Life At Wascana Rehab
Wascana Hospital was different in many ways, but the most important difference was that I was mostly independent and mobile.
Dr. Kim was extremely cautious this time and wasn’t kidding when he told us my rehab would be considerably slower. So slow, in fact, it didn’t make sense.
The head of the physio department was a short, friendly woman named Lorna. Most of the people who came through her clinic were seniors with hip and knee replacements, so a curious young person like me was a welcome addition to her daily routine. I asked questions about everything, just as I did when I was at the Pasqua Hospital, and just like Mary, the head nurse in orthopedics, Lorna was more than willing to teach me whatever I wanted to know.
Common sense is often absent in medical institutions. Everyone, from nurses to physiotherapists, is taught to follow doctors’ orders. Only those who are willing to engage in conflict will challenge surgeons because surgeons, and rightly so, have huge egos. They are usually the smartest guys in the room, but even the most intelligent person makes mistakes. If you challenge their decision, you better have a good reason.
Dr. Kim had ordered a tilt table for me. The theory was that I would move through the degrees of standing up, gradually putting weight on the operated leg. It made sense until I pointed out that I stood up to get in my wheelchair and go to the toilet. Technically, I was supposed to remove the side of the wheelchair and slide over to the toilet, but that, to me, was stupid when it was obvious that I could stand without pain.
Every couple of days, one of the physiotherapists would increase the degrees on the table. Eventually, I made it to 90 degrees, and I hated it! It felt as though I would fall flat on my face, so I asked one of the physio room attendants to stand in front of me so that I could reach out to her shoulder if I felt like I would fall. I complained every time I was on that table and explained to everyone that being strapped to the table was the problem. No one stands at precisely 90 degrees! There is a curve in our back for a reason! Finally, I suggested Lorna get on the table and crank it up to 90 degrees. She agreed, and after she was strapped in and experienced exactly what I was describing, she agreed with me, and that was the last time I was strapped onto a tilt table. Another victory!
I wanted to understand the musculature in my hips, how each muscle group worked, and which muscle each exercise strengthened and how. I wanted to learn how to walk properly so I wouldn’t limp anymore, but most of all, I wanted to learn how to avoid ever having to go through another surgery again.
I learned a great deal in the months I lived at Wascana. Lorna got out the textbooks and answered every question I had, being as detailed as possible. I also became an efficient physio attendant, despite still being in a wheelchair. I helped the attendants hook up and change the weighted springs and strap on leg weights, and I often supported fellow patients getting on and off the physio table.
School in the hospital was very different than school at school! For one class, I had a schoolmate. His name was Darryl, and we took history together in his hospital room. Darryl had fallen out of a pickup truck at a grad party in the summer and broken his back. He was now a paraplegic, and he was angry. He lashed out at anyone and everyone, and I totally understood his anger. For me, the fear of never walking again was just a fear, but for Darryl, the accident had made never walking again a reality. His family was very supportive, but his friends had abandoned him. Darryl’s life would never be the same.
One day I wheeled into the room for history class, and I found Darryl stabbing at his legs with a fork. I grabbed his arm and yelled at him, “what are you doing? Stop that! You’re bleeding all over.”
“I just want to feel my legs,” he said.
“I get it. I understand how you feel,” I said.
“No, you don’t!” he yelled at me. “One day, you’re going to get out of that chair and walk.”
“I didn’t know that when I went under the knife,” I said. “What if the doctor made a mistake? What if he cut something he shouldn’t have? No one guaranteed that I would walk again.”
Darryl calmed down, and now the tears started. I took the fork out of his hand, went to the bathroom, and grabbed a cold washcloth. I put the cloth on his leg and pressed down.
“None of my friends will come and see me now,” he said.
“Well, then they aren’t really friends are they?” I replied.
We talked for quite some time before a nurse came into the room.
History class was canceled.
I didn’t realize that the nurses were standing outside the door listening to us scream at each other, and I had no idea they wrote the entire exchange in his chart. The next day the social worker assigned to Darryl’s ‘case’ came to see me. She asked me about our discussion and how I knew what to say to get him to calm down. She told me she had been working with him for months and hadn’t gotten as far as I did in a half-hour. She asked me a pile of questions, then, at the end of the conversation, told me that I obviously had a handle on everything going on in my life, that I was quite mature for my age, and that she could see that I didn’t need her help. She thanked me for helping Darryl; that was the last time I saw her.
I watched her walk away the whole time, thinking - that was easy! Conning the physiotherapists wasn’t so easy.
By October, I was allowed to go home on the weekends. My parents had to sign something that said they wouldn’t deviate from the doctor’s orders, which included staying in the wheelchair.
I was thankful to go home, but we ran into a snag the first day. The wheelchair wouldn’t fit through the doorway to the bathroom. I tried my parent’s ensuite and the main bath, but it was a no-go. I told my mom to get my crutches so I could pee. They were so concerned about getting into trouble from someone at the hospital that they were reluctant to get my crutches.
