We’ve been away from this blog for a while, all four tending to our day jobs: Lorrie with the Young Presidents’ Organization, Nancy at ProfitStreams, me with msnbc.com and Andrea going about the grueling business of rebuilding her body and mind.
For the three parents in the picture, our occupations provide income and, equally critical, a sense of balance. For Andrea, her daily tasks are the most important she will ever complete, a cell by cell, neuron by neuron, muscle by muscle transformation from a critically injured, unresponsive young woman on a breathing machine and feeding tube all the way back to a college student staying in her own place (with, of course, a dog), looking after her daily details, laughing with her best friends, cranking her favorite music, walking, driving, traveling the world – living at her former speed and with every ounce of her famous spark. She is getting there, week by week.
For me, a steady ramp-up in writing assignments since the start of 2012 formally becomes, on Monday, a full-time writing gig with msnbc.com. On my Newsvine page http://billbriggs.newsvine.com/ I love seeing the word “staff” next to the NBC peacock logo. The people in the msnbc.com newsrooms – in Seattle and New York – are my work family. Though located thousands of miles away, they became a steady support network far back in the darkest, early days of this ordeal. They always ask me great questions. They always pay hard attention to the milestones in my daughter’s recovery. As I now devote even more hours to reporting and writing for msnbc.com, I will be stepping back from the two or, sometimes, three to four days per week that I drive Andrea to her gym sessions at Craig Hospital. One of Andrea’s best friends, Emily, will take my hours, both in the van and at Andrea’s side on the mats and next to the walking rails. (Lorrie can still generally work while at Craig, where I cannot.) As Nancy learned many months ago, this is a rough transition – not being present to witness the triumphs and to help soothe Andrea through the pain and fatigue that so often envelop her on this long journey. I have full faith that Emily will keep Andrea smiling. Now, I have to adjust to not watching and savoring the therapy victories – both giant and tiny.
I’ve shared something personal with a few people during this experience: I feel more at ease when I’m watching Andrea work – on the days when I see her literally making strides. The nagging pain in my gut – which moved in and made itself right at home last July as I first paced the ICU waiting room – completely disappears when I’m at Craig. Maybe it’s a guy thing. Or a dad thing. Fathers are wired to mend, to fix, to act. Being at my daughter’s side and in her ear as she re-finds her steps is a natural tranquilizer. In some small way, I know my being there is helping. When I’m home during the day writing and I can’t go to Craig – far more often lately – I later pump Lorrie, Andrea (and now Emily) for all the details that they can recall from the therapy sessions. I need to know. But I also need to let go, to re-focus my remaining energy and time on my life’s other priorities: my marriage, my health and, yes, my career. In that order.
When I first considered returning to work full-time, I emailed the man who has been overseeing the restoration of Andrea’s body and mind. Dr. Alan Weintraub.
“Is it too soon to go back now?” I asked. “Will that be a detriment to Andrea in any way?”
Given her stunning progress since January, I did not (and do not) want to change the equation.
“It may take you one more month and stepping back to really know,” Weintraub said. “(But) I think you can work just fine, if Andrea has her care routines in place. It will be good for everyone.”
So I took that leap. So far, so good.
On Tuesday this week, Andrea will hit the gym once again. She now does sessions with a personal trainer, Julie, twice per week. (The other training day is Thursday). Julie and Andrea work on her standing, her balance, her core strength, and her re-learning some steps. Those sessions take place in the Peak Center, a new gym on the first floor at Craig Hospital – jammed with new-tech machines that teach injured brains how to move arms and legs. One device is called the Lokomat – a blend of robotics, treadmill and video game. When she is strapped in, the Lokomat pulls and pushes Andrea’s legs forward and backward as her feet trudge along a moving treadmill. She can control the direction by adding more force and more kick to her thighs, knees or calves. She sees the immediate results on a video screen ahead of her: an avatar of a young woman walking in a green field toward scattered farm animals; Andrea’s legs and feet steer the woman toward those targets: cows, lambs and horses. She racks up points for every animal the avatar hits. The idea is to more consistently re-link the communication between her brain, legs and feet.
About a week after this recent session, Andrea did a Lokomat stroll without the lower-leg gear. As her body gains strength and her gait gains rhythm, the staff will remove more robotic pieces. The goal, eventually, is to simply have her walk on the treadmill by herself.
Andrea’s Wednesdays and Fridays are more-traditional therapy days, devoted to the three “classes” she’s been taking since last August: speech, physical and occupational therapy. For those sessions, she continues to work with Heather, Denise (sometimes with Celeste), and with Michelle. These women all are phenomenally talented. And each offers Andrea the perfect blend of affectionate friend and tough coach. Somehow, they actually make this fun.
Heather and Andrea seem to be constantly laughing as they play games to boost her memory and cognitive abilities. Both of those core pieces of Andrea’s mind are improving. Just a second ago, Andrea called me into her bedroom to ask the following question: “Dad, can you take this splint off my arm, take my lap top away, bring me a little water, bring me my phone and turn on my TV?” Quite a laundry list. But she had formulated her multi-phased request, organized it and then asked it with perfect diction. I handed her the phone, her TV remotes and offered a quick sip of water. With the Comcast screen showing her many options, she decided to head to the “On Demand” section, to the TV programs and to the “T’s” to download the latest episode of Tosh.0, her favorite comedy. Then she summoned me back into her room a second later to watch a video of a car smashing into a standing person at a 7-11 as the dude took out a bag of garbage. (He was fine after the collision). A lady emerges from the crashed car and calmly, without even a glance at the downed man, walks into the store “to buy lottery tickets,” Tosh suspects. Just a little ironic, given how all this started. But Andrea was giggling at the footage. And, frankly, so was I.
Laughter aside, the rehab work can be gritty, sweaty and sometimes agonizing. When Andrea is standing and striving to find that single, delicate point between leaning too far forward and falling – and leaning too far backward and falling – she tightly mashes her mouth shut and narrows her eyes in utter concentration. The closest comparison I can envision is if both of your legs fall asleep AND you simultaneously get muscle cramps from the quads to the calves to the feet and all this happens while your head is completely dizzy (as if you just stood up too quickly). This is what standing is like right now for Andrea. She battles through it all.
But when she’s up, Andrea is more upright and better able to brace her body with hard-won core and leg strength. Here, she stands between the walking bars with just a bit of help from Denise, who places a hand on her right side. You can see some of the pain as Denise tugs Andrea’s right shoulder back for better posture.
One of the most beautiful traits about my daughter: the pain is immediately forgotten and the smile and focus return. There is no grudge. There is only looking ahead. She teeters then catches herself.
These days, each one of us is looking forward while striving to find that proper balance. We will teeter. And then, hopefully, we will catch ourselves.