Get lucky.

A lot of people have called me an inspiration, and some have called me a miracle, and some say that I’m strong or amazing. But I know I’m just lucky.

I’m lucky that the accident happened in a somewhat urban area, where there’s plenty of first-responders and they could get to me in time. I’m lucky to have been taken to a modern hospital, with enough well-trained staff to save my life. I’m lucky that the accident wasn’t worse, that the speeds weren’t higher, that I was driving my Jeep and not my Kia. I’m lucky that I didn’t get any brain damage and wasn’t rendered a vegetable for the rest of my life. I’m lucky to have the rest of my life. I’m lucky that the internal bleeding stopped and I didn’t have to have emergency surgery. I’m lucky that my spine was just fractured and not broken, that I didn’t end up paralyzed.

I’m lucky to have a husband who spent every waking moment with me in the hospital, just sitting there waiting, keeping me company, holding my hand, doing everything for me and the nurses’ jobs too. I’m lucky that I didn’t have to cut off all my hair because he spent something like six painstaking hours over the course of the first two days meticulously detangling and washing it. I’m lucky to have friends who visited and brought flowers and fun stuff for me to do. I’m lucky that I have friends who will drop what they’re doing to come to the hospital and cut up my pancakes and feed them to me. I’m lucky to have friends who texted me every day and sent me books and flowers and food. I’m lucky to be a part of a professional association with so many caring people that I got cards from all over the country.

I’m lucky that I had excellent doctors and a rock-star surgeon. I’m lucky that the scar for my massive pelvic bolt is only about the size of a pea. I’m lucky that all my breaks were relatively simple or repairable, and that I could walk just 5 1/2 weeks after surgery. I’m lucky that I can walk at all, that I can ride and run and drive. I’m lucky that I can smile. I’m lucky that only half my face was paralyzed, and I’m lucky that the paralysis isn’t permanent. I’m lucky that I can’t remember the last time I needed a pain pill.

I know how lucky I am. My luck, my life, and my health is a privilege, to be cherished and honored. I’m not going to waste a minute of it. And if my determination inspires a few people to try to become a little bit stronger than they were yesterday, to relish life just a little bit more, then I’m lucky to have made an impact.

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Sashay, shante.

Over breakfast at work in the staff break room I filled in one of our security guards on my accident, and told him that I’d lost 25 pounds in the hospital. “Oooooh, so that’s why you been lookin’ like a supermodel” he said. I thanked him, as I’m sure he meant it as a compliment, and I told him that I was trying desperately to gain weight, and laughed about how it was the best job in the world and how much I’m enjoying eating anything and everything I want and all those Trader Joe’s desserts too. He sortof frowned and gave me a disapproving dude grunt and said something along the lines of how I should keep my supermodel figure.

A few weeks later and a few pounds heavier, feeling great because I had finally started to fit into some of my old jeans, I saw him again. I was walking into the building with lunch and he nodded approvingly at my supermarket sushi but when I told him there was fried chicken in the bag he cried “nooooo, you HAVE TO keep that supermodel figure!” I tried not to sound too annoyed when I told him “SUPERMODELS AREN’T STRONG.” Sadly, he isn’t the only one who has expressed disapproval at my desire to feel like a normal, healthy, non-anorexic woman again.

Before the accident I was in great shape. For a little over a year I’d been doing a conditioning routine almost every night. Just a simple 15-20 minute set of situps and pushups and other related exercises. In the late Fall before the accident I started running, and when I injured my ankle I started cycling. The day of the accident I went for a ride and was feeling great about the route I tackled. I made it up a previously intimidating hill and a long loop around the valley, all in a light rain no less. I felt great, and I felt strong.

After the accident I was pretty much immobile for two weeks, and when the physical therapists finally had me sit up for the first time my entire body felt like jello. In my third week of recovery they put me on a walker, at which point I realized how fortunate it was that I had been working on my upper body strength for so long. The physical therapy at the rehab center was spotty, but at least they gave me handouts of exercises that I could do in my room. When I got home and got in-home visits by a physical therapist she gave me more exercises and lots of tips for working on specific problem areas. I did my PT every day, except for one weekend when my back seized up in so much pain that I could hardly breathe. That was solved temporarily with heat and rest, and permanently once I was allowed off the walker.

