Summertime Nostalgia

“So what do I need for backpacking this weekend? It’s going to be a shorter trip but I still need food, clothes, and supplies for three full days and nights… And next Saturday I’m going on a river float all day with friends, should be so much fun! Oh and I have to remember to borrow my roommate’s water filter for the next camping trip coming up in a couple weeks. Don’t want to be stuck in the mountains without sipping the good stuff from the streams and rivers!”

These were the typical thoughts running through my head during the summer time a couple years ago. Having spent the previous numerous summers working in the travel industry and with little free time, I had come to appreciate having the freedom to explore the many outdoors opportunities that were at my footsteps in Northern California. Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, the giant Sequoia trees, Big Sur, the coastal redwoods, and many of the gorgeous peaks of the Sierra mountains were all less than a half day’s drive from my urban life in the middle of San Francisco. I had the unique opportunity to live in a dynamic and fast-moving city and yet have access to some of the most beautiful natural scenery around; a truly fortunate situation to be in and one for which I was continuous grateful.

Fast forward to now and some things haven’t changed. My friends are still going on those backpacking trips, they’re still hard at work seeking undiscovered lakes or less traveled trails to explore and planning fun adventures. The river floats are still happening as are the epic day long bike rides that customarily include a pastry and coffee jolt or a cold beer conclusion. The roaring campfires (and the stories and laughter that come with them) are still burning strong, and the miles and miles of the fun-filled drives crisscrossing the varied topography of the California that I love so dearly are still being driven, albeit in slightly nicer cars reflecting the improved career trajectories of my thirty-something social community.

The major difference, of course, is that I’m not there.

It’s like watching a movie you’ve seen a hundred times but with one of the major actors missing. It doesn’t feel right.

To say that I’m envious of my friends’ adventures is the understatement of the century. I would give anything to be tromping through the mountains with a backpack on my shoulders, laughing and chatting and admiring the grandeur of mother nature’s best offerings. And honestly, the one thing that may be harder than not being on those adventures, is hearing about them first-hand and masking my frustration and resentment with my attempts to conjure sincere excitement.

So what’s keeping me sane this summer? Pretty simple actually. My desire to reach my shorter-term goals of recovery, some of which are looming closer on the horizon, fuel me just as much as a summer adventure would. I know that the sense of accomplishment I would receive from standing up on my own or taking a few unassisted steps in a walker would fulfill me more than these adventures did in the past. I’ve worked so hard for so long that seeing the fruits of my labor would give me immense satisfaction. While my current summer adventure is a bit more lonely, and a lot less scenic than my former escapades, the rewards are, to say the least, tantalizing, validating and worthwhile.

Two years since, and still moving forward

Yesterday, July 8th, marked two years since my Spinal Cord Injury, since everything that I knew about the world, about myself, about my body, and my life was turned upside down in an instant and launched me on this whirlwind of a journey that is recovery.

I wasn’t entirely sure if I was going to post about this strange date as its relevance is quite insignificant to me now. I remember last year, as my one year anniversary approached, I was stressed out and anxious (read my posting here if you’d like). Because the traditional thinking in our medical system says that most or all of recovery from SCI will occur in the first year or, if you’re lucky, in two, it was disheartening to think about the magnitude of that date and all that it implied. Oh how so much has changed…

Shortly after that day, I stopped counting the months since my accident. The eighth of the month, which had always been so present in my day-to-day consciousness especially as the calendar changed and a new month would arrive, became irrelevant. For the last many months, I actually completely forgot about the eighth of the month as I realized how unimportant it was. I told myself from the beginning that I was going to engage on the path to full recovery and that I would give everything I had to achieve my goals. Therefore, why should an antiquated way of thinking – an outdated medical approach that has been proven wrong repeatedly by those around me, one that quells and limits the spirit of recovery instead of encouraging it to flourish – why should that define my recovery? It shouldn’t, and it won’t.

