Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hopping Around Brisbane

Last Saturday we had a very welcome couple of visitors arrive. Nope, not another huntsman spider -- that was a few weeks ago -- this was my Dad and Verle from Canada!

After a very long flight, we picked them up from the airport and got them settled in at home. Maybe they were just delerious but they actually seemed to have some energy left! Must've been that last round of ice cream on the airplane. We expected them to be weary and need some time to recover but they were eager so we took them for an evening hike near Daisy Hill.

Mother nature didn't waste any time showing them why we're still living here!

On the first day we were all treated to a Koala in the wild, having a light snack high in the red gum tree just before sunset!

We also spotted a Wallaby in the forest, two big Kangaroos in a field and several white cockatoos flying overhead before the sun set on the day. We also spotted several huge Golden Orb spiders overhead in the dusk.

On the way home, we watched the giant fruit bats and flying foxes make their nightly migration in the hundreds (perhaps thousands) overhead just south of the city. Quite a site to see (and smell)!

They were in travelling-Canuck bliss and you read correctly, that was just day one. A hard act to follow!

Not to be outdone, day two did not disappoint. At Byron Bay we were treated to the site of a small band of wild dolphins jumping three in a row out in the surf!

We also spotted several large water dragon lizards on the cliffs overlooking the surf at Point Danger and watched wild surfers competing for bragging rights at the local competition that day.

Lisa took them for a great hike near Montville on Monday where they spotted a huge frog on the side of the hill nearby to a raging waterfall and Tuesday was spent exploring the city. We've had a lot of rain lately so the falls were very impressive to see!

This morning we dropped them off at the airport for a 6am flight out to "Aires Rock Airport" at Uluru and the 42 degree Outback.

I've been fussing around like a concerned parent making sure they pack and drink plenty of fluids at "the Rock", know to leave snakes alone and not to feed the dingos! It's really more for selfish reasons: it would just be embarrassing if they were the first tourists to die this year in a place so public as Uluru!

They'll be back for another visit before they head back to Vancouver in a few weeks. I can't tell you how great it's been seeing them!

For an encore, I'm hoping to receive my first prosthetic before they leave. I have now gone through the casting process and I was told today that the leg is being built as we speak! For some reason they laughed when I suggested they work through the night...

My new foot is on order and should be arriving sometime early next week. Here's hoping I won't have to be patient for too much longer, but in the meantime, these visitors from home are an excellent distraction!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Phun with the Phantom

The brain is seriously amazing! Allow me to demonstrate.

I woke up with a pretty bad cold today so I went looking for some cough medicine. Strange thing was, my symptoms weren't on any of the labels: sore throat, running nose, killer pain in your leg whenever you cough, headache.

It reminded me that there are some really cool parts of this whole experience that are pretty fun to play with. In case you're just tuning in, I can still feel my foot... fully! My brain still thinks it's down there, just like the other one. This is called a phantom limb and it's pretty common.

After the surgery, my nurses thought it was funny to use that little spot where my foot used to be as a convenient place to drop my chart. Whenever the chart would "break the plane" where my limb used to be, my brain would go NUTS to the point that I would very nearly vomit.

I'm not complaining, it always made me chuckle!

The same thing would happen anytime I had my leg up on the "stump board" of the wheel chair and someone would walk "through" it. My brain would seriously freak out and my whole leg would tingle!

At first I figured this was just because I kept flinching but as time went on, I stopped flinching and I started to play. I still play.

Playtime includes kicking my phantom limb up against (and therefore through) a wall. This is so bizarre! No matter how many times I try this, my brain still has a minor panic attack every time.

I also play tricks with my real physical sensation. To understand this, you must first understand that when they did this surgery, they folded my calf muscle up and over the tip of the bone, then stitched it to the front of my leg. This has a really cool side-effect!

The nerves that used to be on the backside of my leg are now on the front of my leg. They've also moved about 4cms closer to my knee than they used to be.

This means that when I'm touching the "front" of my leg below the scar line, my brain still interprets the signal as coming from the back of my leg, a few inches lower than my physical limb. In other words, when physically touching the front of my leg, I feel it in a spot where nothing exists on the back of my leg, out in the middle of the empty space!

