Category Archives: GF Strong

what not to say

As a new amputee I came across people who felt it was important that I know others with injuries like mine. We would have that in common, so we were destined to be friends. This amused me. Just because we were amputees didn’t mean we were immediately bound together, having long meaningful conversations over glasses of wine, forever friends. Sharing similar injuries doesn’t create chemistry. Yet, people asked if I knew Joe, an amputee living in a town not far from me, and if I didn’t know him, would I like to meet him?

However, there were two women in physiotherapy that I especially liked and admired. One of the women was a police officer, Laurie, that had been shot in the leg in the line of duty, resulting in an amputation below the knee. The other woman, Gail, lost her leg above the knee to cancer. We were in physiotherapy from Monday to Friday, so it was easy to get to know each other, a ripe climate of opportunity to be understood. We became quite friendly and every once in a while the three of us visited the resident social worker together. It was a time to talk, to be there for each other, and, sometimes, air grievances.

“Do you know what makes me crazy?”

“What?”

“When people say everything happens for a reason.”

Everyone nodded.

“Why do people say God won’t give you more than you can handle? This is way more than I can handle.”

“The other one I can’t take is when people say this will make you stronger. What does that mean?”

We were in agreement. What did that mean?

I said, “I really hate it when people keep asking me if I’ve tried aloe.” This is something that still makes me laugh, that with all the medical intervention and the best surgeons in BC working on me no one had thought to use aloe. Like it was some super cure. Good for small cuts and sunburns. Not for burns so deep multiple surgeries were required to save your life. My friend, Jenn, summed up my thoughts well when she said, “There isn’t a plant or bottle of lotion in the world big enough.”

“What about when people have foot pain and tell you they can relate?”

We laughed. Hard.

I shared a story where a girl I didn’t know well said she thought of me while shaving her legs. She told me how lucky I was I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. She smiled. She said it with absolute innocence. She said it in front of a large group of friends at a pub. There was an awkward silence until someone, bless them, changed the subject.

“People say the dumbest things.”

People meant well. The three of us acknowledged that. We’re at a loss for words, so we rely on cliches and old advice that was never wise advice to begin with. Everybody wants to help. We wondered why people couldn’t stick with “I’m sorry” or tell the truth, “This is terrible.” It was always a relief to me when it was called as it was. Even saying, “I don’t know what to say” was welcomed. Everyone has found themselves in a position where you’re stuck, where words aren’t enough.

We found things in common with each other that went beyond our amputations. Our willingness to face our fears, to get on with it, and the dumb things that people say were what brought us together. From Monday to Friday I could look around the room and take comfort that someone knew what it was like to be me.

from narrow and limited to meaningful – part 2

See Part 1…

I wondered if the survivors being interviewed on talk shows were doing their best to meet expectations? Or was it that they were shell-shocked like I was and drew upon thousands of interviews before them citing the correct answers. “Yes, I look at life differently now. I am grateful. The world has opened up and I no longer take anything for granted.”

My world shrunk and I couldn’t wait for the day where I took things for granted again. I couldn’t jump out of bed or climb out lazily if I wanted to. As soon as it was time to get out of bed it was with purpose. I had to grab my liners, slide them on to my stubby legs, stick them into fake ones, then pull and tug on the gel sleeves that held my legs in place. I showered on a bench, using my arms and hands for balance. It took a while to feel secure, precariously perched on a bench, slippery with water and soap. Heading to a destination that I hadn’t been to before unnerved me. Would there be stairs? If there were, was there a railing to hold onto? Would I be able to squeeze my wheelchair into the washroom? Would I hold people up behind me when I stepped onto the stairs? I moved so slowly. Everything was painstakingly paid attention to, my brain working as hard as my body. Even turning over in my bed was something to adapt to. It took effort to shift my body until I found a comfortable spot. Feet, I discovered, weren’t only for walking or running.

It was all the little things I missed so much. One of my favorite positions to sit in was cross-legged or curling my feet under me. I was constantly battling cold feet. I would never be able to sit like that again, nor would I rub my feet to warm them.

When I got out more I tucked two collapsible canes in between the cushion and the arm of my chair. I went to a book store, one of my favorite things to do, searching for that perfect book, when I realized I couldn’t squat down to look at the books on the lowest shelf. I stood in that aisle, leaning on my canes, overcome with loss. The next day I asked my physiotherapist if I would ever be able to squat, the kind of squat where you’re down on your haunches, if that was a skill you developed over time? But, I already knew the answer. I don’t have ankles or the balls of my feet to roll onto and prosthetic legs that come to the knee don’t bend.

