Category Archives: Health and Healing

Reflections: On my worst (and best) Thanksgiving ever

Let me say first I LOVE Thanksgiving! It is my favorite holiday of the year. I love to make a big dinner for my family. For us there are traditional “must have” foods: monkey bread in the morning, and for dinner, turkey, homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole with fried onions on top, 7-up salad, homemade bread, cherry cheesecake and homemade pumpkin pie. Without these foods, it just isn’t Thanksgiving.

At least that was the case until two years ago on Thanksgiving. I had fallen the month before at my favorite academic conference. When I fell, I broke both my wrists. The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving were difficult ones in a variety of ways. I was learning how to be helpless. I was accepting with as much grace as possible that someone else had to do absolutely everything for me. I was dealing with incredible pain.

I was also dealing with the fact that my daughter, who had a job in retail, and who was a student at UNLV, a 19 hour drive away, was not going to be able to come home for Thanksgiving. I was trying to cajole, persuade, manipulate my son into accepting my plan that he and I should fly, or drive, to Las Vegas to be with his sister. I was desperate! Our going to Las Vegas was completely unrealistic on a lot of levels, not least of which was my physical incapacity, the exorbitant price of airfare just days before the holiday, and the fact that there was no way I was up to a 19 hour drive. But I just couldn’t handle the idea that we would not all be together for Thanksgiving.

This was a very emotional time during my healing process. The day before Thanksgiving my daughter messaged me and asked me for the recipe for 7-Up salad. As it turned out she was going to be able to have Thanksgiving dinner with some friends in Las Vegas after all. I did not respond well to this request. In fact, it made me cry. I no longer have the text messages that we sent back-and-forth. Stefan typing for me or me voice texting. But I know they went something like this. Me: “Wait! I thought you had to work all day on Thanksgiving! But I want you to come home and be with us! I miss you! :-(” Alyssa: “Mom, I just get to have dinner. I don’t have the whole day off. If I could come home I would. I can’t. You know that. So will you give me the recipe or not?” I gave her the recipe. “Stefan”, I began after Alyssa hung up the phone. “Mommy, we’re not going to Las Vegas”, he replied gently. I burst into tears. It’s hard to cry with both your wrists in splints when someone else has to wipe your tears and hold the Kleenex to help you blow your nose. I felt hopeless.

As it turned out, this was my best Thanksgivings ever!

I was moping around the house on Thanksgiving Eve when Stefan told me he had to run an errand. “Ok”, I replied without much enthusiasm. I don’t think I even offered to ride along. “It will take me a while. I have several stops to make”, he hollered from downstairs. “No problem”, I replied. “Be safe. I love you.” I curled up on my bed in the dark and waited for him to come back. I think I dozed off.

When Stefan got back he hollered up the stairs, “Hey Mom, I’m back. Can you come here a minute. I have something to show you.”. “Ok, I’m on my way”, I replied. As I turned the corner of the staircase I saw my beautiful daughter sitting on the couch. She jumped up, “Surprise”, she hooted. I burst into tears. She ran across the room and wrapped her arms around me. “I didn’t mean to make you cry; this was supposed to be a good surprise”, she said. “It’s a wonderful surprise”, I sniffled. “These are happy tears”. I rested my head on her shoulder as she wrapped her arms around me. Stefan wrapped his arms around both of us and we just stood there, happy to be together.

Alyssa had gotten the whole weekend off, purchased her plane ticket, and collaborated with her brother to surprise me. It was the best surprise I could have imagined.

That weekend, Alyssa took over my care, helping me shower, dress, brush my teeth and hair, manage the bathroom. She fed me with ease. I felt her love, care and compassion. I observed her learning, at her own rate, how to care for me, as I learned how to relax into her rhythm. I was still emotional at times, but incapacitation, pain medication, happiness, and holidays will do that to me.

We ended up having an amazing weekend. It quickly became clear that I had made no plans for Thanksgiving dinner and that I couldn’t cook anything. Alyssa said that was no problem as she and Stefan had decided we were just going to spend the weekend making our favorite foods and hanging out. She said, “You can tell us what to do, Mom, and we’ll do it!” We focused on comfort foods. I stood in the kitchen, or in the dining room looking over the counter, giving instructions. We made macaroni and cheese, 7-up salad, and monkey bread. Everything was delicious.

We snuggled in bed together and watched movies and all the episodes we could find of “Once Upon a Time”, Alyssa’s favorite show. I slept a lot. I would awaken to the sound of Alyssa and Stefan’s laughter or quiet talking. I would either smile and drift back to sleep, or wake to spend time with them. I was still on pretty heavy pain medication most of the time. But I was surrounded by the two people I love most in the world, my children. I thank my daughter for doing all she did to be with me, and her co-conspirator, my son, for giving me the best Thanksgiving ever.

