Click the picture for the story of Calypso, the Three Legged Green Sea Turtle, and why she's my symbol

Monday, September 21, 2015

Gains and Losses

My apologies for not writing an entry for so long. This blog was my outlet during my recovery but the past few years I've been bad at keeping up with it. I thought I'd just give you guys an update.

First of all, I've graduated with my Masters in Biotechnology from Johns Hopkins! Those of you who follow me know what a long road it's been and what a huge accomplishment it was to walk across that stage. Thank you to everyone who helped get me there.

Plus look at that handsome mug!
After graduation, the next phase of my life was in limbo. No one wanted to hire someone with little full time lab experience for the positions I was interested in. I had been looking since before I graduated but I kept at it. The next few months I was on my computer or at the computer lab, job searching 6 days a week. I applied to companies all over the US in a variety of fields so I was unsure if I would be staying in Baltimore or moving cross country.

Limbo: not as fun as it sounds.

Eventually my resume was picked up by a 24-hour Lab Testing company in northern Virginia and I was hired for a position as Sample Technician. Essentially, I sort and prep samples so that they are correctly labeled and in the required size/shape/type that the lab needs. It's complicated work and I'm rubbing elbows with people from various labs and building work experience. The crew I'm working with is awesome and supportive. The company expects a lot from us but my coworkers help to make sure everyone gets through.

It's a living...

The weirdest part about the new job is my new hours (11pm-9am). Anyone who's known me knows I've always hated mornings but my new schedule ensures that I'm up for almost every dawn. On my days off I've taken long walks around the neighborhood, seeing things in a way I never had. Here are a few of the fun pictures I took in the Hampden area of Baltimore before I moved.

Everything is prettier at dawn, even the concrete jungle.

I've moved to the Fairfax area, in a wooded suburb south of the city. It's quiet and relatively secluded and the best part: my commute has changed from an hour and fifteen minutes to twenty minutes.

 My cats seem to have settled in nicely.

Lastly, for anyone who doesn't know, my mom Anne Exner passed away last month from metastatic breast cancer. She had had breast cancer back in 2000 and beat it with chemo and radiation. A few years ago it returned and lodged in bones, and about two months ago it was discovered in her brain. My mom opted not to receive additional chemo, instead enjoying the time she had left with her husband, 4 children, and 2 grandchildren.

She was an amazing person, very talkative, friendly, always there with some kind words and some helpful advice (whether you wanted it or not). She was a nurse and worked long hours, though made sure she had time for everyone else. She was always there with a kind word and a healthy snack. She was a world traveler, an experienced mom, a hard worker, and improving the world with an infectiously upbeat quirky attitude.

She is one of the biggest reasons I am where I am today. When I was injured back in December of 2009, she quit her job and moved in with my Aunt and Uncle while I did inpatient rehab. She drove almost an hour down to Baltimore everyday for months. While I lay in a hospital bed my mom would massage my useless legs and yell "MOVE!!!" over and over while I strained to move even a toe. She had been at this almost a month when I got a toe wiggling. She ran and got a nurse and they were both jumping up and down as they watched my right big toe twitch a millimeter.

She was always my biggest advocate. She was always helping me with insurance forms, medication lists, doctors appointments, scheduling my continuing rehab... she was always chatty and cheerful so even if someone didn't recognize me they knew me as Anne's son. She helped arrange the paperwork so that I could finish my Bachelors in Biology from Colorado State by finishing my classwork at Elizabeth City State University, the school in our hometown in North Carolina. There, she and my dad were able to provide me with the support and love I needed as I healed mentally and physically. She continued to push me, getting me to explore nature. My favorite quote from her, "Nature... it's everywhere!" was her response to any animals or cool plants we saw as I learned to walk again.

Even as I learned to walk without any canes and moved off to grad school, she was still there for me. She would call to remind me of my appointments and check how I was doing in my classes. She was always willing to listen to my woes and always had the best stories to cheer me up. She is the reason I have the job I do now, helping me to go through the paperwork and making sure I had all the required documents and was prepped for my interview.

When it was discovered that she only had a few weeks left, the whole family gathered together for a weekend that was both fun and very sad. Near the end, even when the cancer made it difficult to form sentences, she'd still say the first few words of movies quoted by the family (Emperor's New Groove or Young Frankenstein). Even in her final weeks she was still trying to get those around her to smile.

