Who Knew Rehab Takes So Long

This morning I read about a man who accidentally crashed his car into a house. The car barreled through windows and walls, carried on through the living room, and came to rest in the kitchen. The driver was injured. His passenger walked away.

I used to read accounts like this and think about the accident itself. Did he lose control of the car, or was there a defect in the car’s steering or braking mechanisms? Was it a small car or a large car? Was the house a nice one or a dump? Were the owners of the house planning on doing any remodeling before someone drove a car into their living room? Does homeowner’s insurance classify this sort of accident an Act of God? Does he have good health insurance or will he spend the rest of his life paying off medical bills?

My being injured by a roadside bomb is only unique in the details. People are getting injured every day, whether in wars or in accidents during the course of normal life. The stories of how people get injured are easy to come by: peruse any newspaper or a few online headlines. Until I was injured myself, I didn’t put much thought into the way the stories continue after the how of the incident. Now I wonder, for instance, what this driver’s injuries are exactly, and wonder how long he’ll be in the hospital. I wonder if his doctors will be good ones, sympathetic and skilled. I wonder who will help him shave or tie his shoes or fix his supper when he gets out of the hospital. I wonder how long it will take to rehabilitate his body and whether he’ll have any permanent disabilities.

The how of accidents is the bang-bang, and good bang-bang sells. The moment a life changes, that action episode, is a peek at someone else’s drama that our own everyday life might lack. It makes such a good story. The action tends to take place within a short span of time, concentrating drama. Compact, the stories are born with a built-in arc, holding our interest in the same way a good action flick rivets attention: beginning, middle, end: A woman is doing something unremarkable; an unusual twist took place and she was injured; she is being treated at this hospital.

What happens to people after the bang-bang initial injury is a much more complicated story. It’s a slow read, a long book that involves uninteresting but crucial details and tedious repetition of scenes. You almost have to be the lead character or the subsequent caretaker to comprehend the innumerable small inconveniences of rehab.

I try to minimize the tedious details and the boring repetition for others by changing the subject. If someone asks me how I’m doing, I like to say great and move on. This has its advantages, but also its disadvantages. By minimizing the effects of my injuries, the conversations I have with people are more diverse and interesting. But by minimizing the effects of my injuries, I also misrepresent this whole process as less of a big deal than it is, and give people the impression that I’m back to normal, that I can do everything that I used to be able to do. It’s a pretty lie, but it is a lie. (Working with the military taught me that trick, the lie – ha ha!) Recovery is a lot of work, a lot of pain, a lot of discomfort, and it takes for f*ing ever, especially when you’re a middle aged woman (49 years old now …). The body can do amazing things, but it takes some time for those things to work their way through the system.

I try to minimize the tedious details and the boring repetition for myself with humor. My favorite t-shirt: It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. I like jokes about holes in my head and cracked skulls, and if I tell stories about surgeries and pain, I want to tell the funny ones. Here’s one: I’ll have another surgery in January to rearrange muscles on the back of my eye. They’ll leave little strings hanging out of my eye so they can tug on them to fine-tune the muscle position after I wake up. Ew!?! Can I string little beads onto the ends of the strings? How long will the strings be? I’m thinking macramé …
Opportunities for humor are surprisingly frequent when you’ve been blown up, and I try to take advantage of every single one.

I’ll admit that I do still apply my sick sense of humor to others’ predicaments; I’m not my only fodder. When I read articles like the one today of the man driving his car through someone’s house, I still like to think about why it happened and the unreported details. I like to wonder if he was stinking drunk or had just spilled hot coffee on his lap, and whether it was a small car that fit neatly through the picture window or a large SUV that the house hardly dented. I like to imagine that a couple living in the house had been discussing remodeling the place when the car came crashing through the very wall they were talking about pushing out ten feet for a bigger kitchen. -!- I like to wonder if the full story would reveal a hilariously improbable chain of events, or some ludicrous stupidity deserving of a Darwin Award.

But now I can’t help but take the time to hope that guy is not seriously hurt, and to put some real effort into that wish on his behalf. Because now when I see someone on a walker, I think about all the hundreds of little things in that person’s life that are made slow and laborious by that walker. When I see someone with a cane I study them to try to figure out what their limitations might be and how they might compare to mine when I was using a cane. I imagine other people taking five minutes to tie a shoe, fingers like paralyzed sausages, practically having to learn the process all over again. Or being unable to grab a zipper to zip up their own jeans. Or having to have a friend or spouse help them into the shower and wash their hair for them. I imagine someone else taking ten minutes to get up the stairs, straining and pulling and pushing for each goddamn step. I can practically see someone’s head slowly dropping down to bang on the tabletop in front of them as the physical therapist bends a finger or wrist so hard, hurting so badly, they just stop breathing. I wonder how many other people rarely go out in public because their friend or spouse is embarrassed by how slow they are using a walker or crutches, or how slow they are fumbling for a credit card or a few bills, unable to do something as simple as slipping a hand in their pocket.

It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye! And splinters a forearm into little stringy pieces of shattered bone. And breaks all the bones in their face. And loses a few pieces of skull bone, and breaks a heel, and fractures a skull, and damages a few key nerves, and the retina detaches, and … yeah, yeah – whatever …

Two years. Who knew rehab takes so long? I’d never broken a bone before I got blown up. Well, ok, I dislocated and cracked my little finger. Does that count?

I’m so lucky.

That’s not a cynical or facetious statement: I am lucky and I know it. I had skilled and warm, good-hearted doctors. It’s been two years since I was blown up (I still laugh when I say that – !) and I can tie my shoes perfectly now because I have metal plates in my arm and I still have all my fingers even if I don’t have feeling in all of them. I can wash my own hair, and walk up and down stairs all by myself. I can see out of one eye and that’s one more eye than a lot of people can see out of. I don’t need a walker to help me stand upright. I don’t have nightmares, a drug addiction, a death wish, or a load of guilt. Instead, I have an odd and irreverent sense of humor to keep things in perspective.

If it takes another year to get my body straightened out, that’s ok. I’ve got nothing but time and laughter is free. I wish everyone was so lucky.


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