By the last day of his first week of rehab, Austin was doing better than he had dared to hope. He was able to stay in his wheelchair for nearly two hours at a time. By the end of the two hours, his back was usually screaming in pain, but it was still a big improvement from when he first started. They offered him Vicodin for his pain, but he refused it if he thought the pain was in any way tolerable. He was already loaded up on medications and he didn’t want to add another one.
Austin woke up that morning without the nurse Kimmy shaking him awake, and for a blissful second, he forgot where he was and why he was here. He attempted to sit up in bed until he felt the dead weight of his lower body and fell back down against the pillow. Sitting up was a chore—he had to grab onto the headboard and pull himself up with his arms. The other alternative was to use the bed controls to elevate his upper body, which was what he did now. He looked over at his wheelchair and acknowledged he was still a ways from transferring in and out by himself.
Fifteen minutes later, Kimmy came into the room, bright and cheerful as she always was in the morning. “Hey, handsome,” she said teasingly. “Did you sleep well?”
Austin shrugged, “Not too bad.”
He could see the catheter in her hand. As she pulled the drapes around his bed, he moved the covers and started pulling down his sweatpants. He still had a lot of trouble getting his pants down and Kimmy had to help him. She checked the padding under his butt. “No accidents,” she informed him. “Nice job.”
Austin couldn’t help but feel pleased. He was fortunate that his bladder didn’t leak in-between the catheterizations every four hours. Every evening they put him on a commode for a stimulated bowel movement and that usually seemed to keep him from having bowel movements in his pants during the day. Usually. Any activity that made him increase the pressure on his abdomen, like transferring, was a risk for an accident.
“So,” Kimmy said, holding the catheter out to him, “feel like trying it yourself today?”
Austin blinked, surprised. “Uh... yeah, sure.”
Austin gripped his penis the same way he had seen Kimmy do. It felt so strange to be holding his penis and not being able to feel it at all. He inhaled deeply as he slowly slid the lubricated catheter tip into his urethra. He threaded it inside, wincing involuntarily. Despite the fact that he couldn’t feel it, just the site of that catheter sliding in was enough to make his skin crawl a bit. After sliding it in for a while, he felt resistance. He looked and saw the urine wasn’t coming out yet. “It won’t go any further,” Austin frowned.
“There’s a little bend in the urethra,” Kimmy explained to him. “Keep going gently...”
Kimmy put her hands on his to help him and together they got past the point of resistance and the urine began flowing into the bag. Austin shook his head at the thought that this was the only way he’d be able to empty his bladder from now on. He’d have to do it multiple times a day or risk damage to the bladder or infection (or leakage).
“Great job,” Kimmy said, after they were done and the catheter was out. “You’re a natural.”
Austin smiled wryly. “Thanks.”
“Is Heather coming today?” Kimmy asked him.
Austin had told Kimmy a little bit about his wife. Kimmy only knew about her from what Austin had told her, since Heather hadn’t been to visit once since he was moved to the rehab unit. They talked on the phone every night and Heather explained to him that she was buried in work to make up from the week she had missed. It was two hours total driving time if she came to visit him in the hospital and she was just too exhausted to make the drive. Austin understood, but he still missed Heather desperately and wished she could somehow find a way to come see him. Most of the other guys in the unit were married and their wives often slept in their rooms every night.
Last night on the phone, he had nearly snapped at her. It was the end of the week and she had no excuse not to visit him. She promised she would come, but it wouldn’t have been the first time she had broken a promise like that.
“I hope so,” Austin replied.
Austin’s morning physical therapy session consisted of exercises to increase his balance and upper body strength. Truth be told, he felt sort of silly doing the exercises. Jeannie, the PT, would sit in front of him, and he would sit on an elevated mat with his legs hanging off the edge. First she would tell him to just try to remain in a sitting position and hold it for a count of ten—that wasn’t too hard because he was still wearing his tortoise shell brace, which gave him some support where his muscles weren’t too great yet.
Next, Jeannie would tell him to lean forward a little bit and then hold that pose for the count of ten. This was a little harder and Austin had to strain the muscles in his arms to support him. Then she would tell him to lean to the right side for count of ten, then lean to the left for count of ten. Then she stood behind him and told him to lean back for the count of ten—this was the part where he often fell backwards and needed Jeannie to catch him. If he fell backwards, his arms still weren’t strong enough to get himself back into a sitting position by himself, so Jeannie would have to lift him up again.
