured that if I showed people that I didn’t take things too seriously, they wouldn’t feel the need to walk on eggshells around me. And it worked. I got a little bored with telling my story over and over, but it was much better than being stared at all the time. People opened doors for me, got things off high shelves when they saw me reaching, and let me go to the front of lines. I savored these moments, knowing another bank parking attendant could be right around the corner. People are generally kind, and when you’re in a wheelchair you don’t get to be picky about what sort of kindness you receive. The man from the handicap table was sincerely just trying to be nice and sensitive, and I’m grateful for his efforts. I learned to swallow any damaged pride or offense I took, knowing that people’s hearts were in the right place. I figured that if I smiled and said thank you, they were more likely to continue trying to do kind things. And the world could always use a little more kindness.

 

Fast forward four months. I’m sitting in my chair in my room facing the window and staring at my toes. The house is empty. I grip the black arm rests of my wheelchair. My fingernails dig into the shiny cushy plastic, then relax. My right hand slides down the side of my chair and brushes the small brake lever. Decisively, I thrust the brake down and slap my right hand back onto the armrest. In the words of Rafiki telling Simba to take back his kingdom, “it is time!”. At first it is only my arms doing the work. I push myself up as though I am about to do a dip. This is my pride rock. Legs trembling, I slowly transfer my weight onto my feet. Thunder booms. As I slowly straighten my knees, the rain begins. It starts as a light shower, then billows into a crescendo of fattened droplets as I throw my right hand out and clutch the windowsill. Lionesses roar their approval as my left hand joins my right. My knees straighten, and I look up. The rivulets of drops flowing down the glass are like the heaving stripes of a zebra, exhausted and triumphant. I straighten my spine to the yips of the banished hyena. The rain pounds like an African mother drum. My hands slowly slide off the window sill. The shadow of the rain is like warpaint on them. My palms leave first, and lightening strikes. Small fires appear as my fingers slide away to the stomping of elephants and the screams of baboons. I lift my neck and everything fades. The sky clears. I am standing. The savannah is greening and growing. This is my kingdom.

 

Fast forward two months. The curb is my enemy. I glare at it. Everything seemed to come pretty quickly after I stood for the first time. My legs couldn’t seem to be convinced to move on their own, so I used crutches to swing my legs forward one at a time to remind them of how the whole “walking” thing worked. Stand, swing, swing, stand. This was how I got around the house for the first month after I stood. It wasn’t exactly efficient, but I was just glad to not be sitting down. One day I leaned forward on my crutches, intent on not swinging my leg forward. This time my leg would move without the use of momentum. My muscles protested, and my pelvis ached, but my foot slowly shuffled forward. Grinning like an idiot, I slowly shuffled my way into the kitchen. I reached up into a cabinet and gently brought out a box of Numi jasmine green tea, my favorite. Careful not to lose my balance, I put on some water, plopped a tea bag into my favorite spiderman mug along with a spoonful of sugar, and made some tea. It was the best cup of tea I’ve ever had. I stall as I think about that cup of tea. The curb isn’t going anywhere. I won’t be getting much climbing done if I can’t step down and back up again. I sigh and squint up at the glaring sun. I shuffle to the edge of the curb, and slowly bend my left knee. My right leg shoots out, and goes over the edge. Too hard and too fast, it meets the asphalt of the street. Pain lancing up my leg and into my pelvis, where it shoots around like a bouncy ball thrown into a dead-end cave. I wince, and tears come to my eyes. I wait for the pain to fade until only a dull ache remains. My left foot comes down much easier. I shuffle around to face the curb. Now back up. It might as well be Everest. I groan, indulging for a second in self-pity. If I squint, I can see a plate of cookies on the kitchen counter through the window. I want a cookie. If I can’t get up this curb, I’m as good as stranded. With no cookie. I slide my right foot forward until it’s touching the curb, then drag my toe up the curb until it crests the edge. I rock my right foot down until it’s flat on the sidewalk. Now the hard part. I shuffle my left foot until my toe is touching the curb. In a burst of pain, I arch my left foot until I am on my toe. I rock back and forth gently and a bead of sweat rolls down my spine. When I have built some momentum, I push off of my left toe and drag it up the curb. My right hip flares in protest, but both feet are now on the sidewalk. The whole process had taken about ten minutes. I am now in pain and exhausted, but triumphant. I eat not one cookie, but three.

 

Fast forward one month. I am at the top of a forty-foot synthetic climbing wall, and I am terrified. And I feel like an idiot. After mastering the curb, I had convinced my mom to take me to Planet Granite, the local climbing gym. After swaddling up my pelvis and adjusting my soft back brace, I excitedly selected my first post-accident climb. It didn’t even have a rating, just the label “5.fun” with a quirky doodle of a caterpillar underneath. The holds were giant, and climbing it was like climbing a ladder with extra rungs. It took me over an hour to get to the top. And now, I didn’t want to come back down. It wasn’t stubbornness, it wasn’t the pain of the harness. It was fear.  Pure, freshly mined fear. The last time I let go, the last time I trusted, I fell. If betrayal by rock, why not betrayal by rope? Or harness? Or structural integrity of gym? I may have been ready to try to climb again, but I was not ready to trust again. I was realizing this too late. My face was ghost-white as I finally pried my fingers from the plastic holds and sank back into my harness. My mom lowered me slowly, sensing my panic. I trembled as I touched down, and there were tears in my eyes, but I was pleased. I had done it. I had trusted. And it had taken over an hour, but I had gone up. I had gone up, trusted, and come back down. Of all the things I knew I needed to overcome in order to climb again, it wasn’t the physical obstacles that worried me. I knew that I could push myself physically as much as I needed. But getting over that fear would truly be a test. I was relieved to have passed that test. I felt cleansed and renewed, almost reborn. This was truly the start of something. The floodgates were officially open.