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Back Roads Bill on Vitamin N, part 2: The road back

In part two of two stories Bill, after a fourth operation explains how nature helps the mind, body and spirit to move forward

In my life, the back roads have been magnetic. And when I couldn’t get there for a while my life changed.

The first story was for context. It set the scene for unpleasant experiences that put my endurance and strength to the test. They were what is meant by trials and tribulations. Getting off the opioids was a big question with the test.

It took six months to wait for the MRSA infection to disappear. Then one day orthopedic surgeon Dr. Aaron Van Fliet said, “You…are doing good.”

That means, in his vernacular, it was the all-clear for a third operation  a new knee in late May. Spring had sprung.

Third and fourth surgical procedures 

Everything went well the new left knee is metallic and polyethylene except for the patella.

I got outside with the walker with and without wheels. There was a canoe excursion, and I was able to get in by myself.

Then the unthinkable happened. One day, after about one month of physio I got up one morning, took two steps and the left side collapsed. Off to the hospital. There’s some pain.

As we look at the X-rays, Dr. Van Fliet says, “Well, your patella is in two pieces.” One percent of the population fractures their patella. You become one of them and a statistic. The good doctor figures the MRSA infection may have weakened the knee cap. A fourth dance. He drills some holes and ties the two pieces together. I have said to my students, “Make a fist with your right hand reach over and tap your left knee, mine was in two parts.”

Then, the hardest part of the journey begins.

When I awakened after the surgery there were two casts, one on top of the other, with no weight bearing on the leg whatsoever for two months, after one month there came a pink fibreglass cast for two more weeks and then finally a soft cast with supportive rods for another fortnight. Now, confined to the wheelchair and the scooter.

I also got to know how important it is to bend my leg -- which I couldn’t. And I couldn’t drive. I used my arm strength to move the leg, it was more than heavy.

All the personal hygiene habits and dressing yourself become tedious but I learned the tricks and how that gizmo-contraption called the 'reacher-grabber' works so well. I had a few of them in strategic locations for good measure.

But the shades of grey became darker, and the endurance run in my mind needed help again.

Vitamin N

As an educator, I have promoted this book, the virtues/effects of “Vitamin N“ to countless B.Ed. candidates at Nipissing University and here at the Canadian Ecology Centre since 2005. That is when Richard Louv’s groundbreaking book was published, Last Child in the Woods, a New York Times bestseller. He is the first to bring widespread attention to the alienation of children from the natural world, coining the term “nature-deficit disorder” and outlining the benefits of connecting with nature. The book links exposure to nature to boosting mental acuity and creativity, reducing obesity and depression, promoting health and wellness; and, simply having fun.

In 2008, he was awarded the National Audubon Medal. Prior recipients included Rachel Carson, E.O. Wilson and President Jimmy Carter. There is a succession of nature-benefit books by Louv. One of his books is entitled: ‘Vitamin N.’

Most times when I seek out a worldly author, I end up going through a step process with the publisher or the author’s agent. This takes time, appointments and patience. Writing is my avocation. And writing articles this year has helped me all along the way to keep engaged.

The two-month vigil in the straight leg cast had started. I reached out to Richard Louv by email on July 17 and he replied, to my complete surprise, almost immediately as “Rich.” I tell him my plight and the story I will eventually write. He cares. He offers advice needed beyond reading between the lines.

“Nature can reduce depression and improve psychological well-being. Researchers in Sweden have found that joggers who exercise in a natural green setting feel more restored and less anxious, angry, or depressed than people who burn the same amount of calories jogging in a built urban setting,” he tells me.

The park’s setting was the place to be and the scooter allowed me to roam and be with the in-residence high school students. Their chi is infectious. There was modified bare-foot walking too.

Rich also says, “Nature will help heal you. Pennsylvania researchers found that patients in rooms with tree views had shorter hospitalizations, less need for pain medications, and fewer negative comments in the nurses’ notes, compared to patients with views of brick.” I was well away from retaining wall walls where I was once confined during my first three months.

“Rich” then directed me to another practical book, which he reviewed, by author and licensed psychotherapist, Dr. Patricia Hasbach. The book Grounded – A Guided Journal to Help You Reconnect with the Power of Nature―and Yourself. It is all about ecotherapy, a method of treatment that recognizes the healing benefits of interactions with nature - a field in which Hasbach is a pioneer. He said, “It is a lovely treasure trove of doable daily practices to help us include essential nature connection activities in our everyday lives.”

She says, “Scientific evidence confirms that contact with nature reduces stress, relieves attention fatigue, eases depression and anxiety, and fosters creativity. We need to engage all of our five senses and to deepen our experience of nature. Be in awe of the power of green.”