To really mess my mind up, I run my finger down the front of my leg above the scar, then over the scar line to instantly feel the touch sensation jump to the back of my leg!

When I run a finger along the scar line sideways, my brain really just shuts down all together, feeling one single finger tip touching the back and front of my leg simultaneously in some fifth dimension of time and space.

If that wasn't amazing enough, my brain is starting to re-wire itself to understand where the signals are coming from. It's starting to understand that when I feel the sensation at a certain spot, it's coming from the front of my leg, bottom of my leg, and back of my leg.

The neat thing is, this only works if I tap or bump the spot. If I just graze the spot with a light touch, my brain still misinterprets the location of the sensation.

The phantom pain has a really interesting side-effect as well. As you can imagine, when you feel pain but there's nothing there to feel the pain from, a little pain switch develops in your head to allow you to ignore the feeling. I'm learning now to apply this to my "real" pain.

Before, whenever I stubbed my toe, I would carry on like I'd lost an eye. Each time, I was SURE that this time, I broke it! Now when I stub my toe, my real toe that is, there's a brief second where my brain goes "hmm... pain... wait, that's coming from the right side not the left... so that's real pain... should I react? Meh, too late, just eat your cereal." I really love cereal.

This has taught me a new level of something I already knew academically: the brain has far more to do with pain than the body does.

I knew this to be true from climbing and other sports but hadn't ever completely overcome it. Now, I've found new life in my muscles. I'm able to push beyond that "lactic acid" burn now and work my muscles to a fatigue point. I'm learning to tell the difference between pain that I should pay attention to and pain that's just there as an early warning system.

Alright, one final magic trick! If you've read this far in such a long post, you get a reward. Please hold both hands out in front of you, put your palms face to face and intertwine your fingers, making a sort of "two handed fist". Squeeze those hands together hard! Now, keeping the rest of your fingers intertwined, point your index fingers firmly to the sky and don't let them touch each other. Hold that position, no cheating.

I'm going to make your fingers touch.

Your job is to resist me! Stare at them if you have to but hold them firmly apart and resist me while squeezing those hands together. Come on, try again, aren't you in control of your own mind and body? I'm not even there, why are they so much closer together?

If you've made it this far without them touching, you're a champ, so close your eyes and count to 60 holding those fingers firmly toward the sky and holding a tight two-handed fist.

Told you I could do it. How fun is that?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tissue Regeneration: Medical Breakthrough

This is incredible stuff! The following video embedded here is a CBS News segment discussing advances in cell regeneration and the future of growing limbs, organs, etc, from the body's own cells.

In the future, this could be the cure for heart disease, kidney disfunction, hepatic livers and so on!

Watch as they create a mouse heart using an ink-jet printer! No joke! The printer is used to spray heart cells in the correct pattern using 3D models of the functional heart.

Thanks to Roman for this video!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Swimming Revisited

The following is a conversation that took place between myself and Paratriathlete Meyrick Jones on swimming. With Meyrick's help, I'm swimming MUCH faster now and have worked out a few kinks with my new style. Perhaps best of all is the fact that I've realized my swimming was probably just as bad with two legs as it was with one; I'd just never paid enough attention to my feet until now. Maybe you won't have to give up one of yours to improve your swim stroke as much as I have!

Lisa and I went swimming twice on the weekend and figured out that when doing a front crawl / freestyle stroke, my kicking is not only useless to my speed, it's actually a hindrance! Have you found this?

No. I find that a tight, well executed flutter kick increases my speed. It does take energy though and I tend to de-emphasize it in the same way most distance swimmers do.

Our tests using a front crawl / freestyle stroke:
Standard kicking and arm movements: 1 lap = 29 seconds
No kicking, holding a float between knees, standard arms: 1 lap = 25 seconds
No arms, holding a float to chest, standard kicking: 1 lap: impossible. Actually moved sideways but never forward.
Dolphin kick both legs together with standard arms: 1 lap = 21 seconds but breathing is awkward due to balance.

