Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Opening up about mental health January 3, 2019

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Slowly we are beginning to remove the stigma that masks mental illness. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

FOR WEEKS, WE’D PRAYED for Lila*. I had no idea why she needed prayers. But it didn’t matter, pray we would as a church family for this friend who’d moved to another state.

A few weeks later, Lila’s husband returned, alone to Minnesota, to lead a local fundraiser. That morning he stepped up to the microphone after worship services and told us about Lila. She was hospitalized, undergoing treatment for severe depression and anxiety. I could almost hear the silent gasp. That took courage, I thought to myself.

I told Henry* the same when I later hugged him, expressed my concern and offered encouragement. He admitted to struggling with his decision to go public. But we agreed that the stigma surrounding mental health is beginning to lift, that talking about mental health issues is important and necessary. For Henry, a retired educator, his openness about Lila proved a freeing, teachable moment.

We all have much to learn on the topic, including me. Kicking depression is not a matter of simply willing yourself to feel better, to just get over whatever someone thinks you need to get over. It’s much deeper than that. Overcoming anxiety is not as simple as jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool and expecting someone to stay afloat.

I admire Henry’s decision to speak up. Likewise, I appreciate that my pastor publicly acknowledges his struggles with depression. That’s a first for me, to hear a pastor talk from the pulpit about personal mental health challenges. He’s young, of a generation seemingly more open to discussing mental health issues. The more we talk about mental illness, the better for those suffering and for loved ones and others trying to help.

Still, talk only goes so far. Waits can be long to see a mental health professional here in greater Minnesota. If you were having a heart attack, you wouldn’t be told to wait six weeks. If you had cancer, you wouldn’t be told to wait for treatment. A mental health crisis is no less important.

I am grateful to two bloggers I follow—Bob Collins at Minnesota Public Radio (NewsCut) and Penny Wilson (Penny Wilson Writes)—who write often on the topic of mental health. (Click here for a particularly enlightening post by Penny.) They are breaking through the stigma, opening the discussion, pointing out the challenges.

Twice in recent years I’ve stood in a snaking line at a Faribault funeral home to comfort the families of young men who committed suicide. I struggled to find the right words. I expect their loved ones struggle with the what ifs, survivor’s guilt, regrets, but, most of all, an unfathomable pain. Some grieving families are choosing now to go public in obituaries about their loved one’s struggles with depression or other mental health issues. That takes a lot of courage. We often read about a deceased person’s long and courageous battle with cancer. Battles with mental illness are no less courageous. I’m thankful to see this shift in thinking, to see people like Henry step up to a microphone and speak about mental illness.

THOUGHTS?

* Not their real names.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Vindicated December 5, 2018

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A selfie taken this fall after going splint-free following months of recovery from a broken left wrist. Now I have even more reason to smile. Read on. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2018.

 

TYPICALLY I AM NOT SOMEONE who says, “I told you so.” I don’t rub it in when someone is wrong. Rather, I pinch my lips, lock the words inside my mouth but think them in my head. That’s a skill learned from many years of parenting and living.

But this time I need to speak up and claim vindication.

 

This is a photo snapped with a cellphone of the implant in my wrist, held in place by 10 screws. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

Let’s backtrack. When I slipped on rain-slicked wooden steps in mid-June and fractured my left wrist badly enough to require surgery and implantation of a titanium plate, I heard too many insensitive comments. Topping those was the accusation that my husband pushed me, followed by laughter. I did not hold my words inside. There is absolutely nothing humorous about domestic violence. Nothing. Ever.

 

Me, several hours after surgery on my wrist in late June. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2018.

 

The second most common comment involved the strength of my bones. “You must have weak bones,” I heard way too often with the footnote that I needed to consume more milk. As if I couldn’t possibly have broken my wrist by simply falling the way I fell, left hand outstretched to break my fall.

Now I am vindicated. By a Bone Mineral Density Test (DEXA scan). Results show I have mild thinning of my bones with a low fracture risk. Pretty good for a post-menopausal woman in her early 60s.

 

This is a photo of an x-ray of my broken right shoulder. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2017.

 

I’m not surprised by my good test results. I grew up on a dairy farm and have always consumed plenty of dairy products. I lift weights. And I fell in such a way that anyone—strong bones or not—would have suffered a fracture. And, yes, that includes my May 2017 fall on a hospital stairway in which I slammed shoulder first onto a concrete floor. I defy anyone not to break a bone when propelling into a surface like that. I’m thankful I didn’t hit my head, resulting in a concussion and/or broken neck.

 

A snippet of the informational sheet I received from my insurer.

 

Because of two bone breaks within a year, my ortho doctor suggested the bone density test. I didn’t object. My insurance company also sent an educational sheet about osteoporosis with the recommendation of a DEXA scan. Sure, I thought, why not? I’d already met my $3,600 deductible and am paying $1,000/month in health insurance premiums. Let the insurance company pay for the test (which is really me paying given the $15,600 paid from my pocket to the insurer and healthcare facilities in 2018).

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

So there you go. I’ll continue to take my Vitamin D and add a calcium supplement, per my primary care doctor’s instructions. He also noted that I should follow up with another bone density test in seven years. Seven years. Does that sound like a woman with weak bones?

