What Temporary Paralysis Taught Me About Small Steps

I don’t know about you, but lately every time I turn on the news, or scroll through social media, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Maybe it’s the terrifying potential outcomes of the looming presidential election, or that Brock Turner, the Stanford campus rapist, is being released from prison this Friday after serving just 3 months out of his absurd six month sentence. Perhaps it’s because Gene Wilder died yesterday, or that racial injustice continues to plague our country. It could be the unfolding news reports of the tragic earthquake in Italy. Sometimes the world is a sad, frightening, violent place where human life feels so devalued and dispensable. Well, that’s all I got for now-I hope this post was a super great motivator for you to go out there and make today great!

Just. Kidding.

It’s easy to saturate one’s self in the endless loop of human misery that bombards us 24/7. It’s even easier to use words like never, hopeless, and useless. While we can’t turn our backs on the flaws of humanity, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be swallowed whole by them either. You may be thinking I’m naïve, overly optimistic, and irritating. You may be right, but please keep reading anyway.

10 years ago, I was lying in a hospital bed as my feet hung like weeping willows. I was 120 days into what would be a 218-day hospitalization. Due to a tracheotomy, and temporary paralysis from the neck down I couldn’t speak, write, or communicate in any form. I hadn’t eaten in months and was being kept alive by TPN (Total Parenteral Nutrition). All my hair had fallen out, I was down to 75 pounds, and was plagued by ICU Psychosis which kept me from distinguishing reality from hallucination. Medical tubing sprouting from my abdomen, arms, and back entangled me in a web of vanilla cylinders. I had barely seen my 3-year-old-son much less held my newborn daughter (who wasn’t a newborn anymore) since April. A physical therapist told me I may never walk again. At age 31, the words never, hopeless, and useless were my constant companions.

Fast forward to November of 2006. I was about 190 days into my tour of Chicago hospitals. My hair was growing back, I began to tolerate clear liquids, and was spending hours each day in physical, occupational, respiratory, and speech therapy. I had gone from being held upright by three adults while wailing in pain, to taking a few small steps with a walker. Each day, I would take one or two extra steps in physical therapy. Finally, I made it all the way to the door of my hospital room. Jenny, my physical therapist (not the one who told me I may never walk again) was cheering and jumping up and down. “Can you take another step?” she asked hopefully. I pinched my eyes shut and visualized walking with my son and daughter. I was weary to my bones and panting for air. Thanks to severe neuropathy, the ever-present iron was searing my feet and the tiny needles were working overtime. All I wanted to do was collapse in the chair that the assistant always placed behind me for just that purpose.

“Yes,” I said firmly, “I’ve got to keep going for my kids.” With tremendous effort, I lifted the walker then took a step. I had walked outside of my hospital room! Pure adrenaline coursed through me, and I took another step, and then another. My ankles felt as if they would give way, and my upper legs were throbbing with pain, but I pushed on. I was fiercely determined to keep going. At this point, Jenny and her assistant were crazed with disbelief and enthusiasm. All the nurses and doctors out in the hall were cheering me on. “Go, Lisa! You can do it!” I had made it out of my room and halfway down the hall. I rested in the chair for a while and then walked all the way back. I was both exhilarated and delirious with exhaustion. One thought kept sailing wildly through my mind: I will walk again, I will walk again, I will walk again…

I foolishly thought that after I had made such an incredible breakthrough with my walking, I would soon shed my leg braces and take off running, just like Forrest Gump. Nope. In the days that followed, I suffered great pain in my legs and ankles. Jenny would come in for our physical therapy sessions and I would tearfully tell her that I was in so much pain that I didn’t think I could walk at all.  I desperately tried to gain momentum and take off, but I just could not get myself going. The pain was immense and I would collapse, defeated, in a chair. This went on for days.

As if by miracle, the pain dissipated and I was able to charge ahead with my therapy. Each day, I went a little further than the day before. 10 years later, I walk independently with a slight limp. When I think of all the doctors, nurses, therapists, family, friends, and colleagues who got me from where I was to where I am, I’m reminded of the human capacity for empathy, love, and kindness.

book cover

I’m proud to announce that my memoir, Does This Hospital Gown Come With Sequins? is now available in paperback. The book chronicles my journey from facing death after giving birth. It took me 8 years to write my book. Partly because in life, we all collapse and say we can’t keep going. Sometimes the pain is too strong and our will is too weak. Sometimes, we all want to give in and say, what’s the point? We all have moments that shake us to our core and force us to rethink our existence. But we do get up and we do keep going, and that’s how we change things. That’s how we prove that our lives carry deep value and we aren’t dispensable. We don’t always take huge leaps forward. But sometimes, it’s the tiniest steps that make a difference.




  1. Dear Lisa,
    Even though I was at Edison with you before, during and after this horrific time in your life, you continue to amaze and inspire me, I am so grateful to know you.
    Sue Ferdinand 😘


  2. I so look forward to your posts. They make me laugh and they make me cry, but they always teach me something. I guess today’s lesson is no matter how much it hurts, keep going. That seems to be my life lately every time I step into pt. But I figure if I want to paint and draw I will go and get that left arm working properly. You are the wonder of the 21st century. You have come back to be the wonderful teacher that you always were and I think that in many ways you are better than ever because you can understand the ‘pain’ some of your students suffer every day in their confusing and disruptive lives. You make them laugh and think that school is a great place to be because Mrs. Helfand really cares about them. You make learning fun, which it should be. And, you make them look forward to coming into your classroom every day.
    Way to go Lisa! You are my HERO!😘😀


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