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One Step at a Time (Rehab!)

After thirteen days in the hospital, the first eleven without food, I was ready to be discharged.  What started with a text to my supervisor on March 3rd, letting her know I thought I needed an antibiotic and was going to be a little late coming into work that morning, was ending nearly two weeks later, following two abdominal surgeries.  It was now mid-March.

I was ready to be discharged.  I was a different person leaving the hospital than I was when I entered.  I had lost twenty pounds.  I had lost a third of my colon.  I had gained open wounds, stitches, and staples.  I had gained a left-side stoma.  My arms and hands were a series of bumps and bruises from requiring two concurrent IV sites, which were changed every few days to maintain viability of access and daily lab draws to monitor infection and system functioning.  The backs of both arms were deep shades of black and purple from the heparin shots given every 8 hours.  My body endured significant trauma from the infection, from the cocktails of antibiotics and pain medications, from the surgeries.  I was alive.  I was different, but I was alive.

I was ready to be discharged.  I had lost the ability to control movement of my left hip and leg following the left-side colectomy surgery.  I had lost the ability to put full weight on my left leg.  One of my successes for that day’s final in-hospital physical therapy session was the fact that I was able to transfer myself from sitting in a wheelchair to standing with a walker, then slowly shuffle right – left – right, then sit back down in the wheelchair that the physical therapist rolled up tight against the back of my legs.  I wasn’t really sure we could call it walking.  Much of my weight rested on my arms and walker, and I lacked the strength to actually pick up my feet to step.  Either way, we called it progress!

I was ready to be discharged.  I still required assistance with movement I used to take for granted, like sitting up in bed.  I still required complete assistance with personal cares, all the typical things like getting a cup of water to brush my teeth in bed and all the new things like learning to empty my ostomy bag.  I still required wound care, as the battles fought in the operating room had left me with five new abdominal scars.  I still required all my meals to be prepared by someone else and served to me on a tray in bed.  My daily existence was confined to my hospital bed.

I was ready to be discharged.  My insurance company wanted to send me to a rehab facility an additional hour further away from my family, requiring a four hour round-trip commute would they come to visit me.  In answer to the prayers of many, the hospital social worker was able to present my case and get approval from the insurance company to authorize my stay at a rehab center ten miles from my home.

The discharge from the hospital, with the many hands assisting my transfer out of bed, into the wheelchair, out of the wheelchair, into the vehicle, as well as the ride to the rehabilitation facility, are a bit of a blur for me.  My husband recounted later the challenge and anxiety of the drive for him, as he ferried his precious and fragile cargo from one care facility to the next.

I do remember my arrival at the rehab center.  Unknown to us, the nurse from our church family who works at the facility, was waiting for my arrival.  Once I was transferred into the wheelchair, she wrapped her arms around me and gave me a warm hug.  I was so weak; I’m not sure I even had the strength to hug her back.  All I remember is feeling held and safe.  I felt like I could take a deep breath for the first time in two weeks!

My transition at the rehab facility did not go smoothly, but I watched the staff work with genuine compassion, despite the challenges we all were facing.  The physical and occupational therapy I received was fantastic!  Their goal was the same as mine: to get me home.  We were all working together for my success.  I felt tremendous gratitude.

The stoma-healing diet was as much of a challenge for me as it was for the kitchen staff who prepared my meals.  I began to count on white fish and peaches for lunch, along with boiled chicken breast and peaches for dinner.  Thankfully, they also provided chocolate milk and chocolate ice cream any time I made the request!  It was the only time in my life I did not care about those chocolate calories!

Visitors were more frequent, as I was back in our area, close enough for friends and church family to stop by.  The look on one friend’s face when she entered my rehab bedroom spoke more than her words ever could; her uncontrollable tears communicated the pitiful reality of my current condition.  My 5’10” frame of solid structure lay weak and resigned in my bed.