Sidelined by Broken Wrists – Part 4 OR Why I <3 Dr. Jason Mettling, DPT

Some context: After the dancing accident, when it was clear I was hurt, my friends took me to an emergency room in Tacoma, Washington. When the x-rays came back, I learned that I had a triple fracture in my right wrist and a double fracture in my left. Miraculously, the fractures in both wrists were clean and there was no bone displacement. The physician in the ER put my arms, from elbow to finger tips, in cloth wrapped, plaster-based splints that went up the underside of each arm to the center of my palm. I curled my fingers forward over the lip of the plaster and once it hardened, the doctor wrapped gauze, then elastic wraps around my arms to my fingertips. He then put me in slings that crossed my arms over my chest, hands facing upward, and held them in place. The goal was to keep anything from moving until I could be assessed by an orthopedic surgeon. The ER doc said he hoped that nothing would move and that I would be able to avoid surgery and metal plates in my wrists.

When I got home to Wichita, my family physician took more x-rays thinking he’d just put me in casts. When he saw the extent of the damage and the fact that everything was still in place, he sent me to an orthopedic surgeon. My ortho doctor took more x-rays and as nothing had moved, decided to leave the splints on for several more weeks so that my wrists could start to heal. He said that if nothing moved in several weeks, we might move on to casting. If anything moved or was misaligned, he said, I would need surgery. After several more weeks, nothing had moved and my ortho doctor decided to keep me in splints a bit longer. He did think it was time to get my fingers moving again, so he cut the splints and the wraps to the base of my fingers so that I could move them. My fingers had been structurally paralyzed since my fall and it felt like there were fiery needles running through them when I tried to move them. The pain was excruciating.

That afternoon, I met my partner in healing, my physical therapist, Dr. Jason Mettling, DPT. To say that Jason played a pivotal role in my healing and recovery would be an understatement. He was critical to my mindset as I slowly regained capacity. He was kind, compassionate, always encouraging, always pushing (literally!!! and figuratively). He was funny; he was supportive. He was exactly the kind of engaging, involved partner I needed in physical therapy. Our personalities, our goals, my fears, my independence, my need for support, his firm direction, his clarity of purpose, his willingness to listen, to explain, and to explore, made us a perfect partnership for this stage of my healing adventure.

I was apprehensive about physical therapy. I was afraid of the pain and I was terrified that I would not be able to get full function back in my hands. Dr. Mettling built my trust from the beginning. I assumed that when the splints were cut I would be back to normal. I was wrong. I could barely move my fingers. I couldn’t touch my fingertips to my thumb. I couldn’t curl my fingers or make a fist. I had to learn to use my fingers, and later my hands, wrists, and arms all over again. This was going to be an uphill battle. When I first met Jason, he asked me if I trusted him. I replied, “I don’t know you.” He looked me straight in the eye and said “I can get you back where you were, but you have to trust me. It’s going to hurt, sometimes a lot, but there is a reason for everything we do.” His words helped counter my fear and gave me hope for a full recovery.

During our time working together, there were many ups and downs. My level of pain surprised both of us at some points. During one session I almost passed out due to the intensity of the pain. We strategized when I would take pain medication so that I would be able to work hard and endure during each session. As I reflect on Jason’s approach, I see him as a gentle torturer. He pushed me for the progress he wanted, both literally, as he applied pressure on my wrists to help increase my flexibility, and figuratively, encouraging me to do my homework.

During this process, I developed a serious dislike for wooden clothespins. Once I could get my fingertips near one another again, my next task was to regain finger flexibility and strength. My least favorite exercise involved holding a wooden clothespin between my thumb and a finger and opening and closing it. To begin with, I couldn’t open them at all. Later, I could open them a bit. Today, I can open and close a clothespin multiple times with each finger / thumb combination on both hands. I enjoyed playing in 3 pounds of raw rice more. This exercise had two main purposes. One was to get me used to resistance and to build flexibility. The second, in some ways more important purpose, was to reduce the hypersensitivity my hands and skin had developed after the accident. Any touch was painful. At first I had to put the rice in warm water and swish gently. As I overcame a bit of the sensitivity, I could play in the dry rice, moving my fingers through it, making fists around it, burying my hands in it.  I loved the tactile nature of this exercise and the progress I could see myself making.

One of the things Jason did especially well was see the advances I made and celebrate my progress. He was always encouraging. At times, this was what kept me going. I’ll never forget how hopeless I felt when I went to see my orthopedic surgeon (how telling is it that I can’t remember his name, but Jason’s comes easily to mind) and he wanted me to put my arms straight down in front of me, backs of my hands together, and then raise my arms along my body until my lower arms were parallel to the floor, all the while keeping the backs of my hands together. When he demonstrated it, I thought, “I don’t think anyone can do that! How did he DO that?” To do that, you need to bend at the wrists and elbows and keep your shoulders down. It is hard! Really! Try it! I couldn’t do it. I was only a little better at the next behavior he demonstrated. He wanted me to put my palms together in front of my face, fingertips up, and lower my arms along my body, again bending my wrists and elbows until my hands were in the Namaste position and my lower arms were parallel to the floor. While I could at least understand how this movement was possible, I couldn’t get anywhere near it. I can now do the latter one. I’m still not even close on the former. I challenge you to try both to see what I mean about how hard they are. I went home from that appointment depressed. I wasn’t making progress. I was FAR from making progress. I should be able to DO these things.

