I was never particularly healthy. I had bad asthma as a kid, pneumonia, strep. Scarlet fever several times, my first experience with the slapped red hotness of my cheeks. I had my tonsils removed when I was 7 but they eventually grew back. I was always tired. I always had trouble waking up. Nothing terrible but I was sick often.
I was also accident prone, which figures largely into this story. I wasn’t so much klutzy as in a hurry, always. I cracked the radial head in my elbow sledding when I was in seventh grade. I broke my wrist slipping when I got out of the shower. I broke the same wrist in the same place the following year when I slipped on ice and fell onto my outstretched hand. Again, nothing awful, but frequent.
By far the most important accident was fracturing both my L3 and L4 vertebrae when I was 13. I was working in a charity haunted house called the Haunted Dungeon. Some of you may remember that I have some spooky sensibilities; the Dungeon nestled into that niche perfectly. It was in an abandoned war fort called Ft. Kellogg although we called it Ft. Banks for some reason I don’t know. Every night in October, we gave tours through the underground bunker, each room elaborately planned to scare visitors. It was a blast.
The interior of the fort was concrete and perpetually damp. It was poorly lit and there were thin gutters along the walls. One night, I had run out to use the bathroom while there was a short lapse between tours. As I was coming back to my designated room, I saw a group approaching from the other direction. I was wearing a long black dress with a long black cloak and combat boots. When I started running toward the room to get there in time, I stepped into the gutter by accident. I was wearing boots and my foot got stuck. I fell hard. I was really jarred but able to jump up and get back to the room. I had no idea that I had injured my back.
I eventually saw an orthopedist because my right leg still hurt a few weeks later. He remarked on my hypermobility. My IT band, a thick length of fascia that sits on top of the hip bone, snapped back and forth over my hip bone when I walked. This was not from the fall. It happened in both legs and had for as long as I could remember. The working theory was that the fall had irritated my IT band further. I got cortisone injections and crutches. No one even took an x-ray.
I was a freshman in high school when this happened. By the time January rolled around, I was having pain, weakness and numbness in both legs. Again, the prevailing theory was that I had inflamed my pre-existing IT band issues and also that I was exaggerating and overdramatic. In April of 1998, I sat down in my high school drama class and could not stand back up. I could feel my legs somewhat but I couldn’t really move them. I sat on the auditorium and just couldn’t move.
There is no humiliation like the kind you endure in high school when you are in a compromising position in front of a bunch of your peers, many of whom make fun of you. As soon as I realized that I couldn’t get up, I knew half of my classmates wouldn’t believe that what was happening to me was real. For those first few moments, I was legitimately more afraid of being embarrassed than of being paralyzed.
I ended up at Large Famous Pediatric Teaching Hospital where I was evaluated by a doctor who thought I was inventing my symptoms and recommended I be committed for conversion reaction disorder. The next day, I saw some other doctors who thought I was inventing my symptoms and recommended I be committed for conversion reaction disorder. One resident had the presence of mind to order some imaging since not a single picture had been taken in the six months since my injury.
Over the following few days, my symptoms fluctuated during throughout the day. I had some movement sometimes, more so at night. I was taking enough naproxen to burn a hole in my stomach. After five days, I woke up in the middle of the night and had to pee. I got out of bed and walked down the stairs into the bathroom while half asleep. I still had numbness, pain and weakness but it was much improved.
This occurrence added a new dimension to the situation: that my parents didn’t know if I had actually had a medical issue or if I was just a maladjusted teenager acting out. Not only did I have major, real mobility issues, but almost everyone related to the situation thought I was full of shit.
The following day, I had my previously scheduled MRI at Large Famous Pediatric Teaching Hospital. The MRI showed that I had crunched my L3 and L4 vertebrae together with enough force that bone fragments broke off and were floating in the space between the vertebrae. The fragments inflamed the surrounding structures and a large ball of fluid had accumulated around the fragments. The fluid compressed the root nerves which bifurcated at the site of the injury before running down into my legs.
If they had performed imaging when I first injured myself, it would have been easily seen. I would have been on bed rest for 4-6 weeks and then gradually worked back up to my normal life. Instead I was 14 years old with partial paralysis and permanent nerve damage in my right leg that still kicks up 19 years later.
The MRI was hard evidence that I did in fact have an injury, a serious one, which perfectly correlated with my symptoms. Taking so much naproxen probably decreased the fluid around the fragments, relieving some pressure on the spine and returning some function.
But there was still a conversation about whether or not I actually had anything physically wrong with me or if it were psychological, a conversation I wasn’t supposed to hear. I will never forget the way I felt overhearing that. I was suddenly freezing to the point that I had to stop my teeth from chattering.
At the ripe age of 14, I had discovered the defining tenet of my health story: that no one would believe me by default. If I wanted help to manage my health concerns, I would have to convince every last person that I met that I really did have organic health problems and that I wasn’t making them up.