I fully believe, as I have since the day I was injured, that with perseverance, diligence, unwavering commitment and by keeping my dream alive within me, that I can and will get back on my feet, no matter how long it takes. Also, I can’t overlook that an exceptional amount of my healing and breakthroughs have occurred only in the last few months! Maybe my spinal cord and my body did need a longer period of time to process and accept that initial trauma, but what started as the weakest me that me has ever known, has transformed into a period of continuous recovery and accomplishments.
Although it has been two very hard years, more trying, devastating, arduous, and insurmountably difficult than most anyone can imagine, I have learned tremendously during this time. I have challenged myself to an extreme I could never imagine and I have witnessed how much love surrounds me on this fight of mine. For that, I’m grateful. For the opportunity to continue on the path to realize my dream of walking and running again, I am hopeful and I continue to fight.
So thank you two year anniversary, thank you meaningless calendar date, thank you for reminding me that the human potential is not defined by 12 month cycles or doctors’ prognoses. If the spirit to heal is present, then the healing will persist. And further forward I push, looking forward to the next breakthrough and the next stage of recovery.

My own little island

Let my absence from my blog end! I’ll explain later why I haven’t kept up for a while but for now, it’s time for another update.

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that to continue my effective recovery from Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), I have to remain isolated on my own little island.

I’ve probably mentioned in the past that recovery from SCI is all over the place, to say the least. Depending on a variety of factors (many of which are not well understood, no matter what the medical community says) one’s ability to regain function, get stronger and recover is largely unpredictable. I’ve also explained how one’s initial functional capabilities following the injury is largely dependent on where the injury occurred on the spinal cord (higher up towards your neck and head or lower down towards your tailbone). But here’s where the ambiguity of this injury (and its recovery) becomes prominent.

People who are injured in the same exact location on their spinal cord can have drastically different capabilities and recoveries. For example, I’ve met a few dozen other people who broke the exact same vertebra in their neck as I did, C5 and C6 in the lower neck. Each and every one of these people’s situations is different, as is their respective recovery.

Unlike more common and less severe injuries (i.e. a torn ACL, broken bone, strained muscle), there is no standard protocol for how to pursue recovery following a SCI, even for each specific level of injury. Some are left with little function in their hands while others have an iron grip; some with zero core control, others with boxer’s abs; some can wiggle a toe or lift up a leg and some can’t even feel where their lower body is in space (proprioception). As a result, the timetable for recovery is all over the place.

I bring this all up now because the desire to compare one’s injury to others’ progress and recovery is, I think, inevitable and only natural. I hear of another person with a C5/C6 injury who was able to move something or regain function at a certain time after their injury and I immediately start to compare to myself.

“Can I do that yet? What does it mean if I can or can’t?”

“I wasn’t able to do this certain thing that someone else did at a specific point after the injury, so am I doomed?”

“Well, if I wasn’t able to do this function at this time then I may never be able to.” 

“If this one specific aspect of recovery was going to happen (like it did for someone else) then it should have happened by now.” 

These are the thoughts that run through my head when I talk to anyone else with a SCI. While it’s inspiring and motivating to hear that someone was able to perform a specific task or function, it also messes with my head and threatens to endanger my confidence and resolve. That’s why I believe that comparing one’s SCI to someone else, no matter how similar they may seem, is a zero sum game.

I don’t want to stop these conversations with others about their recoveries, so what I’ve had to do is place myself on my own little island of recovery, and force myself to remain there, all by myself. It’s difficult because I want solidarity with others. I want to hear someone tell me that it’s going to happen to me because it happened to them. I want to think that my recovery is linked to others, that I can use their timetables to structure my own and manage my expectations, but that’s just not the way it’s going to be.

This recovery is a solitary one. Comparing doesn’t get me anywhere, which is why I’ll stay on my own little island, and keep working towards my goal.

***

I’ve been away from the blog for a bit because I’ve had my hands full following up on my survey and garnering momentum for a petition I started to change the way SCI is approached and dealt with. My goal is to get the word out, get as many signatures as possible to my petition so that I can get it out to multiple forms of media. If you’re interested in signing my petition, check it out below. If you have any connections to media (journalists, websites, news sources….anything at all) and you want to share them with me, I’m grateful in advance.

http://www.change.org/petitions/healthcare-providers-medical-insurance-companies-provide-the-minimum-care-to-paralyzed-individuals

SCI Survey: Results and Summary

A couple of months ago, I wrote about my interest in finding out of the situation of other people who have suffered a Spinal Cord Injury and learning about their respective challenges as compared to mine by creating the SCI Survivors Survey. Thanks to a tremendous commitment of time and dedication by two friends (Laura and David, I’m so grateful for your help!), we were able to obtain incredible results from people’s experiences.

