Thursday, January 21, 2016

Walking the straight and narrow

Hiking through the rough back trails of Descanso Gardens.
At breakfast Wednesday, I remarked to Joella that it felt almost weird to be walking straight. I had gotten so used to wobbling when I walked that I can't help marvelling at what it feels like to be walking nearly as stably as was perfectly natural since I was a toddler.

Now, when I say walking straight, I don't mean completely so. I now look like I might have some mobility issues, instead appearing drunk. The difference, however, is marked.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was despairing, as I was doing my physical therapy exercises, over when I would finally get rid of the unsteadiness and vertigo. It had slowly improved, but the advances had, um, stabilized.

Some of the exercises are clearly aimed at preventing falls. Now I wobble but I don't fall down, like a weeble. Others improve balance, and I think those are the ones that are best for retraining my brain.

As we've learned in recent decades, brains are plastic. Right now, my brain is rerouting functions around my stroke damage, just as an electrician might bypass a damaged circuit. Synapses are a bit different than electrical circuits, though. Everything I do to encourage those synapses to fire actually improves the strength of their connections.

But I think the main catalyst of this great leap forward (okay, so I'm not doing a lot of leaping just yet) is more active exercise. My six-days-a-week spinning is very important part of this, improving my strength and stamina. I spend an hour on the bike, and once a week we advance the tension one notch. I'm the strongest I've been since before my lungs were damaged when I was 11. Then I could roller skate as fast as I could for hours on end.

Still, I believe that the main driver of this current improvement is our rehab walks, which have become more and more like hikes lately. I had two strenuous hikes in the span of two weeks, and suddenly I began walking better.

That's no coincidence. I have a history of improving after a leg strain has healed. Exercise creates micro-muscular tears. When they heal, your muscles strengthen. That's how exercise works.

But that doesn't explain why my vertigo has lessened, you may say.

Recently, Luminosity was fined $2 million dollars for it's overinflated brain training claims. But every time I balance on uneven ground, climb up and down hills and stairs, and maneuver around obstacles, I perform another kind of brain-training exercise. Just as my physical therapy exercises help strengthen those rewiring synapses in my brain, so do my hikes.

It's fun...and it's free.

With all my concuritant problems, many of which are out of my control, it's gratifying to know that some of my remaining physical impairments are in my power to overcome.

There may be no higher power aiding my recovery, but I have the power in my hands...and feet.

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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.