Friday, April 02, 2004

The Bionic Woman

been incredibly, ridiculously, painfully swamped with schoolwork all week and have little time for an original update. instead i'm posting a personal essay i wrote for my magazine writing class. here's the piece.

The Bionic Woman

If there’s one thing I know with certainty, nothing is more humbling than an extended hospital stay. I had never been a patient before, nor did I understand what infirmity truly meant, but when I woke up screaming in the recovery room of UCLA Medical Center, the old adage that things will never be the same finally rang true.

I was reborn, but instead of delivering a smack to the ass, the doctor seemed to have taken a sledgehammer to my spine. And I was in pain — an all-consuming, paralyzing, suffocating pain to which no words could do justice.

I felt like the main character in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the man who wakes up as a giant cockroach one morning, confused, disoriented and utterly frightened, thinking the “nonsense” would end after a few more hours sleep. Maybe I was also in the middle of a bad dream. The nurse would surely tell me, and here she comes now, running to my bedside with a morphine-filled syringe, which she deposits into my IV, making me fall back into myself with a whimper — my tentacles twitching in the distance as the room fades to black.

*****

I have had scoliosis for as long as I can remember. The doctors assured my parents and I that it was nothing, that I’d grow out of it, but I grew into it instead, reaching a 42-degree curvature by the time of surgery. If untreated, the doctor said it would worsen a degree a year, eventually turning me into a hunchback and causing my torso to concave, my organs to puncture under their own pressure. Corrective surgery would have to be performed eventually.

“Better to do it now when you’re young and resilient,” the doctor assured me. “You’ll be up and walking around in a few days.” Sounded simple enough.

So on June 29, 1998 — three days after my 22nd birthday and one week after I graduated from college — I became a patient. The surgeon took his scalpel and made a 13-inch incision down my spine. Five hours, three titanium rods and countless stitches later, his work was done, and I awoke screaming in the hospital, two inches taller.

*****

I spent the first two days completely bedridden, immobile, while the severed nerves in my back went hog wild, causing nonstop spasms as they tried to reconnect. I was too drugged to feel any pain. I was cogent, however, vacillating between a strange state of euphoria and terror. I couldn’t lift my head or arms or legs. The hospital bed felt like a slab of concrete and pillows were verboten, as I had to keep my body completely flat, my spine in perfect alignment. Only my toes and fingers could move. Tubes extended from the veins in my arms and from other, less likely places—a catheter to collect urine, a suction tube inserted into my back to shoot out the excess blood congregating near my spine. I was a human pincushion, or perhaps a voodoo doll.

And then there was the drip. Oh, yes. The trusty morphine drip that quickly became my best friend during the ordeal. My nimble fingers only had to press a lever for a few drops of that magical salve to be released into my IV. Just a few drops to release me from my physical self, thrusting me into the faraway recesses of my mind, where I could be a mermaid traversing through oceans, swimming among dolphins, or maybe a dove soaring through the air, the wind caressing my feathers, my wings in perfect alignment. How I loved the drip (and how I screamed when, on the fourth day, they took it away, mumbling something about addiction).

On the morning of the third day, a physical therapist arrived to teach me how to slip on my back brace and sit up. The dreaded back brace — a cross between a corset and straitjacket — was a hard plastic contraption extending from my shoulders to hips. The first time he flipped me onto my side, I roared, ripping out the tube in my back and spilling blood all over the bedsheets. He pressed onward with the lesson, teaching me the flip technique, and how, with the help of the bedrail, to drop my legs to the floor while pulling my torso upright with my arms. We practiced the move several times more, with my eyes as leaky faucets, the snot dribbling off my chin and onto my knees, which I saw for the first time in days.

In the afternoon, he returned to teach me how to walk. The mere sight of him standing in the doorway made me shake uncontrollably, my body already conditioned to fear all he represented, that miserable motion he intended to reacquaint me with just when I was starting to get accustomed to lying still. But the doctor said something about blood clots in my legs if I didn’t begin to move around, and here was this strange man holding a walker, ready to submerge me in a pain that made my body thunder, made my muscles contract in a lame attempt at flight. He approaches me, and I vomit all over myself.

*****

We did have that walking lesson eventually, and it did indeed suck, especially when he took me to the stairwell and taught me how to tackle uneven ground. Though with time, I began to look forward to his visits, as it gave me a chance to feel semi-normal again, even a bit productive. And when he pushed the walker aside, his outstretched arms beckoning me to advance, I took my first baby steps as an adult and smiled my first true smile in days.

