Posted in #Confessions, Fears and Worries

Vulnerable

           

Story and Photography by Nancy Malcolm

Walking to the car, I was afraid I would not make it safely locked inside before the tears came.  The car was stifling, and as the engine came alive, I sat with my face in my hands crying big, hot tears of shame, and then something else. 

            I had just come from one of my last sessions of physical therapy.  Last November I had my first total knee replacement and this July I had the second knee done.  It has been an arduous year of pain, healing, and regaining strength and balance.  And after all of that, here I am reduced to tears in the parking lot of my physical therapist, right next to a Bed Bath and Beyond and a Party Pig. 

            If I am to tell the truth, which, by the way is a very vulnerable place to be, this is my first bout of tears since I started this transformational journey.  I have not cried since I made my resolve to complete the surgeries.  I could not waiver,  I had to stay the course and commit to the nineteen-month-long process.  There would be no turning back.

            In my mid-thirties I began to feel pain in my knees that was unexplained.  I was told to do strengthening exercises, and possibly have arthroscopic knee surgery to remove cartilage fragments.  But, as my thirties gave way to my fifties and sixties the x-rays showed osteoarthritis in the kneecap.  One doctor said, “You have the knees of a thirty-year-old and the kneecaps of an eighty-year-old.  Someday you’ll have to get your knees totally replaced.”  I have taken Rooster Comb (Hyaluronic acid) shots in my knees, cortisone shots, Celebrex and Aleve in large doses, and I’ve rubbed on every kind of ointment, even purchasing ‘Blue Emu’ cream, heralded as a miracle cure by my little Auntie Sue. 

            But, finally what made me ready for surgery was the excruciating pain and the even more excruciating embarrassment of not being able to walk down a flight of stairs, or go on hikes, or play on the floor with my grandkids. I felt like an imposter as I waited in line for the elevator with those who obviously needed it more than me.  I was ashamed of my disability.

            I want to be able to climb the bleachers of my grandson’s ballgames and dance with Boo at our 50th wedding anniversary.  I want to play chase with my grandkids and ride bikes until our heart’s content.  I want to enjoy what’s left of my time here on earth and if possible, if I am granted the blessings I may not deserve,  to do all of that without pain.  So, when my orthopedic doctor said, “I think you’re ready.”  I mentally prepared myself for the road ahead.

            Arthritis is a cruel disease that affects your joints causing inflammation or degeneration of your joints, creating great pain.  Sometimes, Osteoarthritis of the fingers, knees, or hips follows an injury.  I badly injured my knee while in college, by falling down a flight of stairs, but who can know for sure if that was the beginning culprit, only that it happened. 

            All of these things were not in my thoughts as I sat in my car after physical therapy.  Only minutes before I had been standing on a 3-inch-high wooden block, shaking like a leaf.  It had been two and a half months since my surgery, but it was time to tackle the stairs.  “I’m scared to bend my knee, I’m afraid it won’t hold me,”  I said.

            The fresh-faced, twenty-something-year-old physical therapist stood in front of me saying, “I’m right here, I won’t let you fall.”  And as silly as this might sound to you, I knew I had a choice.  I could try and keep trying or I could cower away in fear and settle for less. After all, I am a grown woman and if I say I’m not ready, I’m not ready.  If I don’t want to put myself through the pain and soreness, I don’t have to.

            My choice, though, was not to waste my pain.  I’d come this far and the thing I wanted most was right in front of me.  But, I was afraid, and I was ashamed that this young girl was having to help me when I should have been able to do it myself. I felt like a whiney baby, a scaredy-cat afraid of a 3-inch step when there are so many people who would be happy to be in my place.  My journey of pain and rehabilitation was finally coming towards a pivotal point, and I knew I had to find a way to push through.

            Sitting in my car, I was feeling months of hard work, pain, and the shame I have carried for a long time.  The shame surrounding what I should be able to do, shame at something that was not even my fault.  I am not a crier by nature, but I am tenderhearted, and sometimes that can serve me well. At that exact moment, I needed a little compassion.  I wanted to say, “It’s ok to be afraid, you can do it.  Give yourself some time.”  But all I heard in my head was negative. “You’ll never be able to do this.  Just give up.”