Simple as these exercises seemed, Austin usually felt completely drained by the time he finished. He thought they must be helping though, at least a little bit, because he felt that when Jeannie transferred him into his chair, he was able to assist her a little bit.
After his morning exercises were completed, Austin still had nearly an hour before Dr. Spector was due to examine him. As he wheeled himself toward the exit to the rehab gym, he noticed there was a table set up where several of the guys were playing Texas Hold’em with one of the nurses, Mary.
As he lingered by the table, Mary offered him a broad smile, “Why don’t you join us, Austin?”
Austin considered her proposal. He tried doing one of the weight shifts Jeannie had shown up how to do, locking the wheels on his chair and lifting his butt entirely off the seat. His back actually felt pretty good and he felt like staying in his chair. “All right,” he agreed.
Austin was the least disabled of all the guys playing poker. Of the five of them, he was the only one who had full use of his hands. Three of the guys could use their arms and hands a little and one guy, Reggie, couldn’t move his hands or arms at all—he had his mother with him to play the cards he wanted. They all had card-holders set up so they wouldn’t have to hold the cards themselves. The guys who had some movement in their arms would use the balls of both their wrists to pick up the cards. Texas Hold’em was a good game for them though, because they didn’t have to exchange any cards.
“You don’t need a card-holder, do you Austin?” Mary asked, sliding him over two dollar’s worth of chips.
Austin shook his head as he picked up the two cards she had dealt him. His cards were decent, so he stayed in the game, but the first three cards the house received didn’t mesh well with his cards. He thought he could have out-bluffed this group, but he decided to just fold. Reggie wound up winning the pot with two pairs.
Close to an hour later, Austin was up a dollar, but Reggie was the big winner of the table. Everyone else was nearly out of chips, but Reggie had a big pile of chips in front of him. Dr. Spector entered the gym, crossing her thin arms across her white coat. “Wow, Reggie,” she said, “you really cleaned up.”
“He used to play poker all the time,” Reggie’s mother explained. Reggie smiled a little sadly.
Dr. Spector looked down at Austin. “Would you like to go back to your room?”
Austin nodded and he followed Dr. Spector out of the gym and down the hall to his room. His back was beginning to hurt a bit, but it wasn’t even that bad. He was thrilled at how long he was able to stay in his wheelchair.
“I heard Heather is coming today,” Dr. Spector said to him once they were back in his room.
“That’s the rumor,” Austin said.
“I’ll bet you’re excited.”
“I guess.” Austin was trying not to let himself get too excited, because he knew Heather had a tendency to back out on him.
“Are you having any accidents?” Dr. Spector asked.
She smiled. “Excellent. And you’re having bowel movements on the commode?”
“Great.” She raised an eyebrow, “Any spasms in the legs?”
“No...” Austin hesitated. “You keep asking me that. Should I be having spasms?”
“With your injury, I wouldn’t expect you to be having spasms yet,” Dr. Spector said. “But every patient is different.”
Spasms. Austin looked down at his motionless knees and wondered what that would be like.
“Have you noticed any sores or anything on your legs?”
“No... none that I’ve seen...”
Dr. Spector bent down and examined Austin’s feet. He watched her picking up his foot and testing its range of motion. “Your feet are beginning to drop a bit,” she said.
“Uh... really? What does that mean?”
“It means the muscles in your calves are tightening,” she explained. “I have an orthotic you can wear. It will keep your feet in dorsiflexion during the night so that they don’t point downward.”
“Okay,” Austin agreed. He still didn’t really understand what she was talking about. Dr. Spector was never great at explaining things to him.
“And how about those staples in your back?” she said. “You’re probably ready to have those out.”
Austin’s back was still lined with staples from all the surgeries he had. He felt fortunate that he couldn’t see it, because it probably looked terrible. It didn’t bother him too much, considering most of the staples were in places he couldn’t feel. The ones on his upper back were a little uncomfortable though when they rubbed against his back brace. Plus, when and if Heather came, he didn’t want her to see all the staples (even though she had already seen them). “Yeah, let’s get them out,” Austin said.
Austin heard a knock on the door and looked up to see Kimmy with the catheter. “It’s that time,” Kimmy said with a smile.
“All right, I’m about done in here,” Dr. Spector said.
Austin liked that Kimmy always respected his privacy, even in front of Dr. Spector. Kimmy waited for Dr. Spector to wash her hands and leave the room before she pulled down his shorts to cathe him. He accepted her offer to let him try to place the catheter himself again.