I didn’t have the patience or the stomach to feel sorry for myself a lot, but at times my life felt like one never-ending obstacle course.

I wasn’t get-down-on-my-knees grateful to be alive, but I was here. I didn’t have control over much, but I had power over the choices I made. I got out of bed each day. I stuck to my schedule. I tried everything set before me. I said yes more than no. I smiled more than I cried. I laughed,  because a lot of life is funny. I got angry, but didn’t get trapped by bitterness. I called myself a survivor. I was honest. I had that going for me. I wasn’t always ready with the perfect answers for peoples’ questions. Things were bad enough without me faking my feelings. That was my gift to myself. Honesty. I had hope, too. From the moment I was pulled from the wreckage, hope lived. Hope persisted and was my lifeline. My world couldn’t exist without it.

I chose, and in my choices, my world grew from narrow and limited to meaningful.

h is for handicapped

I wanted to move from patient to person. Each day was laid out for me. Physiotherapy, occupational therapy, meals and rest were scheduled. Structuring my days was bringing some evenness to my life. However, I missed having a life of my own, one where I wasn’t accountable to a team of people.

Towards the end of my time at the burn unit I began to help with my dressing changes. Before the nurse came in (my army of nurses was reduced to one) I unwound the gauze from my arms. It wasn’t so much that I was being helpful, but exercising my will. Decisions had been made for my benefit since my arrival. These decisions saved my life, so I wasn’t arguing. Being a patient was like being a child, though. Lying on your back every day, rails on either side of you, dependent, your brain gets soft. I unwound that gauze, needing to wean myself from constant care.

At GF Strong there was more opportunity to be self-sufficient, to work my way towards independence. But I was moved from one set of arms to another and decisions continued to be made for me.

I was in a meeting with my prosthetist, an occupational therapist, a social worker, and I think my mom was there. It was a meeting to discuss reintegrating me into the world. What were the necessary steps to get me out there and on my own?

I don’t think anyone intended for me to be excluded, but somewhere along the way I was forgotten. She needs, she wants, she should. I let the conversation wash over me. They were discussing my ability to get around in the future.

“Perhaps it’s best for her to have a scooter.”

“Heidi isn’t able to walk as much as we’d hoped, so…”

“She’ll need a large enough van to accommodate a wheelchair or a scooter.”

I didn’t speak up. I don’t know why I didn’t say anything. When I left the meeting I was signed up for lessons on using hand controls for the new van I’d be getting.

My brain was soft.

When did I become paraplegic? Hand controls made sense for people that couldn’t feel their legs. When did I turn eighty and need a scooter? They may as well have put an orange vest on me, attached bells, and slapped a sign on my chest that said, I’m Handicapped.

A week later, I finished the first forty-five minute lesson for my reintroduction to driving. As I waited for the handydart (the bus for the disabled) to come get me I made the decision to drive again, on my own terms. I’d already taken Drivers Ed when I was sixteen and I wasn’t about to torture myself with that again. Scooters and vans and what I couldn’t do be damned. I was a grown-up and knew how to say no.

I never returned for a second lesson.

to live

“Not you. I can’t believe this happened to you.”

For some reason I never fully understood I wasn’t surprised by what had happened to me. When a friend sat by my hospital bed and slowly shook his head in disbelief ‘why not me’ ran through my mind and I was startled at my openness, my acceptance. It wasn’t that I went through life with a dark cloud hanging over me expecting calamity. Not at all. I would call myself a realist with optimistic tendencies. Maybe it was that I knew it didn’t help to fight it, to resist what happened. It happened. And there was so much to do. If I could accept, maybe it would help speed up my recovery. However, my acceptance didn’t mean that I liked my situation.

My body was not mine anymore. Air where ankles and feet should be. My body was thick raised scars, slashes of purple and red, thin rice paper skin that broke easily, open wounds stubbornly refusing to heal. I wasn’t repulsed exactly – I just didn’t like what I had become. I made sure to avert my eyes when I passed a mirror. I wasn’t sure who I was anymore.

Before the car crash I was 5’6″ and 120 pounds with muscular legs and strong arms. I had a toned, flat tummy which was now puckered sewn skin, divided by a long line made by a scalpel that began at my belly button. I had a 23 year old body, in good shape, skin hard and soft in all the right places. I ran. I walked. I rarely stopped moving. And I had suddenly aged, my skin sagging where it hadn’t hardened with surgery. I joked that my butt had burnt off. It was true. It was mostly grafted, the skin so thin it was difficult to sit for any real length of time. I could handle maybe an hour of sitting, even with a specially designed cushion, but I often excused myself to go lie down and take the pressure off my bony bum. I wasn’t comfortable in my new skin. I didn’t know how to be.

