06/09/2015 07:04 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016

Live And Live a Life


You've had a serious catastrophe -- a stroke, a heart attack, cancer, whatever. You feel like death itself. You're devastated. You're more than discouraged. You're not really sure it's all worth it. Well, life is, and the alternative isn't!

You "wake up." You lie on a white bed, in a white "gown," in a white cubicle in a white room, in a strange place. Everything is out of focus. You think, Where am I? What am I doing here? Wherever here is? Welcome to your new temporary quarters. It's a hospital. And, you're alive. You look around, trying to get your bearings. You're confused.

The first thing that hits you is the smell. It's a foreign smell and peculiarly clean and antiseptic, rather like a garage sprayed with perfumed kerosene. As you waken more, you begin to separate the many smells. There is the antiseptic smell, the dry and powdery smell of pills and medication, the aroma of a multitude of medicines and disinfectants together with the strong odor of sweat from other anxious patients, tempered by scrubbed soap and water purification of all the doctors, nurses, assistants and other help, as they scurry in and out of your life.

The second item of your "trying to understand where and what you are" journey are the sounds. There was constant chatter from the rest of wherever (cells or cubicles or rooms), mindless attempts to reassure by relations and visitors. And the voices of the medical professionals, so calming and placating.

Then there were the sights, as much as you can see. Blurry at first. Then you begin to focus on the decor of this new life. A florescent light hovers overhead and the bed, a prison of sorts, with racks and bars. A phone and a corded button thing that must be for something (at least you can't feel abandoned.) There are gauges, tubes, plugs, thermometer-like things, curtains for "privacy," closet, chest-of-drawers, chair (or two) round out the scenery. Then there is a door, going somewhere -- the hall, the toilet? The space is small and confining. Beyond, there are lights and bigger spaces, places. Everything really looks the same in the nothingness of artificial light. And, as is common in such places of illness and recuperation (hospital and rehabilitation, of course) there are lines of people hustling to and fro. Nurses breezing by in their starched gowns, doctors making the rounds, checking vital signs, listening, looking and making notes on those things that hung precariously at the bottom of where you are lying (or into a little microphone attached to his costume and connected to who knows where.) And other people come and go, cleaning, emptying, banging mops and containers. You watch and helplessly try to speak. But so often, these efforts are but part of the noise, part of the frustration, part of where and what you are, mixed with the groans and sighs from other helpless companions. Seemingly, sounds to be ignored in favor of the business of this place. But, your good times are coming.

Next stop, rehabilitation! Little did I know, little do we know, except it is a very good thing. OK. This is where you are. This is where I was. This is what is. So, what are you going to do? Want to live, and live a life? Rehabilitation is a big word. Medical word. What does it mean, for you? It's your future. It means regaining lost skills and teaching new skills to replace what's lost. And it's just practice, like learning to play baseball, or the piano. What's the old school teacher saying: "do it over and over and over again until you get it right!"

And that's what you do in rehabilitation, you rehabilitate you after a catastrophic stroke, heart attack, accident or debilitating illness. You've got to use different muscles, different nerves, develop different "wiring" for the body to make it all work, and the most important element in any rehabilitation program is directed, focused repetitive practice. Rehabilitation therapy begins in the hospital after a person's condition has been stabilized. Let's use stroke. That's my problem and my opportunity. And, yours, because the basics are all the same.

Rehabilative therapy for stroke survivors is nothing more or less than rewiring the brain and body to function, as close to what was as possible. It's involving relearning movement and skills that were lost when the brain was damaged (or heart or blood, etc.) Rehabilitation teaches survivors new ways of doing old things. Of performing tasks to circumvent or compensate for "disabilities" or impaired functions. There is a consensus among the medical experts that the most important element in any rehabilitation program is that well focused repetitive practice. By you! Nothing is hopeless, nothing is impossible. It only seems that way at times. You can work miracles -- if you just try!

How does it work? You're prompted to move in your hospital bed. Simple things like moving arms and legs. Sitting up and lying down. Changing positions. Rolling over. Reaching for things and then doing. The idea is to get the body to move, to function, as you will it. Not just lying there, helpless. Helpless -- not, nothing's hopeless. Just force it. You'll know what and when, to do, to stop. Your body will tell you (but the mind will be your guide), you'll know when to force it. Then there are motion exercises -- hands, arms and legs. Start slow, work up to "working up a sweat." The idea is to strengthen the limbs and make them coordinate with your brain and your nerves. Depending on many factors, including the extent of the illness or injury, you may be able to sit up, even climb out of your shell and move between the bed and a chair to standing, bearing your own weight, even walking with or without assistance.

Necessary antidote: At first, I was relegated to a wheelchair, then a walker, then a cane (it was over a few years and a deal of effort) and then my caregiver, a very concerned and strong person, took the cane and threw it into a nearby lake, saying: "God gave you two legs, walk!" I did and I am. The caregiver was my wife and it's called "tough love" and the reason for the story is that the tenant is a part of rehabilitation and many times the end justifies the means. And the story emphasizes the fact the life will govern how you react, respond and do.

Beyond initial work with the body and brain, nurses and therapists will help patients perform progressively more difficult, eventually complex tasks such as bathing, dressing, using a toilet, etc., encouraging you to use the impaired limbs for the job. "Use it or lose it" is the motto for recovery. It's the first step in a return to independence. Be prepared because for some, rehabilitation can be an ongoing process to maintain and refine your skills and could involve months, years of working, alone and with therapists.

What's it been for me... 47 years. But it was well worth it. Take my word... why? I'm alive and you'd never know I wasn't just a regular guy. Just continue to read these words, the articles, the posts and you'll find out, and why they're written for YOU!