The next morning I had PT with Jason. I was still bummed when I arrived. “What did the doctor say”, he asked. I paused, “Basically, he wants me to be able to do things I’m nowhere near being able to do and I’m really frustrated”, I replied. “I thought I was doing so well.” Jason reminded me that I had been incapacitated through splints, casts, and was only now beginning to get out of my braces for short periods of time, that this would take time. He reassured me that I was doing great and that I would get there. The most important thing he told me was to remember that with the kind of injury I had, incapacitating me was the best option. We avoided surgery that way, which often leads to less satisfactory long-term outcomes. And while my short-term outcomes were more painful and more frustrating, in the long run, I would be better off. He said he understood my frustration, but that I needed to remember that my muscles had been unable to move through the splint and cast phases and that I was rebuilding my muscles and retraining my nerves. I just needed to be patient. Patience had never been one of my strong suits. I’m a “get ‘er done” kind of person. Breaking my wrists changed that, slowly, but surely.

Several times during my therapy, I hit a plateau. When this happened, it was frustrating and fear inducing. Was this the best I was going to be able to do? Had I reached my limit? During one particularly frustrating plateau, Jason came up with the idea of having me come in 15 minutes early for my appointments and put moist heat in the form of large pads around my wrists to help them loosen up and get ready for our work. That helped me get beyond that plateau.

When Jason told me we were coming to the end of my need for PT, I was scared. We had come so far, but I felt I had so far yet to go to get “back to normal”. I learned through this adventure that there are three stages in recovering from a temporary, incapacitating injury. The first and second stages overlap a bit. The first stage is simple healing. For me, this lasted 3 months as my wrists were first in slings, then in casts, then in braces. The second stage began when my orthopedic surgeon cut the tops off my slings so I could learn to move my fingers again. The pain of reactivating muscles and nerves, dormant for months, was almost worse than the pain of breaking my wrists in the first place. Then I got casts, which allowed me to do more finger work. After the casts finally came off, I went into braces which I could remove for physical therapy and to do my “homework” and which allowed me to learn to use and rebuild strength in my wrists and arms again.  I wasn’t prepared for the pain involved in this second stage or how slow the process of healing and regaining capacity would be.

When PT ended, I was ready for the third stage in recovery, refining skills and building strength over time. Slowly, I regained more and more capacity. I remember the first time I brushed my teeth. It felt amazing! I remember the first time I fed myself. My son took me out to a restaurant and I got a BLT which he cut into pieces so I could pick them up and feed myself. I remember the first time I put mascara on. I remember the first time I cut up vegetables to make a soup. Each first was hard. Many of them hurt. But, one by one, I learned to do things for myself again! The last three milestones were successfully brushing my long hair and pulling it back in a band, scrubbing my back in the shower, and hooking my bra. Life’s simple pleasures. I still might need help with a particularly difficult lid once in a while. Squishy water bottles are the worst. While I still fear hot yoga (particularly sun salutations – the downward dog to plank to chaturanga, back to downward dog part gives me heart palpitations), overall, today, little more than 2 years after I fell, I can do anything I desire. Maybe after my Florence adventures, I’ll head back to hot yoga. I thank Dr. Jason Mettling for being my inspiration, my cheerleader, my taskmaster through physical therapy. I thank him for being such an important partner in my healing adventure!

On the Importance of Support for Health Care Surrogates: The Middle of the End of SOB (Sweet Old Bill)

One day, each of us will die. I have come to believe that Dylan Thomas had it wrong when he argued that we should “Not go gentle into that good night”, that we should “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. I now believe that going gentle into that good night is sometimes the definition of a good death. So many factors go into a good death, particularly in a culture as death averse as ours. I cannot say whether or not my uncle had a good death. I can say that he met death on his own terms. That, however, is a topic for another day. Today I want to talk about the people who made the role I played as his health care surrogate easier, because being a surrogate in the U.S. still often means dealing with a medical establishment bent on raging, on defeating death. As I helped my uncle navigate the end of his life, I was fortunate to have three strong advocates supporting me.

My maternal aunt (my uncle’s sister), a nurse, helped me stay clear when I doubted myself or my choices. She reinforced the importance of my role as my uncle’s health care surrogate, and commiserated with all the craziness I faced when dealing with insurance companies, medical providers, long-term care and rehabilitation facilities, our family, and my uncle’s friends. She let me rant. She let me cry. She listened and advised. To my aunt, I say “Thank you for your compassion, your calmness, your willingness to troubleshoot with me, your clarity, your unwavering confidence in me, and your kindness. Doing this without you would have been so much harder.”

