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Continuation from What was I thinking?

Thursday morning, after coming home late Wednesday afternoon, I unpacked and plugged in the laptop I’d been using while at Harborview Medical Center, and Providence Mount St. Vincent. I was pleased when it booted up, and I could immerse myself in responding to emails, browsing the internet, writing blog posts, and getting ready to start work on Monday morning.

I hadn’t worked for three weeks, and being a contractor for Microsoft, I was concerned with losing momentum and possibly being replaced by another contractor. More pressing, there was no way Rich could return to work, driving a bus for Island Transit, and he couldn’t easily dust off his programming and engineering skills and return to work, especially, with no technology companies on Whidbey Island and computer science, evolving at lightening speeds from mainframes to the cloud and back to the edge.  

My ability to bring in money was imperative with an anticipated flood of bills from healthcare providers along with the usual day-to-day expenses of electricity, water, groceries, property taxes, Rich’s Medicare Part B health insurance… and much more. More frightening, if I didn’t return to work, I could lose my health insurance, not a good idea, considering my anticipated follow-up appointments and potential complications.

I knew I’d left my employer in a pickle. No doubt, they had to frantically scramble to find writers to complete my work, much of which needed to be finalized by the end of June, the close of Microsoft’s fiscal year. But no doctor was going to clear me to work until I was home and physically and mentally fit to sit for hours and concentrate. Realizing I needed to return to work as soon as possible, I stopped taking oxycodone a week earlier. When I asked for a letter to return to work, I was clear-headed and had demonstrated I could care for myself from getting out of bed in the morning and dressed to preparing simple meals. I was gratefully cleared to start working on Monday, June 17

My sanity is my work. When my fingers are typing, whether content for Microsoft, an email to a friend, post for rajalary or scribbles writing, or response to a question posted on Quora, I’m at peace. My mind can temporarily push aside the negativity and discomfort and focus on pouring out my thoughts.

When I’m engrossed in writing and editing, the time passes quickly, and the exasperation of not being able to garden, take a walk, cook a meal or do housework fades. Having always been very active and not one to sit and read a book for hours or watch mindless TV, my only options for feeling productive while confined to a wheelchair was writing and returning to work.

Fortunately, my work, writing communications for Microsoft and their partners, can be done remotely. With great relief, I wheeled behind my desk on Monday morning and spent most of the day being productive, diving into a presentation I had to create and responding to emails. 

Starting to get physical

Also, on Monday, I went to my first physical therapy session. Lauren, the neighbor who’d driven me home from Harborview, had recommended that I go to Coupeville Physical Therapy because it was a quick 15 minutes from our house, across from WhidbeyHealth Medical Center. Plus, she knew the therapists.

Because there are wide steps from our front porch down to the driveway, the only way for me to go outside was through the garage. While we were hospitalized, several people had built handrails to make it safer to tackle the two steps from the house into the garage.

Andrea, one of the three women who’d been overseeing the care of our pets and home, helped me down the garage steps and into the car, using my walker. She then loaded my wheelchair into the car, drove me to physical therapy, and rolled me inside.

I didn’t know what to expect. The only time I had physical therapy was when I fractured my pelvis, and did therapy in a pool, until I was cleared to start walking 8 weeks later. I remember having some challenges, but since I didn’t have surgery, my muscles had simply atrophied. With perseverance and exercise, I was able to proficiently walk, ride a bike, and return to the gym within a few months.

Twelve years later, my injuries were considerably more debilitating. Having sustained a tibia plateau fracture, which requires at least 12 weeks to heal, fractured my femur, tibia (near my ankle) and fibula, and underwent a surgery that sliced through tissue, muscles and nerves from the top of my hip down to my ankle to insert a rod, plates and screws, my recovery would be dramatically longer and more problematic. Additionally, I had strict instructions to put no weight on my left leg, and keep it elevated and immobilized in a heavy metal boot.

Finally, I had a scary 7-inch gash across the back of my calf, and deep puncture wounds on the front. All of which would impact the length of my recovery and ability to once again walk.

