Ramblings on healthcare, medical education, and life with a spinal cord injury
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Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope everybody, at least those of you in the US, had a wonderful Thanksgiving, replete with turkey, pie and all the trimmings.  And I hope you were able to celebrate it with those people who you are thankful to have in your life.  When I think back to last Thanksgiving, things are definitely vastly different for me than they were last year.  And while the events of the past year certainly could leave me with a laundry list of complaints, the things for which I am truly thankful far outweigh the meaning of any of the negative things.

I’m thankful for my health and current physical abilities.  I know this may seem counter-intuitive, but I have to consider how much worse things could have been.  I’m lucky to be alive.  If my injury had been a mere one or two inches higher up my spine, the injury could have killed me.  My fall could have resulted in a traumatic brain injury that would have changed the very core of who I am – but it did not, and for this I am grateful.  I could have wound up with a complete spinal cord injury with little to no prospect of ever even feeling touch below the level of injury.  The damage could have been so severe as to render my fingers and hands completely useless, thus decimating any hope of fulfilling my goal of becoming a surgeon.  But it was none of those things.  For the simple fact that I’m still here living, I am thankful for every new day I have to live.

My injury was catastrophic.  The type of catastrophe that nearly every doctor and physical therapist I spoke with originally thought I would not come back from.  Now, I’ve always been persistent when I want something.  And while professionals have a wealth of experience that cannot be underestimated, faith and persistance may just be that certain unexplainable set of factors that cannot be quantified.  I’ve never given up hope that I will walk again, and I’ve never stopped trying to get more function back.  Most thought I would not regain functionality below the level of injury, and even if so, that it wouldn’t be enough to be considered useful.  Since then, however, the doctors and therapists I work with have all agreed that my prospects are vastly better than they were in the first few months after I was injured.  I’ve surprised everybody who saw me at the time of my injury with what I’ve gotten back.

Last week while discussing things with Melissa, my physical therapist, she stated with caution that while she thought I was capable of getting up on a walker and potentially walking with no assistive devices whatsoever, she couldn’t possibly begin to estimate when that might be possible. She said it would be likely that I will be able to walk on a walker by the time I leave for Case, but it’s not likely that I will be able to use a walker as a mode of transportation by then.  Which is fine with me – progress is progress.  But she also followed that up by saying that when she first evaluated me four months ago in late July, she thought that at some point in the future walking might be a possibility, but she never would have expected me to be where I’m currently at within our first four months of working together.  I’ve surprised her too.

I’m thankful for all those excellent doctors and therapists that have helped me over the past ten months. There have already been so many, and I know there will be more before this ordeal is not the primary focus of my life, and there is no chance I would be anywhere near where I am without them.

I’m thankful for you – everybody who has been there and provided support, thoughts, prayers and assistance along the way.  This is not the type of experience anybody should ever have to go through alone (well, it’s not the type of experience anybody should ever have to go though, period), and fortunately I haven’t had to.  My family and friends have truly been a blessing, especially the love and support Kristina has given me since the very beginning.  She’s faced this challenge with me with more strength than I could ever ask of anyone, and the accomplishments are every bit as much ours as they are mine.

Now, I don’t mean for this to sound like a cornball acceptance speech or like I’m writing the introduction to a book.  But when I reflected on things this Thanksgiving, these were the things that dominated my thoughts – not how horrible it is that I’ve had to deal with a spinal cord injury.

I’m thankful that I will be going to medical school next year at Case.  Since childhood, I’ve wanted to become a doctor.  Running a business and working in the information security and technology world was a pleasant detour on the way and security will always be a passion of mine, but my goal has always been medicine.  Although I was originally to start this year, deferring was a smart decision and I look forward to starting next summer.  And I couldn’t be starting at a better place for me than Case.  It’s funny, I had heard of it before I started planning which schools I would apply to, but not much more than that.  Then somebody I randomly crossed paths with suggested that it might be a good fit for me.  So I gave it a closer look, and it turned out to be an incredible fit.  I fell in love with the school on interview day, and had decided on it pretty much at that point – before I was even accepted.

Since then, dealing with the faculty has been an amazing experience and they’ve gone out of their way to help me make sure all the critical pieces will be in place before I start school in the summer.  And that doesn’t even begin to consider how thoughtful the students are.  I’m thankful that the place I’ve chosen to spend the next four years at is the right place for me, and has the right kind of people.  And for everybody who’s helped to make the dream into reality.

So I do have a lot to be thankful for this year, despite what the obvious may suggest.   And what would my overly-effusive thoughts be without an update.  After my recent seeming setback, I’ve come back stronger than before.  I have since walked on a walker with braces again.  While I could previously walk ten to fifteen feet before needing to rest, I was able to walk more like thirty feet before having to rest.  And I increased the number of times walking from two to three at the same time – and then some.  During those trips, my legs also felt a lot stronger.  Although the braces keep them from bending at the knee, I can feel the vast difference in how much the muscles in my legs are contracting to help me stay upright.

The strength has translated to walking on the parallel bars without braces as well.  My steps have recently become a lot more controlled and proper, rather than just moderately jerky movement in a forward direction. Then a week-and-a-half ago, at the end of a trip down the bars, I decided to try letting go of one of the bars while standing.  My balance and trunk control felt a significantly improved, so I told Melissa I was going to let go with both hands.  She was in front of me in case anything went wrong, and my chair was immediately behind me – and it’s not like I threw my hands in the air, they were only an inch from the bars.  So I let go.  And stood upright, completely unassisted, for at least five seconds before my trunk started to slowly lean in one direction.

I caught and re-steadied myself, and then did it again.  And again.  I’ve since made this a routine part of every trip walking down the bars, continually trying to improve my free-standing time.  Funny, the more I do, the more my endurance continues to improve and my recovery time before the next trip down the bars decreases.

Then last Wednesday in the pool, I shared this experience with Cynthia and she suggested trying the same thing in the pool.  She had been working with me to slowly use my arms less and less, so she was excited at the possibility of free-standing in the pool.  Now, mind you, when I discuss pool therapy, we’re only in water that is between three and four feet deep.  So it really only goes to my waist.

I stood up in the pool, moved my hands from the edge of the pool to holding on the Cynthia for support, and then slowly lowering them and letting go of her completely.  Again, I was standing fully upright.  But this felt a lot more steady than a week before that on the bars.  She started watching a clock, and when a spasm in my left calf muscle threw my balance off, and my time was up.  But not before reaching a full minute of standing time.  With no assistance, other than the force imparted upon my body by the water.

So there you have it.  I do have a lot to be thankful for.  Now maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll get to start walking on a walker for Christmas…  ;)

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