I am also faster with the pull-buoy between the legs (and so are many people). It keeps the body more horizontal thus minimizing drag. This is why my coach calls me a "cheater" when I use it.

Do your time trial without the pull-buoy - kicking hard and not kicking. This will give you the "value" of your kick.

Kicking alone - FORGET IT. My 4 year old can beat me....

Dolphin kick - not too bad but missing the power of a two legged kick - makes butterfly VERY hard to do for any distance.

So basically what I can figure out is this: my stump seems to create a vortex or a drag backwards rather than a push forwards. If I let it float and kick with the good leg, I can propel myself forward. If I kick with both, I stop dead and don't move forwards.

I tend to kick with only my right leg and the left just sort of moves up and down in time with it. You will get a rhythm.

I'm starting to think my best stroke will be the butterfly. That combines dolphin kicking both legs at the same time together and I'd have a less awkward time breathing. Problem might be the energy expended doing such an intense stroke. Not exactly a long-distance stroke.

Remember the kick is by far a secondary propulsion system in distance freestyle swimming. Concentrate on keeping your head facing straight down at the line (this will keep your legs higher in the water), then adopt a nice tight flutter kick. Also, don't feel bad about using the pull-buoy between your legs, unless you plan to compete who cares? BUT, watch your shoulders - if you start swimming all the time you might develop some over-use injuries - build it up slowly - like running....

Finally got back to trying out some swimming this weekend. I tried several different types of kicking to sort out what you meant about a "nice tight flutter kick" and think I figured it out.

My main problem is that I was kicking too much from the knee. When I kick that way, I create drag. When I used more ankle and kept my knee action "tighter", I was MUCH faster in the water. I'm not sure it was so much from the extra propulsion (although I definitely felt a little push from that), as much as from thinking about what you said about the pull-buoy keeping me more horizontal and reducing drag, then applying that to my kick. In other words, I was thinking about just using my kick to keep me horizontal and reduce drag rather than as a propulsion mechanism. This helped a ton and still added a little "kick".

I have a feeling that my two legged kick was just as ineffective but no one had ever pointed it out.

Of the three leg joints the one that should be most involved in initiating the kick is the hip. The knee will flex only slightly to help create a whip-like action and the foot should stay pointed. Check YouTube for a video of Phelps or Thorpe to see what I mean. You should aim to create a little surface splash with each kick. That way you will know you are in the proper horizontal position. To get that position and maintain it your head will need to be aligned so that your face is looking down not forward. Swimming is SO connected this way - each part effects every other part. This is all exactly the same whether you have 1 or 2 legs.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Leg Update

Another week drifts by, another delay. If patience is a virtue, I must be headed for sainthood...

This is week 13 of being on crutches after being told the whole process should only take 6 weeks. That's after being on my back for 8 weeks so I guess you could say it's still an improvement.

After they were surprised that the parts hadn't arrived by last Friday, I received a call today telling me that my parts wouldn't be in this week either. There was a snafu with the ordering system and it apparently wasn't ordered afterall. They "think" it's gone into the system today.

This means the crucial piece needed for casting *might* arrive as "early" as NEXT Friday, making my earliest possible casting appointment two more weeks from today. Once that's done, I still have three more weeks to wait. Five more weeks on crutches...

Disappointed? Did I mention how much I really love cereal? I'm starting to eye up that saw in the garage and my crutches are looking awfully re-engineerable right now... maybe showing up to rehab in a nice homemade wooden pegleg would speed the process along!

I really love cereal. Arrgh matey...

Monday, February 9, 2009

Climbing Mount Coolum

Being a new amputee isn't ALL great parking, fancy crutches and jaw dropping second looks at the mall, sometimes it can be a challenge too! I know that might be hard to believe so allow me to elaborate.

Take for example hiking or climbing a small mountain as was the case this weekend at Mount Coolum. I dare you to drive past that mountain without saying "we should climb that". It's just so damned tempting!

