“Alright, Ladies, now you’re going to play balloon tennis.” Brian, who told me he has a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy, was talking to me and another patient; we were both in the therapy room to work on upper arm strength. We had just finished 20 minutes of hand pedaling during which I had challenged Ruth (the other patient) to a race, and we both went at the same good clip until she suggested it we call it a draw.
I liked her right away – because of the way she held her head up high and expectantly, her big smile and twinkly eyes. She is about ten years older than I am and is ready for whatever the day brings.
She giggled a little at the mention of a balloon, but seemed ready to give it a try. I, on the other hand, was groaning inwardly, thinking it sounded like a waste of time. How do you strengthen your arm muscle with a ping pong-sized plastic paddle and a large red balloon?
But Brian explained it was also about endurance and balance in standing. I continued my inward conversation by chiding myself about being both dismissive and unwilling. “Just go for it, Donna Jean,” I said to myself. “Brian is the expert, and it just might be fun.”
I have never played real tennis and as a teenager, and I was a total washout with table tennis. However, at age 82, my brother David still plays doubles weekly and is a fan of the sport. With him, I have seen the best and most athletic players in championship matches on television. I had learned a few of the rules and always admired their grace and strength, so I called up a mental picture of how they hit the ball.
Ruth was ready to go, and I could sense a little competitiveness. We were both standing in the safe semi-circle of our walkers--about six feet apart. Two therapists were standing on either side, our four bodies making a square.
Gradually we each got better and increasingly competitive – even aggressive. If the balloon veered to the left or right, the therapists would bat it back to the center with their heads. Ruth tried for a volley and I matched her paddle work and returned fire – we kept it going for a half-dozen hits.
I began to feel warm and wanted to shed my jacket, but I didn’t want to lose momentum. Soon I felt a little trickle of sweat at the edge of my hair. Ruth looked cool and determined.
It is hard to control a balloon, and we all laughed a lot at odd gyrations and very clever moves to volley. And all the while we had to pay attention to how we were using our bodies to keep up our endurance and maintain our balance.
Not much of rehab is fun. The therapists are spirited young people who smile frequently and offer encouragement even as they demand corrections in order to maximize a stretch. It is serious work we are all doing together and, for the patients, it is directly tied to future quality of life. Even with the aid of painkillers, it hurts. Bending that knee a little further with each heel slide or straightening it more with a quad set is painful. It feels almost perverse to me to inflict a little more pain with each repeat.
Asked by a friend how it was going, I responded that it is trying, in two senses of the word. I am striving to do the best I can, and my determination, performance and ego are constantly being tested. Balloon tennis turned out to be a respite.
Maybe we’ll have some more matches, and I won’t drag my feet next time. In fact, Venus and Serena better watch out. Two gray-heads with walkers and balloons just might be closing in!