            The walk to the car was like a walk of shame until I sat down, and the tears fell. My tears cleansed a part of my heart that had been overgrown with fear and anxiety.  My tears were a release of the gratitude I feel towards my God and my surgeon, my family, and my friends.  My heart overflows with thankfulness that I am healing well, getting stronger, and relearning to climb stairs.  I am grateful to have less pain.  I am grateful for insurance and Medicare.  I am grateful for all of the kind, compassionate people who have been put in my path during this medical odyssey.

            It is not easy to let yourself be vulnerable.  You must first accept your truth, without judgment, and without comparing yourself to how you think others would behave.  Brene’ Brown, a famous professor, lecturer, and author actually wrote a book about vulnerability, Daring Greatly.  In that book, she says that “Vulnerability sounds like truth but feels like courage.”  And that is exactly how I felt.

            After the tears slowed, I drove home debating whether to tell Boo about my ‘meltdown.’  I was already trying to make light of my feelings by using that derogatory term.  But, right before bed, I told him everything and to my surprise, I cried all over again.  He listened, almost like he has never done before, and held me tight like a little child.  It seems Brene’ Brown was absolutely right.  My vulnerability to share my truth felt so courageous and Boo could feel the truth and openness as it went from my heart to his.  My willingness to be open transformed everything. The gratitude I feel for health and healing allows me to be afraid and do it anyway. The willingness to be vulnerable gave way to gratitude and that has made all of the difference.

“What makes you vulnerable makes you beautiful.”  Brene’ Brown

Posted in #Confessions, Aging

The Bee’s Knees: Continued

The first Monday meeting with Mitchell, my young, handsome physical therapist, started off with a bang.  “Have you been to the restroom yet?  You know, pooped?”  he asked.

“Not yet,” I said quietly.

“It’s really important, so let’s keep taking what you’re taking and drink lots of water.  The more you walk the better it will be.” 

Ya’ll, I have a friend who swears her mother used to ask her, “Have you do-do’d today?” Every time she feigned she was too sick to go to school, her mother would point her finger right at her face and ask the dreaded question, “When is the last time you do-do’d?”

Mitchell and I walked a loop through my house, with me on my walker and Mitchell right behind me, holding a white, thick belt tied to my waist so he could keep me from falling.  He evaluated my uneven gait and chanted, “Heel-toe, heel-toe.”  We then went through a ‘lofty’ set of exercises, to be done three times a day.  Next, he checked my incision and reminded me, “When the pain ball runs out, probably Friday, you’ll feel a slight surge in pain levels.  Just want you to keep that in mind.”

I was starting to get really scared.  Scared about the pain ball (how much will it hurt to take it out?) and what will happen to me if I don’t, you know?  Pain and poo, two very big topics that dominated my thoughts day and night.   But, because I am a doctor on Google, I read everything I could about both topics and I must say I found out it could go either way…good or bad. Good, like an easy-peasy potty time and absolutely no pain in removing the wire inside my leg.  Or bad, like missing the toilet and landing on my butt and twisting my new knee, causing me to have corrective surgery.

Friday morning Mitchell arrived with a smile. “Let’s check your pain ball.”

“No need,” I said.  “It’s empty.”

“Ok then.  Let’s take it out.”

“Should I take a shot of whiskey? Or bite a bullet?” I joked.

He laughed and said, “I know, right?”

I laid on the edge of my bed, closed my eyes, and he peeled the surgical tape off my thigh to reveal the wire, which had been threaded down the front nerve of my leg.  I was trying to mentally prepare for the pain, when he said, “It’s over.”  And just like that I was freed from the pain ball and looking forward to a new surge of discomfort.

“Remember,” Mitchell said, “Stay ahead of the pain and go to the restroom.  See you Monday.”