We’ve written a summary of the results and I wanted to share it here to continue the conversation and to highlight this too often underrepresented injury to those who may not know much about SCI. Thank you to everyone who openly and honestly responded to the survey and provided such an incredible wealth of information. And many thanks to everyone who helped in the process. I hope this can lead to some significant changes in how we deal with SCI.

SCI Survey Summary 

 As her fellow athletes recover from realizing their Olympic dreams, skier Maria Komissarova has just begun the hardest challenge of her life. The 23-year-old crashed during a practice run in Sochi[1], suffering a fractured spine that has paralyzed her from the waist down.

Komissarova now faces hardships unlike any she has ever faced. When the shock subsides, she will have to learn how to live day-to-day in her new condition while navigating a complex set of medical options. Her coach will be replaced by a spine specialist, her trainer by a physical therapist, her fame by a long and painful recovery that will be every bit as grueling as her Olympic training. State sports bodies and the Russian federation paid for her initial treatment but the federation says that the skier’s recovery may take a long time and extra money will be needed.

If an Olympic athlete needs to raise extra money for her recovery, what happens to people with a lesser public profile, who suffer similar devastating and life-altering Spinal Cord Injuries (SCIs)?

While Komissarova’s story has received press attention around the world, countless other SCI survivors (500,000 global cases a year[2]) struggle in anonymity to find answers to the physical, emotional, and financial struggles that now dominate their lives. Even though 12,000 people suffer SCIs each year in the United States alone[3], all too often, little is known about their plight.

Arash Bayatmakou wants answers. In 2012, the then 30-year-old San Francisco resident endured a horrific fall from a third floor balcony that shattered two cervical vertebrae and paralyzed him from the chest down. Despite being told by medical experts that significant recovery was unlikely and that he should accept his condition and adapt to life in a wheelchair, Arash remained determined to walk again and decided to make recovery, in his words, his “full-time job.”

The results have come slowly but steadily—improved hand and arm strength and dexterity, core strength, even a wiggling toe. Recently, Arash stood on his own for the first time since the accident. After proving the “impossible” to be possible several times on his road to recovery, Arash wants good information both for him and other SCI survivors.

How similar is his predicament to that of other SCI survivors? How many SCI survivors have been given little or no hope of recovery? How many are forced to pay out of pocket for necessities as fundamental as a wheelchair due to poor insurance? What are their experiences and how do they deal with this life-altering condition?

To find out, Arash, David Nihill and Laura Bekes put together the SCI Survivors Survey and the results show that his case is by no means the exception. While the severity of each injury is unique based on the extent of damage to the spinal cord (which controls all neural communication from the brain to the rest of the body), the potential effects are devastating as paralysis of the upper and/or lower body is almost always a result of the injury. In addition, some of the lesser-known, yet hugely significant, effects of SCI include impaired circulation and blood flow, loss of bladder and bowel function, changes in blood pressure, body temperature regulation, depression and a variety of other physical and psychological challenges.

With an injury as debilitating as this, the impacts are severe and detrimental to many aspects of the survivors’ lives, and many struggle to identify and access the resources they need to give themselves a chance at recovery.

There were 61 responses to the survey nationwide, with respondents of all ages (18-69 years old) and with injuries suffered as long ago as the 1970’s to as recently as 2013. Respondents were asked questions about their injuries, interactions with doctors and medical professionals, prognoses, attitudes and approaches to their recovery, experiences in and out of the hospital and rehabilitation centers, continuing therapy, financial impacts of the injury, and their current state.

To summarize the survey findings as briefly as possible: 1) It is very difficult to predict outcomes for people who have suffered an SCI; 2) Few people with SCIs feel they are receiving sufficient coverage from their health insurance for modern day therapy that could potentially improve their condition and help realize their recovery potential and; 3) Despite facing such difficult odds, the will to recover has led many people to challenge the expectations of their doctors and prove their prognoses wrong.

