two years later

On this day two years ago, in a flurry of both impatience and tears, I signed my own discharge papers as George Washington University Hospital deemed me ready to go home, where I would spend the next three months confined to a wheelchair and living solely on the first floor of my house.

I remember crying in the ambulance—not because my ankle or shoulder hurt (I was on meds for physical pain) but because I was scared. Scared to navigate my life with one functioning side of the body and from a bedded or seated position. Scared to ask for help. Scared I’d klutz into another debilitating injury.

But awaiting me at home were a group of friends armed with cheers, reassurance, ready-to-heat dinners (at least one person dropped off food everyday for two months), and a schedule of care that included who was sleeping over on what night for “Chelsea duty” until my sister arrived from Maine. Chelsea’s Warrior Women (as our google calendar was named) not only cooked meals and checked in daily but also picked up groceries and volunteered to drive me to myriad appointments to see the physical therapist and my two surgeons.

Being friends with me during this period required work. I never took for granted the loving effort that went in to offers to help.

I won’t say I was lucky to shatter my ankle five weeks after having rotator cuff surgery—I still suffer uncomfortable stiffness and random shooting pain and many yoga postures remain elusive—but during recovery (and beyond) bonds deepened. Friendships grew stronger. And eventually, I could laugh at my situation. While walking again was scary, I no longer overthink every step.

Though I did overthink what to say as my son’s theater group took the stage in Atlanta last month. The traditional “break a leg” got me all up in my head. I couldn’t tell my son to break a leg but in drama circles saying good luck is bad luck. Which sentiment would have worse consequences? In the end, I stuck with tradition but clarified to whatever higher power that I meant break a leg in the performance sense, not the physical sense and definitely NOT during the performance either because god that would be awful.

Some scars are visible. Others run deep.

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the new normal

Two months ago, I stepped out of the car and onto an icy path of change, humility and, to be honest, pain. In one sense, the days between walking and not passed quickly. But when I consider it’s been two months since I saw the upstairs of my house or took a shower or stood in the kitchen to prepare a meal, time feels like a slowly torturing enemy with no real firm date in sight of when life will return to normal.

Normal? What is normal these days? Persistent shoulder pain when I sleep? Jagged ankle scars that for the most part look uglier than they feel until they burn like a force of evil is pressing a branding iron to them? Having to ask, constantly ask, for favors from my lovely, patient, giving friends? (Drive me to PT? Empty my potty? Pick up groceries? Throw a load of dirty laundry in the washing machine? Wheel me outside for some fresh air?)

But normal is also friends offering to visit, make meals, take the kids. Normal is friends bringing/sending me books (reading is my new cardio) and flowers. Normal is friends sharing tips from their own injuries. This part of normal feels like being wrapped in a warm blanket, even when I want to shed the blanket, stand up and manage my life independently.

I have a long path ahead before I reach independence. The shoulder surgeon says in six weeks he’d like me to be able to lift my arm over my head and make jazz hands. (Okay, he didn’t specify the latter half of that milestone; jazz hands is my own flourish.) I see the ankle surgeon next week and hope he approves weight-bearing exercises. My PT constantly reminds me that being weight-bearing doesn’t mean I hop, skip and jump my way from examination room to car to normal life. Recovery takes patience. I have to regain physical strength and flexibility, even if I honed those qualities mentally during this time.

As two months spill into three to four to a lifetime of lessons, I continue to redefine normal. And in many ways, that practice is more painful than any physical injury.

Thoughts from the left side body

After spending five days in the hospital and the last two weeks in my modified home (read: first floor conversion to combined living room/dining room/bedroom/bathroom space) I’ve been thinking thoughts I never expected to have. For example:

“I wish I had paid better attention to healthcare policy.” I worked on Capitol Hill for a number of years, but I was so caught up in energy and environmental policy, I never engaged my brain in healthcare policy debates. In fact, I rarely dove into my own health insurance policies, merely opting for what looked like the most generous plan. This strategy backfired on me when the monthly premium for the gold plan I subscribed to for 2015 under the Maryland Health Exchange shot up an additional $200/month for 2016. I opted to reduce to a silver plan, which costs me the same as the gold plan did last year (nearly $400/month, for the curious). I presumed because the new plan was also in the CareFirst family, all my doctors would still be covered. Wrong. My shoulder surgeon is now out of network, as is my physical therapist. The $2400 I “saved” by bumping down to a lower tiered plan will now be spent on out of pocket expenses to keep the doctors and therapists I know and trust.

“I’m glad I don’t have a boyfriend.” While I had some teary why me? moments in the hospital, I never lamented my lack of a romantic partner. My best friend Nancy served as a fierce but loving advocate and constant companion during my hospital stay. She was present for every conversation with the doctors; participated in all the PT/OT sessions; called for the nurse when I needed pain relief, water, or other help; dealt with some security breaches; and on numerous occasions, was present while I performed bodily functions. I’m a rather private person; needless to say, these last three weeks have been a huge test in letting go of any sense of modesty. Since my injury, my friends and sister have helped me bathe. Get dressed. Use the toilet, a flushable/portable one at home that requires periodic emptying (thank you, Meghann). I’m suddenly immune to peeing in front of guests. BUT, would I feel this way if I had started dating someone a few months ago? Or even a year ago? I can’t say that I’d feel comfortable flashing my backside in a hospital gown, perching on a bedpan or using my new potty arrangements in front of a love interest.

“I need help.” I’m independent. I live alone 50 percent of the time. I work out of my solitary home office. I have to muster a lot of courage before asking for help. But I could not live in my own house right now were it not for the constant care and companionship provided by my friends and sister. I could not feed my children without the meals friends, acquaintances, and even strangers generously drop off on a nightly basis. I could not leave my house to get to doctors appointments and PT sessions without the arrangements my dad has made. I hate asking to have my water glass filled or for my toothbrush to be rinsed off, so I wait until the last possible moment to make these small requests. Today I have to ask my sister to wash my hair, no longer a simple task, but it’s been six days. I don’t know when I will step (or roll) into a grocery store again, be able to feed my cats, or tuck my children into bed. I need as much help for the small things as I do the large. And it’s hard, even when those answering my needs insist it’s their pleasure to help.

Each day brings new challenges and thoughts, but also presents countless expressions of love and valuable life lessons I will carry with me as I wheel toward full recovery.