“You’re still you,” well-meaning friends, social workers, family said. Yes, and. That was my response. Yes, I was still me and I’d lost a body that carried me, housed me for twenty three years. To have it change so swiftly, to have pieces of me taken wasn’t something I could simply get over. I wished I could separate my body from my soul, that the damage done to me was only to my body. But when you don’t recognize yourself in your reflection and you can’t stand to see your eyes because you know the damage is deeper than you can comprehend, you realize that body and soul are entwined, impossible to sever. ‘This will grow your character’ was advice I heard more than once, given to comfort me, but there was little comfort in the promise of character growth. The loss took my breath away and left me terrifyingly empty.

I had good days and bad days. Some days it was too much work to turn around a bad day, to search for the silver lining. It was best to make peace with it and hope the next day would be better.

I allowed myself to mourn. I needed to honor what was and not worry about how to do grief. There was no proper way, no right way. I was unable to make this nice, to dress it up. Grief isn’t polite. It is raw, messy and everywhere. I was content to take my life a piece at a time, a day at a time, and go through it. Through. Not around. That meant I was angry, sad, lost and, once in a while, I laughed. Because there was much to cry about, developing a dark sense of humor came with the territory and my sarcastic streak grew. I feared if I didn’t grieve it would stick around finding a place to hide. Then, when I was least expecting it grief would attack me with its ferocity and largeness. I believed it would grow if I didn’t tend to it. With my eyes wide open and summoning all the strength I had I lived through the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

field trip

What struck me about walking was the concentration it took. It required not only physical strength, but all of my brain power as I placed one foot in front of the other. If someone accompanied me for a walk I often couldn’t hold up my end of the conversation. I needed to focus and talking was a distraction. Even listening proved to be difficult.

Sometimes Scott joined me for a walk and if I grew quiet he asked, “Are you tired?” I would nod. He’d respond, “Okay, I’ll shut up now.”

There was a grocery store not far from rehab and one of my goals on my to-do list for the disabled was to be able to walk there, buy something, anything and return home with it. One Friday night I had a craving for Haagen Daaz chocolate chocolate chip ice cream and, dammit, I was going to get some.

I was going on a field trip.

Legs secure? Well, as secure as two stilts could be. Check.

Walker complete with granny basket? Check.

Money in my purse? Check.

Fingers crossed that I wouldn’t do a face plant and humiliate myself? Check. Possibility of it happening anyway? Check.

I rolled and stepped my way through the center, rode the elevator down two floors and made my way out the front doors.

Ten minutes later I was standing in the freezer section searching for my beloved ice cream. There were small things that I took for granted when I wasn’t, well, crippled. I never gave a thought to opening a door, how you had to put some weight into pulling it. I wanted to get my ice cream off of the shelf and into my greedy hands, but how was I going to keep my balance while opening the door, free up one of my hands from my death grip on the walker to grab the ice cream, then drop it into the basket without having the door bang back into place? When I was in my wheelchair living from a sitting position I had similar issues, having to rethink everything. I fumbled my way through and by hanging onto anything that was within reach and stable I somehow managed not to fall over and get my ice cream.

I shuffled over to checkout and took my place in the line-up closest to me. As I stood in line and time ticked by I quickly figured out that this was the toughest task. Not taking my first steps, not making my way around a park, and not attempting to open a door with ease. Standing still, waiting my turn was going to be my greatest triumph. I remembered Linda, my physiotherapist, telling me how one must have stamina for this – to stand in one spot and rest all of your weight on these two legs made to hold you up, but aren’t a part of you. It was trying on your body. She said bilateral amputees use forty to fifty percent more energy than the average person. It hurt to stand there and I didn’t expect that. I heard Linda’s voice in the back of my mind. “Shift your weight from one foot to the other.” I did that. Back and forth, back and forth. I also leaned heavily on my walker. It helped, but my body was losing patience.

Two more people to go…

Finally, it was my turn. The cashier smiled at me as she scanned my ice cream and put it in a bag. She asked if I had a club card as I handed her my money.

What?

“No, I don’t.”

“Would you like to have one? You can collect points and there are discounts. All you have to do is fill out your name and address.”

I was panicked. I couldn’t stand there a second longer.

“No, no. I’m good.” I smiled like I didn’t have a care in the world. Like standing there filling out a form, which may as well have been a ten page document, wouldn’t cause me to fall over from sheer exhaustion. My legs were tingling and prickling like they had woken up after falling asleep. I had to get out of there.

