1 year

It’s officially past my one year anniversary since I was an able-bodied, fully-functioning, fully-walking human being.

For whatever reason, the universe has chosen the oddest date of my accident. It happened on the first day of September, a month that has always prepared me for Fall and fresh beginnings. I was about to teach English in a brand new school year in Vietnam. Of all days in the calendar, it had to be 9/1, just one-less-one from 9/11.

I remembered the exact number of months that passed every 1st, like turning pages of a book. As the pages turned faster and faster, the reality of my situation further sank in and became the “new normal” to me, my family and friends.

I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this one year that are difficult and too complex to sum up in one post. All these flash-backs of everything that happened chronologically, from falling 150 feet in the sky and being held hostage for hours by a major creep to then going into an MRI on gallons of morphine in a dream-like state before getting my entire back cut open in Thailand and then flying 24 hours home with a 3-foot tube coming my pee-hole (at least this was with Emirates), and stopping in Dubai to get my diaper changed, and being trapped in a crappy hospital for 2 months being served chicken every day when I’m vegan before finally moving back home all feels like it just happened yesterday, despite the long, jam-packed year my family and I had endured.

Throughout the year, I’ve experimented with my body in ways that would never have been recommended by anyone. I’ve driven a car with paralyzed feet instead of using handbreaks and have ridden a regular bike instead of the “special” ones they make for people with disabities. I’ve kept my physical restrictions at a low to avoid rejection from pilates classes and hiking excursions. I’ve worn leg warmers to hide my braces and have walked with sticks that look like combat weapons instead of crutches. I’ve been coddled by friends, family and aquaintances who have told me to be careful thousands of times this year (they have pretty much given up on me this point). I spent the year getting annoyed with strangers who run to hold doors for me and insist I take their seats on trains even when I feel like standing, despite them just trying to help.

I’ve learned not to blame people who don’t know my story or understand my goal, which is getting back on my feet as soon as possible with the bare minimum of help required. Most immediately assume I’m recovering from temporary leg injuries as their eyes gaze directly toward my leg braces, rather than understanding the complexities of a spinal cord injury (I previously didn’t). I’ve been told several times by cab drivers to “feel better” before leaving their vehicles. Imagine someone telling you to feel better every day of your life, as if you’re sick 24/7.

I’ve seen videos and read blogs of people who have defied the norm of what it means to be disabled, such as this girl born without legs surfing and skateboarding (Click Here to watch) and a guy swimming without arms and legs. Seeing them perform miraculous things with their bodies has inspired me to explore the magic in mine.

Yet having a spinal cord injury and not knowing if I will ever recover 100% has created a lot of uncertainty over the year. I’ve struggled deciding if I should work around the disability and cope like the other Youtube people or fight against whatever the doctors are saying or not saying, seeking to find answers to solve paralysis they’re not giving me by doing alternative therapies like acupuncture, cupping and reiki.

It’s been a whole year for me and I’ve only had two neurological breakthroughs. The first was on January 5th when I was sitting in the sauna and noticed both my ankles moving upward for the first time. Recently my right ankle regressed and stopped lifting as high, while my left one is now lifting 5x higher. “We’ll give you one ankle” my PT joked.

The second breakthrough happened on March 9th when I noticed that I was able to wiggle my left pinkie toe. This was such a big deal to me, because it took me 6 months to finally be able to move 1 out of 10 toes.

I don’t want to lose hope, but I probably caused some serious permanent damage for the rest of my life. That’s not to say that I won’t have future breakthroughs even in 10 years from now, but I can’t depend on them. I need to make the most out of what I have going on right now.

Despite the lack of nerve regeneration, I sense my body becoming stronger and more able every day that passes. My walking speed is getting more consistent with the paces of other people walking past me down the street or exiting a subway car. It used to take me over a minute to cross the street, but now I’m jaywalking again.

People ask me all the time “Do the doctors say you’re going to make a full recovery?” To answer this question, they don’t know and I don’t care. Whatever happens down the road, either way, my abilities will continue to flourish as I continue living my life to every extreme and challenge I come across.

New connections or stronger relationships?

Over the past 10 months, the progression of my recovery has been dependent on two major things: #1 Waiting for my damaged nerves to regenerate and form new connections and #2 Building strength in all the body parts that are functioning to compensate for the ones that aren’t.

Among many damaged nerves, the biggest issue lies on the lack of feeling and movement in my feet and ankles. One of the biggest reasons I cannot walk without a supported device is that I don’t have complete dorsiflexion (ability to move the foot up) and plantar-flexion (ability to move the foot down). You need these movements to take normal steps. You also need your ankles to hold your balance while standing. My ankles don’t have that control; they are wobbly, and I’m beginning to get muscle atrophy from not using my calf muscles.

Waiting for this function to recover has been painfully slow. Although I’m getting subtle feeling back, like the top of my 2nd left toe, there is still a very long ways to go. In January 2017, I was able to move both ankles up slightly for the first time in 4 months. That following March, I was able to spread my left pinkie toe apart from the others. Although these are subtle breakthroughs, they present hope for more future recovery. However, at the rate I’m going, it feels like this can take over 20 years.

When I ask doctors if I’m ever going to feel or move my feet again, they respond with an “I don’t know.” Unfortunately, Western Medicine does not have conclusive answers when it comes to the recovery of Spinal Cord Injury. There is no cure to make the nerves regenerate faster. I’m told that I have to just wait and see what happens, and that there is no guarantee that it will ever happen.

That being said, I’m giving 90% of the credit to #2 for helping me get to where I am today in my recovery.

If I didn’t have the arm strength I gained, I wouldn’t have been able to lift my body up with crutches. If I didn’t have the hip and quad strength, I wouldn’t have been able to walk around with 1 crutch. If I didn’t have the abdominal strength I have now, I wouldn’t have been able to walk with a cane. All of the activities I do on a daily basis to get me through the day such as crawling on all fours, waddling, taking the stairs, even standing on my own head have been attributed to the build-up of every muscle, every crevice of my body that has always been functioning before and after my accident and saving my ass through this surreal part of my life.

My new gains have enabled me to go hiking through extremely steep trails. They have allowed me to surf beach waves and swim in the deep end of swimming pools. They have allowed me to continue my yoga practice and adjust other bodies as a yoga teacher. I can ride a bike (although clumsily when starting and stopping). I am making the most out of life and enjoying the thrill of every moment, because even though sometimes I feel like Mr. Potato Head with missing body parts, I still have so much that is working.

No, I am not losing hope in the redevelopment of connections in my feet, ankles and calves because I do believe there are answers out there that Western Medicine has not yet solved. But in the meantime, I will continue to strengthen those connections that have never lost sight and have always had my back.