To begin with, almost everyone (83%) was given a prognosis of some sort, from an inconsistent variety of people including neurosurgeons, rehab doctors, nurses and physical therapists. The prognoses were given very shortly after their injury and/or surgery and the overwhelming majority (83%) were told that the possibility of walking was unlikely or impossible. This left few people hopeful for their chances of regaining function or improving their condition.

While the challenges that come with this injury are many (physical, emotional, financial, professional, etc.), one of the clearer findings from the survey was that many people reported doing better than what the original prognosis suggested would be achievable or possible. The degree of improvement ranged dramatically from some respondents claiming smaller yet significant physical changes (i.e. better upper body function, improved circulation, more stamina) to others who had major gains in lifestyle (i.e. increased independence, driving a car, maintaining a professional career, improved family and personal lives) to even those who had regained the ability to walk.

Struggles with insurance and the ensuing financial impacts were a common finding for many respondents. Specifically, despite facing an injury that leaves people unable to walk and paralyzed from chest or waist down, 18% did not have any of the cost for their wheelchair covered by their insurance. Upon leaving the hospital, 87% needed to make costly alterations to their home, 83% did not have help from insurance to cover additional at home costs/supplies (median of $3,600/year) incurred by the injury, and 44% had to turn to fundraising to help with expenses.

“They haven’t done anything more than the BARE minimum, they didn’t even pay for the wheelchair that they wanted me to spend the rest of my life in. They’re horrible, irresponsible, inconsiderate and inefficient. They should know that caring for me now and getting me better now would save them money in the long run but their approach to SCI is so antiquated and backwards.”

“I don’t think insurance companies understand the benefits… The true benefits… Of ongoing physical therapies for spinal cord injury survivors.”

“At the end of my stay (in hospital) I began to recover function of my legs. The rehab hospital requested more time from my insurance but was denied.”

The attitudes and approaches of doctors and medical professionals were often reported to be defeating and demoralizing. In fact, 67% of respondents said that their initial interactions with doctors did not leave them feeling hopeful for their chances of any kind of recovery. 63% of respondents were told to focus more on adapting to their injury than recovering from it.

“I told them I wanted to walk again and recover and they mostly laughed at me, dodged my question, didn’t give me answers and tried to just get me to focus on adaptation.”

“My prognosis doesn’t mean anything to me now as I know how flawed it was when they told me.”

 “I have recovered more than I ever thought. I can walk independently with [braces] and a walker. I was told I did not have enough function to ever do so.”

“Not going to ever walk again was my diagnosis, I am now walking.”

Despite the overwhelming physical challenges, the often less than optimistic prognoses, and the inconsistent attitudes and approaches encountered with medical professionals, the survey found that many respondents refused to give up hope for their chances for regaining function. 80% took part in some kind of ongoing rehab or therapy beyond initial inpatient rehab even though 74% did not have this therapy paid for by their insurance. 100% found this therapy to be beneficial (in a number of ways) including 51% who said that this therapy had reduced or eliminated their need for medication and 57% who reported that ongoing rehab or therapy had helped improve secondary conditions that come with SCI (e.g. blood pressure, bowel/bladder function, and Autonomic Dysreflexia).

“I needed much more therapy for many hours at a time. It wasn’t even close to giving me what I needed. I feel like my insurance pretty much gave up on me.”

“I have gone from wheelchair with no movement against gravity to standing, to walking with a walker (5 months), to forearm crutches (8 months), to unassisted (18 months). My rehab has helped me get stronger and push my life on my feet which has lead to more improvement.”

The survey confirmed a significant finding from previous research conducted by the National Spinal Cord Injury Association[4] in which a majority of respondents were told to exercise by their physicians but did not have access to a trained therapist and did not receive specific instructions regarding the kind of exercise to engage in or how often.

Overall, the SCI Survivors Survey provides some valuable information about what people go through following this life-changing injury, but it also raises a number of questions that are especially relevant now, with so much of the national conversation centered on healthcare.

