duathlon

Hello, everyone! You may remember, when Tom injured his hand rather badly a couple of years ago, that we went on holiday to Madeira – the prime destination of British convalescents for at least a century and a half. Tom’s Dad has dibs on an apartment over there, which, in its lovely coastal location, always makes for a convenient and extremely pleasant break in the funshine. I am fond of most things Portuguese (design and cuisine especially) and there are so many things to recommend Madeira – you may recall that I wrote about the island’s beautiful hand embroidery the last time we were there. On this occasion, the focus was on firmly on recuperation, and I spent the majority of my time walking and attempting to swim. You will note in the photograph above that I am sporting actual shoes – an interesting and welcome development, as my feet have, since Februrary, been clad in giant clod-hopping boots. My left ankle is still quite wonky, of course, but it is now capable of managing in a pair of flats occasionally, which I am pleased about – I like to wear dresses, and a walking boot / dress combo is not really the best look.

Every evening, when the weather had cooled a little, we went walking along Funchal’s coastal promenade. Facing South and West, the promenade showcases a marvelous mosaic path (pictured above), Madeiran flora, and the wide expanse of the Atlantic.

The promenade is steep in places . . .

. . . we met friends along the way . . .


(one of many feral cat buddies)

. . . and admired several glorious sunsets.

I managed about 2 miles every evening, after which I would reward myself with an ice-cream from the circus of value. . .


Yes, I know it’s just a vending machine, but I found the basic idea of a street-side automatic ice-cream dispenser quite exciting. This is not something one sees in Scotland.

During the day, when the weather was hot, I spent the whole time either in the pool, or resting from my efforts. Despite the fact that I was a good, strong swimmer before the stroke, I can tell you that learning to swim again was not easy at all. But it is like everything, I suppose. . . the brain has to figure it all out again from scratch, and this is both difficult and tiring.

When I first got in the pool, my left leg could hardly move at all – it seemed confused by the resistance in the water and wouldn’t follow what the right leg was doing. I began by trying to just walk in the water – my foot balled itself up into an immovable club-like object, and the hip refused to relax and swing – but I managed it eventually. Then I got Tom to support my weight while I tried to teach the leg to kick. This took a long time – it didn’t seem to like moving upwards in the water, and the ankle and foot remained stiff, refusing to relax and work like flippers. All of this was familiar from my experience of learning to walk again; the left leg seemed to prefer doing exactly what the right one was doing; attempts at independent effort in the limb would make it want to just shut down; and movements in other parts of my body would seem to help the left leg move in a similar way (for example, bending my right arm at the elbow would help the left leg bend at the knee). This neuroplasticity stuff really is fascinating – the stroke wiped out my left leg from my brain, and now some other bits of my motor cortex are clearly operating it. Indeed, I wonder whether my left leg and right arm are now permanently wired together – certainly it is curious that I can make the leg do things by moving the arm about.

Though I found it difficult to move about at first, the buoyancy of the water helped in other ways. For example, I found after a while that I could jump about from one leg to the other, and even hop up and down on the left foot – an activity impossible to contemplate on dry land. The jumping and hopping and kicking and walking seemed to have beneficial effect, and in a couple of days I was swimming – unsteadily and wonkily, but swimming nonetheless – across the pool. By having several sessions in the pool a day, and doing a lot of sleeping and resting in between times to allow the brain to make sense of what it had learnt, by the end of a week, I had managed to do this:

If you had seen my first lopsided attempts, you would understand what a massive achievement this is for me. And though my movements may look relatively smooth, I have to say that none of this feels easy. Previously when I swam, I found breast-stroke quite relaxing, but this is certainly not the case now – every movement with the left arm and leg involves a lot of concentrated effort. I am sure, like walking, or knitting, or anything else, that this will improve over time. And it is also worth pointing out that, so far, I’ve been unable to master my favourite stroke, the crawl: the bilateral kicking and reaching seem too much for the left leg and arm to master. I saw an interesting programme before we went away which featured Paralympian swimmer, Liz Johnson. Johnson has cerebal palsy – which has left her with serious damage to the right side of her brain and, like me, impaired mobility on the left side of her body. She similarly finds the in-tandem action of breast-stroke much easier than the bilateral movements of the crawl. I found the short film of her swimming around London extremely moving and inspiring (can’t seem to find it online, unfortunately).