After Mitchell left, I drank one more glass of Metamucil on top of all the other laxatives, just for good measure.  Sadly, I realized too late, that it had not been necessary.  At five o’clock, my stomach started to rumble, tumble, roll, and grumble.  For some reason, I felt the need to tell Boo, “Something’s happening.”

“Let the games begin!!” he laughed.

Five o’clock also marked the onset of the dreaded ‘surge of pain.’  I will spare you the gory details, but when I felt I’d better head toward the restroom, I immediately knew my speed on the walker, was not as it should be.  Never in my life could I have planned that the pain and the poo would happen on the same day and same time and stay all weekend long.  Boo, hollered from the den, “Do you need some help?”

Banging my walker into the door frame, I screamed back, “Leave Me Alone!”

Truthfully, I have only screamed once during this whole ordeal, and this was it. 

“No problem,” he answered.

The infamous ‘surge in pain’ was like my knee was waking up a week later from the surgery.  Shooting pain, dull aching pain, and stabbing pain settled in on my incision and the very back behind my knee.  I took every pain pill allowed me and still prayed to fall asleep.  The pain came in waves, like a rolling storm off the coast, battering and ramming my body until I thought I would break.  The only rest from the pain was from the sudden urge to run to the restroom because I needed a level head to maneuver my way through the bathroom door with the awkward walker.  I was a very hot mess!

 Things could only get better after this extremely low point because, after all, this was just the first week of my recovery.

Monday morning, Mitchell said I looked a little pale, but applauded my efforts and we set up a new pain med plan.

“Let’s get rid of the walker and go to a cane,” he said.

“How about tomorrow?  I need a few more hours,” I said.

“Deal.”

That night I went to my closet and found the cane my grandpa actually carved for himself.  It was the same cane my grandma used as well, and now I was the proud recipient. Who would have guessed it?  The cane was a perfect simple shape and sanded smooth as silk.  Grandpa had painted it a dark brown and shellacked it to a beautiful sheen.  The grip was worn in places and as I stood to try it out, tears rolled down my face, imagining my grandparents’ touching this very same cane.  I felt their spirit with me. This cane fit me just right and I felt safe and secure knowing my grandparents had in some way, been sent to take care of me.

I practiced that night and the next day it was trial by fire as I learned to walk with the cane.  Does anyone remember Festus from Gunsmoke? 

At the end of week two, I saw the physician’s assistant and she took off my bandage.  I was predicting a Frankenstein scar, but it wasn’t quite that bad.  Turns out my surgeon was a brilliant seamstress.  One surprising thing about my knee now is that it feels hot at times from the swelling and has a slight pinkish color.  They promised it will go away.  But, part of my knee is numb, and that will not go away.  As I was leaving, the P. A. said I could begin practicing driving.  It was music to my ears, and I felt the breeze of freedom floating in my near future. Although it was another two weeks away, I had hope that I could recover and finally go somewhere by myself.  No offense, Boo.

Soon Mitchell and I began to go for walks outside.  On my 2nd walk, we ran straight into my neighborhood friend, which you may remember as my Walker Stalker.  John wanted to know what had happened to me, where had I been, and “Who’s this?”

“This is Mitchell,” I said. “My physical therapist.”

 But John never really registered what I said, until finally, he asked, “Now, who is this? Is this your grandson?” 

We just smiled and said, “Well, I’ve gotta keep walking, John.  See you soon.”

As time went on, I begged Boo to ride with me a half-mile down the road to our community mailboxes.  “I don’t need to practice anymore,” I said, as I slightly hobbled to the car.  But once to the car, I had to pick up my leg to actually get in.  Bending my knee was torturous, in the beginning.  I really didn’t realize how strenuous getting in and out of a car and driving one mile could be.

“I don’t think you’re quite ready,”  Boo said as I came to a stop.

I knew he was right, but I also knew I was very close to my independence.  “I’m on my way back, baby!  Just wait and see!”

