NOTE: This is the third in a series of guest posts scheduled to run while I’m off doing something else. Today’s post has been previously published. The author is Gretchen Kelly who blogs at Drifting Through My Open Mind. I asked Gretchen if I could share this post, specifically, because it really struck me as important the first time I read it. I think it’s a great human story. And I think it’s another reminder to always choose gratitude. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Thank you, Gretchen!
“Yesterday, lost in a crowd, yesterday lost in a crowd, I was lost… now I’m found.
Yesterday I was lost, and you kicked me some food. Boy it was nice, to be here with you.”
Rusted Root, Lost In A Crowd
My childhood was one long, awkward period. Most people have a few awkward years, I had about a decade.
I was a total tomboy who didn’t care about clothes or looks. By the time I entered middle school in 7th grade, I started to notice boys and decided I should get with the program. This also happened to be when I found out I had severe scoliosis and would have to wear a not-so-cute back brace. This lovely accessory consisted of a hard plastic shell that wrapped around my torso, covering everything from my shoulder blades to my hip bones. It was not subtle or discreet. Big shirts and sweaters did little to camouflage what could best be described as a large plastic turtle shell.
I was a good patient, I wore the brace for the prescribed amount of time, 23 hours a day. I could only take it off to shower and do my back exercises. I tried to make the best of it.
Luckily, the kids at school were pretty cool about it. For some reason they spared me of any kind of harassment. This was surprising since I went to a rough school where girls got beat up in the bathrooms and the bus driver sold drugs to students. Many kids took to knocking on the back of my brace to get my attention. This was done as a friendly gesture and even though it was acknowledging my freak status, I knew it could have been much worse.
Still, I had a decent amount of self pity. I rarely voiced it, but I definitely thought it and felt it.
I was pissed I had to wear this thing.
I hated that it cut into the top of my thighs every time I sat in a chair, causing my legs to go numb.
I hated that it made me look like a hunchback.
I hated that I had sweat trickling down my back even in the dead of winter.
I hated that when lying down I could barely get up without someone’s help.
I hated the two giant Velcro strips that held it in place across my stomach.
In all, I really just hated everything about it.
Every few months we had the pleasure of meeting with the doctors to hear how everything we were doing was not working. The S-shaped curve of my spine was getting worse. They started discussing the option of surgery.
“We’ll give it a little while longer, but I think it’s time we start facing the fact that the brace isn’t working.”
Not exactly motivation to keep wearing the brace, but pleaser that I am, I complied with their orders to wear it for a little while longer.
I wouldn’t say I sulked when we went to these appointments, but I was not my usual chatty self. I basically buried my nose in a book and tried to ignore my surroundings.
One day I looked up from my book long enough to notice a little girl bouncing around the waiting room, talking animatedly to anyone who would listen. She was about five years old and all the nurses loved her. She seemed to know everyone in the office. A nurse confided in us that the little girl’s spine was so severely curved that it was in danger of crushing her lungs and heart if it wasn’t corrected. A case like hers at such a young age was extremely rare. Surgery basically stunts the growth of the torso, and the doctor’s weren’t sure how to proceed.
It wasn’t long after we learned about this little girl that the doctors informed us that I would have to have the surgery. Even though it wasn’t unexpected, this was not what we wanted to hear. The doctors started detailing the ins and outs of surgery, risk of paralysis, two weeks in the hospital, a cast for six months. At some point I stopped listening. All I could think was that I wore that *$#@-ing brace for over a year for nothing… Mom and I had a tearful moment in the car after that appointment.
After we hugged each other and cried, I remember thinking about the little five-year-old in the waiting room. The adorable little girl who walked around like she owned the place and knew all the nurses and staff by name. She was this little spunky ray of light in a dreary institutional office. She was also going to have the surgery. Except her growth was going to be stunted at the age of five. They didn’t know what would happen after that. Even though I was scared and knew my mom was scared, I also knew I would be okay. That little girl had a much rougher road ahead of her and no one could tell those parents their daughter would be okay.
The surgery took eight hours. They placed a steel rod from the top of my spine to my tail bone, tightened it with screws at each end to instantly lengthen and uncurl the S-shaped curve of my spine. Everything went well. But the pain was beyond description. Every nerve in your body is attached to your spine. My entire spine had been tampered with in a somewhat brutal way. There was no part of my body that wasn’t screaming in pain.
Probably the worst part of the whole experience was when the nurses would come in to my room to turn me. I had to be turned over every two hours to prevent bed sores. The bed I was in was a special bed designed specifically for these kinds of surgeries. It was a narrow bed, and when it was time to be turned over, the nurses would lay an identical bed on top of me, clamp a large wheel down and lock the two beds together, with me in the middle, unable to breath. They would then spin the wheel until I was rotated to the opposite position. Not only was this ridiculously painful, but it had to happen 12 times a day. Once I became lucid enough to know what was going to happen, I would start to panic whenever I saw two nurses enter the room. Two nurses meant I was being turned.
One time in particular I decided I’d had enough. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I would not be turned again, bed sores be damned. I kind of freaked out. I had no control over what they did, but I freaked out as much as someone who can only move their mouth and eyeballs can.
One of the nurses calmly knelt down next to my bed so that I could look her in the eyes. In a gentle, yet firm voice she told me about another patient who was down the hall who’d just had the same surgery as me. He had been in a horrible car accident and experienced a devastating impact on his spine. He was lying down the hall experiencing everything I was experiencing. Except he was deaf and blind. He was in the same situation as me. Except he couldn’t hear or see. I was stunned. This shut me up pretty fast. What she was telling me sounded like hell.