The swimming certainly seems to have had a beneficial effect. There are some small, particular movements that so far, despite my efforts, have eluded my leg and foot. For example, bending my ankle toward me while holding my leg extended has proved extremely difficult: the tendons along the top of my foot (are they called extensors?) don’t seem to be able to manage this, and the foot just flops out to the side. But after a week’s swimming, I was finally able to bend my foot upwards toward me at a neat right angle. Hurrah! I know it may not sound much, but these tendons on the top of the foot seem to affect all sorts of things about my gait and mobility, so this is a big step forward. And really, just about everything about my leg seems that little bit stronger. Needless to say, I intend to add swimming to my exercise repetoire now I am back home.

Anyway, such was my holiday duathlon of daytime swimming and evening walking. Tom reckoned when I factored in the other activities in which I excelled – viz, knitting, eating pasteis and drinking tea – that I actually accomplished a curious daily modern pentathlon . . . more of the knitting shortly. . .

61 responses

  1. Brilliant! Well done Kate. Good to hear you more cheerful and positive about your recovery. You have made great leaps forward. Fantastic. I’m so pleased for you.

  2. What a beautiful place to visit! And I’m delighted to hear that you will be able to add swimming to your exercise when you get home–water allows such a different way for the body to move. Sounds like lots of successes on this trip!

  3. How wonderful that you had a good holiday. The video clip should remind you just how far you have come and how much you have achieved. Watch it yourself regularly as a prompt!

    The item that most caught my eye in your post was the vending machine. Even though I am a big fan of ice cream, it wasn’t so much the product that interested me, but the vending, as you pointed out, this isn’t common in Scotland.
    It reminded me of a sailing trip a few years ago when we arrived a little weary very late at night/early hours of the morning at Ceuta on the mediteranean coast of North Africa. Once we, or rather the boat was secure, Tom our skipper suggested a beer was in order. Since I knew we had none on board (already consumed) I thought this a slightly teasing comment, but he had a huge grin on his face, as he led us along the quay, to, yes you’ve guessed it, a vending machine dispensing beer, cold beer!
    My second, slightly unpatriotic thought, was that there was no chance such a machine would survive in any port in Scotland, it would be a magnet for the local kids! However, here it was well maintained as evidenced by a second stop off a few weeks later when it was again raided by us……

  4. Yay! In the words of that well-known philosopher, Sir Jimmy Saville, ‘How’s about that, then?’

    Your determination and courage are amazing. It must be hard work and very tiring doing all of this, but it’s great to see your progress. I hope it’s lifting your spirits as well.

    More power to your elbow (right)!

  5. Yay! It looks like it was a brilliant holiday and as an adult who has never learnt to swim (despite trying)I am in awe of you learning again, specially with the extra work it involved.

  6. You and Tom are one heck of a team. Kate, you are nothing short of amazing. Thanks so much for sharing. Looking forward to the knitting too.

  7. If you ever come stateside (love that word), I hope you’ll us/me know. You have a lot of friends here in New York (and elsewhere), I can assure you. I have been keeping an admiring eye on your site and following your progress with great respect.

    Swimming, much liks knitting, has proved to be a form of meditation for me. The rhythm of it has soothed my mind as well as my body on more than one occasion.
    I’m so glad that you have found it to be so beneficial – I feel as if it is one more thing we have in common.
    All good things to you, always!

  8. Thank you for your thought provoking words and beautiful imagery. You are an inspiration. I use the internet in the wee hours when I am up with my 2 month old (haven’t quite figured out how to nurse and knit at the same time but I can use a mouse!) I always feel it’s a special reward when you have a new post up. Cheers from Canada

  9. Hooray! Hooray for shoes, and swimming, and cats and bougainvillea and sunsets! And ice cream vending machines! Sounds like a lovely holiday all around. Also: so cool about how bending the right elbow helps the left knee bend! We do this kind of cross-body/analogous needling all the time in acupuncture–e.g. if the R knee is painful and stiff, needle the L elbow area – it always surprises people how well it works. Must have something to do with having the neural makeup of a tetrapod…very cool. And yay, ankle-bending! How great you have fixed biking and swimming to add to walking! You will have so much to teach your physiotherapists, which may be of help to future patients.