At Coupeville Physical Therapy, I met with Brittany, an affable woman with a Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California. She’d previously worked at a rehabilitation center, so she wasn’t repulsed by my open wounds or the complexity of my injuries. Even better, she had a soothing manner, and kept reassuring me that I’d once again be able to return to doing the activities I love. She initially tested my range of motion, how far I could bend or straighten my knee and whether I could wiggle my toes and rotate my ankle.

There wasn’t a lot I could do because my leg had been tightly wrapped in ace bandages for weeks to minimize swelling, and there was a large, painful knot on the top of my thigh, which was bothersome. Additionally, because I wore a heavy metal boot 20-22 hours per day to ensure I didn’t get foot flop, my leg was basically straight all day, on the footrest of my wheelchair or on top of a pillow when in bed.

My range of motion was limited to moving my leg from side-to-side while lying down, lifting it off an exercise table, bending my knee, wiggling my ankle, squeezing a ball between my thighs, and while holding onto a walker, lifting my left leg a foot off the ground, and moving it forward, backwards, and to the side.

Having done some of these exercises at Providence Mount St. Vincent, and knowing I needed to continue doing them, I had Stacey order me a low massage table. It arrived a few days after I came home, and Andrea graciously assembled it for me in our family room.

I loved my massage table!

It was the perfect height. I could easily stand from my wheelchair (on one leg) and swivel onto the table. Even better, the table had a thick padding, and was covered with cushy, marine blue synthetic leather. It was relaxing to stretch out on the table with a pillow under my head, and the sunlight streaming across my body. At least once a day, I’d exercise and mellow-out on the table. And sometimes, I just relaxed on the table, listening to the sounds of the house.

Birds disappear from our lives

Early in our hospitalization, Rich obsessed about our two pet birds, a ringneck parakeet and a cockatiel. He was convinced it would be too difficult to care for them while in a wheelchair, especially cleaning the cages. He asked Stacey to find them a new home.

While Stacey called a few places, it was Andrea who located a bird enthusiast in eastern Washington. She loaded their large cage into her car along with the birds and drove them many hours to Lake Stevens, WA to give them to their new owner. He was pleased, sending her pictures of the birds once they were settled.

While I felt like a traitor giving away the birds, I was relieved when they were gone. They made a mess on the floor and were very noisy, usually when I was trying to concentrate.

When I first met Rich, he had two cockatiels, which an ex-girlfriend had given him. While the girlfriend didn’t last, the birds continued to be a fixture in our lives. They were named Meanie and Sweetie. Their names, however, were reversed because Meanie was sweet, and Sweetie was mean. The birds were very spoiled and allowed to fly through the house, walk across the table, grab food off plates, and perch on top of the blinds.

For Rich’s 50th birthday, I bought him a male ringneck parakeet, which he named Midori. A few months before Rich was transferred to Texas, he was barbequing outside. As he opened the sliding glass door to step outside, Meanie landed on his head, and immediately flew out the open door.

Because domesticated birds aren’t used to flying down, unless obstructed by a ceiling, Meanie kept flying higher and higher, finally landing in a tree. We spent several hours trying to coax her down to no avail including Rich climbing a ladder, hoping she’d land on his head, and placing an open cage at the base of the tree. It was heartbreaking to abandon the effort, but with it growing dark we knew there’d be little chance she’d fly down.

Before we left for Texas, we visited a breeder, and purchased two hand-raised cockatiels: Mimi and Rodolfo. They were sweet birds that enjoyed being held.

A fourth cockatiel was added to the flock shortly after Meanie flew away. Rich had put up posters around his neighborhood with pictures of Meanie. Within a few days, he received a call. Someone had found a dark gray cockatiel, which we promptly adopted and named Papillion in memory of the autobiographical novel written by Henri Charrière, detailing his escape from a French penal colony.

By the time Rich was transferred to Texas, he had four cockatiels and one ringneck parakeet. When he got there, he visited a pet store to purchase bird food. The owner asked if he wanted a female ringneck, which someone had given back to the pet store. Not realizing how feisty and untamed the bird was, he said “yes.”

He subsequently named her Fidori. While Fidori and Midori never bonded, Midori took a liking to a cockatiel, which resulted in an unfortunate outcome. When we moved back to the Pacific Northwest, we kept the birds at our Mount Vernon house where Rich was living and working from home. I was in an apartment in Redmond, walking distance from Microsoft where I worked.

