A few months ago, I reentered the world of physical therapy after a 20+ year hiatus. Sure, I’ve had the occasional physical therapy assessment during the course of my Spinraza treatments for my Spinal Muscular Atrophy the last couple years. But, nothing on a regular basis since childhood. Over twenty years ago. I know this hiatus was long. Like really long. The kind of hiatus you usually only find in the careers of really famous people. Like Barbra Streisand. Or Betty White. Or, Roseanne Barr before she dumped her career in the toilet again.
I admit, of course, that I brought a lot of emotional baggage with me to my return to physical therapy. I had a lot of painful ghosts in my closet that I didn’t enjoy examining again. (Just as I don’t like remembering all the baggy printed sweatshirts I wore in 1993.) But, I suppose that despite all of that, the important thing is that I returned to physical therapy in the first place. Even if it took a long time. (There’s no forgiving those ugly sweatshirts, though.)
Since the autumn, I’ve been going to sessions with a local PT once a week. Given my eccentric crippliness, I’ve been an academic challenge for my physical therapist, Robbie. Spinal Muscular Atrophy is not a run-of-the-mill knee replacement. Or a case of whiplash. Or a strained shoulder. It’s an all-over-the-body kind of weirdness. It’s like trying to teach music to a kid that can only reach 12 of the 88 keys on the piano. Coming up with a song to play under that kind of limitation takes some skill and imagination. It goes without saying that Mozart definitely won’t be in my repertoire. But, I’d settle for a little… Do Re Mi, maybe?
Luckily, my PT has risen to the occasion. He did some research. He thought outside the box. And, he developed a therapy program that is as eccentric and odd as I am. It features a random assortment of objects and tasks— seemingly like some shit he just grabbed from his junk drawer at home on his way to work. After all, everyone has a drawer like this at home. The kind with paper clips, dried pens, rusty green pennies, and silly putty from 1987.
From the look of my therapy table that first day, though, Robbie’s junk drawer had a different collection of crap. Wooden clothespins. A small cloth Easter basket with a yellow chick on it. A rubber tube that resembles a giant Twizzler. And a travel coffee mug. Junk, nonetheless, but higher-quality junk than I tend to find in my drawer.
Anyway, each session he lines up the clothespins on the edge of the Easter basket and has me pull them off one-by-one. This may sound easy, but I’d like to say for the record that it is not. A surprising number of muscles have to work together to pinch a clothespin, remove it from a rim, and then place it inside a basket. So many tiny muscles that don’t always want to work in unison. It’s hard. I have dreams about these clothespins and that damn Easter basket. The perky baby chick taunts me when I fail. It’s very annoying.
Luckily, the other tasks aren’t so aggravating. We do range-of-motion stretches and exercises to strengthen my torso and neck. Then, we do bicep curls with the giant rubber Twizzler. At the end of the session, I practice lifting the travel coffee mug to my mouth to simulate taking a sip. Robbie puts water in the mug beforehand— but he doesn’t tell me how much so I get challenged by the weight.
Some folks may lift hefty barbells… but, it seems like I can lift an $11 dishwasher-safe container.
The other day, though, my PT had an addition to our session. To work on my neck and torso muscles further, he rigged a red laser pen light on the bill of a baseball cap. He put the cap on my head and then put a bullseye target on the wall. Keeping my posture as straight as possible, I aim the laser onto the target, and work to keep it there as long as I can. It’s way more challenging than you’d think. Imagine a low-tech version of Nintendo’s Duck Hunt. Yet, it’s just as satisfying. Plus, there’s no pixelated dog on the screen to smirk when you lose.
I look forward to seeing what else is in store in the coming weeks. This overall experience has been more fun than I expected at the outset… and not just the moments when I threaten to blind Robbie with the laser. It’s also been challenging, but in a good way… a competitive way. Like when I read War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy a few years ago. It was long and massive, but when I finished it, I was proud of myself. I gave a cry of triumph, “I MAY NOT BE STRONG ENOUGH TO LIFT THIS DAMN BOOK… BUT, I READ IT, ANYWAY. HA!”
If all this wasn’t enough to recommend this experience, though, I’d also like to report that my physical therapist has noticed some subtle improvements as I’ve progressed through the last few months— which is really encouraging. My arms stretch higher. My neck muscles hold longer. And I can lift a whole lot of water in that mug. So, stay tuned for more updates in the coming weeks…
Until then, watch out for my red laser!