Day 1. The day everyone who has decided to take the leap of faith to the ExoSym looks forward to with anticipation, hope, anxiety, a host of “what ifs” and belief. It was an emotional and completely overwhelming day for me, both physically and emotionally. While the entire process of getting my ExoSyms and beginning my physical therapy was only three hours, I left feeling I’d been going all day.
It began at noon when I signed in, joking I was there to hand over my suitcase full of cash. Ryan met me at the counter and laughed. I could hand that over at the end, he said. Not to be out done, as we walked to the room he turned with a straight face, “So, what are we doing today?”
Touché, heir miracle worker, touché. He knows how to work with us nervous first timers and I love him for it. That was the laugh I needed.
In the room, he’d already had my ExoSyms, a bag of knee sleeves, and those spongy heal lifts ready to go, spread out all Vanna White style. I have to admit, my heart skipped a beat as I saw my familiar foot shape, finally on a pair of ExoSyms. It was about to get real.
Ryan held up one of the devices and told me straight, “These are the perfect devices for you, in a year to 18 months. You’ll need to work to strengthen yourself to get the most out of them and they’ll serve you well. You have to remember it takes time and effort, and you have to go easy on yourself. Remember, one day at a time.”
I took a deep breath and reminded myself, I can do this.
I’m terribly skinny in my legs thanks to very under-developed calves. The knee sleeves Ryan had lent me when I tried on my test devices, and what we need to wear with the devices to protect our knees, slid down pretty quick. I asked him if he had something smaller. He brought me some flesh-toned sleeves with gel in the inside. They fit great, but on an 80-degree day, man did they make me sweat. It was a pick your poison kind of choice. I’m saving those for the cooler days (something like 80% of days in Seattle).
The first thing I noticed after I put them on was my shoes weren’t going to make the cut. They’d barely made it with the test devices, but they were not happy with the real thing, especially the right where I needed to add a lift. Unfortunately, Ryan didn’t have a size that fit me perfectly. I am a size 4 regularly. He put me in a Size 6EEEE (meaning it was wide and deep). It felt tight, and HUGE. Maybe it was just the new shoe needing to break in.
Ryan had me walk a little in the room holding onto the bars for support, but quickly moved me out to the gym. There I wandered a bit before being introduced to Jared, an ex-Army doctor of science with some serious understanding of rehabilitative physical therapy. I’ve been through my share of physical therapists, and I have to say I was incredibly impressed with Jared right away. He really knows his stuff. He’s been helping all kinds of people strengthen for the ExoSym for almost three years now. I felt pretty quickly that if anyone would get me there, he could.
Jared took a few minutes to give me the best lecture I’ve ever had on why my body hurts like it does. I wish I’d thought to take a photo of his white board drawing. I was too enthralled. (I did take one on my next visit if you’re curious.) Basically, he compared body mechanics to a folding clothes rack. That diamond pattern of the two sides of the rack illustrate the forces that go through our bodies as we move – zig-zagging their way up from foot to calf to thigh to pelvis to abs to lower back on up. If we don’t do it right (think landing with straight knees from a jump that rattles your teeth), or one of those points is weak (like, say, half my body), the rest are out of balance. His job is to get me, and the rest of us, in balance.
With that he had me walk and focus on straightening my pelvis, tightening my abs and tucking in my butt (which he refers to as “pinching the penny.”) Right away my gait improved. With that, he had me pull some large ropes around, practicing my new walk. That’s about the time my dad arrived and started filming. Yay Dad.
Then Jared put me through some serious ab exercises. In one I laid on my back with my feet in loops hanging from a pole, so my feet were suspended. Then I had to use only my ab muscles to straighten my back and lift my butt off the ground (no pushing down with my feet). Once I got it, he said, “Great. Now, do that 60 times.” I almost choked. His rationale is he’s training me to althletic ability, which is what I’ll need to be to learn to walk correctly. I’ll have to do that three times a week for at least 8 weeks, but most likely longer.
After that, Jared had me stand with a bar to my side. Around the bar was another huge rubber band. A three-pound weight went through the loop of the band and I held the weight vertically in my hands. I had to pull the weight away from the bar, but not twist my body in the process. That was the hardest. I needed a mirror to see what I was doing wrong so I could correct it. I’m to do it 40 times on the weak side, 20 on the strong. Ryan walked by and asked how I was doing. “Kill me now,” I joked.
After I was good and sweaty, Jared took me over to try stairs. In the ExoSym, you need to step up on toes, and down stairs on the middle of your foot. Down was super easy. That’s how I do it already so I don’t hurt my ankles. But up, that was another story. I do it with my butt sticking out and leaning for leverage. We went outside to stairs going up from the street to practice. This, I’ve decided, is my biggest challenge. I’m so very weak on the right I can’t step up with my right foot without a railing, ever. We’re going to fix that.
At the end of the appointment I walked across that mat again, the one that tested my gait before, with the test devices and now with the real ones. There was even more improvement. I’m excited to see my progress again after more strengthening.
Throughout it all, though, my left foot ached. I’d really hoped I could stand longer than usual, but that wasn’t the case. My feet felt squished and my left one in particular was not happy. I knew it wouldn’t be perfect, but while the old pain was gone, I had different pain. That can’t be right.
I drove home questioning if this was the right decision (driving being another challenge as I’m so short and you can’t move your ankle in the ExoSym to move between the gas and break, but lifting my whole leg made the top of the device hit the seat below my knee). I called a fellow Clubbie with two devices for support and advice. She talked to me straight as she always has, reminding me that it takes us Clubbies a lot longer than others. Many of us have always walked wrong or had weak muscles. We need to make them strong to have the device work properly. In just her first month she’s seen huge improvement. She reminded me to have faith.
That night when I took them off, it wasn’t more than 20 minutes before the old pain was back and I was walking like a 70-year-old. This was going to be worth it. Maybe I just needed better shoes.
The next morning when I tried them on, my left foot barked. I had a sore spot on the inside of my left foot and on the ankle bone. That’s it!! The device simply needs to be adjusted – stretched a bit in one place, ground away in another – to better fit my foot. Unlike folks who come out for intensive 10-day or so visits for their devices, I have to space mine out. And Ryan is out of town on vacation now. So instead of give myself bruises and blisters in places where I know the device needs to be adjusted, I’m wearing it a couple of hours each day to practice my walk. My next appointment is Monday and we’ll get it all sorted then.
This was a long day coming, 44 years to be exact, and I can say with total certainty that this day was made possible thanks to the incredible support of other Clubbies who have gone before me into the world of the ExoSym. Through their honest advice and sharing of their experiences, my expectations were kept realistic and what I thought was a defeat, getting braces, has turned into a supportive elite club of dedicated folks who just plain get it – whether they have the ExoSym or not – because we all refuse to give up.