From Stepping Through the Doorway
Getting to the therapy room was another challenge. The hallways were barely wide enough to allow two wheelchairs abreast, so we had to go single file, and maneuver around anyone, walking or wheeling, coming in the opposite direction. What made the procedure even more complicated was that many of the patients were stroke victims who had lost some brain function and/or mobility. They had a lot of trouble steering, judging distance and telling which side was which. So the parade of patients made its way down the 50-foot-long hallway, wheelchairs constantly veering into each other amid shouts of, "Watch out!" and "Go left, Mrs. Crimpke! No, left!" . . .
Those of us needing to -- and able to -- learn to walk again were assigned to Ambulation Class. This quickly got dubbed conversation class, because, as we sat waiting our turns for a walk, we would chat, laugh, tease each other. It was a time for making friends, especially the afternoon session, the last activity of the day. That’s where I met Mr. Klein, a cantankerous man in his 60s who had previously been blinded by acid during a robbery at his store, and now had lost a leg to diabetes. That is when I heard about Karen’s car accident, Stan’s stroke, Judy’s mugging. Judy, a retired teacher, had been on her way to Lord & Taylor’s when a man had tugged at her purse, causing her to fall in the street at 38th Street and Fifth Avenue. She broke her hip and shoulder. The cars stopped just by her head.
Bad as what we’d all been through was, we all took comfort in the sense of community fostered by the class. In getting to know one another, we saw that each of us was an individual with a life beyond his or her physical ailment. We watched each other struggle, applauded the progress from walkers to crutches to canes to independence.
But there was anger, too, in those sessions. Most of the time we all tried to be cordial, pretend we were in a purely social situation, but occasionally someone would break down, express frustration, even yell at a therapist. I remember most vividly a man around 40, James, who had had a stroke and could barely speak or move. After a few painful moments of inching forward -- with weights on his ankles to build his strength, supported by a walker and a therapist at his side -- he collapsed in his wheelchair, shouting something unintelligible. It was a painful moment for all of us. It cut through the pretense we all struggled to maintain; he was giving voice to our frustration and anguish. We did not need to understand James’s exact words. We knew perfectly well what he was saying.