“Oh my!” Kimmy blinked in surprise as she pulled down his underwear. “Austin, you have to be more careful! You were sitting on your package, you know.”
Austin looked down and saw that indeed most of his testicles and penis were under his body. Naturally, he hadn’t noticed.
“You don’t want to crush them, do you?” Kimmy said as she gently freed them from their unfortunate location.
Austin nearly retorted, What’s the difference? “I guess I should check from now on,” he said.
This time Austin did much better with the catheter. He still felt that same resistance, but he pushed past it and was able to drain the urine with little help from Kimmy. He was quite pleased with himself.
“Great job!” Kimmy said. “You’re a quick learner.”
Austin smiled despite himself. “Can you help me out of my chair?” he asked her.
“Certainly,” Kimmy agreed. “You’ve been in it a while now, haven’t you?”
“Three hours,” Austin said. It was his longest stretch yet.
“Maybe tonight you can use your wheelchair to go to the cafeteria with your wife?” Kimmy suggested.
“Yeah, maybe...” Austin felt a wave of anxiety about the thought of leaving the comforts of the rehab unit with his wheelchair. He supposed he had to do it eventually, but he preferred later rather than sooner.
“What are you worried about?” Kimmy asked in a concerned voice.
It was hard to articulate exactly what was bothering him. In rehab, he felt like a patient who was recovering from an accident. Once he went outside the unit and started interacting with people in his wheelchair, he’d no longer be a patient... he’d be a disabled man. He didn’t feel like he was ready to take that leap quite yet. He still wanted to be the old Austin for just a little bit longer.
Kimberly LaBella checked the list and was pleased to observe that she had completed all her scheduled blood draws for the floor. Kimmy glanced down at her watch and saw that it was nearly time for her break. She nudged Veronica Sawyer, one of the social workers on the floor. “Feel like a break?” Kimmy asked Veronica.
Veronica shrugged. “I’ve already had more coffee than I can handle for today.”
“Coffee wasn’t what I had in mind,” Kimmy smiled slyly. “You know, Austin Chandler is in the gym working out with the weights now...”
Veronica laughed. “Kimmy, you’re so bad!”
“I can’t help it!” Kimmy retorted. It was rare that the SCI rehab unit had a patient who was as cute as Austin was. It seemed like a crime not to enjoy it while it lasted.
“He is pretty fine,” Veronica admitted.
“Thank you,” Kimmy said.
Giggling to each other, the two women hurried over to the rehab gym to catch the end of Austin’s workout. Austin was on his second to last machine, alternating machines with another new paraplegic in his fifties named Joe. He was wearing the bulky TLSO on his chest, but Kimmy could see the sweat accumulating on his T-shirt. His face was slightly pink with the effort of lifting the weights. She watched his biceps flexing and relaxing, mesmerized.
“He is so sexy,” Kimmy murmured to Veronica. “I think I may have to violate him during his next ICP.”
Veronica shoved Kimmy playfully. “Isn’t he married?”
“Not for long,” Kimmy replied. “You know how many times his wife has been to visit him here?” She formed her fingers into the shape of a zero.
“Aw, that’s so sad,” Veronica said earnestly. She nudged Kimmy, “Hey, have you ever actually... you know... with a patient?”
“Nah,” Kimmy said. “I’m a big wuss... and besides, cleaning up their crap usually kills the romance.” She winked. “But I’m pretty tempted to make an exception for Mr. Chandler over there.”
As Kimmy watched Austin working the weights, she couldn’t help but let her eyes fall on his lower half. He was wearing shorts today, showing off his legs that had only first started to atrophy. He had argued with Kimmy about putting on the shorts, because he knew how his legs looked and he didn’t want anyone else to see. She wondered if he realized they were only going to get worse. He still had on the tan stockings and his feet were covered with gray socks that Kimmy had put on him herself in the morning. She had struggled with his paralyzed feet that couldn’t help her at all. She stared at his feet now, carefully positioned in the detachable footrests.
Kimmy wasn’t especially attracted to paralyzed men, but she spent so much time with them, she was more comfortable with them than with able bodied men. It wasn’t Austin’s legs that gave her pause. She knew from experience that Austin had a long road ahead of him in terms of his recovery, and that road would likely be paved with all sorts of unpleasant things. She could tell that Austin was hovering at the brink of depression and was in denial over the fact that his marriage was failing. His self-esteem was probably at an all time low. A year from now, maybe Austin would be happy and well-adjusted to his disability... but for now, he had far too many issues.