Why is treatment of SCI not utilizing newer, more progressive treatment options more often? Even though the number of people who regain the ability to walk is small yet significant, why do medical professionals consistently frame the prognosis in a negative way and choose to tell people that they won’t get back on their feet? Why don’t they admit that they simply can’t predict outcomes and encourage people to work hard to try to reach their potential? Why are insurance companies not stepping up to the plate in providing better therapy options that can minimize secondary complications and prevent future hospital visits, and the exorbitant costs associated with them? Why does insurance appear to pay for continuing medication but all too often refuses to pay for more exercise or therapy that can reduce or eliminate the need for medication? How are people meant to deal with the financial impact of the injury if something as fundamental and necessary as a wheelchair is often not paid for by insurance?

The survey results suggest that the entire system of treating SCI is insufficient for helping SCI survivors maximize their chances for recovery, and in need of significant change. Because of the many complications and health needs that arise from a Spinal Cord Injury, SCI survivors develop a number of continuing medical needs from their respective healthcare providers. In a time where healthcare is a primary issue for many people, it’s important to think about how to help people who suffer this injury to live healthy and productive lives, with access to a healthcare system that is balanced in providing necessary and effective services while maintaining an efficient and financially sound system.

Arash, like so many other SCI survivors refuses to give up hope, drawing inspiration from the many people who have recovered to levels greater than anticipated. Like a number of respondents in the survey, he has to rely on sources and support outside of what his insurance has provided him in order to maintain his aggressive therapy schedule and to achieve his ultimate goal, to get back on his feet.

On March 20th, Comedy for a Spinal Cause will be hosting a standup comedy show in San Francisco showcasing local comedians with all proceeds benefitting Arash and his recovery. Find out more and purchase tickets here.


[3] U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

http://www.cdc.gov/traumaticbraininjury/scifacts.html

Olympic Observations

Seven one-hundredths of a second. That’s what separated the gold and silver medal finishers in the Women’s Giant Slalom downhill skiing event in the Sochi Olympics last week. As I was watching, I was struck by the tiny margins of difference that would determine the order of finishers in this event.  To put it another way, the top 9 finishers in the event completed the course within 1.77 seconds of each other! So less than 2 seconds decided the best in the world from the mediocre skiers.

This got me thinking of the athletes and what they do in the three years and 50ish weeks when they’re not in the olympics. Obviously, there’s a tremendous amount of training involved. For some of the more popular sports, the athletes may have the luxury of training nearly full-time while for some of the other olympic sports (i.e. curling, luge), I learned that most of the athletes have full-time jobs and careers and train for their sport on the side. Either way, the amount of hours and time that each of these people puts into practice and training is admirable and remarkable.

So going back to the ski race, I couldn’t help but feel astounded that for these skiers, who are the absolute best in the world, four years of intense and daily training and thousands upon thousands of repetitions of the same movements all lead to a day where their fates are decided in mere milliseconds.

This got me thinking about my own regimen and my own olympics (of sorts) that I’m training for. Despite my lifelong athleticism and passion for an active lifestyle, I know that before my accident, it was hard for me to fathom the life of an olympic athlete, spending THAT many hours of everyday training for an event in which you may not even be selected to compete. How could you justify waking up early, staying up late, sacrificing sleep and time for other aspects of life to train for an activity while knowing that you MAY have a chance to possibly go up against the best in the world and then and only then, maybe you will be seven one-hundredths of a second fast enough to win gold??!

Since the day I got out of surgery to repair my badly broken neck, since the day when I knew that my body was damaged yet my spirit was more resilient than ever, and since I knew that the road back to my feet would be a long and arduous one, I decided that I would do everything in my power and spend as many hours a day and as many days as necessary working towards my goal.

In this regard, I share something with those olympic athletes. Our commitments to our respective goals are unquestionably similar – I would even argue that I want to walk more than any athlete wants to win gold but I guess that’s gonna be hard to prove.

And so I understand now why someone would train so much for so long despite such slim chances of reaching their goals and winning the race, and being better than everyone else out there. If you want it badly enough, then no amount of practice or training or repetitions will be too daunting to prevent you from getting there, just seven one-hundredths of a second fast enough.