“Oh my God!” I said. “Who is going to know? I’ve been jumping around on one foot for two weeks now. Get the crutches so I can go to the bathroom!”
Finally, my dad got my crutches, and I went to the bathroom. I was stunned at how obedient my parents were when it came to doctors and hospitals. Where was their common sense? Obviously, I could stand on my good leg. I had been getting in and out of bed for weeks now; how did they think I did that? Then again, they never came up to visit me in this hospital, so how would they know?
Sunday night, they took me back to Wascana, and my daily institutional routine started all over.
The cafeteria was adjacent to the Veteran’s ward. One day, as I wheeled down the main hallway, I could see several veterans sitting in big, comfy chairs along the wall in their wing. Suddenly, one man yelled, “take cover! Incoming!” and dove onto the floor. At first, I was startled, wondering what the hell is he talking about?! Then, I realized he was reliving some horrible moments from the war. I felt sad for him, and it reminded me of my granddad not too long before he died. He, too, had flashbacks to World War II.
My dad knew one of the veterans. He was a well-known clown who worked with the Shriner’s organization and had often come into my parent’s hardware store. Dad wondered what had happened to him, and when he saw him at the hospital one Sunday night, he tried to talk to him, but Skip didn’t recognize my dad. He had dementia. Skip tried to escape from the hospital several times and even ran outside into the park with nothing on but his hospital gown. One night, I heard a lot of commotion in the stairway. I went out into the hallway to see what was happening, and a nurse was chasing a naked Skip up the staircase, yelling, “come back here right now!” I could hear Skip laughing. I wondered if, in his demented mind, he thought he was a kid again.
Lots of seniors had dementia. One lady I occasionally towed to the ramp would sit in the hallway outside the nurses’ station, asking anyone who walked or wheeled by to take her to the mountain to pick flowers. Regina is in the middle of the prairies, and the closest mountains are 9 hours away, so I knew she had no idea where she was. One day she stopped me as I was wheeling by.
“Would you take me to the mountain, dear? I want to pick some fresh flowers.”
Fresh flowers? It was November and cold outside in the real world, but in her mind, it was a lovely day in the mountains. I grabbed her hands, looked her in the eyes and said, “ oh, you don’t want to go there today! It’s cold and snowing!”
She shook her head as if to say ok. There was a nurse at the desk who overheard the conversation. She told me there was no point in trying to convince someone with dementia about anything and to just go along with whatever they were saying. I wheeled away, continuing down the hallway. I was heading to the cafeteria to meet Darryl for a coffee. When I got there, I saw a new person at our table. His name was Kelly. Kelly had broken his neck and was wearing a halo.
I could see the dried blood around the screws going into Kelly’s skull. I asked him if he was in pain, and he said he wasn’t, but it was hard to eat, drink and sleep with the ‘contraption’ on.
Kelly was a few years older than we were. He was a gruff guy with long curly, black hair and a scruffy beard. Sometimes we sat together at mealtime; other times, I sat with the ladies in my room. Kelly was hospitalized because he was about to get the halo off and replaced with a removable brace. He was looking forward to it, but all I kept thinking about was the screaming guy I heard when I got my pins out. I hadn’t seen a halo before Kelly, and now I wondered if the guy who was screaming that day was getting screws taken out of his head. Or worse yet, put back in.
We chatted for quite a while. Mostly, the boys complained about being around all the ‘old folks.’ They weren’t fans of the nightly entertainment and rarely came to the cafeteria after supper. All those things were welcome for me because they took away the monotony of the long days.
Once a month, we had a special dinner. Many of us lived in this place, so it was kind of like going out for dinner. The tables were adorned with beautiful white linen tablecloths, and the menu offered steak and baked potatoes with sour cream and all the trimmings or some other expensive meal. I felt that this hospital went out of its way to take away the institution once in a while.
I had attended so many birthday parties in the months I lived in Wascana, I couldn’t begin to remember them all. Many times, I would play the piano for people after having cake. Finally, on December 1st, it was my turn to have a cake with my name on it! It was my 16th birthday.
I was eating and chatting with the ladies from my wing when all of a sudden, a uniformed policeman calmly walked up to my chair.
“Are you Penny?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“You are under arrest for speeding in the hallways,” he said as he grabbed the handlebars on my wheelchair, moving me away from the table and taking his handcuffs off his belt.
“We have had several complaints of you driving recklessly in the hallways and towing too many people at once to the physio room.” He said.
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” he said.
Momentarily, I thought, oh, oh! No one said anything about how fast I wheeled around the hallways before. Why now? On this day?
Then, he laughed and said, “Happy Birthday, Penny!”
It turns out that he was the son of one of the ladies on my wing. She had told him how I wheeled around the hallways so fast and how I towed everyone down to the ramp leading to the physio room, and they thought it would be fun to prank me on my birthday. The whole room laughed and then sang Happy Birthday to me!
As I think back now, I can’t recall if we celebrated my birthday again when I went home that weekend. Memories are a mysterious thing.
