Friday, April 04, 2008

Without feeling

We heard from an old friend this week, one we hadn't heard from in a while. The big news in her family was that her son-in-law had a stroke last year which left him without feeling on, or use of, one side of his body, head to toe. Massive was hardly the word for it.

The doctors issued their usual dire predictions. (Do you suppose they have doom and gloom classes at modern med schools?) He would never walk. He would never this. He would never that.

Three months later, he still had not the least bit of feeling on that side. But he could use it. He can walk. He can, she says, even use a wrench if he watches what he's doing. If he doesn't watch, he can't tell if he's got a grip.

He's enjoying himself, at last report. I guess he goes out fishing more than he used to. (When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade, I guess is the operating principle here.)

We can identify with that sort of thing at our house. When we got married, my husband had no feeling in his legs below the knees. He'd been that way for quite a while before I met him, but had long since figured out how to walk without the feedback the rest of us get. He used a cane for balance, and to help catch himself if he miscalculated, but he booked right along. I have no idea how, all the more so since nerve damage has left his leg muscles atrophied. He doesn't look like he has enough calf muscles to walk. (Think of the legs of someone stuck in a wheelchair. They look like that.)

He couldn't tell when something dropped on his foot unless he saw it. He couldn't tell if he'd stepped on thorns. Etc. So the upside (such as it was) was that he didn't suffer from stubbed toes like the rest of us.

A few years after we got married, he got feeling back in his legs and feet. But it came back on some sort of strange delayed broadcast signal. He could, in other words, feel what he'd walked on a few seconds previously. Or, he could stub his toe or drop something on his foot and have time to anticipate how bad it was going to hurt. This was, as you might guess, even harder than not having any feeling at all, especially the bit about feeling what he'd walked on shortly before. He'd go from a gravel driveway into a house, and his body would want to be adjusting for gravel when it was on carpet. He'd walk through the house, and would be getting carpet signals several steps after he'd moved on to linoleum. Very odd, this was. Very tricky, too. You might not think about it, but you do tend to make minor, probably automatic, adjustments to compensate for slickness, softness, and security underfoot.

The rest of his body was relaying sensations in real time, I might stress. It was only below his knees that the dubbing was off, so to speak. This took some getting used to.

Stairs were especially interesting at first. He'd have a foot relaying that it was firmly on a step and it was time to put weight down, but it was no longer on that step. It took a bit of doing to get used to that sort of thing, and learn to outfox it.

For the longest time, he'd successfully get himself to the top of the stairs only to crash a few steps later. The signals were that he was still climbing, and his body would be trying to put weight on a foot that was a few inches above the floor. We learned to pause at the top of stairs, letting his brain work its way through the recording. Eventually he learned to transition from stairs to flat without mishap, despite the tangle of messed up signals.

Just about the time he was getting really good at navigating using erroneous foot signals - just about the time it got habitual, in fact - his feet and legs switched to real time signals, like the rest of him. And the learning process started over...

You never know the loads you can carry until you get saddled with them, I guess.

No comments: