Andrew Wicks is a 6’4 physiotherapist who enjoys wool socks, leg room, and eating pizza. He is thankful for his family and Lactaid.
A recent patient had an unusual and very specific goal. She wanted to be able to ride an escalator again.
This woman was a vibrant being before her car accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). She taught exercise and dance classes. She was an avid downhill skier. She ate life with a knife and fork and asked for dessert.
After her accident, she had to work like mad to regain the ability to walk and talk and think and be. Most things eventually came back. Most things.
The trick was that she could walk. Something in her injured mind prevented her from walking on to an escalator. Even thinking about the task would give her debilitating panic attacks.
So I had her talk through the problem. It is not usually the first arrow in my quiver I reach for, but it seemed fitting. We sat in the mall’s promenade while looking at an escalator and talking about escalators. We recounted how she had never actually had a fall on an escalator. But that session ended without her riding an escalator.
I planned to use the same strategy at our next session. She surprised me by declaring, “I’m going to ride it today.” She had trembling confidence in herself. We went to the mall. She stood in front of the escalator with me. We each let our hand bounce on the moving railway for a few seconds. I lifted my foot to step forward and…she did too. Our expressions were equally surprised.
In the ten or fifteen seconds of our ascent, I panicked as I wondered if she could dismount without incident. I shot off a quick, silent prayer as the top of the escalator approached. A hundred instructions ran through my head: “Quick! Step forward! Shift your weight! Watch for the threshold! Grab the rail! Ready! Wait! Now, go!” But I said nothing because I was afraid for her.
She stepped off the escalator as if it was the world’s easiest task. Astonished looks on our faces.
I seized on this momentum and said that we would immediately descend on the opposite escalator. She battled briefly with her anxieties but kept the upper hand. We descended successfully. Easy on, easy off.
But one successful trial doth not a victory make. For a change to be real, it needs to be repeatable and transferable to different settings. We left Barnes & Noble for JCPenney and traded best-selling coffee table books for aisles of perfumes and handbags. Up we went, she and I. On the way down, though, a problem: I stepped on, she hesitated and was left behind. Now she would have to face the monster alone.
She calmly told a concerned passerby that, yes, she was ok and no, thank you, she would not need assistance to get down. I had already started around to go back up to meet her when I saw her descending the escalator alone, a beaming smile on her face and a death grip on the rail. My pride was boundless.
We repeated our exercise of ascent and descent a few more times for posterity. I accompanied; I didn’t accompany. I watched; I didn’t watch. She ascended; she descended.
I’ve worked with patients for whom sitting up is a small triumph. I’ve seen patients come back from the brink of death to walk out of our rehab center into their family’s waiting car. I’ve felt my heart rise out of my chest for my patients; it’s why I do what I do. But seeing this woman conquer her fears by doing this simple task was something special.
We cannot see the hopes and fears of other people. These things have no shape or color; they just are. If we listen, we learn. If we listen, we love. And then, and only then, maybe we can help.