Back in my hospital room, I often fought for control of the one mounted television with my middle-aged roommate, in for a gall bladder problem, who complained incessantly that the nurses didn’t pay her enough attention. She needed more painkillers, she said. “That’s too bad,” I would smile, as I activated my drip, drip, drip…

Every four hours, a nurse would come by with iron pills. Every eight hours, one would come to draw blood to make sure my body absorbed the iron. And once a day, an irritatingly cheery nurse would come by to administer the suppository, always offering a round of applause when it worked.
Also coming by were good friends, none of whom I particularly cared to see in my current state. But there they were, each day someone new, hovering over me, trying to act normal while I tried not to seem so invalid. They couldn’t hide their alarm, the shock that would register on their faces when they first saw me lying there — 15 pounds lighter, my natural pallor even more deathly, my lips bluish, my long brown hair tangled in knots, the tubes reaching everywhere, the urine bag casually hanging over the foot of the bed.

Most would stay for only half an hour, as I shooed them out the door, envying the way they so effortlessly walked through it. Others would want to hang out and joke around — just like old times — often toying with my drip until the morphine knocked me out, sometimes within minutes of their arrival.

*****

Though it felt like eons, I had only been hospitalized for six days. The doctor said my recovery was on track, even calling me “feisty.” In any case, I would be released to my parents’ house, where I would convalesce for one week before moving back into my Hollywood apartment with my boyfriend and roommate.

The doctor’s orders were explicit and strict: Out of bed I had to wear my back brace at all times; I had to continue taking iron pills, and never with dairy products; I could take up to 12 extra-strength Vicodin a day, as needed, for pain; a physical therapist would visit me three times a week; I could neither sit nor stand for more than half an hour at a time; when I sat, my thighs had to be parallel to the floor, my knees bent at no more than 90 degrees; I could only sleep on flat, even surfaces; I should always use my special high chair for toilet visits; bowel movements should occur once a day, and if they didn’t, they needed to be induced. Thank you very much. Come back in two weeks for a checkup.

My parents lived in a three-story townhouse near the beach — lots of stairs. All three bedrooms were on the top floor. The ride to their house, situated less than 10 miles from the hospital, was torture. My mother’s low-to-the-ground Saab seemed to hit every pothole in Los Angeles, with my back absorbing the shock. By the time we pulled into the driveway, I was a blubbering mess, barely able to breathe, my back brace tightened to Elizabethan corset proportions.

I awkwardly made my way out of the car and loosened the Velcro straps on my brace. Pain shot up and down my backside, from my brain stem to hamstrings to heals. I gripped the banister tightly and began to ascend the three flights of stairs to my temporary bedroom, my face red with agony, my gritted teeth emitting small yelps each time I pulled myself up a stair. The effects of the morphine and anesthesia, the doctor warned, would now be waning, leaving me feeling queasy, uneasy. The new name of the game became pain management.

But how could I manage this? It seemed hopeless. Without morphine offering me solace, I had to confront the full monty of the pain, the realization that everything would indeed be different. This reality hit me with a heavy hand as I made my way into the bedroom, my sobs uncontrollable, the pain unbearable, and collapsed carefully onto the bed.

I looked over at my father — a former sergeant in the Soviet army, my pillar of strength whom I always admired for his composure and kindness — and noticed his own tears.

“Why are you crying?” I asked.
“Because you’re my baby, and it hurts to see you in so much pain.”

*****

I did indeed spend the next few weeks in a great deal of pain, the kind of which I had never conjured up in even my worst nightmares. The kind that almost makes one faint from its unabashed intensity. The kind that you would wish on your worst enemies, if you really, really hated them.

And it wasn’t a localized pain relegated strictly to my spine. It began there and spread — much like an orgasm — to my fingertips, to the tips of my toes. But it was far from an orgasm; it sat at exactly the opposite end of the pleasure-pain continuum. It was sometimes shooting, always chronic and often induced a great amount of sweat, which was exacerbated by the bulky brace and Los Angeles’ sweltering summer. It was July, after all.

But perhaps even more demoralizing than the pain was the helplessness clouding each day, the horrifying truth that I now had minimal control over everything in my environment. Dishes slipped out of my hands, as I was too weak to lift even a few ounces. The slightest effort exhausted me, forcing the need for a nap. Anything I dropped on the floor stayed there until someone else picked it up. Now the once ├╝ber-independent girl who got her drivers license on the morning of her 16th birthday couldn’t even tie her shoelaces.

Making matters worse was the dawning realization that I had outgrown my college boyfriend, whom I had been so attached to. And we had just moved in together following our college graduations, talking of a shared life. I had accepted his engagement ring, a solid gold band inlaid with tiny diamonds and rubies, but we were just kids then. We were still kids now, both 22, college graduates with the world on a string, knowing that it was worth exploring, knowing that we could never be enough for each other for the rest of our lives. Now all I needed him to be was my nurse, a role he reluctantly filled, lacing up my sneakers each morning before he headed to work, while I gently sobbed, and removing them each night, also as I sobbed.

