Four and a half years ago I was in a serious car accident in which I suffered four pelvic fractures on my left side and one on my right. I was restricted to put no weight on my left leg for three months.
During my three weeks in the hospital I had 90 minutes of physical therapy twice a day. The physical therapy room was large, about the size of a high school gymnasium, and filled with people with various conditions, injuries and impairments. Most people appeared to be in their 50s, 60s and 70s, while the youngest was a teenage boy whose injuries were so severe he required a sling in order to keep his body upright.
I remember well feeling both humble and grateful on that first day. I had been assured by my doctors that I would heal from my injuries and walk again, but I knew many of the people I watched would not be so fortunate.
In addition to my physical therapy, I was also given occupational therapy which helped me learn how to be as self-sufficient as possible when I returned home. I learned how to dress myself, shower unassisted, and even stand at a kitchen counter, with my wheelchair behind me, to prepare a simple meal.
After three weeks I was discharged home. Oh, the joy! I felt safe and capable. Most of all, I was delighted to have Keith near, day and night. I had missed being physically close to Keith, touching and being touched, hugging and kissing anytime I wanted.
I also missed sleeping next to my bed partner of fifty years, but for the first two weeks home Keith and I slept apart and alone in the house, since I was not able to navigate stairs yet…me in my hospital bed in our living room; Keith in our bed on the second floor.
But we longed for each other’s touch. After the stress and trauma of the accident, we needed the physical and emotional comfort and reassurance of intimate touching, caressing, hugging, and feeling safe. Finally we moved our bedroom mattress downstairs onto the family room floor and began the slow, gentle, and tender process of making love again, without intercourse.
* * * * *
My final meeting with my orthopedist before my discharge from his service was six months after my accident. The young doc smiled as I walked into the office unassisted and complimented me on my progress.
“I’m walking again because of all the help I received from you, your staff, and especially from the hospital and physical therapy staff,” I told him. “Having never experienced a broken bone before, I had no idea how extensive and comprehensive the recovery process would be.”
The doc smiled and replied, “Well I hope we did a good job and answered all of your questions and concerns.”
I hesitated a moment before I spoke. “Yes, my care was really good…except, there was one aspect of my care that was missing,” I said.
The doc truly looked surprised. “What was missing?” he asked.
“Well, never during all these months of physical therapy and rehabilitation, meeting with your staff twice daily during rehab, or during your morning visits in the hospital….not once did anyone ever say anything to Keith and me about being intimate again. No conversation about how long we needed to wait before engaging in sex again. No suggestions for safe positions, or necessary precautions given my injuries…no help or encouragement was offered during all these six months.”
I could sense the young doctor’s discomfort and felt, in all fairness, I needed to tell him about our book and of our public speaking to doctors, groups and organizations about regaining intimacy after Keith became impotent from prostate cancer. “So, Keith and I already knew what to do about reestablishing our ability to engage in sex. But I was interested in hearing what you and your staff offered as suggestions, options, and timing…however, that never happened. And since no one spoke to us, I assume the same was true for everyone in that rehab room…ALL of whom likely had the same concerns or questions.”
The young doc blushed and shifted in his chair. “You know, I’ve tried a time or two to bring up the topic…but people just don’t seem to want to talk about it.”
I agreed with him that people are often hesitant to talk about sex, even with their own partners. But I shared, “Given our experience in speaking to scores of people who have experienced sexual dysfunction—due to medical conditions, accidents or even aging—we want and expect our doctors to bring up the topic of intimacy.” I paused, then added, “Couples also tell us that once the doctor has brought up the subject—even if the couple didn’t ask during the office visit—they most often will go home and begin to talk to each other about what you said. Because you, as the physician and healer, have normalized the topic by opening the door.” I was on a roll and couldn’t help but add, “And truly, the issue of sexual health should be included in every medical check-up—no matter the specialty.”
While this post may seem to be directed at medical personnel, I feel strongly that we, as patients, are equally responsible for the lack of communication between care provider and client regarding sexuality and intimacy. We need to stop being shy about this natural and normal part of being human.
And, of course, we need to speak to our partners as well, and learn to move past our shame and embarrassment.
After all is said and done, sex is not only good for our health—it’s also a lot of fun.