To be in this kind of pain. To be in the dark, in every way, while lying immobile in a hospital. To be in this, the most vulnerable of positions, and to not know what was going on at all times, to have to rely on someone else being there with you to communicate everything going on… the thought of this man and his experience haunted me the entire time I was in the hospital.
As bad as this all was for me, I still could see who entered my room. I knew when the mean night nurse was on duty. I knew when the two nurses were coming to turn me. I could see the big smile of the sweet lady who brought me my meals. I could communicate with each person that entered my room. I could refuse medications that I knew would make me sick when a new nurse came on duty. I still had some control. This man they told me about was vulnerable in every sense of the word. This man’s story didn’t make my pain or my fear go away, but it sure put it in perspective.
As a parting gift before I could leave the hospital, I was transported to a special room where I was lifted up to lay and balance on a narrow metal bar. While nurses held on to me so I didn’t fall, a technician wrapped warm damp plaster around my torso.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. I guess I assumed it would be similar to the back brace. But this was way worse. It also was a hard shell, this time of woven plaster. But this shell didn’t stop at my shoulder blades, it came up over my shoulders, covering every part of my torso. And this was permanent, for six months, at least. This one wasn’t coming off until it was sawed off. As much as I hated those loud, obnoxious Velcro strips on my brace, I really missed them now that I had to live in this contraption. I cried for a while back in my hospital room after they put it on. No one really had explained what it would look like. And it was so bad. And I would have to wear it for six months.
I had to be on bed rest for a few weeks after returning home from the hospital. Friends came to visit me. They brought me cassette tapes to listen to with my Walkman, they brought me dog-eared books of theirs to read. They sat on the end of my bed to catch me up on all the crucial middle school goings on. These were some of my closest friends, but I was embarrassed for them to see me. I could tell they were trying not to stare at my cast. I could tell they wanted to tell me it didn’t look that bad, but they also didn’t want to lie to me.
Finally the day came when I was declared liberated and could leave the house. I should have been excited, but I was dreading going out in the real world. I had always been on the go, spending all my time outside. I got stir crazy really quick, so it wasn’t like me to want to prolong my confinement. But I was terrified of people laughing at me, of looking ridiculous. I knew that my cast was going to attract a lot of stares. I tried to give myself a pep talk. I knew my parents were excited for us all to go out to eat. I’m sure they felt liberated themselves. I tried to will myself to not care what people thought. The old me, the tomboy who didn’t care about looks, she would have come in handy at that time.
When it was time to leave I broke down. I confessed my vanity to my parents. I was so ashamed to feel the way I was feeling, but I couldn’t help it. Of course they understood. But they also knew I couldn’t become a shut-in for six months. My mom tried. She told me I was strong and after everything I’d been through, I couldn’t let what other people think stop me from enjoying my life. Everything she said made sense, but it didn’t cut through the stubbornness that had taken a hold of me.
A few minutes after she left my room, my stepdad came in to my room. I was braced for him to order me to get up and get in the car. Instead he sat down on my sister’s bed and put his hands on his knees like he was getting ready to talk and it wouldn’t be easy for him. This was unusual. Emotional matters were always handled by my mom. He started explaining that he knew exactly how I felt, that he had actually felt the same way many times. I had no idea what he was talking about. He held up a hand and kind of waved it, trying to clue me in as to what he was referring to.
He had been born without fingers on his right hand. Of course I always knew this, but I never really thought about it. I never thought of it as something that would bother him. It was just part of him, it seemed normal to us.
He explained the looks he gets from some people when they see his hand. The reactions he gets when someone reaches out to shake his hand and pulls their hand back, startled. He had been teased when he was younger. And his hand was there forever. It’s not something he just had to deal with for six months. He pointed out that it never stopped him from doing anything. And it didn’t. He played football in high school. He built a deck on the back of our house. He could fix just about anything. I guess that’s why I never thought too much about it, he never let it stop him. He told me he had to learn at a young age to shrug off people’s reactions.
As he’s telling me this, I feel like he’s sharing something really important with me. He is a quiet man. He doesn’t share his feelings or emotions easily. But he was talking to me about something I’m sure he didn’t really like to discuss. I felt honored. He approached me with understanding and love and patience and he shared a piece of him that I had never understood or even really thought about. And he got through my insecurity, my nerves, my anxiety. If he could go out in the world and deal with people’s reactions and not let it affect him, then I could too.
I got through surgery. I got through the ordeal of wearing a cast for six months. I survived the humiliation. I was incredibly lucky that once again all the kids at school were totally cool about it. My friends weren’t embarrassed to hang out with me. I was so lucky that I came out unscathed. And I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the brave little girl in the waiting room. I am grateful the nurse told me about the patient who couldn’t see or hear.
But what I’m most grateful for, the part that has stuck with me all of these years later, is that my stepdad shared his experience with me. I have since paid a little more attention and am amazed at all the things he’s accomplished. So many of them are things especially difficult to do with a disabled hand. I kind of wonder if he subconsciously chooses hobbies like golf, rebuilding car engines, or making specialty bullets for his collectible guns, precisely because they are difficult for him to do. It’s like he is continuously showing himself and the rest of us that nothing’s going to stop him.
In addition to helping me leave the house that night, he also gave me an even better gift. He showed me that he loved me, that I was his daughter, that I was worthy of sharing a very private part of himself with. At the end of it all, this scoliosis… this surgery… it showed me just how lucky I really am.