I always looked forward to my bath time, and the nurses scheduled my bath right before bed, which also meant it was right before the nurse’s coffee break. I usually had a hot chocolate and would visit with the nurses. The cafeteria closed at 8 pm, so the nurses would ask me each night if I wanted anything, as I was always up later than everyone else in my room. Even though I could get in and out of the tub by myself, I couldn’t have a bath without a nurse in the room. On my bath nights, it also wasn’t unusual for several nurses to gather in the tub room while I was scrub-a-dub-dubbing, to chat about the day and take orders for the coffee break. Living in the hospital for months on end changes how you look at being naked in front of people.
Dr. Kim never came by the hospital, but other doctors did. Because my situation was rare, other surgeons in the city were curious and often read my chart. Occasionally, when they came into the room to see their patients, they would offer their opinion of my case. Some doctors were fascinated and asked me a lot of questions, and others were just as rude and arrogant as Dr. Kim but never did risky surgeries.
It was no secret to me now that Dr. Kim was not the most liked guy in the orthopedic community. He was arrogant and rude and took chances the other surgeons weren’t willing to take. To this very day, Dr. Kim’s reputation is still well-known in some circles of the orthopedic community.
My rehab had come a long way, and everyone could see I was far past the typical physical rehabilitation stay. Then, the orders to remove the hip pins came in. I was scheduled for day surgery at the General Hospital, but for some crazy reason, they didn’t arrange transport; my dad had to get me there and pick me up.
Dad picked me up early on the morning of the surgery and drove me to the General Hospital. He had no idea where to go when he got there, so rather than go in through the Emergency entrance, which would have been the easiest, he parked in the main parking lot, and I crutched it across the parking lot and up a flight of stairs. Eventually, we got to outpatient surgery. Dad signed me in and went to work. I would be there for several hours.
This time, the pins were several inches long and threaded, so I was put under anesthetic for the removal. Shortly before the surgery, a nurse started an IV. When it was my turn, I got on a gurney and was wheeled into the OR theatre. I never saw Dr. Kim. The anesthesiologist put me under before he arrived in the OR. When I woke, I was in a lot of pain, and for some unknown reason, Dr. Kim had not ordered any pain medication, so I had to do without. The nurses called my dad to come and pick me up.
I don’t know why, but the nurses at the General Hospital were the exact opposite of the nurses at the Pasqua Hospital. They were harsh, uncooperative, unfriendly, and not cooperative.
When dad picked me up, he could see that I was in a lot of pain. He asked why I wasn’t given any pain medication, and the nurse told him none was ordered. He asked if I could use a wheelchair to get to the main doors and if it was ok to pick me up at the ER doors, but the nurse said, “No! This is not an emergency, and you cannot go there.”
Again, to my surprise, my dad just obeyed the utterly stupid reply, and rather than look for and take a wheelchair from a hallway (as there are always wheelchairs around), and use the ER, I used my crutches all the way down the long hallway, down a flight of stairs, and to the car.
When I got to the car, I was in so much pain I could barely breathe, but I wouldn’t cry. I sucked it up and told him to drive fast. I felt every bump on the road, and I could also feel the negative energy of my dad’s panic and fury. He was pissed off but had no idea who to yell at.
When we returned to Wascana, the nurses were stunned to see me in so much pain. My dad used a wheelchair from inside the door to wheel me down to my room, and with the help of two nurses, I got in bed.
The head nurse asked my dad what had happened, and he told her. Immediately, she got on the phone and called the outpatient clinic at the General Hospital. She demanded to know why they wouldn’t allow me to use a wheelchair to get to the main doors and why they didn’t bother to call the doctor and have him authorize pain meds. I was glad someone gave those mean nurses shit! I could hear her yelling at them, and it made me feel good. As soon as she hung up there, she arranged for me to get some morphine which was promptly administered.
I didn’t go to physio for several days, but all the therapists came up to the room to see me. One of the therapists told me afterward that I looked dead when she came to see me. All the color was gone from my face, and I was lying on my back, arms crossed over my chest, breathing so slowly she had to look carefully to see my chest rise and fall. She wasn’t used to seeing patients in that condition, and it really made her think about what everyone went through in their surgeries.
After the incision healed, a few days later, I returned to physio and the usual routine of the day.
It was getting close to Christmas, and many patients would not get an opportunity to shop, so the hospital and a volunteer group arranged a shopping night at The Bay downtown. We were allowed to have a relative come with us, so my mom came with me that night. All of us boarded the bunny bus, a special bus designed to transport passengers who use wheelchairs, and away we went downtown to the Bay. It was great! We had the store to ourselves for 3 hours! I was able to get gifts for everyone in my family, including my mom. We split up for about 20 minutes while I picked out and paid for a gift for her. She promised not to look in the bag when she took it home and assured me I could wrap it on the weekend when I got home.
Finally, on December 23rd, I was released from the hospital. Just in time for Christmas!
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