Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Dulcimer Therapy, Part 2


The mountain dulcimer is one of the most disabled-friendly stringed instruments around, especially if you play it with a noter. It also teaches you to separate your arm actions (which is still a work in progress for me). But most of all, it's a lot more fun than pulling your arms behind your body until you say uncle! That's a slightly exaggerated version of some real shoulder exercises I was given. I think they're supposed to improve range of motion. Either that or it prepares you for entering a life of crime.

When I came home from the nursing home, standing up repeatedly was one of my assigned physical therapy exercises, as well. It was as if I were attending a legendary performer's farewell concert. It's still hard for me to believe that something so simple could've become so difficult. I spent every ounce of energy I had on my physical therapy and just trying to do the bare minimum of what was necessary for living outside a 24-hour care facility. You know, like walking to the bathroom. So, playing the dulcimer was out of the question.

But as I grew stronger, I began to play again. Joella had to put the dulcimer at the end of the couch for me so that I only had to carry it a few feet before plopping down on the couch. I held onto my walker so I wouldn't smash the dulcimer into splinters. I could play only a half hour at most. But the length of time slowly increased. At first, it felt almost as if I was learning to play all over again. My timing was way off. I thought I had just grown rusty, but I eventually realized that my body simply didn't have the coordination it did before the strokes and coma.

Before the coma, I had been doing a simple form of fingerpicking based on Travis picking that I learned from Jennifer Ranger at the Harvest Festival of Dulcimers. But when my fingers tried a simple roll, they tripped up. It was like trying to crawl on a layer of greased ball bearings. I simply couldn't get them to pluck the strings in sequence consistently. And my fingers cramped up and grew tired within minutes.

They soon began coordinating better, however. And as they did, my general hand dexterity improved. I suppose if I were a chord/melody player, the finger of my left hand would've gained more strength and nimbleness, as well. But I love noter/drone playing. While I was still in the nursing home, it seemed to me that my left hand, which had always played third fiddle to my very dominant right hand, had become the weaker one. It quickly improved, but that might have been one of the reasons why I had so much trouble fingerpicking at first.

I've come to realize that, contrary to what my neurologist once thought, my weakness was not solely due inactivity during my six-week coma. I've experienced uneven patches of lost strength (not that I had much to lose in the first place), due to my string-of-pearls stroke damage. If you saw my MRI, you would know why it's called that. Unlike most stroke victims, I had strokes on both sides of my brain, since it was caused by oxygen-deprivation from plummeting blood pressure, not blood clots or burst vessels.

But even recuperation isn't as strong a motivator as getting lost in an activity you enjoy. I can be extremely single-minded when I'm concentrating on something; it's related to my ADHD. When I'm learning a new song or technique, I often play far longer than I had intended. That was unwise when I was in the active phase of dermatomyositis, because exercise can actually exacerbate the muscle damage. But during my stroke and coma recovery, that hyperfocusing contributed to my muscle strengthening and improved coordination, as I played until thoroughly exhausted. That's something I was unlikely to do when I was doing boring physical therapy exercises, as important as they were.

And my dulcimer physical therapy still continues. For Valentine's Day, Keith gave me a set of foot and ankle percussion instruments. They're meant to accompany your playing when you tap your feet. He gave me a foot tambourine, wooden ankle rattles, and a foot shaker (though I prefer the one that goes on my finger because it perfectly matches my strumming rhythm).

I'm currently practicing tapping my right foot to strengthen it because I have difficulty keeping up the tapping throughout songs. My right leg is my weaker one due to that uneven stroke damage, but I'm still strongly right-footed. This tapping practice is already improving my rhythm, and it should have the added benefit of strengthening my weaker foot in the bargain. And, again, I'm doing it more than I ever would a physical therapy exercise because it's fun.

Before I was banned from Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer for talking too much about my illnesses (yes, really!), a friend posted a pic of similar billboard to this one.

Stringed instruments had fewer side-effect, too!
I'm a member of Kaiser. Do you think they might consider handing out dulcimers instead of pills?

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Coma Girl

Coma Girl

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In July of 2013, I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died. When I awoke from the coma, I could barely lift my head. It has been a hard road to recovery. The doctors advised my loved ones to give up all hope for my full recovery, but while they were shining lights in my eyes to gauge my level of consciousness, I was telling them grumpily to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep...in my coma-dream. I was experiencing covert cognition, and the coma-dream was my version of a near-death experience. I'm a skeptic, so I saw surreal images instead of spirits or dead loved ones. According to my research, as many as one in five people with consciousness disorders have covert cognition.

Not a miracle recovery, but a miracle of modern medicine

In 2013 I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died after I contracted legionella. The Legionnaire's disease was in turn triggered by immunosuppression caused by the prednisone I was taking for my rare autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis.

I suffered a series of strokes on both sides of my brain when the sepsis caused my blood pressure to plummet. I fell into a deep coma. My kidneys and lungs began to fail, as my body was began dying one organ at a time. My doctors told my loved ones to give up hope for my full recovery. They expected me to die, and even if I somehow lived, I would remain a vegetable or at best left so hopelessly brain-damaged that I would never be same. But unbeknownst to them, while they were shining lights in my eyes and shaking their heads, I was telling them in my coma-dream--my secular version of a near-death experience--to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep. I was experiencing what is known as covert cognition, the subject of my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," which appeared in their July/August issue.

But it wasn't a miracle--despite what so many continue to believe--that I recovered so fully. I owe my life not to God, but the miracles of modern medicine, as well as the nature of the watershed-area brain damage I suffered, as I detailed in my article and in this blog.