  10. The hard slog is really paying off now. You’re looking so strong and fit. I’m very impressed.
    It looks like a marvelous holiday. Those balmy evenings and beautiful views look wonderful and relaxing.
    Looking forward to the knitting.

  11. I remember when my father had back surgery in the 1980s he did a lot of swimming therapy to help strengthen it all up again. Do you have a pool near home? Here there are the YWCA which are open year round. I have always felt envious of the folk across the pond who are close to everything. Madeira sounds wonderful.

  12. Oh, hooray! This all sounds wonderful. I’m so happy that swimming is working out for you. The pool has been my lifeline now that I can’t run anymore…it is just so nice to be able to move my body around in a nearly weightless environment. So much is possible in the pool that isn’t possible on land!

    You are amazing, and I can’t wait to see the knitting!

  13. When I was in therapy, I had pool therapy. I found it very helpful.

    I know what you’re saying about the shoes. I had to wear these awful black shoes that were a size bigger than my normal shoes, so that my brace would fit. Ugh! I was so excited when I got to wear my own shoes again. I finally got to show off my socks again.

  14. Welcome back, and congratulations! Wishing you continued growth in strength and coördination. If you were someone else, I would wish you grace and determination, but of those qualities you seem to have vastly more than most folks.

  15. Oh I was so pleased and proud to see you swim! Go you! Such an achievement!

    I’ve seen an icecream vending machine in Victoria station – selling Ben and Jerries too! Under the escalators that go up to the shopping centre. Might be a long way to come from Edinburgh though, just for an icecream…

  16. Hooray for a great vacation. You wrote several times that your accomplishments don’t seem like much, but I think they sound huge and have no need for qualifiers. You’re re-training your brain, I’m incredibly impressed. Bravo!

  17. Before we moved here, I swam regularly …… even after four years I still miss it (I was a member of a gym which had a proper pool for swimming lengths, here I would have to manouvre round other swimmers in an oddly shaped pool – not worth the effort!) I also used to walk up and down the pool (it was the same depth through the entire pool) – it is fantastic exercise for strengthening leg muscles. As for an icecream vending machine – how fabulous!!
    ps I don’t think that’s how to spell manouvre!!

  18. what a beautiful, beautiful film! Having spent a great deal of time teaching children and adults to swim from scratch (without them having troubles getting one leg and one arm to do as they wished) I have a great respect for your achievement.
    Hurray for one more milestone reached and one more skill relearned. You are an inspiration!

  19. Keep on with the good work!!! Thousands of kudos for you! On a cold winter’s night, one of my favorite treats is a glass of madeira, along with a piece of 80% ish chocolate, a good book and a roaring fire. The taste of the chocolate with the raisin undertones of the madeira is beautiful.

  20. Yeah! It sounds like you and Tom had an excellent vacation. Your tenacity really is a teacher for me. Thanks for your your swimming video and the descriptions of how you got to that point. And great to get a strong dose of vitamin D before fall & winter.

  21. I know I keep saying this, but I’m struck by the similarities of the journeys that you and my partner Robb are on. He finds aquatic therapy very valuable. At first, it was excruciating. Just feeling the water on his skin, the pressure of it all, sent his legs into painful spasms. Now he swims laps for a hour, three times a week.

    I smiled so broadly when you described hopping!

    It’s nice that you’ve had this time away, for recovery. And wearing real shoes! What a triumph!

  22. Oh Kate, I do recognize the cat, the sea promenade with its 162 steps at the place of your picture, the statue of Zarco, the vending machine, I might even recognize you if I were not leaving tomorrow. I wish you a beneficial and lovely stay on Madeira, the island is such an inspiration…

  23. Wow. As I was reading about your re-learning to swim, I was thinking how *exhausted* your brain must often be, with the massive amount of work it is having to do. And what beautiful strong breaststroke, in a week! Respect! Madeira is lovely, isn’t it, though pretty challenging with all those steep hills.

