“Scars on Top of Scars”

I remember the moment it happened.  My body was turning and I felt a snap in my upper leg.  Time stopped for a moment as I twisted to the ground.  As I pulled myself up from the floor, the pain was alternatively in my hip, lower back and groin.  Ouch.  A whistle blew and the drill was over.  As a basketball coach for middle-school girls, the effort of playing in their rotation was obviously a bit too much.  The old body was not meant to go man-on-man with sixth grade girls in free court play.

Injuries of the older body are a great deal different from when you are actively playing sports as a youth.  The body reacts differently.  However it might be characterized, I feared I had become a delicate flower and I was not liking it

The diagnosis was a groin tear on the right side and I was advised to cease all physical activity for at least six months.  Silly, I thought and I resisted.  But six months later, the pain was still there.  Again, I was told to halt most physical activity and let the injury heal.

It was a full year before I began regular physical therapy.  And then I heard the words, T-R-A-C-T-I-O-N, which in many ways is strangely akin to the Medieval torture rack.  Lay face down and the machine slowly pulls the body apart.  But even that was not enough.  “I’m referring you to a non-surgical pain specialist,” Dr. Jen said.  “You see, you have scar tissue on top of your scar tissue and I think an evaluation would help.”

“Scar tissue on top of scar tissue” – the phrase echoed in my head.

Noooooooooooooo.

That right side thing again.    I scarred the scars.  It was a dreadful thought.  Already I was envisioning the first visit to the so-called “non-surgical pain specialist” to explain the current injury on top of the old injury.  If history is my guide, the specialists usually got unnecessarily caught up in the first injury (burn) at the expense of any current injury.  “So, how did this happen?  How many surgeries were involved?  How many graft sites?  Do you have heat or cold insensitivity now?”  At first, it’s fun to be a novelty but that quickly devolves into being an ongoing curiosity, which is not so much fun.

In any event, the visit with the pain specialist is next week.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Making Sense of Stories

Paperback book cover illustration, I Know Why ...

Image via Wikipedia

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou. http://www.mayaangelou.com 

If you’ve ever read any of Maya Angelou’s books, you gain an incredible perspective into the courage of telling a life story.  “A bird doesn’t tell a story because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song,” she wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of her autobiographical series.  Her books captivate with their beautiful prose and at the same time made me squirm with the honesty in which she recounts her life, particularly her days as a prostitute.  I’ve heard her speak live and it’s amazing — she brings her books to life with her spoken voice.

I thought of her courage this week as I heard two burn stories.  My friend Renee’s aunt, on an oxygen machine, lit a cigarette and suffered second degree burns over her face.  Within days, I heard the story of a teenager from the kid’s school, who bent over a stove and her scarf caught fire torching her chest and neck.  Both are in the hospital.

It’s hard not to think of their searing pain.  It’s harder not to think about how they and their families handle both the emotions and the re-telling of the stories.  I know from my own experiences that until I can put the emotional framework in place, I can’t tell a story.  It always takes time for the “shock factor” to process and events to become clear before a story unfolds.  I wonder if it was the same for Maya Angelou — that the time that passed before she told her stories gave her the perspective to truly see the context of the events.

Maybe this is just the way we tell stories.  Even this week we saw a glimpse of it with the Osama bin Laden storyline.  Quickly we learn the news – bin Laden is dead.  Then, the next day we receive a new update, a revision as the true facts become clearer – yes dead, but he had no human shield as previously reported.  Then, each of the next days of the week, we find out a little bit more – he has been hiding in plain sight, there are the makings of another terror plot, this time using the US rail road system.

Life comes at us in pieces and parcels.  It’s our job to make sense of it all.  It’s a big job.  Story telling might just bring it all together.

Be Careful What You Wish For

What's your wish?

It is frustrating to be on a search mission for old medical records.  I’ve doggedly looked for various records from several doctors in a variety of nooks and crannies.  But when a nondescript manilla envelope with a return address of “Green Bay Plastic Surgical Associates” arrived in my Chicago mailbox I was too terrified to open it.  It sat there on my desk, seeming to taunt me with its nonchalant ability to so easily ruffle my feathers. 

