Hemiparesis and Me

Tony Hill

© Copyright 2022 by Tony Hill


Photo by Patrick Case: at Pexels.
Photo by Patrick Case: at Pexels.

Recently,, at the age of 74, I discovered after a couple of minutes on Google, that I had lived with right sided hemiparesis since birth. Up to that point I regarded myself as having a mild form of cerebral palsy. Hemiparesis is a word I had never heard before. There is nothing like having an enquiring mind I always say.

For the uninitiated, hemiparesis is muscle weakness or partial paralysis on one side of the body, affecting the arm and leg.

I suppose I first guessed that something was not quite right (pardon the pun) when, at about 4 years old I was taken to an orthopedic hospital where my walking was scrutinized. The doctor couldn’t have been too impressed because, for a short while afterwards, my leg was encased in an iron contraption. It obviously had no effect, because by the time I started school, my leg had been liberated and my presence at the hospital was no longer required.

In infant school, I was OK academically but when it came to handing out parts in plays and musical instruments for the percussion band, I wasn’t anywhere near the top of the teachers’ lists. I was a member of the rat pack in the Pied Piper of Hamlin (uncredited) and suffered the ignomy of playing the triangle in the band. Even that turned out to be a challenge. During one performance I “ting’d” at the wrong time earning myself a slapped leg from the teacher.

On the day of the Queen’s coronation we had a street party. It was a day to remember for me because I won the kids egg and spoon race. Years later I happened to mention this to my mother who told me that the race had been fixed. They had let me win. That was a blow to my fragile ego. Why did she have to tell me that?

Often, when out walking with mom she would tell me to “Put that foot down properly”.Even at the age of six or seven I felt a bit miffed by that comment. Who would want to walk on their toes out of choice? Then, at home my father would have me exercising with dumbbells to strengthen my arm. I wish now that I had been more enthusiastic about that, but at the time I was more interested in playing football and cricket in the street or the local park. I thought I was getting just as much exercise doing that as I was lifting weights. But of course I was doing all the throwing and kicking with my left arm and leg.

Looking back I think I benefited from being brought up in an inner city environment. I had to stand up for myself, otherwise I could have been a prime target for bullies. I had more than my fair share of cuts and bruises and, in my junior years, got into a few fights. I never won any, but as someone once said, it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts.

In junior school, physical education mainly consisted of running around. When we had team relays I was not popular. I couldn’t run as fast as the other kids. I tried hard but there was much moaning and groaning from my teammates. I always hoped the teacher would shut them up but he never did.

I moved up into the senior secondary school after surprisingly failing the 11 plus exam. I passed the first part but failed the second although I thought I did well. It crossed my mind at the time that the powers that be didn’t want anyone with physical shortcomings at the grammar school so I believe they failed me even though I had achieved the pass mark. I may have had an inflated opinion of my scholarly prowess but that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. I think my parents thought so too.

I soon found out that P.E. was taken more seriously at senior level than it had been in the juniors. It wasn’t all running around. There was rope climbing, vaulting over wooden horses,walking on beams and other activities that were way out of my comfort zone. I wasn’t expected to take part in P.E. so I just hung about watching the others. To me,it would have made sense to do the things I could manage, like running around and playing football, but no. The P.E. teacher wouldn’t let me do anything if I couldn’t climb or vault. So during P.E. I continued to hang around like a spare part.

I also had a problem with the science teacher, a Welshman. He always called me as “hoppy” much to the merriment of my classmates. I was mortified. As far as I was concerned, my infirmities were not a subject for discussion let alone a subject for humour. If I am prejudiced against the Welsh, I blame him.

I did well academically in my senior school years. I was top of the class in the end of term examinations two years running. However the achievement for which I was most proud came when I was selected to play for the cricket team.(I think it may have been during a ‘flu epidemic.) Me, playing for the school in a team sport! I played in two matches. On my debut I scored 5 not out batting at number 11. I was ecstatic but came tumbling down to earth in the next match when, bursting with confidence and having been promoted to number 10, I was caught at slip second ball for a duck. That year, in the school magazine, I was listed as a cricket squad member. As I said, for me, that was better than being top of the class.

 I left school with 5 G.C.E. “O”Levels.Not too bad for an 11 plus failure. My first job was in an office where one of my tasks was to bring the manager his morning and afternoon tea. The canteen was two floors up and there was no lift. Now ,as anyone with hemiparesis will know, balance is a problem. So trying to negotiate two flights of stairs carrying a full cup of tea was mission impossible for me. The more I tried to steady myself the more my hand shook. And that was my good hand! When I finally made it to the manager’s door the tea was cold and there was more in the saucer than in the cup. After a few more days of slopping it all over the place the manager’s secretary spotted my problem, much to my embarrassment and I was relieved of my tea duties.

In my mid twenties I passed my driving test in an automatic at the second attempt. I knew that it would be beyond me to drive a manual car, having to operate the gas and brake pedals with my right foot. I had no speed of movement there. The driving school car had adjustable pedals. The gas pedal was moved to the left of the brake pedal so that I could operate both easily with my left foot. When I bought a car I didn’t bother to have it adapted in the same way. I just angled my left foot across and tucked my right leg out of the way. A few years later, I had the bright idea of trying to drive using my right foot. I had convinced myself I could do it. All went swimmingly for about a week. Then, on my way to work one morning, I turned into a narrow one way street and was confronted by a car coming towards me the wrong way. It was not an emergency situation. Had I been using my good foot I could have stopped easily. As it was, I had brain and foot freeze. All I could do was drive on to the pavement and into a fence. The moral of that story is know your limitations and don’t be an idiot.

And an idiot is what I have been until very recently. I had allowed what I now know as hemiparesis to dominate my life. I considered it to be a sign of weakness and inadequacy. The subject was taboo. I refused to discuss it with anyone. Consequently my social life was greatly affected as I kept people at arms length and avoided long term relationships.

I now realize that instead of the “why me” attitude I had adopted, I should be thankful . Many people of my generation have far worse problems than me. I may not be able to put my right heel firmly to the ground when I walk but I can walk long distances without pain. I may not have dexterity in the fingers of my right hand but lifting and carrying is no problem.

Not long ago, I saw a man with a prosthetic leg wearing shorts. I felt ashamed. Until then I didn’t want to be seen in shorts for fear of drawing attention to my not so well developed right leg. Now I’m the proud owner of six pairs.

I know it’s common for people in their teens and twenties to be sensitive about their appearance but I took sensitivity to the extreme. I didn’t get over it until reaching my 70’s! If there are any people reading this who are living with hemiparesis, I hope you are dealing with it better than I did. If not, I hope what I have written will go some way to putting you on the right path.

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