She's gone now and the world is a little less bright without her. Still, the world is a better place for her having been here. Every single person at the funeral had stories of her having been a great positive influence in their lives. With lots of family and friends, she was laid to rest outside Bel Air, MD.

There have been some significant gains and deep losses but for now, things are okay. I'm in a better place and I am looking forward to an exciting new career. I always end my posts with a song so this post I'll end with one of my mom's favorite song by The Beatles.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Grad School, Jumping, and The Way Forward

Been awhile since I've written anything here so here are the big updates:

I'm currently working on my Masters in Biotechnology. This is a fun field with interesting and challenging opportunities. Most of my teachers have either started Biotech companies of their own or are doing research for the university. I have teachers designing tests for cancer markers and a teacher who runs the Infectious Disease department at a local hospital. As exciting as it is, it's exhausting and complicated. Most days after class I feel like my brain is leaking out my ears.

I know how he feels.

I will be graduating in the spring and from there... who knows! I've been applying to research positions both in academia and in industry. Where ever I end up, I will probably be taking some time to use my microbiology skills in the field instead of going straight into my PhD.

Though this does look SUPER fun...
Physically, things are going well. The pace of my recovery has slowed over the years but I am still regaining small amounts of muscle control in my weak leg. I can fully used my right leg and the left leg I have full control over the muscles above the knee. I use an AFO (ankle foot orthosis) that allows me some ankle movement while still keeping me upright.

 I still get asked why I am wearing one shinguard.

The newest tricks I'm working on are jumping and jogging. Jumping I have a decent handle on when my feet are together, allowing my good leg to do a lot of the work. My therapists are slowly taking this crutch away, working on having both legs do equal amounts of work. Though I won't be winning the Olympic long jump anytime soon, I can now play a decent game of hopscotch.

My friends wonder why I'm so tired after Physical Therapy.

I'm also working on jogging/running. I'm doing this thanks to the wonder of underwater treadmills. Kennedy Krieger's underwater treadmill allows me to practice the motions of running without worrying about pesky gravity. I'm not yet up to running on land but I see it happening in the near future. I do miss being able to run (in the abstract) but to honest I've never liked running. I have no desire to run marathons, but it'd be nice to know that that it was an option.

Even if I did run marathons, the competition is intense.

I still have things to work on, but at the end of the day I'm doing okay. If you've made it this far here is your reward: pictures of my cats and my friend's pet duck.

This is Hobbes. He thinks he's a meerkat 
 This is Terra. She thinks she's an armadillo.
This is Donald. He is a week old and my friend carries him around in a fanny pack.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Some things change

Some things change but some things stay the same. One thing that will always stay the same is that children will ask the questions that people have been conditioned not to ask.

I'm free of the wheelchair but I still have my leg brace. People don't notice the leg brace itself (though I still limp and am slow) when I wear pants and I'm a jeans kind of person. On a lazy Saturday with perfect weather, I wore a pair of basketball shorts. This allowed the leg brace to be visible.

I was walking to my car when I passed a dad and his 7 year old son playing soccer on the lawn of my apartment complex. The son took a look at me and asked "Why are you wearing a shin guard?" The father looked thoroughly annoyed at his son but I just laughed. I told the son I'd been in an accident and now I needed a leg brace for my ankle. The son seemed satisfied though the father still looked annoyed at his son.

The eyeroll is strong in this one.

Some things change and some things stay the same.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

First post of 2014

Sorry about the decline in the number of posts. I've recently started grad school and due to an increase in my work load, any posts have been through my facebook page. A lot has happened over the past few months and here is a quick overview.

1. School
Last fall I started grad school at Johns Hopkins, studying Bioinformatics, which is essentially combining computers and microbiology. I learned a lot that first semester but I feel more comfortable switching to Biotechnology, which had most of the same requirements and cool electives. Biotechnology is more centered around bench work, small in-person labs, and I really enjoyed doing lab work. In class we're going to do bacterial cloning and a bunch of other fun experiments.
Poor billy...
2. Work out
I've actually been fairly faithful to my work out schedule lately. I keep a calendar my sister gave me for Christmas on the wall, writing down whatever exercise I do on that day's square. It's not a perfect system but so far it has worked.

This is from the calendar she got me. 
A cat yoga calendar... you know me so well.

3. Artwork

Pizza... mmm...

Cats in the Moonlight

Full Moon Rising

The Fire Flower

Down the Rabbit Hole

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Boot Camp - Summer 2013

This the long overdue account of what happened my second week of bootcamp. We did a lot activities that challenged me physically but were often a ton of fun.

1.Jenga balance
Anyone who grew up with the game Jenga knows how tricky the game at the best of times. As a balance exercise, they removed the brace and put me on a foam square to throw me often... and then we played Jenga. It was a blast but it is one of the hardest games I've ever played. To make things even harder, my therapist would occasionally try and push me in different directions.

2.Just Dance
I'm now in the process of getting a Wii for one simple reason: Just Dance. This video game forces me to move in ways that my body hasn't moved in years (if ever...). The music is upbeat and fun and the movements are challenging. Plus it's always fun to challenge other patients to a dance battle.

3.Turtle Races
Every year, in the courtyard you can find the Johns Hopkins Turtle Derby. The event benefits the Department of Child Life at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center and Perkins Day Care Center. $10 enters in a turtle with your name on it. Last year I was in the hospital when the Derby was going on. I named my Turtle "Calypso", after the 3 legged turtle that was the inspiration for this blog. Suprisingly, she won first place. This year I was all excited, hoping for another victory. I named turtle "The Doctor", but my racer decided not to move out of the starting circle until the race was well underway. Needless to say he wasn't a victor that day.

4.Vibration Plate
A relatively new piece of equipment challenges balance by shifting the left and right up and down. When increased to a fast pace, the machine will make your entire body feel like it's vibrating.

5.Splitbelt Treadmill
A simple concept, this treadmill has two narrow tracks instead of the one rubber track of a normal treadmill. This allows my therapists to set the speed for each leg differently, slowing my left leg down and allowing me to balance my step length on both sides.

Going up stairs is a continual challenge for me. Though I can handle them worlds better than I used to, going up stairs still require that I take one step at a time. My new brace allows me to go step over step when going down stairs but even that required training of stabilizing muscles.

7.Gait Maping Gaitrite
The Gaitrite is an interesting contraption that maps out on a computer my step length, the pressure I'm putting on my foot (and a picture of where I'm putting that pressure). Though improved from last year, the gait mapping program illustrated a few things to work on, such as evening out my step length.

The Therastride is a magnificent machine, a treamill that supports your weight as you walk. I used to require 4 different people helping me to move my legs and stand up straight; now I only require 1 person to make sure I don't trip over my own feet. Improvements asides, the therastride allows me to practice proper walking technique without all of my weight.

9.Meeting With My Therapists
I had the privilege of meeting with a few of my old therapists. Both lovely girls, they were the first ones who encouraged me to challenge myself. I was able to congratulate both of them on their upcoming weddings and give them updates on my progress.

10.Volunteer Appreciation
I was able to attend the appreciation dinner for volunteers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. Though there are many ways to volunteer, I participated in the Patient Ambassador program. This matches me with potential patients who could use some advice on what it's like to reenter the world, newly disabled. I have a phone call or two with patients giving advice on things like what it's like going to college/a new city in a wheelchair or how to get involved in adaptive sports (it's so easy!). The dinner was tasty and the other volunteers were a cheerful motivated crowd with lots of interesting stories and good advice.

11.Walking to the Barn With My Cousins
During a trip to my Aunt and Uncle's house, bored with some of the conversation, I decided to join my cousins in the backyard. We walked across the grass to the barn that lies near the back of their property. Apparently while we were walking conversation stopped as everyone looked on, marveling at the improvement in my walking. Though I could manage with my wheelchair, I much prefer this mode of transportation as well.

12.Meeting Old Friends and Meeting New Friends
Coming back to Kennedy Krieger is always great, partially because of all the people I get to see again. I'm always happy to see old therapists, doctors, techs, nurses, volunteers, patients, and families that I've seen off and on since my injury. We celebrate accomplishments, commiserate failures, and share our dreams for the future. These random assortment of people are now part of my family and I love them all.

13.Underwater Treadmill Playing Volleyball
The underwater treadmill is one of the parts of my boot camp experience I look forward to the most. Like it sounds, the treadmill allows me to walk with water supporting much of my body weight. To challenge my ability to walk with distractions around me, they had me walk while hitting a beach ball to all the techs and therapists in the room. A fun game, it forced me to keep my technique while engaging in the next game after my Jenga battle.

14.Working On My Art Journal 
The newest art form I'm experimenting with, I traveled up to Baltimore with only pencils, a sharpie, and box of highlighters. Here are some of the pages that developed. I've since added to many of them. Here are a few samples.