My second support person was my friend Andrew who was there for me because he loved me. He asked the hard questions and supported me in making the tough decisions. He helped me stay clear, encouraging me to write things down, so that I would have my own words to help me sort through issues as they arose, so that when my decisions or motives were questioned, I would have clarity for myself. I wrote. Reading what I wrote at various points helped me to remain strong in supporting my uncle’s wishes. To Andrew I say, “Thank you for your insight, your  intelligence, your compassion. Thank you for holding me as I cried, for driving me to the airport, for picking my up from the airport, for bringing me flowers, for loving me through this difficult time. You are a treasure.”

My third support person was the case oversight doctor at the rehabilitation hospital. He became my lifeline. He reinforced my uncle’s right to decide, made me aware of what I would face as I advocated for my uncle in the rehabilitation hospital, and helped me negotiate the care decisions we faced. To this physician, I say, “Thank you  for helping me reach and maintain clarity, for helping me understand the mindset and motives of health care providers, for preparing me for all the challenges I would face, and for fortifying my commitment to “stay the course”, even when making a different choice would have been easier.”

As I’ve said, I’m a health communication scholar. My academic and personal work prepared me to serve as my uncle’s health care surrogate as he negotiated the end of his life. I had over two decades of my own research. I had my experiences with colleagues and friends from the Nevada Center for Ethics and Health Policy. I had tools others may not have as they take on this role. These resources didn’t change the fact that I continually and painfully second guessed myself throughout this process. They didn’t prepare me for who I was as a person, a niece, helping someone I loved in the process of dying. They didn’t prepare me to negotiate this process with health care providers, family, and friends. My second guessing came mostly from the reactions of my family, my uncle’s friends, and medical providers who disagreed with my uncle’s decisions or questioned my motives. I’m a conscientious person. If people question me or my motives, it kicks me into a process of self-reflection, looking for chinks in my commitment, in my motives. My support people made this process and all the decisions associated with it bearable.

I’m going to spend the rest of this entry talking about the case physician in the rehabilitation hospital. He and I never met in person. Through several phone calls, he understood that my uncle did not want to do anything to prolong his life: no medications, no surgeries, no hospitalizations, no invasive treatments. He also understood my uncle’s desire to be as healthy as he could for the time he had left. The doctor agreed that continuing to regain or at least maintain his strength and physical capacity through physical therapy and occupational therapy were appropriate. He also recommended speech therapy to assess whether there were any swallowing or food management issues that could be improved. He helped me stay logical and pragmatic in the face of significant resistance from health care providers.

I remember at the end of one conversation he told me that this was not going to be easy. He told me I would have to stay strong in the face of well-meaning health care providers who thought my uncle’s decisions were wrong. He told me that well-meaning health care providers would try to “gaslight” me. I asked what he meant. He said, “They will identify crises that will require more extensive medical procedures and hospitalizations. They will want to call ambulances and administer emergency treatments to save or prolong your uncle’s life. They will call you at all hours of the day and night with emergencies you need to make decisions about right then. They will not want you to take time to think”. He concluded, “No matter how they gaslight you and how urgent the emergency they present you with, you need to go down your decision tree. Given his decision and your commitment to advocating for it, except for keeping your uncle comfortable and pain free, you aren’t going to do anything else. Right?”. “No”, I answered, “Good”, he said. “You’re clear. Stay that way. Call me any time you if you need me. I’ll call you when I need you”.

He was right. Nurses called me at all hours of the day and night. The preferred time seemed to be 3 a.m. and each emergency required my approval of immediate hospitalization. Sometimes they called 911 in direct contradiction to the “no 911” directive. Twice they called to inform me that ambulances were on the way. In both cases, I refused them. The first time the nurse said, “That’s what your uncle said. We hoped you’d have more sense.” His advance directive paperwork was misplaced multiple times. The post-it notes the case physican left to reinforce the directives in his chart were either removed from the chart or the workstation, or accidentally covered up, leading to the ordering of multiple tests and procedures I had to then refuse. Late one night they called to tell me my uncle was having mini-seizures. They wanted to hospitalize him for tests. On another occasion, they thought he was throwing blood clots and that the circulation in his right leg had been cut off. On both occasions, I was lucky that the case physician was available to talk me through the crisis. He asked if I would allow surgery. He asked if I would allow any treatment beyond pain medication. My answer was “No”. The physician concluded, that it didn’t matter then if my uncle had had a stroke. Observation would confirm that diagnosis or not. It didn’t matter if he was throwing blood clots or if the circulation in his leg had been compromised. Again, observation would eventually confirm whether or not this was the case. Since we weren’t going to accept any kind of treatment, the diagnosis didn’t matter. Helping me work through the decision path, it became clear that to support my uncle’s wishes, all treatments had to be refused. He helped me understand that the health care providers in the rehabilitation hospital were only doing what they believed best, trying to prolong my uncle’s life.

