So… yet again I returned home from the Burn Center at UAB bandaged from hip to toe on both sides. This was the beginning of a rehab process that would last for months. Months of swelling and sponge baths, months of sleeping sitting up (I’m a side-sleeper so definitely not do-able), months of wearing black mens’ socks in place of shoes, hobbling around on a walker, and going to Birmingham for rehabilitation therapy.
The next big step was the first bandage change. A home health nurse was assigned to us for the first one. Her job was to assist with changing the bandages and teach both my dad and me the proper way to do it to avoid infection. I don’t think either of us knew what we were in for when we started the process that day. I’d been warned that it would be tough. I wasn’t prepared for it to last so long. The entire process took over 12 hours from start to finish. Peeling off those bandages was brutal. The thin, mesh dressing stuck to the fresh wounds and had to be gently pulled free. The concept is similar to peeling an adhesive bandage off good skin except that age-old principle of “rip it off” can’t apply here because you’re peeling it off the wound and it’s imperative that you don’t damage the skin as you do it.
We would get the bandage off of a small section and then I’d have to recover for a few minutes. I popped pain pills and Xanax, took deep breaths, watched, didn’t watch… no combination of actions helped much at all. It just had to be endured. We ran out of materials at one point because the nurse wasn’t aware that my burns were so extensive. A 24-hour Walgreen’s saved the day and we were back in business. After that first time, bandages had to be changed every three days and my dad had to do it until I had recovered enough to do it myself (a glorious day).
My mom stayed with me until she had used up every bit of time off she had saved up and was forced to go back home and back to work. I hated to see her go but it worked out well because my dad was exactly the right person to stay with me during the rehab. He’d been my softball coach during my formative years and approached the whole situation with tough love. He pushed me just enough. I became thankful for that terrible job I mentioned at the beginning of this story because I could set my own schedule and have someone else drive me around — and that’s what we did. Daddy drove, day after day, helping me in and out of the car so that I could earn my paycheck in spite of this whole ordeal and doing my job for me when I gave out at the end of the day. He always pushed exactly hard enough to keep me moving.
Those were my instructions, by the way: do as much as you can tolerate as often as you can tolerate it. I was told during one of my return trips to UAB that I was the “fastest healing burn patient” one particular nurse had ever seen. Maybe she says that to all her patients as motivation but I tend to believe it was true. Once we were confident that the grafts had taken (weren’t in danger of detaching), we stayed focused on avoiding infection and added the new goal of increasing mobility. I had lots of scar tissue around my toes, right heel and right ankle. My right foot, ankle, and heel were especially rigid and inflexible.
I slept in a boot designed to avoid (or minimize) a condition referred to as “ballerina toe.” If my rehab had not gone well, I might never have walked normally again. When scar tissue builds up around the ankle and heel area and/or when skin grafts are placed there, the skin pulls itself taut as it heals. The goal is to break the scar tissue loose and increase flexibility of the new skin so that the foot can once again rest flat on the ground. I walked with a stiff right ankle for a long, long time and then one day the scar tissue broke loose and I could bend at the ankle. Tears poured out of my eyes because it was the last big hurdle and I knew the rehab process was finally coming to an end.
Once I was released to drive again, I convinced my dad that he could go home and leave me alone again. I’m an independent person, sometimes to a fault. I will always, always be grateful for all both my parents did for me but I knew the next step for me was to regain that independence and find my new normal, whatever that might be.
Next: Part 5, the conclusion.