Something to look forward to

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the slow pace of recovery following my Spinal Cord Injury (SCI). I have written about this before, about how challenging it is to work SO hard every day and focus so much of my energy on healing and recovery, yet accept that the changes and improvements come oh so slowly. (But the good news is that at least the improvements HAVE been occurring…).

Patience, as it turns out, is one of the most crucial factors for anyone wanting to recover from this devastating injury, and patience, as I’ve known my whole life, is absolutely NOT a quality that I embody.

Imagine living every day with no idea how soon your body will improve (if at all) and with no assurance that you’ll ever get to achieve your objectives. Imagine going through the majority of your day working towards a goal that may not be realized for a matter of months or years. That, in a nutshell, is what I mentally encounter and struggle with every morning when I wake up, and every night before I go to sleep. It’s enough to drive someone crazy, but thankfully I’ve maintained my sanity thus far. (Note: I will do my best to warn all of you with a cautionary blog post if I ever feel like I’m going over the edge…)

One tactic that has helped me maintain my focus and patience, is to always have something to look forward to.

This is something I’ve done my whole life actually, as a way of rewarding myself for completing a task or having the patience to get through a challenge, obstacle, adverse situation, or simply, a long wait. That said, it’s taken on a new precedence now as I use this tactic all the time to keep my concentration and focus on recovery intact, without getting overwhelmed by the daunting elements of time and uncertainty.

As long as I have something fun and positive to look forward to, it gives me a reason never to give up or lose patience of my ultimate goals. I tell myself that even though I may be frustrated or impatient right now, I gotta make it through to (insert event to look forward to here), and then I’ll reassess; no giving up before that. Once that event happens, I think of the next one and the process begins again.

I’m not necessarily referring to looking forward to huge, important moments or events. Most of the time, it’s as simple as a relaxed weekend brunch with my girlfriend, an upcoming meetup with friends, a trip to the swimming pool (one of my favorite therapies), or an afternoon in the park. It doesn’t take much. The beauty of this is that when there is a bigger thing to look forward to (i.e. a trip out of town), it motivates me even more and fuels me to keep working hard until I get to that moment.

I know it seems simple or obvious to point this out, but the fact that I’ve become so conscious of the importance of this tactic means to me that it’s worth acknowledging and appreciating.

The SCI Survivor Survey

What does it mean to survive a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)? What systems are in place to assist and support SCI survivors days, months and even years after their injuries? How do SCI survivors deal with the many life-changing challenges they face following this injury? What are those challenges and, most importantly, what can be done to address them in order to help and improve the lives of those of us who have dealt with this injury?

All of these, and many more, are the questions that the SCI Survivor Survey seeks to explore.

A little background: After my own frustrating experience with the availability (or lack thereof) of resources, support systems and options for recovery in the initial weeks and months following my accident, I decided that at some point in the future, I would want to do something to help other SCI survivors. When I heard the experiences of others, I was simultaneously horrified – I couldn’t believe how consistently various people in the medical system were discouraging and reluctant to provide hope to these people and their families – and relieved – because I learned that I wasn’t the only one out there facing these frustrations and challenges.

Recently, a couple friends and I started discussing what the biggest challenges are for SCI survivors and brainstorming the most helpful solutions. They knew my story – after all, they had been there to support me from the beginning – and I had a sense of what those challenges were based on the anecdotes I’d heard from others. But we decided that before we could explore the idea further, and in order to have a more accurate understanding of the most beneficial potential solutions, we wanted to hear from more SCI survivors. Thus, the SCI Survivor Survey was born.

Our goal now is to get as many responses as possible from anyone who has suffered a Spinal Cord Injury. The survey is purely informational and completely anonymous. All questions are optional and the responses we get will only be used to shape the direction of our efforts and guide our primary objective: to help as many SCI survivors as we can.

So in case I haven’t made it clear yet, I’m asking for your help! If you are an SCI survivor, please fill it out yourself and share it with as many other SCI survivors as you know. Otherwise, please forward, email, link, send, snail mail, tweet, carrier pigeon, make smoke signals, use morse code, talk through tin cans, and share the following link with someone has dealt with SCI. I’m grateful in advance for your help and promise to keep you updated on the progress of our efforts.

