As my physical therapist sits opposite me at the end of the vinyl table I have been instructed to lay on, I know I now literally face my first real journey into the unknown. The table feels so cold and sterile, except for the strangely comforting aroma of physical therapy creams that permeate through the room. With my legs stretched out, my therapist places his hands carefully one inch on either side of my right foot. “Kim, move your right foot out to tap my left hand.” Nothing moves. I try again. Still, nothing. I try one more time. Nothing moves. Sensing my frustration and being on the verge of tears, he reassures me that everything will be okay.
Reflecting on this first physical therapy session in August 2007, which occurred just weeks after the first two of four major surgeries, I could never imagine where I am today. With the odds stacked firmly against me, under the care of a podiatrist, orthopedic surgeon, neurologist and plastic surgeon - my crutches already an extension of my physical self - any hope of walking unassisted lay in the hands of future surgeries, physical therapy, and fate. Determined to recover, I returned to that same physical therapy table four days per week, for two years. At the mercy of nerve generation, each session was tiring and disheartening; progress was both slow and limited.
Even as my physical therapy treatment concluded in 2009, I still walked with a limp, and I could not walk long distances. Adding to my discomfort I had to wear an ankle-foot orthotic (AFO) to even be able to walk down the street. I remember nervously starting work again for the first time since my injury and struggling with how to conceal my AFO, while maintaining some semblance of fashion sensibility. Everyday I would slide the white plastic sole of the AFO into the same pair of black leather sneakers, and wear a pair of loose fitting jeans that hid the plastic support attached to my calf muscle with white Velcro. Eventually I graduated to custom orthotics that fit discretely into any shoe.
Still, I longed to be reunited with that physical freedom I had been blessed with my entire life but had never truly appreciated. As a former ballerina, I was lucky to have avoided any major injury. My body - once a finely tuned machine that would do whatever I asked of it - no longer responded effortlessly. I felt trapped and lost. In October 2009 I found myself drawn towards swimming as a way of seeking movement and joined a local pool in San Francisco. A decision that changed everything for me, the water became a haven for me, freeing me from that physical and mental confinement. Weightless in the water, I moved across the surface just like everyone else. And while my technique was obviously lacking, I still made it to the other side of the pool, and back again. It certainly was not pretty, and it took me a little longer to finish my laps, but I did it.
One month later I jumped in the San Francisco Bay with my friends Jordan and Mike, and never looked back.
What I did not realize over the course of the next six years is this: while swimming became a retreat filled with self-discovery, it also allowed me to conveniently ignore the physical limitations of my right leg. Ironically I embraced my aesthetic limitations - I absolutely love my scars. Those discolored patches across my leg are part of the fabric of my soul, reminding me that anything is possible. But sporadic prompts in the form of excruciating nerve pain did little to force me to address the fact that my body was not whole.
Two months after my Farallon Islands swim, I could not walk comfortably up an iconic hill near my home in San Francisco. Shocked by how awkward and painful it felt, I knew I had to face what I had been dreading. I joined a gym and hired a trainer. I jokingly asked Jonathan to break me, yet after four months of weight training and strength exercises, he has rebuilt me. For the first time in almost nine years, my body feels nearly whole. My right leg is once again part of me.
Coincidentally I am currently experiencing my longest stretch of time without nerve pain. Three solid months and counting. And while there remains permanent nerve damage to my leg, and I still rely on custom orthotics to walk a distance more than 50 yards (so I am not exactly walking completely unassisted) I consider myself pretty lucky, all things considered. This afternoon I ran hill sprints up that same hill I struggled to walk up last October: a 39 second sprint up a 45 degree angle for 150 yards, to be exact. And it felt magic.