After getting a house in Kirkland, and doing some initial renovation, we started to slowly move our furniture from our Mount Vernon house to Kirkland. The entire basement and garage of the Mount Vernon house was filled with over 200 boxes and furniture from our sizable Texas house.

When we got ready to move the birds, Rich backed his truck into the garage. We loaded the cage with the birds inside into the back of the truck. Unfortunately, one of the doors of the cage opened, and the cockatiel that Midori was bonded with flew out. Acting quickly, we caught the cockatiel, but Midori headed out the open garage.

It was horrible. Up, up, up, he flew.

Losing two birds out-the-door quashed our desire to invest in any more birds. Over the course of ten years or so, our bird population dwindled to Fidori and one of the Mimi cockatiels we’d originally purchased from the breeder. And unfortunately, they became more of a chore than a joy. Fidori was a biter and only tolerated Rich. While we took out the cockatiel and pet her, she didn’t get the attention she deserved.

Sadly, it was a relief when I came home to a quiet, bird-free house. Fidori could squawk so loud that she could be heard in our office, and people on conference calls often asked if I lived in a jungle. “Ummm, nope.”

Getting in the groove

My house is my sanctuary. It’s where I find enjoyment, gardening, cooking, reading, doing arts and crafts, and writing. Because I work from home, it’s also my office. While many people would get stir-crazy being stuck at home, I’m rarely “itching” to be anywhere else.

When I grow weary of seeing the same four walls where I typically spend my time, I can retreat to my “laboratory,” a bedroom at the far end of the house with my sewing machine and drawers full of fabrics, ribbons, buttons, notions, beads, wires, beading tools, paint, glue, decorative papers, and other craft necessities. I can spend hours creating “stuff.” Finding inspiration is as easy as opening a drawer or a bin.

Even though getting my wheelchair through the door of my laboratory was challenging, it was a joy to enter. A wall of shelves, filled with porcelain dolls made by my mother-in-law, dolls I’ve collected, stuffed animals, and children’s books (some of which were my mother’s), was comforting. On the floor are more dolls, some in miniature chairs.

Beneath the window is a comfortable futon with numerous, colorful patchwork pillows and a crocheted quilt, which I’ve washed several times to shrink and tighten the weave. Hanging in the closet are wreaths I’d made, which I put on our front door throughout the year. The walls are filled with pictures I love, and by the futon is a nightstand with a cute antique alabaster lamp on a lilac croqueted doily.

The crazy quilt and scraps of fabric I’d started months earlier was on my worktable, ready for me to sit down and start crafting. Sewing, however, would have to wait until I had more energy and agility since I must iron the seams of the quilt, in-between sewing. The way I iron is to put a board on the floor with a cloth on top, and iron while on my hands and knees. It’s awkward to say the least, and impossible to do if prevented from putting any weight on my left leg.  

Within a day of being by myself, I fell into a routine. After awaking at 6 a.m., I’d spend half an hour or so getting dressed. The hardest part was unbuckling the three straps on the metal boot I wore then buckling them up again after removing my pajama bottoms, wiggling on a pair of panties (not always easy to do) and putting on a pair of workout pants. It was equally challenging putting lotion on my left foot and sliding on a sock.

Because my left leg was very swollen, the skin on my foot and leg was cracking and peeling off, including the thickened skin on the bottom of my foot and between my toes. It was very itchy and uncomfortable. However, I wasn’t cleared to take a shower or put any water on my leg for a week to allow the stitches time to heal. In the meantime, I spent many evenings, peeling off flaky skin and trying to remove the itchy calluses on the bottom of my feet.

My usual breakfast was homemade granola and a blob of Greek yoghurt with ground chocolate (Ibarra) dissolved in hot water with a splash of milk, followed by 1,000 mg of Tylenol, calcium tablet, vitamin D, vitamin C, and a baby aspirin. I was very religious about taking Tylenol every six hours. And for some reason, even though I previously drank at least four cups of coffee per day, I didn’t want to drink any, believing the caffeine would leach calcium from my body.

Once I assembled my food and wheeled it into the office, I’d boot up my computer. Generally, I worked for several hours, taking nibbles of food in-between cobbling together marketing communications. It was then time to scrounge for more food and another Tylenol. Triscuits was always high on my list along hard-boiled eggs, carrots, cheese sticks, and fruit. I also enjoyed eating frozen breakfast burritos, which were quick to heat in the microwave.