Almost as soon as I was allowed to walk, at about 8 weeks post-accident, I hit my favorite trail. It’s a simple fire road that’s about 2.5 miles long and has some nice elevation change to it. I used to run the entire thing in about a half hour. For a couple weeks I went walking out there almost every weekend day, and took our pups. They’re old and gimpy and for awhile we were on the same level, slowly struggling through half the loop. As I recovered I started to outpace them, and had to separate my exercise from theirs when I finally made it through the whole loop and they looked like they were ready to just lay down and die.

I started cycling again at 3 months post-accident, and I’ve gone for a ride every chance I could get since then. I’ve already surpassed the rides I was capable of before the accident. My last ride was 21 miles, with some nice climbing and a strong headwind seemingly in every direction. I’ve done rides that would have intimidated me before, like some loops on the hilly roads around my house. Not only am I getting much stronger, I’m feeling more comfortable with and asserting more control over the bike itself, something that I’ve always had trouble with.

Just the other day, at 4.5 months post-accident, I went for my first run. My doctor technically hasn’t cleared me to run, but I can feel that I’m ready. When I asked him many months ago when I could ride and run again, when I was still on my walker and sitting in his office in a wheelchair, he kindof laughed at my eagerness and said riding would be at least 3 months, and running at least 6. He said I might never be able to run again, because I might always feel the titanium pin in my pelvis. He said that some people have so much chronic pain from the pin that they have it removed in a year. On my first run I didn’t feel my pin, and I didn’t feel it the next day either. I felt my weak and creaky ankles and aging knees, but that’s nothing new. Mostly I just felt great.

When I first started walking and started to feel well enough to wear something other than yoga pants and tshirts, I tried to put on my jeans and they fell right off. Before I went back to work I had to hit the thrift store for a few pairs of jeans and some skirts in size anorexic just so I’d have something appropriate to wear. I didn’t feel healthy, I didn’t like the way I looked. I remember shopping online at the time for some athletic wear, to replace all the stuff the ER staff cut off me, and for the first time I really noticed the models on these sites, and I noticed that some looked as anorexic as me. Some of them get it right, some look real and athletic, although they also look like they have the luxury of about 10 hours of free-time each day to work out, must be nice. The models in some other online catalogs of athletic gear… not so much. They just look skinny. They look like they couldn’t run a quarter mile without passing out from malnutrition. It’s offensive, that we as a culture promote this kind of weakness in women, and use it to sell athletic gear at that.

I like my body and my weight right where it was before the accident. At 6′ tall, 140ish pounds, usually a size 8 and sometimes shimmying into a 6 on a skinny day, I’ve always felt on the thin side of average, which is maybe why the supermodel comments are a little disappointing. In the few months that I’ve spent in size anorexic I haven’t felt good physically and I haven’t been happy with the way I look. I noticed the affects that a short period of malnutrition had on my skin and nails and hair, and I’m sure it didn’t help my mental state either. Regaining the weight has felt wonderful, and not just because I get to eat as much cheesecake as I want.

I’ve started to fit into my old clothes, and one pair of size anorexic jeans has already been sent back to the thrift store, so I’ll probably slow down on the fried chicken and the extra bacon, but I wouldn’t mind gaining a bit more weight. Before I started exercising regularly a little over a year ago, I was a size 10 and I was perfectly happy there too. My goal now is to put on the weight as muscle as much as possible. Even in my current weight gain regimen, Greg and I actually eat really healthy, mostly home-cooked whole foods. And I’m riding and now running every chance I get, and still doing my conditioning routine and PT almost every day. I feel good, I like the way I look, I’m happy, and I feel strong. You can call me superwoman if you want to. Just don’t call me a supermodel.

On pain and choice.

“The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer — and yet also, like most things, so very simple, was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger…I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go… And so I walked on.”
–Cheryl Strayed, “Wild”

It took me awhile to realize just how bad my condition was. Maybe it was all the pain medication, but my initial impression was something along the lines of ok, I’ve got a few broken bones, I’ll just lay here awhile and they’ll heal and I’ll be fine. I asked Greg to get me a smoothie and some of my favorite magazines on my first full day in the hospital, as if I just had the flu and I was laid up on the couch or something. I remember trying to read the cooking magazine he brought me and I got frustrated because it all looked so unappealing. Aside from my complete lack of mobility, I had no appetite. I tried the painting magazine and was frustrated by my inability to see the pictures clearly, and painting felt like the most foreign idea in the world. Pain clouded everything I tried to do, and even just holding a magazine with my floppy clavicle was hard. I had no idea, on that first day, what was really in store for me.

