Through good days and bad, Sawchuk plans her return
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
There are now good days and bad days for paralyzed Blyth-area cyclist Julie Sawchuk, who currently calls London’s Parkwood Institute home – but as she learns and trains more for her new reality, she says the good days are starting to outnumber the bad.
The Citizen spent last Friday with Sawchuk at Parkwood, observing an hour-long physical therapy session and following up on Sawchuk’s story, now a month and a half after the incident that changed her life forever.
Sawchuk spends much of her time working towards getting better at things she never had to worry about before. Whether it be rolling herself over in bed, being able to support herself sitting up or lifting herself from bed to wheelchair and back, Sawchuk is working towards a new life without the use of her core and her legs. Although, as she says, she’s not sure if that’s her new reality or not.
While doctors and physiotherapists have been very upfront with Sawchuk for the most part, the chance that she will walk again is still very much a question mark that doctors will not discuss with her.
She was told after surgery that if she hadn’t yet started to regain sensation below the point of her injury, it was unlikely to return. That is the only conversation she’s had regarding the future use of her legs where she was given a clear answer.
There is hope, however, as Sawchuk says that she has self-diagnosed her spinal cord injury as “incomplete” (meaning that some feeling remains below the area of injury) because no one has yet used to the term “complete” to reference her injuries (meaning there is no sensation whatsoever below the injury).
Through her hard work at physical therapy, however, Sawchuk has already begun to see results. On Friday, she proudly showed off the ability to flex her abdominal muscles, which are well below her area of injury, which is just an inch or two below her armpits.
Her smile is radiant and contagious as she flexs and unflexes her “newfound” abdominal muscles.
It is victories like this, which cannot be classified as “small” in the grand scheme of Sawchuk’s injuries, that continue to give her hope. Her goal, of course, is to one day walk again, but she hopes that in the future she will regain at least some feeling in her legs, so perhaps they can aid in the process of readjusting her sitting position and slightly taking pressure off of her arms.
Those victories, she said, excite her for the next day’s physical therapy, wondering what it is she’ll “awaken” in her body next.
On Friday, Sawchuk worked hard at her physical therapy at exercises where she had to lift herself from her chair to the physiotherapy bed and back again, roll herself over with only her arms and shoulders to carry her entire body through the motion and “push-ups”, which involve handles on the bed and Sawchuk pushing her entire body slightly up off of the bed with only her arms to do the work.
As Julie puts it, you don’t realize how heavy one of your legs is until you’re in a position where you have to lift it with just your arms.
The most difficult exercise, by far, she says, is a balancing drill where she must support her entire upper half in a sitting position without anchoring her arms to her legs for balance and support.
Sawchuk attends both physical and occupational therapy daily, while she has just begun cognitive testing to ensure that the collision did not harm her mind beyond the concussion she suffered.
Sawchuk’s physiotherapist Kristin Wanless says that when someone with use of muscles throughout their entire body sits up, they unknowingly use countless muscles in their core to aid the process. Without benefit of those muscles, sitting up on her own is one of the most difficult things Sawchuk will have to learn.
Wanless says Sawchuk has been a model student, however, in more ways than one.
In just a few weeks at Parkwood, Sawchuk has advanced at a rate quicker than almost all other residents, Wanless said. After her surgery, Sawchuk had to wear a body brace to support her spine; a shell she shed one week earlier than anticipated.
(She still has to wear an abdominal wrap for the time being that keeps her organs where they need to be and promotes proper blood flow. As Wanless puts it, in the body of someone with feeling throughout, abdominal muscles are always working ever so slightly to promote blood flow and keep organs suspended, a luxury Sawchuk no longer has, which is where the wrap comes in.)
She has continued on that path throughout physiotherapy, Wanless says, developing skills and learning living tactics far earlier than most of the other patients.
Wanless chalks Sawchuk’s progress up to her determination, her will to work hard and her foundation as an endurance athlete.
Physiotherapy for Sawchuk also includes intense stretching of her leg muscles. Wanless says this is a process that will likely continue for the rest of Sawchuk’s life.
Due to Sawchuk’s injuries, her leg muscles are always staying in a “short” position, whereas someone with use of their legs would be unknowingly stretching their leg muscles out of a short position when they stand and walk around. The stretching ensures that Sawchuk’s muscles stay fresh and ready for that hopeful day when she regains feeling in her legs and may be able to advance her physiotherapy to potentially walking again.
Sawchuk says that the physical therapy room at Parkwood is a place of struggle, of course, but that it is also very much a place of hope.
She looks around at machines and equipment meant for those with feeling in their legs hoping to work towards walking again and sees them as a future challenge she hopes to face.
Another future experience that has Sawchuk excited is swimming for the first time since her accident.
A swimmer her entire life, Sawchuk says she began discussing the possibility of swimming in Parkwood’s pool on her first day, saying that when she found out Parkwood had a pool, she made sure her bathing suit made the trip with her. It was in her room on her first day at Parkwood, ready when needed.
Her first swim was scheduled for Wednesday. The swim will represent another fork in the road, where she says she half expects the water to shock her legs into motion, but that she needs to be realistic and know that likely isn’t going to happen, she says through tears.