I kept mostly to myself, stayed mostly in my room.  I was a woman in my early fourties; a feeble body was the only thing I had in common with the other residents who were twice my age or more.  After a few solitary days, I began forcing myself leave my room to prevent depression from settling into my heart.  I would set my piano books on my lap and wheel myself into the sitting room where the piano resided.  Various residents would be present, staff would wander in and out.  I would play for as long as I had the physical strength to remain sitting up.  I played old hymns.  Some of the residents would sing along to favorites.  I played contemporary worship songs that helped me to reflect on the sovereignty of God.  I would often cry as I played.  Many expressed gratitude for the music, but I knew that I was doing it to heal my own spirit.

Physical therapy focused on helping me strengthen my left hip and leg while learning to walk safely with a weak side.  If I was asked to do ten knee bends, I would do twelve.   If I was asked to stand at a counter-height table to work on a task for ninety seconds, I would stand and work for two minutes.  The goal of physical therapy was to teach me the adjustments I would need to make for being successful at home while simultaneously working to rebuild some of the strength that I had lost.

Occupational therapy focused on helping me regain independence with personal cares, including techniques for bathing from a seated position.  I learned how to use assistive devices to take socks on/off and to reach for items without bending.

Wound and ostomy care were attended to by the nursing staff.  One of the surgery sites became infected and required the nurses to insert a wick each day into the open wound to draw the infected fluid out.  Stoma care was challenging due to many factors, including the daily changing stoma size as it healed, the irregular football-shaped stoma, the placement of the stoma on a natural abdominal crease, and the retraction of the stoma itself.  Each nurse had different experiences with ostomy appliances and accessories; each nurse approached the ostomy care differently.  I soaked it all in, trying not to be overwhelmed or confused but rather to learn unique techniques and tricks from each of them.

Physically I was seeing small daily improvements; the staff rejoiced with me over each gain.  Emotionally I was welcoming and embracing the grief over what my body had endured and over the impact this was going to have over so many areas of life.  Spiritually I was being nourished by Bible reading, prayer, and regular encouragement from my church family.  Yet every night, I cried, longing to be home, longing to be with my family, longing for the comforts of familiar surroundings.  The days counted on.

One night in rehab, I wrote the following:

A friend gave me the book JESUS TODAY. One of the devos encourages, “Let pain and problems remind you of your constant need for Me. Create a collection of brief prayers, such as ‘Help me, Jesus. Fill me with your peace. Show me your way.'”

Today has been hard. I’ve really concentrated on Philippines 4:8 – the whatever is good, lovely, ect. Thinking about those things. I wrote a list of today’s good things. I tried to express gratitude to everyone who I encountered today.

But in many of the quiet, uninterrupted moments of today I just cried. 14 days of wearing my big girl boots, too much to take in, no option beside bravery. And now the tears seem to come. A lot of tears.

This evening as I sat crying, I recalled the reminder to use a brief prayer to speak my heart, and so i just began repeating, “Jesus, be near me. Jesus, be near me.”

A young nurse’s aid walked into my room at that time to check on me… and then spent the next 40 minutes with me, helping me care for myself and get cleaned up before bed. She rubbed on lotion. She even tucked me in.

And when she left my room, I knew that Jesus had answered my prayer through her. Her hands were His hands of ministry to me. Her kindness was His kindness to me. He is near. He is loving and good.

That truly speaks of my experience through my early days of this journey.  I continually experienced Jesus through other people.  Our church family faithfully delivered meals for my husband and three boys.  I was showered with cards of encouragement, including a special poster colored by the 3rd and 4th grade class at my youngest son’s school with an encouragement from Psalm 46.  Bouquets of flowers brought the outdoors into my solitary space.  My paraplegic friend sat wheelchair to wheelchair with me as we discussed how God uses tragedy in our lives.  My pastors took turns visiting me, providing a devotional thought, praying for my healing, and offering me communion.

In the midst of all of this sorrow, all of this pain, I continually experienced the presence of Jesus.  He is kind.  He is near.  He is loving and good.