Embracing Life Challenges

Therapy isn’t fun, but the progress and inspiration I get from other patients encourages me. Last week I met JR. He’s a recent amputee who is embracing his new life challenges. I told JR about Uniting Caregivers and asked him if he’d allow me to share his story. He graciously agreed to let me interview him.

I took a seat in the large, open sitting room just as you enter inside Rocky Mountain Care in Riverton, Utah. This area is a popular place for the in-patients to read, do crossword puzzles or chat with visitors, so we found a quiet corner by the grand piano looking towards a fireplace which wasn’t lit due to the unseasonably warm November day. The home-like atmosphere makes this place comfortable, but I have to admit, I’m glad to be here as an out-patient.

JR is sitting in a wheelchair wearing a white T-shirt with dark blue, bold letters which say, “I’m retired. Do it yourself!” I told him I look forward to wearing a T-shirt like that someday. He told me he bought it in California as a statement to his grown children. They brought their kids for him to watch every day after he retired from a newspaper printing company in 2011. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my grandchildren, but I had just retired and wanted time to do some things which I couldn’t do before retirement.”

I nodded and told him it made sense to me.

“You know you never retire from family. I wouldn’t want to,” he said as he shrugged his shoulders. “It’s just every day that made it too hard.”

I asked JR what diagnosis brought him here.

“Well, in 2001, I was diagnosed  with type 2 diabetes. It progressively got worse and by 2011, I couldn’t drive anymore because I didn’t have feeling in my feet. I couldn’t feel the gas or brake petal. I could step on a tack or staple and not feel a thing. I couldn’t feel items on the outside of my feet, but inside, my feet were very painful.”

“That sounds awful,” I said.

“Yes, and it partly led to my retirement, but the hardest part was I’ve always been an outdoor person. My feet problems made camping or driving ATV’s hard. I finally bought a Jazzie to save my feet and to use it to motorize when I’m outdoors. I also have a manual wheelchair for when I would go out to Village Inn or do other activities. I like to use that chair when I’m indoors.”

“Aren’t wheelchairs great,” I added. “My husband needs an outdoor and indoor wheelchair too.”

JR nodded in agreement.“They allow me some independence and I knew this was coming,” he said as he glanced down at his gray sock which covered his shortened leg. Later he told me the compression sock which covers the ace wrap around the newly cut leg is called a “shrinker.” It decreases swelling, which is critical for the proper fitting and use of an artificial leg.

“What happened,” I asked.

“I got an ulcer in my ankle. The open sore failed to heal even after weeks of being on a heavy duty antibiotic through an IV pic line. On week four of fighting the infection I had surgery to clean it out. Week eight they did an MRI which showed the infection had gone into the bone. On week nine my skin actually peeled when they unwrapped my leg. My toe was black. The infection had moved down into my foot and toes. That’s when the decision was made to do an amputation,” he said in a matter-of-fact way.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve heard it’s harder to heal when you have diabetes.”

“Yes it is. I fought the infection for about three months. The doctor called it gangrene and recommended amputation.”

September 1st they did the first cut on his right leg and he was scheduled for a second surgery six days later. On that sixth day he was feeling pretty good and thought he could get to the bathroom on his own. Unfortunately, he fell and broke his left hip. Instead of surgery on the amputated leg that day he had a titanium rod placed in the left femur, which was secured with two screws into the broken hip. The following day he had his second surgery on the right leg. In an eight day period of time he had three surgeries. After twenty-one days of hospitalization he was taken to the care center on a stretcher for rehab.

“The first week was torture. Not because of the amputation, but because of the broken hip. I worked hard and have done more than they’ve asked me to do. The hip has been the most painful.”

jrI first met JR on Halloween. My therapist said, “You have to meet JR, he’s a great example of embracing life challenges.” She wheeled JR into the room. I had to smile as she introduced us; he was dressed like a pirate, complete with a wooden branch for a peg leg.

I told him he looked great and we both laughed. I thought his jolly disposition along with his long white beard and hair made him also a good candidate for Santa Claus. He later told me about the trick-or-treaters who came that evening. One boy asked him what happened to his leg. His father seemed embarrassed and hurried him on to the next bag of treats. Another boy also asked what happened, but this time JR was given the time to respond.