Our microwave is above the oven, necessitating I stand up to reach it, while balanced on one leg, and then spin around to take hot and cold food on and off the kitchen island. Realizing the precariousness of using this microwave, I asked Stacey to buy us a small countertop model. It was infinitely safer and easier to use this microwave. While I still needed to stand up to take food in and out, it was surrounded by countertops where I could assemble and place food. Plus, it was much easier to use the microwave than other appliances, such as the coffee maker.

First, I had to wheel over to the coffee maker, lock my wheelchair brakes, stand up and remove the pot then sit back down, release the brakes, and wheel over to the sink to fill the pot with filtered water after I locked the brakes and stood up. Then I reversed the steps to fill the coffee maker with water. Next, I had to remove the old filter and grounds, which I placed on the counter until I could wheel back to the sink where we have a container for kitchen waste. After getting another filter out of the drawer, I would have to wheel over to the refrigerator to get the coffee, often having to set the brakes before standing up to reach into the refrigerator. Once I had the coffee, it was time to roll back to the coffee maker, set the brakes, and empty grounds into the filter, and then plop back down in the chair, turn on the coffee maker and return the coffee to the refrigerator, where I’d remove the creamer… once the coffee was done, I would have to retrieve a cup, pour in the creamer, pour in the coffee, and then return the creamer to the refrigerator.

In-between working, usually 6 hours a day with lots of little breaks, I’d do stuff around the house, such as empty the kitty litter box, give the cats food and water, and water house plants. Sometimes I’d get super frustrated until I could figure out how to do them, given I could only stand on one leg. For instance, I placed one of the stools from our kitchen in the laundry room by the kitty litter box. I then used my walker to hop into the laundry room, sit on the stool, lean over and scoop out the poop and “lumps” into the trash can, next to the box.

Giving the cats water was more challenging. Using a walker, I’d lean over, and pick up the water bowl then hop over to the sink (usually spilling some of the water onto the floor) and empty out the water and clean the bowl. I’d then return the empty bowl to where the cats eat. Next, I’d fill a water bottle with water, put on the cap, hop over to the empty bowl, and pour in the water. Voila!

I also used a water bottle with a carabiner attached to the lid to water the house plants. I could easily loop the carabiner over one of my fingers and use both hands to steady myself as I used the walker to hop over to the plants. Although, one time, I didn’t secure the lid very well, and spilled an entire bottle of water onto the floor. Not good.

The biggest challenge I faced was pulling down the storm shutters in the middle of a storm. I hadn’t been watching the weather, and by the time the wind picked up, it was dark and blustery outside. I was able to successfully lower the blinds in our front “family” room by using the crank inside the house.

The ones off the kitchen, which go over three large windows, was stuck so I used my walker to go outside onto the deck to yank them down. Inconveniently, they were too high for me to reach, and there was no way I could use a step stool. How can you step up onto a stool if you only have one leg?

Fortunately, the shutters have a large eye-ring at the bottom. I hopped back into the house, and got a wooden spoon, which I inserted through the eye-ring, and using two hands – very unsafe – I grabbed both ends of the spoon and gave the shutters a tug. Success! They unrolled a few inches, so I could reach up and give them a more forceful yank.

I then hopped back into the house and cranked them down until they got stuck again. After a quick jaunt outside to give them a final tug, I was able to fully crank them down from inside the house. The remaining large shutter over the sliding glass door was also stuck, but I could pull it down from inside the house by opening the sliding glass door and yanking on it until it started to “fall.” After closing the door, I finished cranking it down.

The remaining shutters on the kitchen, master bedroom and master bathroom windows, use another system for raising and lowering, which is rarely an issue. Although, the shutter over the sliding glass door in the master bedroom had been rolled up too high, and was stuck inside the housing, but there was no way I could pull them down without standing on a step stool. A few days prior, a neighbor had tried unsuccessfully. It wasn’t until Chris, Rich’s son visited a week later, and analyzed the stuck shutter that he figured out how to pull it down by removing the tension on the “pull,” which was keeping it wedged in the housing.

