Friday, March 16, 2012
I start my 22nd session of physical therapy, as I’ve started the 21 others, by paying upfront. I pretty much have myself and pickup basketball to blame for my broken wrist and the surgery to right it, but many people coming here to come back from their injuries are in the middle of legally faulting someone else, and who knows when those suits will result in costs being covered, so they insist.
After I put the receipt with the others, I hang up my coat in the odd little closet* and go back to whichever of their two rooms has an open seat. This office specializes in hands, arms, and shoulders, and it’s nearly full, as always. Most people spend many weeks in physical therapy, and I recognize almost everyone. The Belgian high-school girl who hurt her finger playing varsity volleyball pokes neon-colored putty to work her grip. The two female cops sit together as usual, cracking each other up with cop-speak jokes and comparing workman’s comp attorneys. The young guy with two phones comes later, talking to a series of people while a therapist sends electricity through a muscle in his forearm. I haven’t seen the woman with the plastic-surgeon dad in a while, probably since she can get cortisone shots at will. Once, after I had become a regular, I actually found myself saying to a stranger next to me whose shoulder was being unbandaged: “What are you in for?”
I find a place in the room where each seat has a wooden TV-dinner tray next to it, rickety as the limbs leaning on it, and with the obligatory lithograph of Escher’s hands drawing each other to life, which almost makes literal sense given its context. The other room has old elementary-school desks for tables and a framed closeup from Michelangelo’s Sistene Chapel ceiling, the really famous part where God reaches out to Adam’s limp (injured?) hand. The entire place has an oppressive level of metaphor density.** The woman who works me over twice a week asks how my wrist feels, and I say “fine” because, like all questions of this sort, its answer is pure ornament. She’s good at juggling patients, has to be, and she lays a big blue bag of heat on my hand to loosen it up and returns to someone else in the other room.
Sessions are like getting your hair cut, only your hair is broken and it hurts. My therapist and I have been through so much small talk in two months that I have a fuller picture of her than most of my coworkers and neighbors. I know that she plays mahjong with her friends twice a month and that she picked up the game pretty quickly from her grandmother. I know that her husband is finishing up his MBA and has an enviable ease with foreign languages. (I know that his grandmother is a surly Holocaust survivor.) They’re childless but thinking sometime maybe eventually. She’s left handed and is forever after whoever borrowed her special scissors. I know where she and her husband are each from originally and what they’ve done more or less every weekend for the last two-and-a-half months — something I no longer know about myself.
After she returns and removes the heat, I do some wrist curls with a 5 lb. weight, then squeeze an old gripper thing 30 times. Once I’ve limbered*** up a bit, my therapist bends my wrist. Hard. We do what she gamely calls a “strong stretch” that usually involves me looking away and down from the hurt while she applies her full body weight to my hand and aims for 90º flexion. I try the Zen thing of detaching myself from the material experience. I cycle through pictures in my head. My arm as cold dough that grows more pliable as its folded and rolled. A car door iced shut overnight finally coming free. An iron bar glowing orange on an anvil, throwing sparks at each hit, but taking shape. The Tin Man choked with rust, already with a heart but needing oil and an adventure to discover it.
The idea of physical or occupational therapy, the purpose, arises out of the fact that adults cannot be trusted to properly harm themselves after injury. Expertise is involved, too, of course — bodies can break in so many ways.**** Each of the three times the cast came off my son’s arm, he was unleashed back onto the baseball field and into the schoolyard and the swimming pool, without need for therapy. His body is a riot of growth, which helps with recovery from just about anything, and he (like most kids) can easily forget hurt. Adults, though, generally have vivid memories of pain and tend to convert it and anticipation of it into suffering. We quickly restrict or retire hurt limbs, which in turn leads our bodies to slowly give up on them. After I hurt my wrist back in May, I wrapped and iced and defended it for several weeks to give it time to heal itself, but time instead eroded my range of motion. And then the surgery and the pins and surgical screw and the nine-week cast all conspired to fix my hand straight. Now it has to be bent further than I want it to if I want to come back.
The Zen thing doesn’t work. My wrist pops and smarts like hell but won’t stay past my best angle reached a few weeks ago. My PT reminds me, again, of how I came in, with flexion and extension of basically 0º, to make me feel better about where I can get to now, which is 50º and 60º respectively. It occurs to me that the old saying really should go, “Time fixes all wounds,” with ‘fix’ smuggling in all its senses.
All the effort going on in rooms makes them stuffy, and my PT cracks the window near my seat. The days have gotten glorious, and I’m glad to welcome in the loud warm air of 57th Street. I think of Q and her classmates running in the schoolyard, waiting in the 60° morning for the bell, how they shed their coats and become their bodies.
We’re all done, she says. See you next week.
*I’m fascinated by this closet, possibly unhealthily so. It seems to contain roughly twice the space of the waiting room it’s off of, and its bar is stocked with weirdly thick hangers, like bunch of taupe hotdogs bent into triangles.
**Example: The Michelangelo print is even from before the restoration, meaning it has visible cracks running across the arms of both God and Adam.
***One thing I learned while writing this: The word ‘limber’ does not, lexicographers apparently think, share the same origin as the word ‘limb’. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, ‘limb’ can be traced back to Old English’s lim, which means strong. The OED says that ‘limber’ probably entered the language much later (around the 16th or 17th century) and may have the word ‘limp’ as an ancestor. I know, right?
****The Wikipedia page on “physical therapy” makes for good reading. Assuming what’s there is mainly true, PTs in the U.S. were first called “reconstructive aides.” It says that the first American PT school was at Walter Reed Army Hospital in response to injuries incurred during World War I, and the first professional organization, founded in 1921, was called the “American Women’s Physical Therapy Association.” Though this approach to convalescence can be traced back to Hippocrates, modern physical therapy cut its teeth on war and polio, and was almost exclusively performed by women.