The Asymmetries of a Physical Therapy Routine and a Koala’s Conquest

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by Katie Napiwocki |

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SMA caregivers | SMA News Today | Main graphic for column titled "A Wildflower in the Wheelderness," by Katie Napiwocki

My body tensed, rigid as the blue therapy mat beneath my body. The physical therapist cradled my right leg, directing me to push my foot against his hand with all the might I could muster from the sleepy depths of my hamstrings. 

Face scrunched and fists clenched, my brain focused hard on the action I desired my leg to perform. My punk rock muscles, however, regularly exercise their own middle finger at me. 

I shook my head in hushed frustration. 

“My right leg is weaker than my left,” I said, compelled to defend my leg’s dispirited attitude.

The therapist scribbled something down in his notes and smiled at me from gem-blue eyes that embellished the canvas of surgical mask across his face.

“We all have our asymmetries,” he kindly offered. 

The words traveled from my mind to my heart like a lightning strike. I pushed forward with the therapy session while an electrical hum of emotional agitation massaged my body. In many situations of discomfort, I turn to memories.

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Everyone into the Pool: How I Learned to Love Physical Therapy

Formal physical therapy (PT) hasn’t been a regular component of my adult life with SMA (and when I say formal PT, I’m referring to venturing out on a scheduled basis to a brick-and-mortar location with a therapist). Nowadays, my physical stimulation, stretching, massage, and range of motion are all parts of my daily care routine that my awesome caregivers are trained to assist me with.

During early childhood, I lived and breathed formal PT. My mom ensured my regular attendance in efforts to slow or plateau the progression of my muscle weakness.

While I never walked independently during toddlerhood, I was able to intermittently use a tiny walker for a span of a few years. I most frequently used my walker during the last stretch of my PT sessions, which involved strapping on my knee-ankle-foot orthoses and stepping out beyond the large rehabilitation room and into the fluorescent tunnel of a sterile hospital corridor. 

I don’t aptly recall the sensation of walking, but I vaguely remember wading through a swamp of quicksand, tiring quickly with each drag of my toes in my kick-ass LA Gear sneakers. With each awkward, jagged step, I coaxed my curiosity into the spotlight from the shadows. I set my sights on the ice cream we’d surely be stopping for on the drive home, and one other thing: the koala picture. 

Once I’d walked the entire hospital wing to the last picture hanging on the wall — a euphorically peaceful koala hugging the highest of treetops — I knew I’d met my goal and my body could rest. My mom and grandma were behind me every step of the way.

During these PT strolls, I passed an array of wall art. I couldn’t recount or describe any of the others to you, but that koala portrait spoke to me in greater ways than a clinging beacon of chill vibes, cuddles, and ultimate cuteness.

From the treetops, the koala has evolved and adapted, seeing the beauty and vastness of the world from a perspective not shared by most others within the animal kingdom. Up there, they offer protection of their own being in tranquil connection with nature. It is said the koala climbs trees to bridge the gap between earthly motivations and the wisdom of spirituality. 

The climb has been lengthy, and I have much farther to travel, but I’ve entered a point on my journey with SMA that grants me the gift of a rare, panoramic view of life. My body isn’t flexible, but my mind is another story. 

My disability has widened my vision to encompass the surrounding magic in the mundane, easily glazed over by average eyes. From such great heights, I’ve accepted and even embraced my SMA story with warmth. I breathe deeply the new scenery of every day. Rather than seeing the world in grayscale, I see all the colors, name them, and paint them across the sky.

I often write about acceptance, but my burden complex dominates my thoughts at times. I feel many emotions at once, and they transition from moment to moment, day to day. I tend to disqualify the positives and feel overwhelmed by the distinctive characteristics of my SMA body, which are asymmetrical. 

As I’ve evolved and adapted to my place among the forest canopy, my climb has never been linear in time or trajectory. Progress is not achieved on a straightened arrow, but by way of setbacks and obstacles and hard lessons learned. I’ve grown to regard my disability as an attribute of my soul, a testament to all that is still out there for me to touch. 

Our asymmetries lend strength to what we can imagine and become. How motivated we are doesn’t define the impact we can make, but rises from the capacity of our hearts.


Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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