TELL ME: Have you ever fallen? Have you ever fallen and broken a bone? Let’s hear your stories.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

One mother’s remarkable love December 3, 2018

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2017.

 

HER WORDS LEFT ME near tears. They are words of a mother who loves her 22-year-old daughter beyond measure.

She wishes, she told me, that she could trade places with Brittany*, that she would be the one battling ovarian cancer. Not her girl.

I saw the pain in Ellen’s* eyes, heard it during our brief exchange outside Walmart as I rang bells for the Salvation Army on Saturday morning. Ellen and I are acquaintances, two of our children once classmates. I haven’t seen her in years, thus greeted her with “How are you?”

When Ellen looked away and responded with a subdued OK, I picked up immediately that she was not alright. So I asked. And then she told me about the discovery of a large tumor on one of Brittany’s ovaries, the eight months getting care at a metro hospital, the seemingly successful treatment…until abnormal blood work results last week.

I reached out and hugged her.

We didn’t talk stages or treatment or about other medical details. I focused instead on how Ellen was coping, knowing how difficult this must be for her. How it would be for any mother. As moms we want to make everything better for our children, no matter their ages. Ellen didn’t disagree. But her response went beyond that. “I wish I was the one with cancer,” she said.

For the second time, I instinctively wrapped her in a hug.

Ellen spoke with the authenticity of a mother who’d thought often about her desire to trade places, to be the one fighting cancer. I admire the strength of her love for Brittany.

During the two hours I greeted folks while ringing bells, my time with Ellen proved an emotionally pivotal moment. I’d seen so much of humanity. Smiling faces. Scowling faces. Faces that exuded joy. Faces that showed nothing but despair. Mouths that spoke gratitude. Mouths that complained (about the winter storm—”It’s too early for this s**t”). I thought I’d heard it all. But I hadn’t until I heard the profound words of love from an incredible mother—”I wish I was the one with cancer.”

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

*Not their real names.

 

Finally, I’ve graduated September 19, 2018

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The Art of Recovery (soft yellow putty, medium green putty and firm blue putty).

 

THREE MONTHS AND TWO DAYS after suffering a closed colles fracture of the left radius followed by open reduction with internal fixation of the fracture, I am done with medical appointments.

Now, let me write that in an understandable language. Three months and two days after I broke my left wrist followed by surgery to implant a titanium plate with 10 screws, I am done with medical appointments.

Yes!

But that doesn’t mean I am fully recovered. After twisting on my wrist (yes, it was painful) during my final therapy session on Tuesday, my occupational therapist sent me home with several new exercises, a container of firm putty and instructions to continue my strengthening efforts. I tested several weights before Annie decided I should work with a 3-pound weight. That’s up from the pound I have been lifting. Prior to my injury, I was lifting a 10-pound weight.

Recovery takes time, hard work and lots of patience. And a great medical team.

Following therapy, I had my final evaluation with my orthopedic surgeon. He cleared me to slowly resume normal activities with a specific example of what not to do yet. “Don’t go pulling a gallon of milk out of the refrigerator,” he said.

But he said I could use my camera. “I already am,” I said, noting that I nearly pitched forward and fell the other day while pursuing a photo at the Valley Grove Country Social. He gave me a look. We agreed that I should try to stay out of his office for awhile. A year ago I was recovering from a broken right shoulder. As much as I like Dr. Armitage, it is my intent to keep my bones intact.

To all of you who have supported and encouraged me during this three-month recovery process, thank you. I am grateful for your kind words. And I am grateful for my loving husband who helped me through this lengthy process of healing and recovery with personal care assistance and taking on extra responsibilities at home. I am blessed. Even in challenges, there are reasons to be thankful.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Nearing graduation day September 7, 2018

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, May 2016.

 

THE WORD GRADUATION SLIPPED into the conversation between me and my therapist. Just like that after I excelled on a weekly skills test. If I continue to do well, I expect to graduate within a few weeks.

That would be graduation from occupational therapy which began two months ago. It takes a long time to recover from a wrist fracture and subsequent surgery to implant a 4-inch plate. Not only have I gone to twice-weekly therapy, but I’ve worked hard at home doing exercises two to three times daily in half-hour sessions. I’m determined. And my efforts are showing in increased usage and strength of my healing left wrist/hand.

Every week my therapist checks my progress, measuring my range of motion and testing my strength. This week my grip strength showed incredible improvement, increasing from 17 to 30 pounds in six days. I might have shrieked in delight upon hearing that number. But then my excitement deflated a bit when I asked what my grip strength should be for my non-dominant left hand. Sixty-five. Oh, well. I’m half-way there.

But every day I’m noticing improvement as I use my left hand more and more. The other day I picked up a detergent bottle with my left hand, not even thinking. Thankfully, though the bottle was nearly full, I felt no pain.

I’m using my camera, short lens only.

I’m carrying a laundry basket.

I’m cooking.

I’m cleaning.