These situations led me to repeatedly question my uncle’s desire to “let nature take its course” and my desire to support him in that decision. Was this the time? Could he still live a high quality life – if only we did this or that intervention? My experience as a health communication scholar and the support of my advocates allowed me to stay the course in each case, as did my uncle’s unwavering commitment to the path he’d chosen. As loved ones of those who are dying, our hope often leads us to accept medical intervention that will not prolong a quality of life and often only minimally lengthen the duration of life. Being a health care surrogate at end of life is not easy. It is, however, critically important in a culture that is death averse and within the context of a medical establishment that views death as a failure. Sometimes it is appropriate to rage against the dying of the light. At other times, it is a gift to allow a loved one to go gentle into that good night.

Reflections on Death & Dying – The Beginning of the End of SOB (Sweet Old Bill) – Part 2

In July and August 2013, I supported my uncle, William Leo Pence, as he died. It was my chance to be there for a family member I loved. It was also an opportunity to put into practice my beliefs about human dignity, choice, and the power to make our own decisions and have them respected at the end of life.  It was one of the most grueling things I’ve ever done.

Born November 19, 1928, my uncle was a veteran of the Korean War. He stood 6’6” tall and his personality matched his height. Eight years before his death, he’d had a kidney transplant, but aside from that, and low level medications for slightly elevated cholesterol and blood pressure, he was very healthy. He was bright, independent and active. And, as Frank Sinatra would say, he liked to do things his way.

Once he took himself off all his medications, including the anti-rejection drugs for his kidney, he thought he would die quickly and peacefully. He put his affairs in order and went home to wait. (If you are reading this blog for the first time, the introductory post to this story can be found here: https://dballardreisch.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/the-florence-journals-reflections-on-death-and-dying-the-beginning-of-the-end-sobs-story-sweet-old-bill/) Unfortunately, will is not always the same as outcome, and what my uncle thought would take days, took more than a month. During that time, he gave me his durable power of attorney and I became his health care surrogate. Technically, he shouldn’t have needed a health care surrogate. He had spelled everything out very clearly. His advanced directives were in order: No invasive measures. No lifesaving interventions or life extending treatments. He wanted to live as fully as possible for as long as he had. He just didn’t want anything to make that longer than it needed to be. He did want to continue speech, physical, and occupational therapy so that he could be independent as long as possible. He wanted to live the highest quality of life he could.

During this process, my uncle made a mistake that almost took choice out of his hands. It had been a long, trying day. He was tired. He was uncomfortable. He was bored. He was fed up. Taking himself off medications had not led to the quick, painless decline he had anticipated. He wanted to talk with someone he thought would understand what he was feeling, but who wasn’t personally invested in his situation. He called 911. He wanted to tell someone that would understand that he was ready to die.

My uncle lived in Florida and his admission to a health care professional that he was ready to die led to his emergency admission into the hospital under the Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, the Baker Act. The ambulance came to my uncle’s house, took him to the hospital, and kept him for the full 72 hours allowed by law. He was furious! Unbeknownst to him, in Florida, it is considered against the interests of the state for an individual to be ready to die. The powers that be see it as a small step from being “ready” to die to committing suicide. The Baker Act required that he be assessed by a psychiatrist to determine if he was potentially dangerous to himself, someone else, or whether he had a mental illness. The key question was whether he was a suicide risk. Had they seen him as suicidal, the doctors told me that would have overridden his advanced directives even if he had been considered sane when he made them.

At the hospital, he rallied and convinced the psychiatric staff that he was not suicidal. However, without consulting us, they put him on medications to stabilize his mood and treat what they saw as depression. Now that they were convinced that he was stable emotionally, the question became what to do with him. After the 72 hours, they had to commit him or release him. He could no longer walk unaided and had very little strength. His insurance didn’t cover 24 hour nursing care. His friends, who were in their 80s, couldn’t care for him now that he was largely immobile. I lived 1300 miles away. He couldn’t go home. The doctors told us that they could not send him to a rehabilitation hospital unless he showed them that he wanted to get better. Because his test results were still so good, they didn’t think his decline was steep enough to warrant hospice care. The idea that he wanted to be as healthy and capable as he could as long as he lived, yet refused to take medication was confusing for medical staff. After much discussion, his doctors decided to give him a physical therapy consultation which would determine whether or not he could be placed in a rehabilitation hospital. My uncle used every bit of strength he had and cooperated fully with the PT assessment. They found him compliant, cooperative, and committed to building his strength. They decided to send him to a rehabilitation facility. Now if was my job to find one.

A Love Letter to My Son on the 2nd Anniversary of the Dancing Accident that Broke My Wrists

We wish things for our children before they are born. In my case, I wished that my children would be loving, strong in character, and independent. My son and daughter are all these things in very different ways. This love letter, though, is to my son. Often we don’t get to see the full measure of who our children become. As they grow, they live their lives more and more separate from ours. I got the opportunity to see my son for the man he is. It is an opportunity I will always cherish.

Stefan

On October 13, 2012, our lives changed. Stefan was in Wichita, Kansas visiting me before joining the Navy. He was preparing for boot camp and contemplating signing his final admittance paperwork. I was at my favorite academic conference of the year, the place where I have found both my creative inspiration and my best friends. This year the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language and Gender Conference was held in Tacoma, Washington.