I finally graduated from Mitchell to outpatient physical therapy.  My weeks of exercising, icing, resting, and walking have now turned into two months.  My out-patient physical therapist is a seemingly sweet-looking, young woman named, Thea.   Don’t let her smiling, girl-next-door exterior fool you, she’s no-nonsense and hell-on-wheels.  But, thanks to her and Mitchell, I’m making great progress.  At my 8-week check-up, my doctor was very pleased.  “You’re one-third of the way healed.  Keep up the good work.”  He also told me it will take one full year to feel normal and strong, and I’m starting to believe him.

Everyday, there is a little less pain and stiffness, and everyday there is hope for better sleep. I’m walking, driving, sitting, standing.  I’m off my addiction to Cheetos.  I’ve gone on a trip, grocery shopped, and been to Costco twice.  I’m still telling Boo, I may not be able to cook for another month or so, but he’s fine with that because it means fewer vegetables.

I’m grateful to have insurance and Medicare.  I’m grateful to all my friends who loaned me the walker, icing machines, and tall potty chair.  The friends who brought me food and visited when I was still in my wrinkled pajama pants and greasy hair, and I’m grateful to Boo who never left my side, even when he wanted to!  Who has put up with my groaning and moaning and talking about myself until we are both sick of it. 

Sometimes Boo is a saint.

Originally, I planned to have my other knee done in March, but as time goes on, I think it best to wait until July. We have a trip planned for the end of March and one in June. Feeling stronger and having a little fun will put me in the right frame of mind to do this all again. (I hope).  And Boo will have a chance to rest up before his next nursing duty.

People continue to ask me, “Aren’t you so glad you had the surgery?” 

“Not yet,” I answer, “But, I know I will be.”  And that really is the truth.  I know I will be, especially after the next surgery.  As my grandma used to say, “If the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.”  I will be so, so glad I’ve had the opportunity to get my new pair of knees!”

My girls, my grandma, and my cane.
Ready for an outing with Grandma and her walker!

Posted in #Confessions, Aging

The Bees Knees

The Bees Knees: Part I

I come from sturdy stock. I’ve survived a lot from my childhood and growing up years.  My threshold for pain is high, like natural childbirth high, but the last thirty-eight days have brought me to my knees.

Grandma

My arthritic knees, a gift from my grandma, have been a source of pain and embarrassment since my thirties.  I have repeatedly rubbed Aspercream, Voltaren cream, and Icy Hot on these bony knees  I’ve had cortisone shots, rooster cone shots, and rotated ice with heat.  I would slowly rise from chairs and avoid all stairs in favor of an elevator.  Worrying about my knees has consumed a lot of my life for thirty-plus years.

On a vacation to Washington D.C. a few years ago, I clung to Boo’s arm as we made our way up the eighty-seven steps from the Reflection Pool to the Lincoln Memorial.  Rubbing my knees and reverently limping around while snapping photos, I told Boo, “There’s got to be an elevator somewhere.  I don’t think I can make it back down.” 

I looked all around and found a small sign that said Elevator.  It was in the back, back corner of the monument.  One lone person in a wheelchair was parked right in front of the elevator doors. “I’ve been waiting for the elevator to come back up for quite a while,” she said.

            “I’m going to get my husband and grandson; will you hold the door?”  I asked.  And she gave me the thumbs up.

            Rushing to find Boo and Sam, I called, “Come on guys, I located the elevator!”

            Turning the corner, I saw the back of the lady in the wheelchair rolling into the elevator.  With her was an assortment of people on crutches, walkers, and canes.  I grabbed Boo and my grandson Sam, urging them to get in.  All of a sudden Boo says, “Uhh, we’ll meet you at the bottom,” and they walked away. “Chicken!!!”  I called after them.

 I squeezed myself into the tiny steel trap, making the other riders move closer together.  It took a good 5 minutes for the trembling, creaky doors to finally close and I pushed the dirty-looking number ‘one’ on the wall of the elevator.  Casually, I glanced to see if there was a number to call if we were to get stuck, but it was too faded to read.

  Another long minute later, the elevator jolted and then shuddered as it began to move.   S l o w l y, the airless box moved downward, while the wafting July body heat and odor settled heavy on my skin. The smell of old, tarnished metal and flattened carpet that may never have been vacuumed, made me feel claustrophobic.  My fellow riders exuded smells from Bengay cream, onions from lunch, and cigarette smoke.  I felt a little throw-up in my mouth but managed to hold my breath for the remainder of the ride.

 It felt like an eternity as we bumped and gyrated to a stop, waiting another eternity for the doors to open.  Luckily I was the first one-off, cursing under my breath at Boo for leaving me and my knees for causing me this stress.

“What took you so long, Nannie?” my grandson asked when I jumped out.

“I’ll tell you later,” I said and took a gasp of fresh air.

            So, when my doctor told me this October, “You can take shots and rub creams until you are one hundred years old, but nothing will ever heal your knees.  You need knee replacement surgery if you want your life back.” 

I cheerfully said, “Let’s do it!”  I felt certain this would be my answer as I halfway listened to his explanation about the surgery.  I must have blocked out the warnings about throbbing discomfort afterward and tortuous rehab exercises.  I zeroed in on the statements, “You’ll be so glad you had the surgery.  You’ll be better than brand new.”

On November 8th I arrived at the hospital at 4:45 a.m. and went directly into Pre-Op, where things started to move way too fast. When the anesthesiologist came in to do a nerve block, I started asking, “When do I get the happy juice?”  

Wire threaded down the front of my leg.

The nerve block is started at thigh level and a wire is threaded down a major nerve on the front of the leg. Then pain medicine is released through a ball of meds that completely blocks pain in the leg for one week. The nurses and doctors were so kind and thorough and when they told me to sit up in the operating room to get my spinal block, I remember asking, “I hope my doctor had a good breakfast.”  That was the last I remember.

Two- and one-half hours later, I was in the recovery room asking when I could eat. I felt drowsy but happy. I told my surgeon, “This was a breeze. Thank you. I’m going to be your best patient ever! You’ll see.”

He smiled and patted my foot, “Keep the good attitude!  You’ll need it.”

When I got to my room, I noticed something was attached to me.  “What’s this?”  I asked the nurse.

‘It’s your nerve block pain medicine.  It’s stopping all of the pain right now.  You’ll have it for one week and then it comes out.  You’ll be so glad you have it.  By the way, you have to take a stool softener and a laxative starting today.  Pain medicine stops you up.”  Still on my ‘happy juice’ high, I didn’t really soak in the reality of what she had just said.

Approximately ninety minutes later, the physical therapist came in and suggested we go for a walk.  “Sure,”  I said.

As I sat up the nurse helped me with my IV and the nerve block pain ball that I had to wear around my neck because it was attached to my leg. The pain ball was in its own little black bag, like a purse.  I tried to move myself to the edge of the bed and discovered I had to use my hands to lift up my own leg to place it in position.  The therapist put that stylish white cotton belt around my waist so I wouldn’t fall, and off we went down the hall for a 10-foot walk.

The whole twenty-four hours I spent in the hospital was full of walks and threats.  “Be sure to drink your Miralax and take your stool softener.”  “If you don’t pee, you’ll get a catheter.”  “You have to eat.”  There were pages of information given to me and more “Be sure to..” reminders and then poof, I was discharged and going home.  Still a little loopy from pain medicine, I asked Boo, “Please stop and buy a bag of Cheetos.  I need them.”

Boo gave me a sideways glance, knowing I forbid Cheetos in the house due to my addiction to those orange, crunchy sticks of deliciousness. 

“Right now?” he asked.

“YES.”

The next day, the at-home physical therapist came by to begin my three times a week sessions.  I wanted to make a good impression, but sadly my greasy hair, old sweatshirt, and baggy pajama bottoms were all I could muster.  Oh, and did I say I was wearing a thigh-high pair of white compression hose?  When I answered the door using the walker a friend had loaned me, I saw a handsome, thirty-something, young man with a beautiful smile. 

“ Hi, I’m your physical therapist, Mitchell.  Ready to get started?

To be continued….