Life is returning to normal. There were days when I felt like I would never get there, when I felt impatient and frustrated. But I’m on the other side of that doubt now, pushing toward my goal of graduating soon.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Oh, happy day August 23, 2018

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A selfie taken shortly after going splint-free. You can see the scar on my wrist from the incision to implant a metal plate on June 25.

 

NEARLY 10 WEEKS OUT from shattering a bone in my left wrist which required an implant with 10 screws, I got the news I’ve been wanting. I can ditch my splint. My hand, my wrist, are now free of any supportive locking device. And I am one happy person/photographer/writer.

 

After two months in this splint, I no longer need to wear it.

 

I did not expect this news from my cautious orthopedic doctor during a routine check on my healing bone Wednesday morning. During a previous visit, he’d given me a splint time-frame that would have taken me to almost the end of September.

 

This is a photo snapped with a cellphone of an x-ray of the implant in my wrist. Ten screws (count them) hold the metal plate in place. The broken bone, my ortho doctor said, “looked like gravel’ following my June 16 fall.

 

But after reviewing my current and past x-rays and asking me to pass some range of motion tests, he told me I don’t need to wear the splint anymore. I asked him to repeat what he’d just said, not believing this could possibly be true.

He qualified. “I don’t want you doing anything silly.” He knows me well, that I wanted to be doing whatever yesterday. Yet, he apparently trusts that I will recognize my limitations and not push my weak wrist. I asked about using my Canon DSLR camera. He okayed that usage after I explained that I support the lens with my left hand. I don’t expect to do extensive photo shoots but slowly ease back into photography.

Upon arriving home from my medical appointment and occupational therapy, I tested my left hand while putting away dishes. Much to my dismay, I didn’t have the strength to pull open a cupboard door or to lift a small bowl. But I could lift a small rectangular plastic food storage container. It’s not much, but something.

 

Me, several hours after my June 25 surgery to repair my broken left wrist with a metal plate. The splint and wrap in this photo were replaced a week later by a removable (only for showering and therapy) Velcro wrist splint, the one I now no longer need to wear.

 

I expect to start strengthening exercises at my next therapy session on Friday. Up until now I’ve done only range of motion exercises. I’ll work hard to strengthen and regain use of my hand and wrist. It’s a slow process that requires time and much patience. I’m determined. And that’s a good thing. Determination and tenacity coupled with prayer and the support of a really great medical team and a loving and caring husband equal recovery.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Bone break related topics on a Saturday morning August 18, 2018

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This splint holds my healing left wrist in place. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WHEN A THICK ENVELOPE arrived in the mail this morning from my insurance company, I felt angst. I expected it would contain information on a $19,431 claim for surgery to implant a plate into my broken left wrist. I was right.

Recently I received a nearly $15,000 hospital bill for that surgery with nothing covered by insurance except an allowed amount of $4,662. I reacted as nearly anyone would—with disbelief, anger and tears. I pay $1,000/month for health insurance and already paid my $3,600 deductible. So the thought of paying another $15K pushed me over the edge. One phone call later and the hospital billing department assured me I didn’t owe $15,000 and that, due to a “processing error,” the claim would be reprocessed.

The insurance paperwork I got today includes two code notations:

Based on additional information received, this service will be processed on a new claim.

We are making this adjustment to a previously processed claim.

Those codes flag most, but not all, of the claims in four pages of claims. So is this a done deal? I don’t know. I hope so. Zeroes fill every space in the amount I owe columns. I choose for now to think this ends a stressful ordeal.

Speaking of end, the question of the week to me has been: “How much longer do you have to wear that?” The questioners, at least a half dozen yesterday, are referring to the splint on my wrist. The last time my orthopedic doctor discussed this with me, he said I would be wearing the brace well into late September. I see him next week. Maybe he will shorten that time. Range of motion therapy continues to go well. Strengthening therapy comes next. I’m now more than two months out from my bone break.

 

Margie Brown Holland (formerly of Faribault) and her unborn daughter, Olivia, were murdered by Margie’s husband in 2013. This t-shirt, part of The Clothesline Project, honors the two. The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women coordinates the project to honor victims of domestic violence. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

This plaque at the Faribault Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office honors employee Barb Larson, shot to death in the tourism office by her ex-husband, a retired Faribault police officer.

 

Kim Sisto-Robinson of Duluth created (and shared) this graphic honoring her sister Kay. Kay’s husband shot and killed Kay in 2010. Kim has made it her mission to be a voice for Kay, to speak out on the topic of domestic violence. File photo, courtesy of Kim.

 

One issue still lingers, though, and it’s something I dislike as much as that incorrect $15K hospital bill. Just last evening a burly stranger joked that my husband hurt me. Not funny. Not funny at all. I don’t care who you are. To suggest that domestic violence is in any way funny rankles me. There is absolutely nothing humorous about any aspect of abuse, whether psychological, mental, emotional, spiritual, financial, technological or physical. I’ve heard more times than I can count that insensitive, uninformed and supposedly funny comment that Randy must have pushed me or hit me. He didn’t. I fell on rain-slicked wooden steps. I don’t understand this attitude. Women (and sometimes men) are being assaulted and dying every single day in this country from domestic violence. I find absolutely nothing funny in that. Nothing.

THOUGHTS ON ANY of this?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling