Thursday, August 20, 2009

Kessler Diaries--6 "This is Your Gym on Drugs."

At Kessler's first floor gym, puking, screaming and crying were an everyday occurance. All patients were scheduled for three hours of OT and PT a day, seven days a week and nobody was exempt. To miss a session you had to be bleeding, dying or dead.

After breakfast,rather than wait for the nurse and her magical meds cart to come to our room, I preferred to stalk her in the halls and zero in. Sometimes I sat in a long wheelchair line waiting my turn like a Catholic waiting to take communion. Nurse Nancy, a cheerful sort with colorful animals on her uniform would discreetly recite the contents my cocktail:

"Prilosec, dulcolax, baclofen, sertraline, and how many percocet this morning."

"Two please."

And two it always was. The trick was to take the percocet half an hour before the start of the morning session and then, 10 minutes into it, I suddenly felt like trying harder and doing more. Everybody did. When the pills kicked in, people shed their inhibitions so the crying, screaming and puking would begin. The gym, a lofty open space, had smooth linoleum floors and was packed with every manner of equipment and patient. The newbies looked crumpled and small in their hospital gowns still connected to IV's. Patients who'd been there weeks or longer, looked stronger, cleaner and bored with the routine of pushing their walkers in circles around the crowded room

People were known first by the stories and then by name. There was the elevator installer who crushed his femur when his leg got pinned under a steel beam,there were men and women with single leg amputations, double amputations often often caused by the consequence of disease or war. There were people with knee replacements, hip replacements and patients with rods in their backs. There were stroke survivors playing table games in the back and gunshot survivors. I shared a mat with a young man who explained that he was pulled out of a burning car after a crash and he'd broken his legs and an arm. When I asked Sister Anna what happened to her, she was a nun, 4ft 8, always dressed in a habit that seemed slightly too large, she smiled and said, "Oh, I'm just deformed dear."

There's an odd intimacy that happens when you combine physical pain, the drugs to manage the pain and a new dramatic personal story to tell. Once the pain was finally manageable everyone, including me wanted to talk, telling our stories with subtle variations over and over again. At the gym, twice a day, we had a chance to connect these strange new narratives to our newly changed uncooperative bodies. In the gym, between grunts, fits of tears and confrontations with the unknown, we connected to each other.

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