So what does it mean?

“The body has memory.  The physical carriage hauls more than its weight.  The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness — all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic.”  Claudia Rankine, poetess

Finding Dr. von Heimburg’s document about my burn history was a stunner.  For months after, I racked my feeble brain, wondering how that document could have appeared in a basement box I’d long since forgotten. Just how did a critical document I had never seen before GET in that box?  Even more incredible was its likely fate — it was headed for the garbage had my god-sent friend Gloria not mysteriously saved it from extinction.

To my my way thinking, it was a miracle document.

After paying it due homage and digesting the very fact of its existence, I began to wonder what exactly it meant. First, in terms of my very survival as a pediatric burn patient. Second, in the memories it filled in and the gaps it left.

I turned to Dr. Robert Lehman, a noted St. Louis surgeon.  “Bob, can you help me interpret this report?” I asked, as I looked at its menu of debridement, dressing changes and skin grafting. “Oh, this was serious,” he replied with a knowing tilt of the head.  It was a classic Dr. Bob gesture.

The most medieval of the menu is, of course, debridement, a surgical procedure using forceps, scissors and other implements (of torture, I might add) to remove dead (or what they perhaps lovingly refer to as ‘necrotic’) tissue.  Skins grafts are then transplanted to the debrided site.  In reflex, I rubbed my thighs thinking about that — my thighs and rear end are my donor skin sites and still carry the precision scars of the scalpel, which cut perfect rectangles of skin from them.  Thinking about it made me queasy.

I asked then what was possibly the more interesting question, “Reading this, how do you assess my survival rate at the time?”

Of course, in the interim, I’d looked up the various measures of burn survival, like the R-Baux score which measures mortality in adult burn victims or the P-Baux score which measures mortality in pediatric cases.  These various measures include some combination of the percent of body surface burned + the patient’s age and often including a smoke inhalation component as well as sepsis status. It’s all sort of compellingly macabre and all, according to Dr. Bob, irrelevant for me.  In his pleasantly dead-pan manner he said, “I think, that at the time you were burned, the thinking was burn plus age.  Looks like there’s all sorts of analysis being done today that would never have applied back then.  I should say that the new analyses weren’t done then.”  Hmmm.

This is understandable.  Not only am I old (!) but at the time I was burned, 911 was not even in existence.  It was something of a cowboy world for burn care.  There were no burn units, no Baux scores, no longitudinal studies.  I didn’t even get to the hospital by ambulance.  By all accounts, my parents drove me to the hospital, hours after the accident.  That was standard operating procedure in the day.

Taking Dr. von Heimburg’s report, my survival score was 12% total body surface area burned (TBSA) + age of 2 = 14% mortality.  To me, those were fighting chances.  And then, there was always contradictory information out there — “In the 1960’s, the likelihood of survival was only 50% in children with burns covering 35 – 44% of the total body surface area (TBSA), and few patients with burn sizes exceeding 45% TBSA survived.  The average length of stay for the acutely burned child was 103 days,” writes Dr. David Herndon of Shriners Hospitals for Children.

It made me think about my length of stay — somewhere past the 60 day mark — as well as my other doctor, Dr. Thomas Lynn. There were no records available from him.  He died young, a stroke or heart attack according to his daughter and my high school friend Julie. Within two years of my accident, he was gone and I was referred to plastic surgeon Harold Hoops.  By the time I developed interest in finding records, Dr. Lynn’s clinic was long since closed, the records destroyed.

So here were the gaps again.  Confirmation on nine procedures.  But the story I remember put the count at about 20.  Dr. von Heimburg listed only one skin graft.  Looking at my leg, I know there were others. I see the cuts and feel the ridges It had to be the handiwork of Dr. Lynn, whose records are gone forever.  “The body has memory,” Claudia Rankine says. I know it to be true.

 

 

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The Most Unlikely Discovery

Anyone who has ever moved from here to there understands the challenges of upending a life or otherwise turning it upside down for a defined and usually unpleasant period of time.  The longer you are in one place, the greater the likelihood that your stuff outplays, outweighs and overwhelms.  Paring down and packing it up is not for the faint of heart. Reinforcements are often required.

My move from a house of 20+ years was months in the making.  More trips to Goodwill than I cared to count, dusty disposals in droves.  And yet there always seemed to be another room to prune or box to plunder.  That’s when I called Gloria, the undisputed master of the discard.  I had reached my limit.  To her credit, she knew this.  “Gallagher, I got you,” she’d say before shoo-ing me from my home and, like a modern-day samurai, then ruthlessly used her weapons to jettison the clutter.