“Oh, okay. Maybe next time?”

The entire exchange took mere seconds, but to me she was setting up camp for the night. In a high voice going for enthusiasm, but bordering on shrill, I said, “Sure, okay!”

She handed me my bag and I threw it into my basket.

When I entered my room I put the ice cream down on the table next to my bed, beside the spoon I had kept from dinner in anticipation for this event. Because it was an event. I pressed the button to lower the bed and eased myself onto it, then collapsed starfish-style across the mattress. I stripped down, peeled off my legs which landed with a thud on the linoleum floor. I looked down at them and sighed. I’d get to those later. I got into pajamas and settled under the blankets. I picked up the remote to turn on the small TV in my room, flipped through channels until I found the X-Files, and savored the first spoonful of chocolate chocolate chip ice cream, cold and delicious on my tongue.

a new day

An email appeared in my inbox this morning that I’m going to try to take to heart. It was sent by someone I don’t know well but trustworthy and at the bottom it said this, “It’s a new day. Be encouraged.” I’m going to go with it and for those of you out there that are tired of the same old shit I offer these words to you too.

I’m jumping around with the story today. Today we’re getting out of the hospital. I’m taking you to GF Strong, a rehabilitation center in Vancouver where I began to learn to live independently so I could return to the real world.

I wheeled my way to room 301. I had just been registered at GF Strong Rehabilitation center and I was told they had space for me on the brain injury floor. That’s how they put it. The brain injury floor. I was thinking they need to come up with better themes. Something cheerier. Like this way to the yellow brick road or anything that conjured up brighter images. Upon registration to reality way I learned that testing was required when you are accepted to the brain injury floor. I told the receptionist I didn’t have a brain injury. My injuries were everywhere else but my head, although proving my case was difficult with my bald head and a rather disgusting healing donor site on the right side of my head. My explanation fell on deaf ears. It didn’t matter. Anyone staying on the third floor had to have their mental capacity tested.

A nurse appeared at the door and pushed my wheelchair towards the elevators in the main lobby. The elevators looked like freight elevators. They were wide, large enough to carry a boat load of people, their chairs and a small car. We made our way silently to the third floor and I was pushed into a room I immediately wanted to get out of. If I could run I would have. There were tables set up with plates of food on some of them, toys on others. A few people were sitting at each table and as I looked around the room it became clear that I was on the brain injury floor. I was wheeled to one of the tables and another nurse walked over to me asking me very slowly enunciating each word if I could eat the food placed in front of me. She put a spoon on the table gently as though I would have trouble with it and asked if I could pick it up. Fighting back tears I forced words out of my mouth, “This is a mistake. I’m fine. They’ve put me here because of the lack of space. They didn’t know where to put me.” She nodded at me. She glanced at the spoon and said, “Try to eat.” I swallowed hard and said, “I can eat. With a fork.” She waited patiently as I easily picked up the spoon, scooped up food and lifted it to my mouth. She watched me carefully and wrote something on a sheet of paper.

I didn’t know what to do. I understood they needed to do this. There were people here that needed special attention given to them because of their injuries. The attention I needed wasn’t this kind. They weren’t hearing me. I felt defeated and this was day one. After a few more questions yet another nurse came over. She must have seen the exchange because, much to my relief, she said, “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have been brought to this room. Let’s get you on your way.”

I found room 301. It was towards the end of the hall. I opened the door and after a few tries I bumped me and my chair into my room. The tires of my wheelchair squeaked on the shiny floor beneath me. There was a countertop with a mirror above it to my left, a bed to my right, and a large window dead ahead. I wheeled over to it and sat there for a while checking out the view. My window overlooked a parking lot filled with people entering a new, uninvited world. They were in wheelchairs, on crutches, wearing halos shell-shocked, resigned, vacant. They were in unknown territory. We all were. We were here linked by tragedy and accident and our differences. I sat in my own wheelchair and I felt it – the enormity of my difference sinking settling in the pit of my stomach. My parents came into the room loving and ill equipped. My mom was patting my shoulder murmuring don’t cry as my dad handed me a teddy bear. We looked like the people in the parking lot. Shell shocked and lost. So lost. I needed for them to go. I needed to be alone, so I smiled through my tears and said I would be okay. It’s a long drive back home. There’ll be traffic. Just go, go. I’ll see you soon.

When they left I stayed at the window and stared at my future for a long time.

God, if you can hear me. If you see me please make my life count for something. I’m here. I don’t know this body that I’m in, but make me count.

Please. See me.