Rehab Reverberation

I’ve seen such an improvement in my ability to exercise in the last few months and at six and a half months post-op; I’m feeling remarkably able bodied. The comparison between how I felt after the first craniotomy and this one is telling and it is only now that I truly appreciate how unwell I was for the two years following the first surgery in 2014. I had been reduced to managing my entire life around debilitating head pain and migraines with little relief in sight. Every time I attempted to exercise, I found I could only manage short (10 minutes) sessions and it is impossible to build yourself up with so little exercise tolerance. I would jump on the treadmill and despite not going at it too hard, my shoulder and neck muscles would tighten then pull on my jaw and scalp muscles until the sore spots on my skull (where the metal brackets and screws were) became aggravated, triggering a migraine that would knock me out for up to three days. It got to the point where just thinking about exercising became demoralising, not a good thing for anyone, yet alone someone trying to regain physical strength and function.

Since having the metal removed from my skull, that cycle has mercifully been broken and I have found myself willing and able to exercise again.

So it is that I recently had a review with my rehabilitation physical therapist (that’s what they call them here in the US; at home they are called physiotherapists).   I have been working on strengthening my legs and getting all my muscles groups switching on and working properly. This takes a while as the first few weeks of doing the specified exercises, you are just reconnecting your brain and the muscles and reminding them of how to work, eventually they start to switch on at the right time and then the exercises work on strength and coordination. It’s a process I have been through a few too many times for one lifetime but it has taught me to have patience with the process.

I have also worked on my overall fitness as after the stroke and now two brain surgeries close together, I have struggled to re-achieve cardio fitness, a fact my resting heartbeat has screamed for years, as it never drops under 90 beats per minute (unless I’m meditating).  Fitness has been a much-cherished goal but it has eluded me for a long, long time and I had, in fact, begun to give up hope of ever achieving it. Due to the physical deficits inflicted by the stroke and then brain surgery, I have to work ever day continuing to exercise and practice motor skills I initially lost but have regained. If I stop, it doesn’t take long for the deficits to worsen.

I am nine years out from a brain stem stroke (basal ganglia) and have worked harder than I ever imagined I could to regain as much function as possible, to the point now that on my good days even experienced Neurologists have difficulty picking the signs (my ‘tells’ I call them); those sneaky little weaknesses I can’t conceal. Add two spinal injuries (lumbar) and surgeries and really, it’s a miracle I can even walk.  What can I say? I’m stubborn. I’ve also experienced Jason’s idea of motor- sports-racing wheelchair pushing and I am not doing it again!


At the recent rehabilitation review, I was pleasantly surprised to see my therapist both impressed and a little shocked at some of my achievements. Okay, so was I but it’s what I’ve been working so hard at for months. I obediently reported my status with the leg exercises I’ve been doing and the exciting fact that I have dramatically increased my treadmill speed, added an incline and am routinely doing 30 minutes a day.   So it was straight into the walking speed test to judge the results of this effort.   Whilst only a short timed walk from one side of the gym to the other at the fastest but safest speed I could manage, the improvement was noticeable immediately. As the therapist compared my new time to the old and looked up the average speed per age numbers, she turned to me with surprise on her face, and said, “You have increased your walking speed significantly and just walked at the average speed for your age group”.  I haven’t been able to do that in decades!   She kindly added, “Given all you have been through, achieving that is remarkable and a sign of the effort you’re putting in”.

I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch emotionally the past two months but hearing this was like a balm for my worries. Sitting perched on the edge of an exercise table, I felt myself sit a little straighter, a grin slowly worked its way onto my face. We sat, looking at one another for a moment, a sense of shared camaraderie and pride in these achievements; then it was onto the rest of the review. That’s the cycle of rehab: test, find the weaknesses, set exercises, do exercises, review, momentarily celebrate any improvement, and then repeat with more challenging tests and exercises. Victory is often times a very short-lived thing in the rehab gym but gee it feels good.

Learning through Crisis

When I was in Adelaide for my angiogram the other week, the first thing I did was to find a book store to grab a copy of ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ by Sogyal Rinpoche.  I have long wanted to read this and given the news about my aneurysm, the time seemed right.  As there is only one bookstore left in Alice Springs and they would need to order it in, getting one in Adelaide was far easier.

I have practiced meditation on and off now for nearly 20 years and have settled my practices in the mindfulness camp and my ‘studies’ within the Buddhist.  These practices and ideas bring me comfort at times of great pain or turmoil and a path to follow when I feel cast adrift by life’s adventures.

My newly acquired book has already affected me deeply and will continue to, both in the lead up to my surgery and after it.

I had thought myself committed to the path of being of ‘service’ but upon reflection, realise how I let my thinking and behavioural habits constrain me.   From time to time, I hear stories of someone who has experienced a health crisis such as a cancer scare or ordeal and everything changes for them.  They quit their job or leave a relationship, move somewhere lovely and start doing something wonderful, something they have always dreamt of doing.  They have an ‘a-ha’ moment and realise their life is short and refuse to waste anymore of it.

I have had my fair share of health crises and have done a lot of reflecting, changing and growing often through extremely painful reassessment and self-recriminations.  I have thought myself on the threshold of a new way so many times, it is embarrassing to again find myself striving for the same things, once recovered; forgetting the delicate balance needed to sustain my health.

I have disguised (unintentionally) this striving by doing work that is for others, work that contributes in some way to an improved life for members of the community but still I strive to excel, to work as hard as I can and that is where the compromises begin and everything else important in my life begins to suffer neglect.

How many times can I make the same mistake, fall down with physical ailments, be stripped of strength, fitness, independence, become fragile mentally, put my relationships under strain…how many times will I revisit this place, revisit calamity before I have my ‘a-ha’ moment and cast off the shackles binding me to this path of repeated errors.

As I pondered this, I read the following poem in my new book:

I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk

I fall in.

I am lost…I am hopeless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I’m in the same place.

But it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in…it’s a habit

My eyes are open

I know where I am

It is my fault.

I get out immediately. 


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.


I walk down another street.


I hope I am now ready to ‘walk down another street’.