SURVEY LINK: http://bit.ly/1hf7TcC

100% Active mental effort

I want to attempt to explain one of the more nebulous and perplexing aspects of my recovery. I’ve been wrapping my head around this for a while now but I haven’t quite figured out how to put it all into words and hopefully make it understandable for people without a Spinal Cord Injury. There is a significant process that is noticeably more difficult for me now than before my accident: the monumental, almost overwhelming mental effort that I have to put into all of my rehab.

Every exercise, movement, or activity that I do involves a massive mental commitment from me. This is nothing like what most of us are used to doing when we lift a weight, take a step, hold a stretch or pedal a bike. As an able bodied person, those actions are performed subconsciously. You don’t have to tell yourself and instruct seven different parts of your arm how to curl a dumbbell… you just do it. You don’t have to close your eyes, channel your breathing, try to contract one muscle while relaxing another just to take a step when you’re on a run… you just place one foot in front of the other and continue on. Not so with a Spinal Cord Injury.

Everything I do involves me REALLY thinking about it, specifically when it comes to those parts of my body that are most damaged by my injury and not functioning properly. The nerve signals just aren’t getting through like they used to so it takes me that much more effort to try to engage a muscle that hasn’t effectively received the signal to engage. This is what makes an injury to the nervous system so debilitating. It’s not just a matter of effort. If it were, then the many hours a day I spend on my rehab would have much quicker results.

I think back to what it felt like to exercise before my accident and it all just seems so easy to me now! I didn’t really have to think THAT much about what I was doing. I would just DO things, perform movements, complete activities, and ultimately I’d get stronger and fitter. I was never mentally drained from going on a run or biking half the day because I could do that repetitive motion subconsciously and with little to no mental strain, all the while listening to my iPod or chatting with a friend. Nowadays, if I don’t give 100% of my mental attention and focus to the specific movement I’m doing, not only will I have little to no chance of effectively completing the movement, I will finish the activity without any sense of accomplishment.

Another way to put it is that those muscles that I’m trying so desperately to wake up and reestablish the connection with will only have the teeniest, tiniest chance to get that signal from my brain only if I try really, really hard to break through the neurological impasse that’s taken root in various parts of my nervous system. This whole process has educated me greatly on how incredibly electrical our bodies are. No matter how big or strong our muscles may be, nothing can happen unless the wiring that’s distributed throughout the body is functioning properly. As a result, I often have to close my eyes and remove all visual stimuli in order to be able to give sufficient mental awareness and energy to what I’m doing.

This may seem arduous and exhausting, and it was at first, but now I have to admit I kinda like it. It makes me very present in what I’m doing, it forces me to tune everything else out and focus fully on the task at hand and although I wish I could see the results more quickly than I do, I know that this tremendous effort is what will sustain my recovery and continue the healing that I so desperately strive for.

A few thoughts on independence

What does it mean to be independent? What kinds of actions or activities are essential to do ourselves in order to feel satisfied with our own abilities and without having to rely on others? What would be the functions you would have to do in order to feel like you have the most minimal sense of independence?

Often times, when strangers look at me, they see the wheelchair, they see me unwillingly sitting down amidst a sea of standing humans and they may think, “well that guy can’t walk at this moment, but otherwise he seems to be doing ok.” My friends often tell me something similar, that I don’t look like I’ve suffered a major trauma anymore, that I’ve gotten strong enough to the point where I simply look like a normal dude, who just happens to be sitting in a wheelchair.

One of the more unnoticed aspects of Spinal Cord Injury is the loss of independence. To go from being able to do nearly everything for yourself to suddenly have to rely on others for practically everything is an awful reality of this situation. Many times I’ve heard the belief that there is no such thing as full independence, that we are all dependent on others in some way. This may be true, but to have any of your independence taken away from you is incredibly humiliating, frustrating and devastating.

