Wellness Wednesday: Why I Celebrated My Two-Year “All Clear” With New Shoes

Of all the tools I used to strengthen my body over my two-year recovery from a ruptured aneurysm, my trusty Skechers were the last to go.

I had three pairs of them, all army-issue grey, in sizes 7, 7.5, and 8. My husband bought them for me in Amsterdam during my hospitalization. It wasn’t that he didn’t know that I wear a 7. It was that my lower legs and feet were puffy from lack of use.

A long period of immobility with the legs dependent (below heart level) can lead to a build up of fluid, since we rely on the movement of the muscles in the leg to move the blood and fluid up out of the legs towards the heart.

The Vascular Society of Great Britain and Ireland

From May into June, I lay immobile in the ICU, my feet flexed against a pillow at the foot of the bed to prevent them from curling into each other, pigeon toed. For four weeks, my body battled its way back from the systemic-shut down that followed the ruptured aneurysm.

When I finally emerged from the fog of illness, I noticed how thin my arms and legs were (my puffy feet came later). My immediate thought: “This is fantastic! I can fit into my wedding outfit!” My second thought: “But I can’t move.” The ICU nurses strapped my flaccid thin legs to a bed-mounted motorized bicycle, and I began to work my way back.

It took another month to regain the ability to stand. There was no question about trying to get my unresponsive feet into even the bigger Skechers — if you’ve ever tried to put a shoe on a baby, you get the idea. Instead, I slid into a pair of pink plastic Crocs a roommate had left behind. Here I am taking the Crocs for a spin with my jazzy blue Rollator about 10 days before flying back to the States, with my very proud husband narrating for our daughter. (Yeah, I was pretty exhausted by the whole process, as my flat affect shows. Easy to forget that.)

At the end of July, I left the Crocs behind in Amsterdam and wore my size 8 Skechers when we flew to Shands Hospital in Florida before continuing my recovery back home. Those sturdy gray shoes took me shuffling down the neighborhood sidewalks and through my paces in FYZICAL therapy. My feet and calves stayed puffy, even with the compression stockings the therapist recommended. (They’re basically SPANX for your calves, hard to squeeze into and a relief to roll off.)

In November, the doctor at Shands suggested that the lower legs might not recover any further. “This may be it,” he said, matter of factly. “Maybe,” I said, and walked up two flights of stairs to our daughter’s apartment.

In February, we added Kumba, rescued by Labrador Retriever Rescue of Florida, to our household, and he kept me company in my morning walks, the two of us slowly gaining confidence in our frail bodies. My feet unswelled. I fit into my proper size of my battle-grey Skechers. I kept going into the pandemic, past a telehealth Shands checkup that showed continued progress, aiming at the two-year, in-person checkup that I hoped would release me back into the civilian population.

That day came at the end of July, and I threw out all three pairs of my illness-weary, pandemic-worn grey Skechers and replaced them with these Akk memory foam sneakers. One day, I might even update to heels! It’s a new day, a new year, and life awaits!

Family Friday: How Public Parks Improve Wellbeing

Paris’ Luxembourg Gardens

One of our favorite days of our 2018 week in Paris was the Sunday we spent in the Luxembourg Gardens, wandering along the sandy paths with other couples, grandmothers and grandchildren, entire families, “le tout Paris.”

Amsterdam’s Vondelpark

The following week, we discovered much the same bucolic feeling in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark, where pedestrians wandered the walkways, and flowers bobbed on the banks of shady streams.

Amsterdam’s Oosterpark

During my unexpected 2019 hospitalization in Amsterdam, my husband would wheel me across the street to Oosterpark. The joy of children playing, the ease of cyclists meandering the broad roads they easily shared with strollers, the green of the glades and sunshine on the meadows, were all part of getting me well.

Tampa’s Public Parks

Kodawari Studios Yoga at Armature Works
Kodawari Studios Yoga at Armature Works

And, a few weeks ago, our daughter took my husband and me to the Armature Works, a reimagined warehouse overlooking the Hillsborough River that has become a family recreational destination at the northern end of Tampa’s Riverwalk.

The night we were there, so many cars were turning in to park that I assumed there was some type of special event. Nope. There was food, music, the river, and a beautiful evening, and loads of space within which to simply enjoy taking a leisurely stroll. It occurred to me that we’d have all been watching TV at home or lost in social media, or doing some other sedentary non-activity if public space planners had not built us a destination.

Tampa’s Riverwalk

Thank you, public parks!

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.