That fateful day was perfect. I walked the city streets exploring and shopping for gifts for family and friends. In the late morning and afternoon, I attended research panels and communed with friends and colleagues. At the awards banquet, I was awarded the prestigious Feminist Teacher / Mentor Award based on letters of support from dozens of colleagues, students, and former students. This is the most treasured honor of my academic career. To top it all off, I was selected to host the induction ceremony of Dr. Bren Ortega Murphy into the Wise Women Council. This day was without question, one of the highpoints of my academic life.

Later that evening, following dinner with some of my best friends, the organization sponsored a dance and karaoke party. I love to sing and dance. Could this day get any better? As fate would have it, my best academic day also became the start of one of the most challenging adventures of my life. On the dance floor that evening, one of my best friends spun me around. I reeled backwards, lost my footing and fell, fracturing my right wrist in 3 places, and my left in 2.

I would be fully immobilized for the next 3 months and slowly and painfully thereafter, learn to use my hands again. My convalescence, during which I needed constant around the clock support, was 6 months. Even after that, there were some things I still couldn’t do, open jars, cut meat, negotiate some articles of clothing, etc.

My motto has long been that you can view any situation as a crisis or an adventure and that not very many things rise to the status of a crisis. These events allowed me to put this belief into action, to try to live it under some of the most challenging circumstances I could imagine. My belief has not changed, but I have learned to recognize the critical role others can play in making it a reality. Because of the love and care of my son, breaking both my wrists, being completely helpless, and learning how to use my hands again was not a crisis. It was an adventure. I have written in earlier posts about the trip back to Wichita, about losing my graduate students and making the trip alone, about the scary woman who thought I needed hot coffee, about my seatmate and later a flight attendant who took care of my hair for me, about the young basketball star, traveling with her parents to Wichita State University to check out the school, who fed me and gave me pain medication.

I have not written about my son, about our adventure. Maybe because it was so big, so all encompassing. It wasn’t time bound like 2 plane flights. It was day-to-day for over 6 months. It was emergent with no set ending that we were aware of. During this time, my insurance company told me on multiple occasions that because I could walk, I was considered too mobile for any in-home nursing support. This, despite the fact that I could not use my hands at all and therefore could not accomplish any activities of daily living on my own. My 24/7 care fell to my son.  There was never really a conversation about his doing this. He just smoothly moved into the role of my nurse and full-time caregiver.

I remember very little about the early days. To manage my excruciating pain, I was in a drug induced haze much of the time. I do remember my son giving me pain medication, brushing my hair, helping me to the bathroom, feeding me, and a myriad of other little things, none of which I could do for myself. I remember him being there when I needed something, often before I realized I needed it. In those early days, we developed a routine and designed our own ways of managing sensitive issues. Taking care of someone completely requires suspending modesty. It requires an unparalleled level of intimacy. It can be a humiliating experience, an embarrassing experience, an uncomfortable experience. Because of his grace, it was never humiliating or embarrassing. and we developed work arounds for the uncomfortable parts.

There’s something you should know about me. While it is easy for me to help others, it has always been hard for me to ask for help. While I never see those I help and support as burdens, for some reason, I believe (believed) that if I needed help I was an inconvenience, a burden. Through his compassion and care, my son showed me that this was not the case. He made it ok that I needed support. He showed me that I was not a burden, an inconvenience. He showed me that he was glad to help me.

Once the drug haze wore off a bit and my pain became more manageable, I could think for several hours at a time between doses of pain medication, and I wanted to get back to work. I was still teaching a class (fortunately I had 4 weeks of guest lecturers lined up prior to the accident) and running the search for our new director at the Elliott School of Communication. Stefan policed me to make sure I didn’t work too hard. We both learned that if I did too much too fast, I would pay in pain and exhaustion. He limited people’s access to me, determining when and for how long my graduate students and friends could come work with me. We identified what he was willing and comfortable doing and what I needed to ask others to do. He didn’t like emails or any work related phone calls, so my graduate students and friends helped with those.

On Thursdays he would get us Buffalo Wild Wings, mango habanero and Asian zing boneless wings that set my mouth on fire. We would eat them propped up on my bed, him feeding me. For a lot of the early months, I was mostly bedridden. Because of my multiple fractures, and to avoid surgery, I was not permitted to move much as my wrists healed. Eventually I was put in casts and I could move around a bit more. During my immobile time, we watched the entire series of Third Rock from the Sun on Hulu+. Sometimes if my pain was too bad, we would watch episodes over and over until I was alert enough to remember them. As I got more alert, it became clear to me that Stefan needed breaks. With some coaxing, he would take some down time when friends would bring meals and stay to chat and feed me. Eventually, he let friends take me to their home for the weekend so he could get some real time off. He was very protective, but we both knew he needed that time.