I absolutely hate the fact that I have to ask for help of any kind from other people, and that it happens so frequently. Before my accident, I was thrilled to be as independent as I was, to the point that one of the main reasons I chose to ride a bike as my primary form of transportation was so I wouldn’t have to rely on the potential complications of a car or the improbable and unreliable nature of public transportation. I wanted to be as self-reliant as possible. If there was anything about my life that I wasn’t satisfied with, it didn’t take me long to take initiative, come up with a plan and make a change. (Granted, I was – and still am – fortunate enough to live in a society and country where so much was available to me and I actually had the opportunities to make significant life changes…I don’t take this for granted).

Nowadays, I find myself frequently prioritizing the actions and situations that I most greatly wish I could do independently. To say that the loss of independence that has come with this injury is a blow to my pride is a massive understatement. It’s one of the things that bothers me multiple times a day, everyday. But at the same time, I’ve been able to appreciate the massive gains I’ve made while remaining focused and motivated to continue to improve.

So I want to end by acknowledging what made me write this post now. A friend, and fellow SCI survivor, recently made a short video emphasizing the next step in her quest for independence and watching it made me think about all of these questions and about how my own thoughts on independence have changed since my injury. So I’d like to encourage you to think about what it would be like if you instantly lost the ability to do most things for yourself, if you had to rely on others for those things that you used to do without any thought or consideration, and what things are most important to you, for your independence.

If you’re interested, here’s the link to the video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTDZ7pZYqbg&feature=youtu.be

If you build it, will it come? And when? And how? And….

One of the most memorable movie quotes of my childhood was from “Field of Dreams” where Kevin Costner is told, “if you build it, he will come” in reference to building a baseball diamond in his cornfield which will summon his beloved baseball players from the past to come and play ball. A pretty straightforward cause and effect statement. Do this, and that will ensue.

I find myself thinking of this quote a lot recently, in the context of my recovery and dealing with all of the questions and doubt that arise and try to throw me off track. I’ve been “building it” for over a year now. This time last year is when I felt strong enough to ignore the lifestyle of adaptation and flat out laziness that the medical establishment was providing me, and took the initiative to start an aggressive routine of rehab, exercise and physical and mental hard work.

Up until my accident, I had always understood that the causal relationship between hard work and reward was reliable and relatively short-term, particularly with physical improvements (I wrote an entire post about this subject). Now, after a year of working so hard everyday, of literally channeling so much of my energy towards recovery and healing, I’m often left wondering…ok, can someone throw me a bone here? I need something to happen already!

Yes I’ve had improvements, yes my health and overall strength has improved, yes I can still wiggle my toe, yes I can sit taller, push further and continue to challenge my capabilities and improve upon them, but all of that said, I have to put this out there: I need a breakthrough.

I’m reminded of the conversations I’ve had with friends so many times about being single and wanting to find a girlfriend. Or of changing job paths and furiously job hunting and the advice we would always give each other when frustrations would hit new highs. “You’re looking too hard for it. Sometimes these things happen when we ease up on searching or expecting them, and then all of a sudden, boom! it happens.”

I have no doubt that this applies to my current situation. I want improvement badly. I want validation for all of this hard work I’ve done and I want it to be more than a toe I started wiggling nine months ago or gradual strength that I’ve built up over time. But I’m looking so hard for it! I wake up every morning and wonder if this will be the day that I’ll have that breakthrough. I’m trying not to expect it, but I expect it. And then I try to rid myself of the expecting of not expecting. And so it goes….

I wish this injury was more forgiving in this way. I wish there was a formula and even if I knew it would take a long time, I could find peace in knowing that the next breakthrough would indeed arrive. But that’s not the way this injury is. It rips you apart and takes away everything and leaves you with more doubt, uncertainty and ambiguity than you could ever imagine.

I can hear the advice from everyone already: Get rid of the expectations. Cultivate patience. Find peace with the situation. Make the most of the present moment without any consideration of the future and what it will bring. Life is too short so enjoy what you have right now and relish every moment.  I say, easier said than done. 

The funny thing is, I’ve actually been able to do all of these things but only to a certain extent. Much of my efforts recently have revolved around patience and letting go of expectations, and I’ve certainly gotten better at this. I have no choice but to continue doing these things and physically continuing to work as hard as possible but I still can’t help thinking that because I’m building it, it will come…