Austin finished up with the machine, rubbing his sore biceps for relief. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and looked up to see Kimmy and Veronica across the room. Austin, unaware that the women had come only to watch him, waved casually and flashed them a tired smile. God, he was cute. What if I give him my number and ask him to call me next year? Kimmy wondered.
Heather arrived at the hospital three hours later than she had promised she would. Officially, her excuse was that she had to catch up on some work. Unofficially, Heather had been very anxious about coming to the hospital tonight and she was putting it off as long as she could.
She felt like she couldn’t deal with Austin trying to deal with being in a wheelchair. She knew it was very hard for him. And she also knew that if situations were reversed, Austin would have been at her side every evening. But the truth of the matter was, she was having a very hard time adjusting to the thought of Austin in a wheelchair.
My husband is disabled, Heather said to herself, trying the words out for size. It felt strange.
When Heather arrived at the SCI rehab unit, she approached the nurse’s station to find out where Austin’s room was. The nurse manning the station was a pretty brunette whose name tag read “Kimmy.”
“Excuse me,” Heather said. “I’m looking for Austin Chandler’s room.”
The nurse Kimmy looked her over. “You his wife?”
“Right,” Heather said, blushing slightly.
“You’re late,” Kimmy said in a cold voice. She let Heather feel the full extent of her icy gaze before speaking again. “His room is the third one on the left. He’s in bed already.”
Heather’s face was bright red. She nodded at the nurse and made her way down the hall to Austin’s room. The door was open and the lights were dimmed. Austin was lying in bed, watching television. The wheelchair was at his bedside. She was relieved that he wasn’t in his wheelchair—she didn’t think she was ready for that right now.
Austin must have heard her footsteps, because he looked over at the doorway. When he realized it was Heather, his green eyes filled with tears. “Heather...”
She crossed the room to his bed, nearly tripping over the wheelchair on the way. “That thing is dangerous!” she joked.
“You better get used to it,” Austin said, not smiling. “It’s going to be by our bed every night from now on.”
Heather slowly sat down on his bed. “I’m sorry I’m late, honey. I just... work was...”
“Yeah, I get it,” he said quietly.
She took his hand in hers. “I really missed you this week.”
Austin wiped his eyes. “I missed you too. You have no idea how much, Heather.”
She cleared her throat nervously. “I stopped by your school yesterday,” she told him. She reached into her purse and pulled out a stack of papers. “Your kids made you get well cards.”
Austin laughed. The sound of his laughter calmed her. “That’s so cute. They, uh... know what happened to me?”
Heather nodded. “Some of them even drew a little picture of you in a wheelchair.”
Austin took the pile of cards from her. He hadn’t even realized how much he had missed them until Heather mentioned school. Austin flipped through the cards that said “Get well soon, Mr. Chandler” and sure enough, a few of the kids had drawn their teacher in a wheelchair.
“Mr. Bryant said you can come back when you’re ready,” Heather said. Jon Bryant was the principal of the school and Austin had considered him a friend as well.
Austin was relieved to hear that his old job would be waiting for him when he got out of here. He was terrified of not being able to find work because of his disability. He could imagine going for job interviews and seeing the dismayed looks at the sight of his wheelchair. He never wanted to depend on Heather or anyone else for money.
Austin looked up at Heather, who looked like she was ready to jump off the bed and bolt from the room. He could tell she was avoiding looking at the wheelchair. As he gazed at her, he remembered how much he loved her and he was very scared of losing her. If she didn’t get used to his disability, they didn’t have a chance.
Then again, he wondered if the right thing to do wasn’t to let her go. He loved Heather and always would, but she was too wrapped up in her career right now. He knew she didn’t want to be saddled with a crippled husband.
He suddenly felt very alone. He wished Heather would hug him, but he sensed that she was afraid to get too close. He knew that he wasn’t physically capable of making love to her anymore and he wondered if she knew it too.
“Austin...” Heather touched his cheek and that’s when he realized he was crying.
He wiped his eyes self-consciously. “I’m okay,” he said quickly. “I just...”
Heather leaned in toward him and he felt her lips brush against his. He put his hand on her shoulder to keep her close to him. God, he missed her. He pulled her in to kiss her deeply on the lips. He didn’t want to let her get away from him.
Heather squeezed his hand tightly in hers. “We’re going to figure this out together,” she said.
To be continued...