What I remember most about this time is my son’s presence. He was just there with me. We had few disagreements. The biggest was over his putting mascara on me. “You don’t need it. You’re beautiful without it”, he’d say. “Yes I do. I’d put it on myself if I could”, I’d reply. “I’ll poke your eye out”, he’d say. “No you won’t”, I’d reply. Then he’d help me with mascara.

I don’t believe that Stefan or I are the same people we were before this experience. To be helpless is not easy. To be completely reliant on someone else for everything is not easy. To be completely responsible for another is not easy. To negotiate this type of situation with love and compassion, with presence and commitment, is an incredible gift. To make it an adventure that we grew through together was the most amazing part of this experience, and our relationship will never be the same.

I think that we are both stronger, better prepared to deal with whatever life sends our way. I am easier, more open to asking for help when I need it. He knows his strength and the depth of his compassion. I am more grateful to my son than I can put into words. He made me safe. He loved me. He nurtured me and he treated me with compassion and respect during my helplessness. I learned firsthand that he is compassionate, thoughtful, intuitive, and very kind. He has a calm, peaceful spirit. Not much seems to faze him. He is an incredible man and his strength of character puts me in awe and fills me with joy. He is the most amazing man I have ever known, and I am blessed that he is my son.

Stefan and me 3

Stefan and me 2

Sidelined by broken wrists – Part 2 OR Why I LOVE Frontier Airlines! – October 14, 2012:

For background to this point, please read Sidelined by broken wrists – Part 1 I became aware that my friends were whispering to one another in the van to the airport and wondered vaguely why, but at this point, my pain meds (second dose) were kicking in, and I felt pleasantly fuzzy, so I really didn’t care about anything much. When we got to the airport, Frontier Airlines had a wheel chair waiting for me. They took care of my luggage, gathered my boarding passes, and we headed to security. At security, the TSA agent asked me if I could take my arms out of my slings for pat down. I laughed hysterically. My friend said, “Are you kidding? How could she take them off? Both arms are in slings! Her wrists are broken!”. The TSA agent stepped back abashed and called her supervisor, clueless about how to proceed. Even though it was their wheelchair, I and the entire chair were swabbed for bio-hazardous materials. Then the Frontier agent and my friend wheeled me to my gate. I finally noticed that my graduate students were nowhere in sight.  I asked my friend if she’d seen them. “No, no one has been able to find them or even talk with them since last night. We’ve left about 30 messages with no response. We have no idea where they are.” “Don’t worry”, I said, “They’ll be here”. The Kindness (and weirdness) of Strangers: As time to board the plane approached, it became clear that my students would not make the plane. My friend started to panic. She didn’t want to leave me alone on the plane. I told her not to worry that Frontier would take care of me and that I’d ask for help if I needed it. That wasn’t good enough for her. I had noticed a woman in the boarding gate who kept staring at me. My friend approached her and told her I was flying to Wichita. She was as well and promised to keep an eye on me. Fortunately, as will become clear later, the airline moved me to the first row of the plane just behind the bulkhead, so they could keep an eye on me, and she was seated elsewhere. The flight attendants, and my seatmates, were very attentive from the outset. The flight attendant asked the gentleman in the aisle seat if he would be willing to help me during the flight if I needed it. He agreed and asked from some water for me, holding the glass while I sipped through a straw. I leaned into the plane wall to sleep. As the plane door was about to close, a final passenger entered and claimed the seat in the middle of our row. The gentleman on the aisle quickly explained my condition and asked the newcomer if he was prepared to help me. He said “certainly” and settled in. He looked to me as the plane was taking off and asked if I needed anything. “No”, I said. He looked at me quizzically and said, “You don’t look comfortable”. I then asked if he’d take the hair tie out of my hair. He said he had 3 daughters and would be pleased to help. After the plane lifted off, he helped me put my seat back and I fell asleep. He woke me gently as we landed and asked me if I would like my hair back up. I said yes, and he put it back up. I was the last person off the plane and we weren’t at a gate, so they had to figure out how to get me off the plane. The airline found this cool wheelchair that fit into the guardrail down from the plane. At the bottom of the stairs was the woman my friend had asked to assist me. I didn’t know why, but she made me nervous. The flight attendant rolled me into the terminal and to a spot by a window to await my next flight, placed my carryon luggage around me, asked me if I needed anything, and then left me. The woman from the plane approached me with a cup of coffee. “You don’t like cream, do you”, she asked. “I don’t (drink coffee)”, I started to say, but without waiting for me to finish, she shoved the coffee cup against my mouth and my choice was to drink (it was scalding) or have her dump it all over me. After the first gulp, I coughed and she pushed it on me again. “It’s hot isn’t it”, she asked, pressing her face into mine. “No more, please”, I managed to say. She pushed the coffee into my mouth again. Thankfully, at that point, a Frontier representative walked up and asked me if I knew this woman. I said “No!” and he said “excuse me” while pushing past her, collected my luggage and wheeled me to a Frontier gate counter where a number of Frontier representatives were preparing for flights. “Can you watch her”, he asked. “She can’t do anything and I watched this woman pour coffee down her throat.” One Frontier employee walked up to me and asked how I got my hair up. I shared the story about the gentleman on the plane. She laughed and asked if she could help me. “That bad”, I asked. She raised her eyebrows and nodded, so I invited her to brush my hair and put it back up. She stayed with me until my second flight. On the second plane, the flight attendants again seated me by the window in the bulkhead. They explained the situation to the young woman who was my seatmate and asked if she would be willing to help me. She said yes, but appeared apprehensive. Her parents were with her and she was on a recruitment trip to Wichita State for basketball. Immediately after takeoff, the flight attendant told her it was almost time for me to take my next dose of pain pills, but that I needed to eat first. She paused to let this sink in. “You want me to feed her?”, the young woman asked. “If you’d be willing, if not, I’ll do it”, the flight attendant replied. “No, I can do it”, the young woman replied. The flight attendant brought her hummus, crackers, almonds and olives. She made me tiny crackers topped with hummus and maybe an olive or an almond and fed them slowly to me, offering me water in between bites. I ate a bit as we talked, and then she gave me my pain pill and reclined my seat for me. I fell instantly asleep, but at one point heard the flight attendant ask the young woman how I was doing. “Sleeping peacefully. She ate, drank some water, and took her pill”, she replied. “Thank you for taking care of her” the flight attendant replied. “No problem”, the young woman said. I felt myself smile and slept until they woke me when the plane landed. I was again last off the plane, my friend waiting for me in the terminal.  I sighed with relief, happy to be home.