Adjusting to these foreign realities seemed unfeasible, and I began to sink into a depression. For the first time since kindergarten, I found myself without a school term to look forward to. School, which I always excelled at, was my old faithful, and the thought of existing without it made me anxious. No cushy job with great prospects awaited me, either. Only murkiness lay ahead, and I could discern no outlines of a future.

I felt too self-conscious to leave the house in my brace, given that I could only wear oversized T-shirts to disguise it, making me look like a broad-backed football player. The doctor forbade me to drive, as I couldn’t look over my shoulder to check my blind spot. And I couldn’t work — my need for physical therapy and constant naps would intrude on any preset schedule.

I avoided the phone calls and visits of my kind friends, whose carefree and painless lives made me sick. I confided in no one, related to no one. Nothing at all seemed to give me pleasure. Having to get out of bed each day annoyed me. So I isolated myself, sitting at home for months, passively reading random books, crying my eyes out and trying to dream up a new life. All the while I kept sinking, sinking into an ever-deepening well of self-pity and uncertainty. The back operation marked only the first into a multitude of changes plaguing that summer, rendering me physically, mentally and emotionally unrecognizable to myself. Finally, I sank so deep that, one day, I had nowhere to look but up.

Because although I hadn’t acknowledged it, my back had been healing — ahead of schedule, the doctor said. The pain began to subside. My mobility improved, and with it came greater productivity and more self-confidence. Routinely, I woke up one day expecting to waste it away crying and found that I had run out of tears. It was that simple, as if a light switch had been flipped off. The misery had run its course, taking me to the edge of myself — where nothing made sense and my head was a scrambled mess — before lifting me up to show me that it could be survived.

The time came for a paradigm shift, and my newfound clarity was acute. I was human; I would die one day. Simple, obvious stuff, but to a 22-year-old who believed in forever, this epiphany was tantamount to having a religious vision. Suddenly, my mortality became a concrete fact rather than some far-removed concept to be saved for later. I would die one day, so I better make these days count without blindly assuming that my good health would always remain good and that my relationships would always last.

Acknowledging my own mortality made me immortal in a way by freeing me from all self-imposed limitations. By understanding the meaning of death, I understood the meaning of life. Time was precious, and I needed to use mine wisely. I felt like a 50-year-old who’s had a heart attack, rebounding with a renewed zest for life and appreciation of the little things. But I felt luckier — I was younger, stronger, healthier, and I had more time not to waste.

Oddly, the first place my new attitude took me to was the hair salon. The time had come to cut my long, brown, wavy locks, which I always wore down to conceal the curvature in my spine. My self-consciousness gone, I could gift myself the above-the-shoulder hairdo I wanted for nearly 10 years. Chop, chop, and I had a new look befitting my new life. Most people I knew hated my new haircut, but I didn’t give a damn. This was my show now.

Step two involved imagining a goal I could work toward. My options seemed limited only by my imagination and credit cards. Never had I known such freedom of choice, and it both terrified and invigorated me. After bandying about numerous ideas, I settled on moving to San Francisco, leaving the boyfriend behind, in search of a new life. I even set the date: one day after Thanksgiving 1998. Finally I had something to look forward to. Things were indeed looking up, and I knew I would never take my life for granted again. I would find the pearl in my oyster and keep mining the ocean floor for more.

Even my back brace, which I resented for all its limitations, I began to regard as my cocoon. And when the doctor said it was safe to go without it at the four-month mark, I emerged a butterfly — taller, stronger, freer, ready for flight, my wings in perfect alignment.

*****

Six years have passed since the surgery. I have made a full recovery and continue to keep my spine healthy with regular yoga. The three titanium rods I will take to my grave, and no, I don’t set off the alarm when I pass through metal detectors at airports. (Titanium is actually an alloy, not a metal.) I have even made peace with the 13-inch scar symmetrically dividing my back, seeing it as a divine souvenir of the bittersweet summer that defined the rest of my life. It’s my brand of survival, a roadmap to remind me that life’s valleys can often prove far more valuable than its peaks.

4 comments:

Anna G said...

wow, that was intense! thanks for sharing, I had no idea you went through this.

buckwildbill said...

That is an amazing coincidence. I was in the hospital hooked up to a morphine drip on the same day as you were. I still miss being able to press that button. I'm a little disappointed too, that all of the titanium and hardware never set off a metal detector.
http://buckwildbill.com/crash.html

Milla said...

wow, crazy coincidence indeed. glad you made it through your accident intact.

buckwildbill said...

Thanks. I'm glad to read how well you recovered too and that you're not referred to as the Hunchback of Highland Park. :)