Being Strong is Our Best Defense

It may have been a workout on the cruise ship that caused an undiagnosed aneurysm to develop a leak last May, but it was my body’s strength that kept me alive in the Amsterdam ICU. Still, as happens when you lie still for six weeks, I lost a quarter of my weight and most of my muscle. Three months later, I walked out of the OLVG Hospital and onto an airplane bound for home. The physical therapist at Shands Hospital proclaimed me ready for outpatient PT, which I completed on Halloween.

Being strong is our best defense.

A brief career as a modern dancer in the 1970s became a part-time job teaching exercise for the next 40 years, right up until we took the fateful cruise last spring. But it took nearly losing my life to impress upon me the value of being strong.

Today, as we isolate to protect ourselves and others from the coronavirus, we should be training our bodies to withstand whatever awaits us. We don’t know what lies ahead, but one thing is certain: whether it’s a paper cut or a vicious virus, something will threaten us.

Being strong is our best defense.

The Dutch healthcare system calls this “Better In, Better Out.” Patients who are in good condition before surgery recover faster and are less likely to suffer complications than patients whose physical condition is poor.

And here’s the challenge: nearly half of those who make it out of the ICU will lose critical muscle mass. Half of us end up with ICU-Aquired Weakness, unable to move. And if we can’t move, we won’t get back to living, not without a whole lot of compromise.

When I came out of the medical fog, I was initially mesmerized by my thin legs and arms. “I can wear my wedding outfit again!” Then, I realized I couldn’t move. After a lifetime of teaching others how to better use their bodies, I was unable to even lift a finger to help myself.

The OLVG Hospital physiotherapists were ready for me. A bed-mounted bicycle moved my legs for me. A harness sat me up and eventually stood me up. It was scary. It was uncomfortable. It was slow. It took 15 minutes and three people to get me out of bed. Progress came in the form of being able to me peel a tangerine, even if it took me an hour. Eventually, I walked.

Being strong is our best defense.

I rebuilt myself doing exercises like squats and pushup that engage multiple muscle groups, including critical core muscles. Walking to build stamina. Stretching to encourage good body alignment.

Today, I walked four miles. It took me just over an hour. I had great company in the form of our rescue, a black Lab recovering from his own journey from a shelter in Puerto Rico.

Watch your shoulders, and breathe!

Being strong is our best defense.

The Patience of an ex-Patient

My brain rushes through all the things I think I must do today, or tomorrow, or should have done yesterday: paying bills; cleaning house; making, changing, and keeping appointments. I’ve already done a mile walk and 20 minutes of squats, planks, and leg lifts. My daily crossword and cryptogram are complete. It’s too early to play my three hands of Solitaire.

None of it matters. Not really.

Six months ago yesterday, my normal world ceased to exist when I fell ill suddenly and nearly fatally in Amsterday. I didn’t die. I survived. I recovered. I came home. It took three months in a hospital bed and another three months of physical therapy, slow shuffles, and pool walks to get to today.

With our daughter’s dog Pancho.

I didn’t know I had that much patience. I didn’t know I had that much determination. I didn’t know would have an enormous global community rooting me on.

I didn’t know that our daughter and my sister would fly to my side and hold Ray up. And that the two of them would figure out how to get me home.

When I was in OLVG hospital, a sage doctor advised me to give myself time as I recovered to appreciate the journey.

“Don’t push to get back to where you were. Set small goals, and celebrate small victories. Take time to rest. Relax. After a few months, you’ll realize how much you’ve gained. And you’ll be where you need to be.”

So, these are my small victories.

Peeling a tangerine; twisting the cap off a yogurt drink; shuffling cards.

Bending one leg; rolling to one side; bending both legs; rolling to both sides.

Sitting up in the wheelchair at the park.

Learning to count to 10 in Dutch. Understanding that OLVG was gezellig.

Standing on legs that felt like hollow cardboard tubes. Taking that first step in my physiotherapist’s embrace. Taking a step without her.

Getting my own wheels and soloing down the hallway. My iPhone notifying me that I wouldn’t get calls while I was driving.

Getting prize foods for being a patient patient.

Going to a jazz concert in the OLVG chapel. Getting wheeled down for church by a volunteer. Finding the music of Tom Löwenthal on Apple Music that still lulls me to sleep.

Discovering I could manage without a catheter even on the long flight home, and that sausage, grits AND muffins for breakfast at Shands Hospital was part of the new normal.

Sleeping in our guest room, where the bed is low. Climbing into our own bed with my husband, falling asleep holding his hand.

Lantana Beach, Palm Beach County

Stationary biking. Treadmill walking. Squatting. Stretching.

Walker-walking. Cane-walking. Walking. Striding. Marching.

Graduating from FYZICAL physical therapy on Halloween.

I did end up paying a few bills, getting my nails done, and writing this piece today. I’m on my way to Shands for a status check on my previously aneurysmed arteries and embolismed lungs hoping to get off some medication and to be sent on my way.

My husband is driving, our daughter will meet us there, and my sister and brother-in-law will be here next week. That’s all that matters, really.

And you, dear readers.