When she was ready, she would call me back to the house allowing me to see with wonder how she had magically eliminated whole rooms of stuff.  I didn’t ask what she did or where it went.  She’d then instruct me to review the contents of certain places or boxes and I always did as instructed.  “Those boxes over there Gallagher,” she said as she pointed to an area in the basement.  “Those you need to go through before we throw them out.”

It was a tedious chore, sorting through pictures or clothes that no longer fit or papers you’d just “hold-on-to-because” or reminders of life-gone-by.  Gloria had the unique ability to only present me with the pertinent things; which along the way eased the emotions of letting go of things and taking only the necessary parts for a new life.

And, then, there it was.  A yellowed paper in a nondescript folder among mismatched things.  “Attending Physician’s Statement,” it read in simple typeface, dated 3-9-1965. My hand shook ever so slightly.  This was impossible.  I had searched for documents related to my burns for years.  St. Vincent Hospital told me they had destroyed the original records related from 1964-1965.  Dr. Lynn and Dr. von Heimburg’s offices had long since closed and disposed of the old records.  It was only from the office of Dr. Hoops, who took over my care around 1966 after Dr. Lynn’s death, that I received any sort medical records.  But never, never anything from the original incident.

I was looking at a document that shouldn’t have existed.  One that in all these years, and throughout this search, I had never seen much less known was in my possession.  Could it be that when my brothers and sisters and I cleaned out my parents’ home in 1997 after their deaths that this document was simply put in a box assigned to me?

I was dumbfounded and spellbound at the same time.

“Third degree burn of the right leg and buttock, involving 12% of the body surface area,” it read and then listed nine various procedures from December 2, 1964 through January 12, 1965, and six more office visits through March 9, 1965, conveniently offered at “no charge”.

“Patient is still under Dr.’s care,” it concluded.

This was Dr. von Heimburg’s invoice to the insurance company, Sun life Assurance Company of Canada.

Sometimes when you are not looking, you find the very thing you need.

This yellowed document confirmed the stories I’d heard and the memories I’d had.  It’s one thing to believe something is true because you are told that, even when you can touch your own scars. It’s another to see and touch the documentation of it.

A blurry baby’s memory is true.

“Gloria,” I called out.  “You are not going to believe what you found for me…….”.

Imagine if my modern-day samurai of disposal had thrown it out?  Instead, she saved something-I-didn’t-know-I-had for me.  God bless Gloria.

Next up:  Dr. Lehman tells me my pediatric burn survival rate.

 

 

Fire, it keeps burning

Funny thing about fire.  As much as I have tried for the last several years to stop it, it just won’t burn out.  I did try.  I stomped on the embers, hoping they would go out.  But they wouldn’t.  Fire has kept appearing in my life and I think I’m ready to capture its flame again.  Well, I will try.  At least, I think I will.

Do you wonder what inspired my comeback to the blog?  I hope so.  There were many points in the last few years that I wanted to return but resisted.  And then, I got the call.  An agent I thought had dropped me, since I stopped auditioning.  I stopped doing so many things in the last few year.  She said a casting agency requested me to audition for Chicago P.D.  Ugh, I thought.  On-camera.  A long shot.

But it was Chicago P.D.  National TV.  The venerable Dick Wolf franchise, moved to Chicago with Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, Chicago PD and the soon-t0-be launched Chicago Justice.  The sets were down at Cinespace, Western and 16th, in that mini-Hollywood set of sets.  I hadn’t been down there.  So, I agreed.

Drove down to the casting agency and did the audition.  Just one line.  Was not impressed with my performance.  Just two takes. In and out.

The next day I got the call.  I booked it.  “Do you know your character is also appearing on Chicago Justice?” the agent asked.  What?  “You are in the cross over event launching Chicago Justice so you’re character will be in Chicago P.D. and Chicago Justice – it’s a three hour show on March 1.”

The scripts arrived.  My character — Mrs. Collins also called Tamra’s Mom — was the mom of a 25-year-old young woman burned in a fire.  Wait, the mom of a daughter burned in a fire?  What are the chances?

Since I am the daughter burned in a fire.

It was simply enough to get me back on the blog.  There are a few stories to tell.

In the meantime, if you have time and interest, watch on Wednesday, March 1.  It’s the three-hour crossover launch of Chicago Justice.  Starting with Chicago Fire on NBC at 7 CT/8 ET, you will see Mrs. Collins in Chicago P.D. and then in Chicago Justice.

Might I be back?

 

 

 

Making Love on Valentine’s Day

“All sorrow can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.”  Isak Dinesen

From Derek

From Derek

He called me about 5 p.m. on Friday just as I was leaving my office to join some co-workers at the company’s end-of-week cocktail gathering.  “I left something for you at the house.”  I laughed.  “What, a Valentine?”  “Yes,” he said.  “I left a Valentine for you.”

When I got home, there is it was, wrapped in white.  A huge, beautiful heart with chocolates inside.  Just like the fantasy that Valentine’s day is supposed to be.  I’d been clouded in sadness for a long time, which doesn’t at all mean that I wasn’t content or happy in my life.  You see, no matter how necessary, divorce carries with it a residue of sorrow.  Seeing that Hallmark-esque heart, I realized how hard I’d been holding on to it.

The frightening dreams had returned and I’d asked my therapist why they were back.  “Because you are ready now,” she told me.  I protested.  “But why the dream about him killing me?  Why is that one back?  It’s horrible.”

“He did kill you,” she said.  The stillness hung in the air.  It seemed like an eternity before she spoke again.  “The person you were is gone.  You are having the dream because you are now in a place where you can process it and let it go.  Make no mistake, though, emotionally and psychologically, he killed you.”  I’d been playing that conversation back in my mind for a week, thinking about its truth and the power of acknowledgement.  The dream had miraculously stopped.  Then, of course, there was the sadness.  So many things happened in such a short span of time after the divorce, including his criminal indictment.  Add to that, he paid child support for only four months, then began sprouting fanciful arguments about how he had overpaid and that I owed him money.  There were so many other pieces too.  Thinking about it all made me profoundly sad.  Watching it is a raw and ugly spectacle.

But here in front of me stood a delightful, red roses-decorated box of chocolates.

In the last year, I needed so much help managing a house, two children and of course, myself.  Derek The Handyman had patched walls, tuck-pointed the bricks, shoveled the snow, added handles to doors, unclogged toilets, cleaned out garbage, swept floors and did so many other things, the majority of then unasked.  When I mentioned to him one day that I wished I had a place to put my radio in the kitchen, he built a shelf for it.  I had been so grateful to Derek that I never thought he might be grateful to me.  His Valentine’s heart assured me he was.

A little bit of love and inspiration come in unexpected packages.  This heart motivated me to make some love to add to this Valentine’s Day and to the next of days.  It feels good to think of adding love and letting go of sadness.

There is a manuscript of poems on my desk today.  A friend sent them asking for thoughts and comments.  In turn, he said he would take a look at my manuscript.  It has been a long time since I worked on my book.  It’s time to open it up again.  Wish me luck, send me love.  Happy Valentine’s Day.

Splat and the New Year

Splat“You want I should wash the dead bugs off the windshield?”

Elwood, The Blues Brothers

“Life seemed to be going along fine and then, splat,” was how H phrased it.  We were talking about how a moment occurs when life suddenly changes. S-P-L-A-T.  It’s the fly breezing along in the wind when suddenly — it becomes little more than road kill on a car’s window shield. Its ride is over.  There is no way to reclaim its former life.  It no longer looks like it once did.  Like it or not, realize it or not, in a seeming moment, transformation occurs.

In H’s case, it was her multi-decades marriage to a seeming pillar of the community that collapsed under the dual strains of alcoholism and affairs.  No matter how much she might have anticipated the end, seen the signs, the “splat” moment felt like a surprise.  The big house was sold.  She moved to the city.  Took a job, then another.  The old life becomes a distant memory.

S-P-L-A-T.  Until the conversation with H, I hadn’t thought of these situations under the auspices of “splat” but it certainly made all the sense in the world.  If you live long enough, the “splats” simply can’t be avoided, which isn’t to say they don’t occur when you are young, as it did when I was just two years old and climbed up the stove that would change my life.

As far as I know, there is not an instruction manual to guide you through a splat.  As a child with a life-threatening injury, I think my coping mechanism was to fight.  Fight, in the sense of pushing hard to regain my physical ability not only to walk to but swim, do gymnastics, play tennis and the like.  Fight, in the sense of pushing myself to achieve socially and academically.  Today, when I think of my “splat” situations, my approach is very different — more surrender than anything else.  Pema Chodron, the beloved Buddhist teacher, author, nun and mother says it this way, “Don’t run away from your fear.  Lean in to it.”  Our natural tendency is to fight, flee or move away from what is uncomfortable just as I did as a child.

From talking with H, it seems she did what Pema suggests in per post-splat life and that is to open her heart and experience what it is to be genuine.  What it is to be human, what it is to experience life truthfully in all its pain, with all its beauty.  Even when you still don’t believe life will get better.

And then there is another thought that seems to go hand-in-hand with her new-age advice:

“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

As today drew to a close not only for the work day but for the year, H and I were the last to leave the office.  “Here’s to good things in 2015,” I said.  “And to a no-splat year.”  She who coined “splat” nodded in agreement.

Good luck to us all in the New Year.  May we not be squeamish about taking a good look at ourselves.  Let’s not let life harden us.  Let’s try to always see the tenderness, beauty and grace in being alive, together.

