It was my second day of undergrad (i.e. 2011) and I was a little overeager. I had stuffed my chemistry, biology, and Latin textbooks into my backpack and quickly threw it over my shoulder. I unlocked my bike in the rain and thought about what my first day in the lab of advanced gen chem would be like. Would I have a partner? Would I know the material we were studying from AP Chem? I peddled down the sidewalk, mind wandering, as I anticipated the short block and a half ride to the science center from my dorm. Passing the presidents house, I jumped on the sidewalk and peddled faster, excitement overflowing. I turned the corner carefully on the sidewalk; only a half block more to go. At that instant my bike clipped off the wet sidewalk. I overcorrected to resume my sidewalk ride and my tire stopped abruptly as it hit the edge of the raised cement. The momentum I’d been carrying worked against me as my 20 lb backpack propelled me over the handlebars. Without time for instincts, my face skidded across the sidewalk as the back of my skull landed hard against a nearby maple tree.
Throughout my many months of rehab I learned:
*rehab sucks- especially when staff make comments to you about how big your deficits are or how slowly you’re progressing. Comparing to “normal” may seem nice but this is my new normal, and I’m only looking to improve function. It was still terrible after. Going through a day of neuropsychiatric testing four years later, and I felt dumber than even before. I couldn’t remember the story or the sequence of numbers that my education level peers could and the staff reminded me of that often. You can be better than this, and use better and more encouraging language than they did with me.
*learning is a gift- having a photographic memory in high school carried me very far. Losing that the second day of college was really, really difficult for me. I had to relearn how to study, how to comprehend words I couldn’t read. I had to relearn how to summarize information and put words together to elicit meaning.
*communication is critical- my team got frustrated. I would hit plateaus and they didn’t know how to help me, and I didn’t know how to help me. But vocalizing my frustrations was the only thing that I COULD do, and that helped them see where I was, and what I was feeling.
*healthcare is hard- scheduling rehab and physical therapy as a college student sucks. Oh sorry I can’t come Tuesday because I have a group project I have to work on then. No, I have lab all day Thursday. In hindsight, I should have taken time off to heal. But I was stubborn and didn’t want to let this stupid mishap change my life. Little did I know it’s ripple effect would continue beyond rehab, beyond undergrad, and deep into all areas of my life. Paying for these services??? Thank God I had great insurance.
*recovery has no timeline- I still struggle. And I struggle a lot. Reading comprehension is difficult for me. Word finding is still often a challenge. I lose track of conversation as I’m having it, leaving me feeling lost and confused about what’s happening. Six and half years later, I still have daily migraine controlled by a drug cocktail and Botox. I definitely don’t have a photographic memory anymore. The act of going to physical therapy may have ended, but I constantly use the skills they taught me to continue my retraining and improvement.
But look. I’m doing it. Living. Every day I’m trying. I’m nowhere near what my old “normal” looked like, but I have a new normal that I work with and around. I’ve learned to compensate for poor conversational abilities by asking shorter questions, repeating answers in my head. I read out loud when I can to increase my comprehension, taking notes to review later.
But how often in life do we have these setbacks? These accidents, big or small, that claim parts of our identity? How often are our talents put on the chopping block, or do we get a taste of what it would be like without them? It’s easy to take what you have for granted. Now? Now I think about how patients' lives are impacted by their diagnosis and medical complications and how far from their baseline they may be now. I think about the language I use with them and the words I put into their heads that may effect their self-image. I try not to degrade or assume their emotions or desired function.
And one thing is for sure--I never forget what I learned in rehab. and how far I've come.
M3 at Mayo Clinic School of Medicine