Sidelined by Broken Wrists – Part 1

Sidelined by broken wrists – Part 1

October 13, 2012:

I was at the annual Organization for the Study of Communication, Language and Gender Conference in Tacoma, WA, October 13, 2012. Earlier that day, I had been awarded the OSCLG Teacher/Mentor Award (to be honest, an award I had coveted my entire professional career). The evening event for our conference was a dance and karaoke party on the University of Puget Sound’s campus. I had purchased and shipped glass for family and friends that day at the glass museum and had dinner with wonderful friends.

At the dance party, I was in line to sing karaoke and dancing to a Madonna song with some friends. A friend came up and decided to spin me. At the height of the spin when I was backwards, she pulled her hand from mine and I went sailing backward, off the small dance floor, went airborne and put my hands behind me to catch myself as I fell. (It seemed like a good idea at the time.)

When I landed, it hurt, a lot, but I wasn’t thinking about my wrists. My first comment to my friend as she apologized and pulled me up by my hands from the floor was “Oh my God! I fell on my ass in front of the Foss sisters!” (top scholars in my discipline). Then I realized that I was really hurt. I turned white and my friend helped me to a chair. I had never felt pain like the pain that was emanating from my hands (that was how I identified it at that point).

I laid my head on the table and asked for ice. My friend got me a large pack of ice and I rested my wrists and hands on it. The pain was getting worse. I asked for more ice to put on top of my hands.  She brought me a smaller bag and I cried as she put it on my hands. It was excruciating. She knelt down next to me and asked, “Do we need to get you to the emergency room?”  I nodded yes and said “But there’s no way I can walk”.

Another friend got a van and 4 friends lifted the chair I was in to carry me to the van. I adopted what was to become a familiar pose over the next several months, my hands pointing upward and across my chest. At the hospital, the nurse who met our van at the emergency room asked, “Was there alcohol involved?” I quipped, “Clearly not enough”. She said, “Good, you have a sense of humor.”

As we sat in the waiting room, my two friends and I, I kept joking about hurting my wrists dancing. That became a pretty popular story that evening in the ER. Through the pain, there was a lot of laughter. When we were finally led back to the examination room, I realized that my fingers were swelling. “Oh my gosh! We have to get my rings off”, I exclaimed. “I’ll cry if they have to cut them off”. All of my rings have stories and are very meaningful to me. My friend took them off and put them in her purse. It was an evening full of waiting, but I was fully present. My friends and I talked and laughed and then one of them would disappear for a while to call and update our friends at the conference about my progress. I don’t know why, but I kept making people laugh. I don’t normally think I’m especially funny, but that night, I guess I was. One of my friends told me the next year at the conference that the nurses told her: “Your mom is a hoot!” She thought I might be offended the nurse thought I was her mom. I’m wasn’t, of course, she’s tall, gorgeous and looks like a model.  I was far from offended. 🙂

We spent from roughly 9:30 p.m. until 3 a.m. in the emergency room. The verdict, a bilateral fracture of my left wrist, a trilateral fracture of my right wrist. After they gave me major pain pills, which they held off on doing until they were sure I didn’t need surgery, they splinted my wrists and put me in slings, my arms across my chest. We went back to the hotel so I could rest a bit before my flight.

My friends tried to get ahold of my graduate students. I was at the conference with 2 of them. We were to leave the next morning for home and had to be at the airport by 6 a.m. for our flight. My friend wanted me to stay with her in Tacoma, but I knew I’d rest better at home, so I declined. After all, I had 2 students with me to assist. What could go wrong?!

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