Around 8 o’clock at night, after watching a little TV, I’d go to bed. I’d set up a shower chair in front of the bathroom vanity so I could use my walker for getting into the bathroom, and then sit on the chair while I brushed my teeth.

We ended up with three shower chairs. A large bench Stacy had bought and was in the shower, one from a local service club and another from a neighbor. The same club had also loaned us a wheelchair, walker, cane, crutches, and other mobility equipment. Having the shower chairs was useful for when I took a shower by myself. I was able to shuffle from chair-to-chair to get into the shower, and then repeat the process to get out.

On Wednesday evening, a week after coming home, it was fabulous to finally take a shower. Even better, I was able to shower without someone watching me like they did at Providence Mount St. Vincent. I let the hot water pelt my body and cascade down my left leg. I had special adhesive patches to cover up my open wounds so I could enjoy the steamy, comforting experience.

Afterwards, I peeled off the patches and covered the wounds with gauze. I had to change the gauze daily and closely monitor the wounds, which were persistently red, weepy, and whitish around the edges. I figured if the skin around the wounds was cool then they weren’t infected.

Getting into bed was a little tricky. I had to stand up and rotate, either from my wheelchair or a walker onto the edge of the bed, and then use my arms and good leg to pull myself up and onto the bed. Once lying down, I had to sit up and use both hands to lift my zombiesque left leg onto two pillows, so it was elevated.  

I’d sleep all night on my back – definitely not my favorite position — with a loose flannel sheet over my body for warmth. It was easier than trying to pull the covers up from the bottom of the bed over my immobile leg and the pillows.

Final lap of solitude

I was home by myself for six days. On Friday, June 21, Summer Solstice, and the 17-year anniversary of our civil wedding, Rich came home. Like me, it took quite a few hours to complete his discharge and to have Stacey drive him back to Coupeville through Seattle traffic, and wait for the ferry to Whidbey Island.

A few days earlier, Chris and his wife, Shawnie, and their two children, Coen and Caitlyn, along with Shawnie’s mother, Lettie, had driven up from Camas, WA to see Rich. On Friday afternoon, they continued onto Coupeville to spend a few days with us.

I was nervous having so many people in the house with Rich and I in wheelchairs, and me with frayed nerves and extremely emotional over everything from the wheelchair dance I had to perform to get behind my desk to taking care of the cats. As the day played out, it took until late afternoon for Rich and Stacey to arrive in Coupeville. The rest of the family went directly to their hotel in Oak Harbor to relax and use the pool.

I was giddy to see Rich. We’d been apart for 18 days. I’d seen him briefly on June 3 before he was wheeled away for brain surgery to repair his aneurism, and then for less than 15 minutes over the course of two days following the surgery. The next time I saw him was nine days later at Swedish Cherry Hill. That get-together was less than satisfying with Rich being antagonistic and agitated.    

I’d had several conversations with Rich since I got home so I knew he was doing better and was more aware of my situation. Although, I’m not sure he fully comprehended the extent of my injuries and temporary disability. He kept insisting I should be able to roll a trashcan to the top of our driveway for weekly garbage pick-up, and he wondered why I was so upset over the challenge of doing simple tasks like sweeping the floors.

While the day seemed to drag, I was surprised when I saw Stacey’s car pull into the driveway. Unable to rush out the door, since I couldn’t negotiate the front steps on one leg, I simply opened the front door and waited. After going through the house to open the garage door, Stacey was able to help Rich use a walker to get to the steps in the garage, and then using the newly installed handrails, hop up the two steps into the house, where his wheelchair was waiting.

I then wheeled over to see Rich, but he was completely enmeshed in the ordeal of coming home. While he recognized me, he was restless and clearly not interested in chatting.

No doubt, tired from dealing with Rich, Stacey unloaded his “stuff” into the house, and then promptly left to “chill-out” with Chris and the rest of the family at the motel. Everyone was going to return that evening for dinner, but in the meanwhile, Rich and I were given time to get reacquainted.

But like me, when I first got home, Rich was like a caged animal, frantically “wheeling” from room-to-room, trying to make sense of his new surroundings, struggling to recall what was once familiar, and overwhelmed with anxiety.

Realizing it was best to leave him alone, I rolled over to my massage table, laid down, and cried. 

To be continued.