Finding the Words

By Sarah Garrecht Gassen

People aren’t often invited into my space.

I’m not one for being poked and prodded. Is anyone? As long as I can get where I’m going, that’s been good enough.

But not anymore.

I’ve noticed pains, twinges, aches, galumphs. What happens in one area is beginning to show up somewhere across the equator and in a different hemisphere.

Maybe this is just getting old – I’m only 42, so hope not – changing shape, adding gravitational pull to my frame. It’s time to make changes.

This is on top of my quest to become a better, more fluid walker. A better user of my prosthetic leg.

When I first sat down with John Woolf he asked me to tell him my story, my “thing”: what made me decide to explore physical therapy. I’m used to relaying information, it’s what I do for a living. And I’ve explained my why-I-use-a-fake-leg story a zillion times.

So I began my zillion-and-oneth recitation. I was born with my left leg under-developed blah blah amputated when I was three blah blah prosthesis blah blah……

Somewhere in the recounting John asked what I want to accomplish, “what is your goal?”

And then he said something that stopped me cold:

“I want to learn your language for how you talk about your thing.”

My brain kicked wide open.

I had never, ever heard this before.

He continued:

I want to learn your vocabulary so we can communicate about how you experience your thing.

I want to learn your story.

I want to know how you live with your thing, how you talk to it, relate to it.

John wanted to know my language so he could use it. He didn’t want to pontificate at me. He didn’t want to tell. He didn’t want a one-way transfer of information from medical expert to patient- recipient.

He wanted to communicate. With me.

This was most unexpected.

Through our conversation that day it became clear that I needed two things:

To physically become stronger so my gait would improve and my prosthetic foot and knee could work better, and to train my brain to recognize what it felt like to when I was walking correctly. Part of my challenge has been that when my brain thought I was walking smoothly – correctly – the rest of me looked lurch-y and terrible. But it felt right, because it was what I was used to, and it was familiar. My muscles remembered how they’ve moved for more than three decades.

My brain needed to be retrained, to learn what muscles felt like when my gait was good and even.

I’d made the first step in this journey by getting to John.

To take the next step, I’d have to learn a new language.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen is a journalist living in Tucson, Arizona.