This “how to” book has helped because of its habitual routines and affirmations.

Here is a YouTube episode with the author about the healing power of nature but before you watch it, find an orange or tangerine for a practical example (18:00 mark), of mindfulness. And she talks about a sense of place, which is often mentioned in my stories. Here is a recent example where place matters.

I thought a lifetime of being outside was what it was about – learning to slow down and becoming more intentional, this aided the healing process of mind, body and spirit.

The straight-leg cast was removed finally in late August.

Epiphanies and onto the water

There were two epiphanies between the third and fourth operation that eventually helped me get “outside” and onto the “water.”

A new carbon fibre Swift canoe weighing about 38 pounds was ordered from South River. Owner Bill Swift welded in the mold, another collapsible tripod contraption, into the hull. Have a look at the photo. This allowed for easier entry and exit. It was about this time when I was thinking of paddling and how accessibility to the water could be improved.

The second thought was to order a “pretty” wooden rowboat from the last (1920) boat builders in Ontario. Giesler is situated in Powassan. Gerry Giesler says, “Our boats are built with western cedar planks, copper nails, and pride in quality. We don’t just build them pretty, we build them pretty good.”

It has a sculling slide mounted on the seat. A long time ago in a faraway land at the Leander Boat Club in Hamilton, I did my national rowing team tests while attending McMaster University. The slide helps extend and bend the leg beset with multiple surgeries of scar tissue and bursae.

I recall my first fall, which serendipitously occurred while getting into the new rowboat. Visually, in the water with the four-legged, no-wheel walker, balancing now, trying to use a teetering on-the-gunnel technique with your buttocks, and then swing the legs over onto the seat all in one motion. Splash. Of course, you react naturally and get up, as one would normally do, take a breath, and then you negatively think about what damage was done. It is good to fall occasionally and dust yourself off.

More than ever, you think about others who are not so fortunate and what accessibility means when confined to a device. My mother was in a prisoner of war camp, she would say, “You only know adversity until you experience it,” and “This word is not to be used in a sports context.”

The only item that is free at Service Ontario is your accessibility license permit. Distances matter. You hope the door disability buttons work when confined to a wheelchair.

My first hike was in September. I did 500 m on a park trail. Each slow step was purposeful, feeling the ground, with those hiking boots that haven’t been on for quite some time. The Greenland telescopic hiking poles helped with the balancing act. Above the Artic Circle I, with one other, hiked off the glacier to the coast on a no-trail, navigation trek about the distance from North Bay to Orillia. There was more exhilaration this time around. Goals matter.

There is such a thing as muscle memory. The multiple “physios” (Marni, Becky, Bill, and now Michelle) at the North Bay Regional Health Centre have seen me after each operation. They know my enduring file. "You must do the exercises religiously, daily," they remind me. While riding the stationary bike the expansive windows allow me to see outside to the green space. I am sure the architect meant that to be so, the view, like mindful breaths, helps. I have been on a bike since the age of four, but it is like the first day, the static revolutions feel mechanical, and I yearn for the freedom of moving forward. And if you have access to a community or hotel pool aqua therapy is where you make measurable progress.

I have had ice on my knee every day of the year through a cold therapy machine and highly recommend it. It would be a good Christmas gift for someone you know.

In October, I walked the labyrinth here in the park with two hiking poles, it was created the year before the initial knee injection which went awry. See the drone shot in the gallery. The pathway reflects upon the journey that continues.

In November, paddling continues on the Mattawa River with my dry suit, a gift from my daughter Ali. She is one. Getting out of the canoe is harder than getting in. That “contraption” helps.


Four operations, on one joint. Surprisingly, it's not the record for Dr. Aaron Van Fliet.

For some reason, this fall my mind suddenly named the new left knee “Flip.” Not sure why but then I figured out middle names are for stories. So, the port side knee’s nickname is Aaron. The stack of my medical records from November of last year to now weighs just shy of four pounds, which is 1,112 pages, see the photo.

Two stories about this experience are done ― about 3,700 words ― not enough to explain, but it's time to stop counting and get going.

The yearlong journey’s anniversary is next week, November 30. I'm anxious but my online cognitive therapist says two things ― there will be 'more alone work,' and 'you can’t get stuck in the past and ask yourself, why me?' I'm not quite there yet ― physically or mentally.

I was on the back roads by myself for the first time for this story and I'll be headed out this weekend near Larder Lake. Stay tuned for that story.

Nature heals the back roads beckon as they always have.


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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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