My youngest was ill this week - unable to keep anything down (including his own gastric juices), until I finally took him to the hospital for fear he was becoming dehydrated. At bedtime that night, I found myself telling him an abridged story about a time I was hospitalized as a child. The full version of that story perhaps answers a question my friend Michael Maranda asked this week: "What story would you Share, to help others live a proper way?"
I was almost 14 when my scoliosis was diagnosed. At that time, the curve in my spine measured in at around 40 degrees. My parents noticed it one day while I was bent over doing yard work in a bathing suit top. A chiropractor tried to help, but 1 year later the curve had progressed to over 60 degrees. My ribcage was severely twisted, and my lungs were beginning to feel cramped when I tried to breathe deeply. The orthopedic surgeon we visited predicted that I was likely to suffer heart failure by the time I was 19 if they didn't stop the curving and twisting from getting worse, and made me a priority case for an operation to insert a Harrington Rod. Next thing I knew, my family packed up and moved from Lake Elsinore to Huntington Beach, which was closer to the hospital where my surgery would be performed.
A Harrington Rod is kind of like a car jack - the two ends of the rod were attached to the top and the bottom of the main curve, and then it was made longer to push the curve straight. I grew 2.5 inches on the operating table, and was sent home from the hospital after 8 days with an awkward, pre-fitted brace that I'd have to wear for 6 months. The one thing bothering the doctor before he discharged me was my lack of appetite. Sure enough, within 2 days of going home I was physically unable to eat anything at all. It turns out that when I grew on the operating table it put a strain on a main artery that passes through the intestines. That strain caused a severe (albeit delayed) swelling that completely blocked my ability to digest anything (like my son earlier this week, though his seems to have only been some kind of bug).
The doctor told us that about 3% of all Harrington Rod patients experienced a similar complication. In only 1% of patients was the swelling delayed, like mine had been. And in only 1% of patients was the swelling as severe as mine was. There was no case the doctor could find where the swelling did not go away within a few days, and yet mine didn't seem to want to go away - I stayed in the hospital for another 30 days. At one point, they decided to insert a tube under my clavicle that would feed nutrients straight into my heart, and punctured one of my lungs in the process. At another point, I guess I kind of freaked out and broke a nurse's glasses in my struggle to get up out of the bed I'd been lying on for what seemed like forever (I have no memory of that, and was only told a year later!)
What I remember the most - and what has stayed with me as one of the most breathtakingly important moments of my life - was when my mother and the doctor were discussing the possibility of another surgical intervention. They were standing on either side of my bed when the doctor said he was concerned that I wasn't strong enough to survive another surgery, but he just didn't know what else to try. Meanwhile, my body was dwindling away. There I was at barely 15 years old and suddenly imagining my own funeral. We'd just moved to a new town where I didn't know anybody, and I had a hard time imagining who would even come.
Hold on a minute, I said to myself. I can't die yet, because I haven't yet really lived! And then, for no apparent medical reason, I started getting better.
When I finally got out of that hospital bed, I was not the same girl. I'd always felt "different," but in Lake Elsinore, I'd been meek, emotional and afraid of what my peers thought of me. Starting at a new school with a very visible and ugly back brace, I decided that if people were going to look at me anyway then I'd make sure they saw more than metal and fiberglass. I became a student leader, I embraced every opportunity I could find to excel, and decided with clear intent that my life - that precious gift which I had nearly lost - could be and would be a valuable one. 3 short years later, I graduated Girl of the Year - an award based on service to the school that I hadn't even attended for my whole high school career.
It is in a spirit of gratitude for my life that I have grown up to find the most fulfillment in helping and serving others. It's in that same spirit of gratitude that I have traveled so much and tried to learn what I can about the world. It is with gratitude that I believe in my responsibility to be the best that I can be, reach for the highest potential of my higher self, and suck the very marrow out of the experiences life offers every day. Life is so very fragile, short, and may be taken away at any moment.
As terrible as it was to go through all of that at such a tender age, I don't remember it as a terrible experience. It made me realize the true nature of the gift that life is, and helped me believe more in my own right to be who I am. Today when I think back on my back, I am always reminded to enjoy, be grateful for, and make the most of my life, while it lasts.
When asked "What story would you Share, to help others live a proper way?" this is it. May it inspire you to think about and understand the precious value of your own life, and the power within you to make the most of it.