When I elected to have a much-needed surgery to correct my paralyzed polio ankle at age thirteen, I had a choice, because I was on the cusp of adulthood, of being in the children’s ward or the adult ward of the hospital in Sacramento. The operation was going to keep me from rolling my inner ankle bone toward the floor or sidewalk, and was called a triple arthrodesis. Since I had no clear idea what the choice of wards really meant, I opted for the children’s sector, because I thought that being with adults would present a stodgy, quiet option. Big mistake. One day in the hospital and then they told us that only parents could visit, no one else. Since I had only one parent (my dad had died when I was almost seven), even my sister, who was thirty-two, could not come to visit me. One day during the stay she came to the door of the ward and they wheeled me down to see her for a moment. She was righteously angry that they would not let her visit; always my champion in my childhood. The week or more that I was hospitalized was a very lonely time, with only my mother visiting once a day. The hospital had assumed I had two parents; but even if I had, my dad’s work as a milkman, fifty miles away, would have made it very difficult for him to visit the hospital during children’s visiting hours.
But the worst aspects for me, facing this surgery, were fear of the expected pain afterward, how serious it sounded, and the rehabilitation process. I also wondered if it would actually improve my condition. The whole prospect of having my body cut into, a bone broken, and somehow knitting three bones together was deeply frightening. But, I was convinced that it was necessary. Losing consciousness with anesthesia also frightened me, having fallen and knocked myself out twice before. I was panicked by the time they took me into the green operating room and began administering the anesthesia.
I awoke to horrible pain and nausea, which I had not been advised to expect, in a darkened room with perhaps three other children. The nurses were slow to respond to my need for something to, um, throw up into. When I was wracked with sobs of real, deeply aching pain, they tut-tutted me and acted as if I were not being stalwart enough. I was told not to cry or I’d wake the others. When at last the doctor came on his rounds, he immediately recommended pain killers for me, and chastened the nurses in whispering tones across the room from my bed. My foot was throbbing and I could not get into a position where I was not in acute pain. Additionally, when I first looked at the cast, there was a deep red spot on the outside at the surgery spot. This was alarming to me and only the kind doctor was able to tell me that this was normal, there would be some seepage of blood for a while, but the operation had been successful. Dr. Mearns was one of the most considerate and gentle doctors I have ever had, understanding my fears and pain and the emotional angst of a thirteen-year-old so well. Then followed several long summer and fall months of recovery and crutches.
How do you remember all this stuff?!? Did you keep detailed diaries and medical records? I remember you with a cast on your leg. I was told it was to keep you from swinging your leg out when you walked.
I didn’t keep records; I just have a good memory. I test really high in memory tests where you listen to a story and then answer questions about it, but, my own life often feels like a movie to me; I see all of what happened pretty clearly. There are some memories that are vague, but I don’t embellish them, generally. I have trouble forgetting things I wish I could forget! The cast was because I had my ankle fused to prevent the inside bones of my ankle from pressing on the ground or floor as I walked. They fused bones so that my ankle would be stable. It had nothing to do with swinging my leg out when I walked. My left leg did go out to the side somewhat because it was and always has been (since I reached adulthood) two inches longer than my right, polio-affected leg. There’s nothing that can be done about that since I can’t wear a two inch lift; too heavy, and too high a heel which would result in my twisting my ankle or falling.