Becoming Bionic: Phase Two
For the initial month or so, I would have to consider how long it would take me to run errands because every step had to be strategic and better than the last. this way of walking was completely foreign and strange. all of the sudden— my left leg could keep up with my right leg. Though I felt powerful, I felt uncomfortable in my body; not sure when or even if my legs would listen to my overworked brain: ” step heel to toe, straighten your knee, turn your foot out, line your hips up, stand up tall”
And while I still don’t hit these points perfectly every day (nearly 4 months in) I have so much more body awareness now. I trust this device and my own capacity for progress…..
It was November 14th, 2016 and I was so happy to have my father accompany me on my trip up to Seattle for the big reveal. My brother had just been married the night before so we were still coming down from the excitement of our family’s first wedding. Still, the time had FINALLY come and as we landed into Seattle I had this anxious feeling that OH MY GOD I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. All of the excitement from months previous had come down to this very real moment. I begged for this day to come, wanted it so much. But I suddenly became very aware of my body and the way my foot turned in with every step. My knee bent; my left toes pushing off the ground with all it could to keep up with my confident right—my bones and tendons appeared bent and mangled from years of this way of moving about the world. I was out of breath and noticed the imbalanced shrug of my shoulders and stranger’s eyes wandering toward my legs as I walked through the terminal and out the door. I knew this was all about to change yet I didn’t know what to expect— was I ready? Yes! Was I scared? Hell yes!!!
We arrived at Hanger Clinic in the beautiful small town of Gig Harbor, Washington. The sky was clear and the air, crisp. I waited only minutes before Ryan came in to give me my customized, carbon fiber device. And as I tied my shoes and took my first steps, I felt stiff and off balanced but I knew this was the real deal. Woah. The ExoSym is unlike any AFO or brace that I’ve ever worn. It was actually comfortable— on the first day! Was this possible? My foot and ankle weren’t fighting the position or screaming at me to take it off— I am sure many of you know how it feels when your muscles seem to reject whatever therapy or bracing you attempt. “Nice try, we are going to go numb and strained now until you take this foreign object off” is what my toes would always tell me.
I couldn’t quite tell you how these initial moments made me feel because it was all so overwhelming. Perhaps that’s why it took me months to recall this first week in writing. But it feels as vivid as the day before today.
How do you describe something you never imagined you would experience? Something you’ve only dreamed about? You’ve longed for legs that could take you everywhere with ease. Even at running speed! No, that’s too much to ask. Yet that dream was unfolding right before me as I watched myself walk in a mirror—awkwardly and stiffly— but with the classic “heel to toe” gait that most of us with cerebral palsy physically cannot accomplish.
Oh yeah, I cried. It was so satisfying to know that my impatient intuition was right; any doubt I had about this device washed away within the first hour of taking slow, deliberate and small steps. I think I acquired more body awareness in Day One than I had in my entire life. I learned how poor my posture was and how my strong, right leg liked to bend with my left leg when it didn’t need to. No one ever told me, and I never liked to watch myself walk. But thankfully, the way my body moves naturally with CP was no longer necessary. No more overcompensation, no more toe-drop. No more lower back pain or daily discomfort in my joints.
I was in a fog… I tried to listen to Ryan and his cues for me: “toe out, knee straight…” but his voice seem to drift further away as my mind raced…How? Wha?? My legs won’t listen to me!! What are my hips doing?? Best of all: I am standing SO MUCH TALLER! I had no idea how much my body had adapted in poor ways to cater to my weaker side. But that was behind me— this was me with CP: becoming bionic.
Each day was immensely different from the next. I jumped straight into my week long training program because how else would I learn about the challenges ahead? I wanted to educate myself as much as I could while I had the highly sought after Ryan Blanck and his amazing trainer-therapist PhD-aspiring gymnast -army vet- extraordinaire, Jared around to teach me about the device with my body. The set up at this specialty clinic is similar to small studio gym with some weights & other fitness equipment, with mostly an open floor for nothing other than walking! This place is not for those who mess around! Once you step in, Jared means business and everyone is excited about their “new legs” and improved abilities despite the anxious energy we all felt about what was in store. Most everyone who receives an ExoSym (or two) has been severely and unfortunately injured whether as a civilian or in combat as a member of the U.S. military and this is their solution to walk pain-free once again! It is amazing to witness their rather instant improvements, relief, and enthusiasm. While my reason for the ExoSym differed, the support was there and shared by all. I was proud to have CP and work that much harder at these foreign motor skills. The cognitive task was, and still is far greater than what my body was experiencing. But I was excited at making progress, however slight and I trusted Jared’s observations that I would be successful in several month’s time.
But as Day Four approached, I became exhausted. The thought of “walking normal” was so far away when I felt as though I walked like Frankenstein’s monster… simply walking the 1/8th of a mile to get to the clinic in the morning took all I had…. but I knew that the ExoSym was the answer I had been looking for for several years. And so I strapped it on and took my first steps into another day at the clinic, another day of becoming bionic.
TO BE CONTINUED… Read Part 3