We pulled in and scouted the terrain. The sign at the bottom read "Experienced climbers only." CHECK! If that's the only stipulation, we should be fine. We've done hundreds of these hikes in our lives, all very successfully. Granted, most of those were completed bi-pedally but logically we should be able to assume that being a tri-ped can only help matters!

Now normally, one sign is enough for a guy like me, but I promised my Mom I'd be more careful. We looked around and sure enough, we found a second sign showing a man using a walking stick to make himself tri-pedal just like me. Clearly this is an advantage! His pack was much bigger than mine and he didn't even look tired! That was enough evidence for us, we started the long trek up an endless staircase to the trail head.

A hike like this would usually take us about 30 minutes and that's with ample photo time. A quick sprint to the top, plant the flag to covertly claim another small piece of this strange island for the great nation of Canada, a few quick snaps, a mouthful of orange vitamin water and a quick scree-ski to the base.

We must've been tired because it took us a lot longer than it used to. Could it be that we're getting out of shape? Perhaps we just needed more vitamin water... I knew we shouldn't have switched brands!

We hiked for about 45 minutes, deep into the "home of the peregrine falcon", or so another sign told us. The trail got steeper and much more rocky. We passed a sign that mentioned death or danger or... something... but we were so far off our normal pace, we didn't have time to read it. I'm sure it wasn't important but the little man with the walking stick was crossed out so I guess he didn't make it that high.

Not to worry, we didn't actually go beyond the giant unmistakable DANGER sign. I'm enjoying this period of challenge but I'm not so dumb as to do something that could risk my progress and my brilliant partner in crime is no fool either. She's a tough chick but I doubt very much that she's going to be able to piggy-back me down something like that.

Unfortunately we weren't able to make it to the summit on this attempt, a fact that still sits sour with me. We did get pretty high up but there came a point where we made the collective decision that the terrain was getting too treacherous to continue. Not too treacherous for going up, just for coming back down. There comes a point where crutches begin to high-center a person and the drops become a little too extreme when coming down a very steep slope.

Back at the base of the mountain for a little fishing, some salt and vinegar chips and a slug of orange vitamin water. This is the good life my friends, drink it up!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Leg Update

As you may have read, I was supposed to get cast for my prosthetic on Friday but this didn't happen. Instead, I woke up to a phone call telling me that the critical piece hadn't arrived yet and not to bother coming in. To say that I was bummed out is to say that the Pope is an old catholic guy who's afraid of change or that I like cereal... I really like cereal.

The parts are on order and they should arrive this coming week. Sure.. just one more week of waiting around... what could possibly bother me about that... just one.. more... week!?!?

Not to worry, Friday turned out to be a great day. After wallowing in self pity, I received an email from the Amputee and Family support group here in Brisbane asking that I share my experience with someone else who's having to make the same horrible decision I had to make. That's never easy for someone living that moment and I was thankful for the opportunity to give back.

We had a great chat Saturday morning. Talking about that very personal moment with someone else is therapeutic, so JW, I wish you the very best no matter which path you choose. You've already helped me a great deal and I thank you.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Advances in Prosthetic Legs

Another article re-post I'm afraid, but this has been on my mind a lot lately.

I spoke with the Prosthetist who's building my first leg the other day and I'm told I'm getting one of the most advanced systems they've ever assembled at this hospital. They're all very excited to finally have someone eligible to receive these components as much of it is based on physical fitness, age and suitability.

The components I'm getting are coming from Ossur, an Icelandic based prosthetics company renowned for its unique running feet.

I'm sure you've probably heard about the incredible story of Oscar Pistorius, the double below knee amputee who very nearly qualified for the South African Olympic team this past year and instead took home the gold medal in the 100, 200 and 400 meter Paralympic events in Beijing. Oscar runs on Ossur's Cheetah Flex-Foot system.

In doing some research on Ossur and the components I'll be receiving, I came across this article in the Spectrum (again). It's incredible the advances they've made in these limbs.

Read the article here:

I'm set to head in for casting on Friday with any luck. From the cast, they'll mold by socket and begin assembling the suspension system. The wait is excruciating but I'm glad the process is finally underway.