Tell me about your S-P-L-A-T moments.

Healing Hurts

“You’re a tight ass!” Sarah shrieked with a laugh as she dug her elbow into the middle of my fanny.

Lying face down on a massageknee table, the face port paper crinkled in my ears though I could hear Sarah quite clearly.  The first of my physical therapy sessions had begun.  It was akin to torture.  Therapy sounds happy and pleasant.  Add the “physical” into it and it quickly became a series of muscle manipulations that well, hurt.  Sarah, the physical therapist, tried to allay my concerns, telling me that many clients with extraordinarily tight muscles had come before me.  “You’ve had this injury for a year and a half.  Your muscles have completely tightened around the injury to stop the pain.  It’s not that unusual,” she said.

Unusual or not, it hurt.  Plus, I hated being one of many.

“Every week, I’d like to see you and work these muscles out,” she said.  “It’s something you really cannot do yourself because you are so tight.”   Did she really have to mention that “tight” stuff again?

That said, she consulted my file and gave me several instruction sheets with exercises to do everyday.

It was like I was three years old all over, learning to walk again as I had when I burned my leg.

“It’s going to take some time, bear with it.”

I’d hear this before many, many years ago.

It was like coming full circle.

I glanced at the file she held in her hand.

“Could you do me a favor and update my name.  It’s no longer hyphenated.   Just Gallagher, “I paused.

“Actually, it’s always been Gallagher.  I never changed it.”

Sarah laughed.  “You’ve been a client since 2004,” she said as she peeled off the hyphenated name.

“2004?  That’s when my now-ex began stealing from me,” I said quietly, as much under my breath as I could.  It was hard to even admit.  “Or at least when I think he began stealing from me.”  I had to breathe now.  Deeply.

This healing thing was a little more complicated than I anticipated.  It was as much emotional as it was physical.

That’s when I remembered the conversation I had with my mentor, Mr. B.

“Annie,” he said in his gruff voice, as he picked me up at 5:45 am for a trip to Detroit.  “I think your blog has played out this burned leg thing.

“You should really start writing about what’s going on with you now.  There’s anger, there’s challenge….there’s good stuff,” he said, letting the “f’s” in stuff linger for emphasis.  Mr. B. knew.  Duplicity as we say in the trade is good stuff.  It’s interesting and creates a good story line.

“Let me think about that, Mr. B.  Let me think about that.”

“Just remember Annie, fire isn’t always the flames.  It it’s the emotions too.”

This was a whole different ball of wax.  Something that needed some thinking work.

Pain, Pain Go Away……

X-Ray of the HipsThe day had arrived for my appointment with the pain specialist and it was, appropriately, gray and rainy.  As I thought about the appointment, my heart started beating faster.  I was in my 20s when I had the last appointment with the plastic surgeon for my leg and I’d forgotten the anxious feeling that always arrived with those appointments.  It was back.

I breathed deeply and tried to exhale the anxiety, which probably only made it worse.  I’d had maybe 20 plastic surgeries and debridement procedures for the burn.  When I had the last surgery at 18, I remember waking up in the middle of the procedure lying face down and gagging on the breathing tube.  Then the memory went back further.  I was maybe 3 years old and I couldn’t walk.  During the roughly three months in the hospital, I was kept immobile in a crib covered with netting so I couldn’t get out.   It took months of painful physical therapy to re-learn how to walk.

These memories swirled in my head as I sat in the waiting room, feeling increasingly light headed.  “Gallagher,” the receptionist called.  When the nurse walked me to the exam room and took my vitals, my blood pressure, normally 110/70, had inched up to 140/80.

Dr. F. walked in and immediately put me at ease.  “I read all your forms,” she said as she examined my burned leg and did a reflex check of both legs.  She asked again about the injury as she had me do a series of movements with my arms and legs.  “I’d like you to have x-rays taken but I think I know the source of your pain.  It’s an SI injury.  We can fix this.”

SI, or the sacroillac joints, connect the spine to the pelvis.  The most common symptom of SI joint dysfunction is pain, often experienced in the back of the hips, the thighs or in my case, the groin.  “How would I have done this?” I asked.  Apparently even stepping the wrong way can create this condition but any condition that alters the normal walking pattern can put stress on the SI joints.

Among other things, my prescription includes a series of manipulations to my pelvis to move it into alignment and six weeks of physical therapy.  Dr. F. offered me steroid injections as well to treat the inflammation and relieve the pain thought I’m not so sure how I feel about that.  I’m not partial to shots.

It’s nice to feel ‘fixable’ and even better that this really had nothing to do with my burned leg injury.

“We see injuries all the time,” Dr. F. noted when she did her exam.  “Nothing really surprises us any more.”

I should have known.