    Hope you don’t think I’m out of order if I confess that your description of opposing arm/leg connections reminded me irresistibly of a doll I was given as a child. She was called a ‘Dancing Pippa’ doll. When you moved her arm up and down, her opposite leg would kick out. I thought she was great when I was seven. If I could find her I’d send her to you in the hopes that she’d make you laugh. :)

  24. How wonderful to see your swimming! And humbling – it is so easy to forget about all the blessings in our lives, and so easy to focus on the annoyances. To be able to move, to be alive, to live – your post is a reminder to rejoice in what we have, not cry about we do not.

  25. I feel so pleased and proud of you! -what a strange feeling for someone I have never met – it’s a tribute to your writing. What a wonderful holiday.
    Huzzah for Kate!

  26. Yay, so nice to hear good news!
    You seem to be pointing out a lot that “this may not seem like a big deal to us” but I can tell you that I at least do feel the significance of all your little successes, you write about the hard parts so well that I am constantly reminded of how grand the good parts are, even if they are small.
    And also, total envy on the pasteis… Mmmm…

  27. I’m impressed, Kate.
    You’re making great strides.
    First thing I noticed were your shoes. How wonderful for you.
    We’re all cheering for you.
    Must say that Tom is a doll.
    Hugs,
    Gerry

  28. You are an inspiration! I am thrilled to see your progress!

    I think I could go for a pentathlon such as you describe!

  29. i’m glad there was a comfortable and familiar apartment from which to launch a vacay. i’m glad to think of stumpy in tropical garb and hope she enjoyed it.
    your disquisition on madeira embroidery, btw, inspired hiromi, one of my projects for the ongoing godzilla room. thanks!

    Godzilla Pillow #7: Hiromi

  30. Hah! I’m with Tracy Chick – I was going to say exactly the same thing.

    You are indeed a pentathlete…all that PENT up energy and enthusiasm going to good use.

    Isn’t that amazing how a different form of exercise brings new results? My father has had two hip replacements and found swimming most beneficial in his recovery. The ocean with its unstable floor though was a bit trickier !! Much safer in a pool :)

    Am still waiting for your issue of the Knitter to get to the Land Down Under…sigh…

  31. i wanted to add how exciting it seems, and how typical of progress, that moving your right arm should help move your left leg, and that breaststroking should, in a few days’ time, have restored your left ankle flexors (?). it is a wondrous machine we dwell in. xxx

  32. YAY YOU!!!
    you are working so hard, girl.
    now you’ve got to find a place at home to swim because it sounds like it really helped!
    i am going to start swimming again this week hopefully to try and get past the most recent plateau in my shoulder recovery. but i know it’s really going to HURT so I’ve been putting it off. :)

  33. Congratulations! It sounds like the swimming was a big achievement in so short a time, and it’s even better that it’s helping other aspects of your recovery. Huzzah!

    Also, seriously jealous of your lovely holiday spot…

  34. Hi Kate,
    Love the pictures you share with us. Beautiful holiday location for sure.
    Very interesting what you said about your leg and arm; you are amazing, the striving and exercise you do is the best. When I was in the rehab hospital after my accident, they said the pool/swimming was really good for my pelvic fractures. They also said that when I was unable to stand on my left leg for 6 mths, that my body forgot that I had it. They told me to put my foot on all different surfaces, you know, like the rough shower base floor in the hospital, pumice stone, massage; otherwise it would swell.
    Have you seen those vibration platforms that you just stand on, which astronauts use when they come back from space. They get all the muscles moving and vibrating and are highly recommended. Alternative clinics etc seem to have them here.
    I must do more walking also, you are so very inspiring.

  35. I recently came across your blog and have been very inspired by your recovery process, especially your honesty in chronicling both the ups and the downs, pointing out all of the important victories that the average observer would never witness. I know that there are good days and bad days but we are all supporting you in our small way!

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