“I was in a sword fight and lost my leg. Boy—did that boy’s eyes get wide,” JR said with a mischievous smile. “I imagine his dad had some explaining to do later,” he chuckled.

JR and I discussed how this incident reminded me of many conversations we’ve had through the years where children ask questions about Mark being in a wheelchair or why he talks the way he does. Some just bluntly ask, “What happened to you?” Or simply state, “You talk funny.”

“Some parents are so mortified they turn away and rush their child away from us. This actually makes us feel more awkward. Parents don’t need to be embarrassed. We understand Mark looks and sounds different than most,” I said.

JR agreed and added, “I’m not ashamed of my missing leg. I didn’t do anything wrong. It is what it is.”

JR shared his goals and timeline with me and said he should have his artificial leg on November 28th. He also has some work to do at home, especially modifying the shower because he won’t be able to stand to shower. He’s working on those arrangements as well as his rehabilitation.

“I want to be independent and I can be with modifications. I know there will be some limitations, but I can work around those. I came in on a stretcher, but I’ll walk out of here.” Then he added, “Hopefully before Christmas.”

Thank you, JR, for sharing your story. I really appreciate your example of embracing life challenges. Best wishes to you and your family as you make the transition home. It’s been my pleasure getting to know you and I won’t forget your example along with others at Rocky Mountain Care who have made my shoulder rehabilitation more pleasant.

There’s No Place Like Home

Nestled in the gorgeous Wasatch Mountain range is the beautiful Sundance resort. For the past several years my brother Steve has pampered us along with our parents and other siblings to a delicious dinner and outdoor theater tickets. Just a few days before Mark’s surgery in July, we found peace and entertainment surrounded by the huge pine trees as we enjoyed the Wizard of Oz. The storyline and music were perfect timing for the turmoil ahead. A few tears streamed down my face as Dorothy sang, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. The promise of blue skies, dreams coming true and troubles melting like lemon drops gave me hope for a brighter future. I’ve reflected on the story often through Mark’s recovery.

In the classic story written 77 years ago, of Dorothy and her dog, Toto, being caught in a tornado’s path which took them to the magical Land of Oz where life is strange, but beautiful. Wishing to return home, she is helped by the Good Witch of the North, but in trouble with the Wicked Witch of the West. She follows the yellow brick road to Emerald City where the great wizard lives in hopes he can take her back to a familiar way of life with the people she loves. In her travels she meets a scarecrow who wants a brain, a tin man who yearns for a heart and a cowardly lion who desperately needs courage. They all hope the Wizard of Oz will help them before the Wicked Witch of the West catches up with them. There are many twists and turns in their journey to meet the wizard who everyone says can help Dorothy return home and grant her new friends their wishes for a brain, heart and courage.

It’s common to hear in the halls of a rehab center, “I want to go home.” I’m quite sure it is the sentiment of most patients and the motivation for everyone who works hard in therapy. Some landed in rehab after surgery, while other storms such as a stroke, illness or loss of limb brought them there. All have left the comfort of their home in an effort to improve or save their health. The physical condition cyclone has taken each of them to a life that’s strange and unfamiliar. It’s made beautiful by a caring environment and other patients who understand the pain and share the goal of recovery. Wishing to return home, each is helped by good doctors, nurses, aides and therapists. The patients follow their advice like Dorothy followed the yellow brick road in hopes to get the help they need to return home. In real life there’s no Wizard of Oz who can magically get you home with all your goals achieved. Instead it takes persistent and painful work. Just as the scarecrow, tin man and lion found out, most patients learn from the journey they have within them what it takes to obtain their desire.

Dorothy was right, there’s no place like home and on Friday we were finally able to return. There is nothing more restful than sleeping in my own bed. However, I appreciate wonderful places like Rocky Mountain Care when we’re not capable or safe to be home. I’m filled with gratitude for therapists who work a bit of magic with their knowledge, and a caring staff that is all heart. I value the friendships we made there and am motivated by their life stories and courage. The environment there is very different from home, but it’s made beautiful as people improve and friendships form.

It’s hard to say goodbye to people we may never see again, who have inspired us in our lowest hours and have been with us daily in the pain and success of recovery. We return home changed by our experience and blessed by many people’s influence.

I am grateful to Steve for a wonderful annual summer tradition and for this years play which reminded me that Somewhere Over the Rainbow, skies truly are blue.