She has been told that her pool experience will be very regimented and monitored, despite her hopes that she could just be “rolled in” and left to do what she wants. But, again, she realizes that freedom isn’t a realistic prospect at this point in her life.
When she returns to the community, she says, people will likely see her at the pool in Wingham as often as she can get there.
While swimming certainly intrigues her, Sawchuk’s next summit is educating herself sufficiently so she’s able to return home to live with her husband Theo and children Oliver (nine) and Ella (12).
Sawchuk estimates that she is about two weeks away from clearing that hurdle, but it’s unlikely that the family’s house will be ready for her.
The Sawchuks live in a two-storey, 100-year-old farm house on the outskirts of Blyth that is, in no way, capable of accommodating a wheelchair.
Days before The Citizen’s visit to London, Sawchuk says the family received a pair of quotations for simple renovations to the house that would install two ramps, widen some door frames to allow wheelchair access and make the bathroom accessible.
The Sawchuks are in luck, however, as Parkwood’s third floor is comprised of a handful of “practice apartments”. At the Sawchuks’ disposal are fully-furnished, accessible apartments that the family can stay in for the weekend to get used to the idea and the challenges of living alone, all with assistance just a press of a button away.
Sawchuk’s hope is that the family will be trying out one of the apartments as early as this weekend.
She anticipates that her ratio of good days to bad will be thrown off-centre once again when she moves home, as new challenges will surface and she anticipates finding herself at the beginning of a new educational challenge, rather than near the end of the previous one.
While Sawchuk has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of the strength and skills needed to get around in a wheelchair (she is now able to get in and out of a car unaided), certain challenges remain that are of a very personal nature.
In recent weeks, Sawchuk has learned to prepare her own catheter, but there are certain mental aspects to bowel control she has yet to master. Once she’s able to do that, she said, she thinks she’ll ready to go home.
While nurses and physiotherapists have commended Sawchuk on her progress, Sawchuk says she’s not a patient person, so as fast as her recovery may be going, she always wants it to go a little faster.
Sawchuk says she has found her days challenging, but also educational. After over a decade as a teacher, she has found herself very much in the role of a student during physical therapy and occupational therapy, where she feels she’s constantly learning. She has a rapport with her physiotherapist and others throughout the clinic, where she is on a first-name basis and has running jokes with many around the building.
It is the nights, however, that Sawchuk says she finds challenging.
Whether it’s with the friendly faces of Parkwood staff or constant visits from friends and family (Theo makes it to London two or three times per week and the entire family comes every weekend), Sawchuk says she feels surrounded by love and support throughout the day, either in person or via text messages or e-mail.
She has also maintained a blog at juliesawchuk.blogspot.ca in which she has been very honest and forthcoming about the day-to-day struggles of recovery. Being so honest and using writing as an outlet, she said, has helped her immensely.
Before the accident, Sawchuk says she would “pound” out anger on the pavement with a run, something she’s no longer able to do. As a result, she has to find a new way to deal with her anger.
At night, however, Sawchuk says she has nothing to do but think, which is when thoughts of doubt, anger and worst case scenarios creep into her mind.
While she is a very positive and determined person, Sawchuk says it’s difficult to not be angry at times, facing an entirely new life through no fault of her own.
She is essentially going through the grieving process, entering and exiting stages such as anger and denial at any given time.
“It’s been so hard,” Sawchuk said. “Everything used to be so easy. Now I have to struggle to sit up, to put on my socks and to dress myself. I can’t think of any other word to describe it other than that it’s hard.”
Sawchuk said that on Friday morning it took her 20 minutes to dress herself unassisted, which her physiotherapist said was actually a pretty good time for someone on Sawchuk’s recovery trajectory.
It’s also what Sawchuk is missing that makes her angry. She says she’s already missed a month of life with her children and will miss at least another.
“It makes me angry, because I can’t get that back,” she said.
And when she’s angry, Sawchuk said, she cries, but at the same time she realizes it doesn’t do her any good.
“I cry, because I’m not a yeller,” she said. “But it’s not productive and I’m a productive person.”
She has been helped, as have her children, by Theo, who Sawchuk says has been “amazing”.
In an effort to create a level of normalcy and routine at the Sawchuk home, Theo has endeavoured to be home as much as he can, making meals for Ella and Oliver and ensuring that they get to school on time, rather than spending all of his time in London with Julie.
With Ella and Oliver returning to the classroom earlier this month, the start of the 2015/2016 term also marked a missed opportunity for Sawchuk, who was not in the classroom for the first day of school for the first time in 15 years, save for when she was on maternity leave with her children.
It was difficult, she said, to see that day come and go, but she has no doubt that she’ll return to the classroom.
“September, 2016 I’ll be back at [F.E. Madill Secondary School],” Sawchuk said. “Whether I’ll be full-time or not, I don’t know, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll be back.”
She said she had a need to educate and that she won’t be denied.
She also hopes to return to the world of education with her “Share the Road” initiative, beginning at Madill. Mostly, however, she wants people to know how lucky they are to have use of their legs.
The previous weekend, Sawchuk had made one of her first trips away from Parkwood, heading to a local mall for a day out. It broke her heart, she said, seeing so many people walking around, taking their legs for granted, just as she had before the accident.
“I want people to appreciate their legs. You have no idea how much you should appreciate your legs,” she said, “because it sucks to not have them.”