Some doctors called them fractures. Some called them breaks. Whatever they were, there were a lot, and they hurt like hell. A piece of my pelvis was completely broken off, there was a fracture higher in my pelvis near an important nerve, I had three broken ribs, a broken clavicle, a fractured spine, a fractured temporal bone, whatever injury leads to head-stapling, internal bleeding, a collapsed lung, and a hand so mangled it felt like it was full of glass shrapnel. I was immediately put on Dilaudid alternating with Hyrdocodone. They were very effective hallucinogenics.

I very quickly learned to start tracking my pain medication myself. I clarified with each doctor how much I was supposed to get and how often, and found myself more often than not arguing with nurses who wanted to give me a different dosage. They would tell me that the doctor didn’t really mean what he said and then the doctor would make his rounds and I’d tell him and he’d rip the nurses a new one and tell them to give me the medication he prescribed, rinse, lather, repeat daily. And then there was that one day when my IV stopped working and the Dilaudid just dripped down my arm while my nurses all said it looked just fine to them.

It seems like every day in the hospital I was subjected to some horrific procedure or test. Some of them I’ve conveniently forgotten, just remembering a general feeling of constant mental and physical exhaustion. Some of them are seared into my memory for good. I remember every detail of having my chest tube removed. This doctor was a cranky one, and my nurse at the time was one of the few who was pleasant. He started screaming at her from the moment he walked in the room, and he grumped at me that it was time to take my chest tube out. “Will it hurt?” I asked and he grumped yes, with absolutely no pity. They got ready, he counted to three, and I braced myself and then… There are no words that can describe it. I remember once reading about what happens to you if you get stung by a Tarantula Hawk, an insect which delivers one of the most painful stings on earth. The article said that you are physically unable to do anything but SCREAM YOUR HEAD OFF for like two minutes. It was pretty much just like that.

The MRI was just as unforgettable. I asked my nurse to give me my Dilaudid before I headed out and she refused. When I got to the MRI office the tech told me my doctors had ordered a full battery of scans, and each one would take about 30 minutes. Aside from the pain I had a mild blood infection contracted while in the hospital, the doctors think from a contaminated IV line (terrifying when you think about that one for a minute right?), so I was ROASTING hot all the time. And of course I couldn’t close my left eye. So I was a tad bit uncomfortable.

They wrapped me up like a sausage in my bedsheets and slid me into the tiny, claustrophobic oven, for scans that were supposed to take a little over two hours. I didn’t make it. I tried. I literally counted the seconds, to take my mind off the heat and pain and the fact that I couldn’t close my eyes and had to just lay there staring at all the little cracks and scratches in the machine while I dripped with sweat in my bedsheet casing. With just one more scan to go I begged them to take me back to my room. They took me to xray instead (of course), but my nurse met me with the Dilaudid she was supposed to have given me two hours prior and the xray tech was so sensitive he made me cry with relief. He remembered me from some prior xray that I had forgotten, and he kept telling his assistants over and over “BE GENTLE, she has a lot of fractures, she’s in A LOT of pain, move her carefully.”

Waking up from my surgeries was also intense, and the second one was terrifying. They were giving me the maximum dosage of Dilaudid and it wasn’t even touching the pain. During my second recovery I kept setting off all the alarms, and over the incessant beeping my nurse had to keep yelling at me to BREATHE and wake up and open my eyes when all I wanted to do was go back to sleep.

I was always so happy to be done with whatever poking and prodding was on the agenda for the day. Sometimes I couldn’t do anything for hours afterwards but just sit there and stare at the TV, who even cares what was on. As my time in the hospital progressed and as I healed I actually grew less tolerant of all the procedures. By the time I was in the rehab center I could barely even stand getting shots anymore. Granted, they were really painful shots, right to the belly, but mostly it was a visceral reaction. I was DONE. I needed a break.

Being in the hospital and being severely disabled and in constant pain is like that passage in Wild, when Strayed realizes how little choice she has, except when it concerns your health you have even fewer choices. There’s no turning around and going back. You have to have that MRI, that xray, that surgery. You can recover or you can die. And so I walked on.