 But a day of reckoning had to arrive and I gingerly opened the package, pulling out 25 or so pages of photocopied medical records from my plastic surgeon for 20 years, Dr. Harold Hoops. If memory served me correctly, I went to Dr. Hoops after my original surgeon Dr. Thomas E. Lynn died several years after my accident.  While I still have not been able to find Dr. Lynn’s original records, I quickly discovered that I had in my hands Dr. Hoops intake records and nearly 20 years of notes on my case.

There in his chicken-scratch of a doctor’s scribble were his notes on the history of my case: 

Medical Records : Chicken-scratch of doctor's scribble

Post-traumatic burn scars of the right leg and buttock; burned at home, age 2, at home stepped on lighted burner, stove, pant leg caught fire; initial care by Drs. Lynn and von Heimburg; St. Vincent Hospital, 3 months.

With just these few couple notes, I had confirmation of the stories I’d heard my whole life.  I kept flipping through the pages and then I saw it — four photos of my own leg, front and back, taken at Dr. Hoops’ office when I was nine years old.  It was hard to believe but I’d never seen a photo of my own leg like this.  I gasped in shock at the sight of it.  Then, turned the page and put the packet back in the manilla envelope.  I needed more time before I would be ready to look again.

What’s Your Fire?

The other night a friend, Kay, who has been reading this blog told me her own story. At 4, she was involved in an accident that left her back and neck burned with collateral damage to her ear. It had all the clear markings of a very bad burn. Yet she didn’t know the details of the accident. When she asks her dad, “What happened?”, she is referred to her mother. When she asks her mother, the story she’s told doesn’t add up. So she’s left in a quandary of sorts but has found a way to make peace with it. Being of the spiritual mindset, Kay believes everything happens for a reason and the resolution we DON’T find in this life carries with us to the next — call it karma, call it reincarnation, call it the law of cause-and-effect — we choose to let history repeat itself until we address it. That’s great motivation to explore the fires that rage within us and can counter the nagging downside risk, “What’s the worst thing I can find out?” What’s your fire?

Medical Records – Poof! They Are Gone

looking for  medical records

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“I just want to warn you not to be hopeful,” Terry in the Business Office of a medical practice said when I asked her about finding my medical records from the 1960s. That said, she said they would manually look through the ‘old books’ of records from the 1980s backwards to see if they could find mine. I saw Dr. Sullivan from the time I was a kid through college in the 1980s and despite the warning, am hopeful my medical records from the critical 1965-66 years still exist especially since I’ve hit so many dead ends. My original plastics surgeons are dead; their records destroyed. The hospital only had my records from the 1980s (and ironically, the woman assisting me in the medical records department was named “Bernie”). Dr. Hoops became my plastic surgeon in 1967, well after the original accident (and I do have all his records of me now). But my curiosity rests in the original records. Cross your fingers. Dousman Clinic may still come through.

Time-and-Space Leg-Look-Lag, or How About Some Denial?

Well, I finally did it. I actually opened and read the medical records I’d ordered about 18 months ago. I know this sounds strange. When they arrived in separate, non-descript manilla envelopes last March 2009, I quickly ripped opened one packet. Doing a quick flip through, I saw the unthinkable: My leg. I was 7 years old and the plastic surgeon took a full leg picture from various angles. While it was thankfully taken in black and white, the sight was such a shock to me that I put the package back in its envelope. Unbelieveable as it was, I had never seen a photo of my own leg. Truth be told, it looked awful and made me feel that way too. Good god that must have hurt, I thought realizing at the same time that I was starting to detach me from myself. That’s a long way of saying, I wanted to forget about the picture for a while. And so I did. It’s one of the many ways that this “project” of mine continues to surprise even me. More on what was in the two packages later.

Another Strike-Out

When I emerged from my initial burn hospitalization after 3 months and countless surgeries, I headed to a place called the Curative Workshop (www.newcurative.org) for rehabilitation. I remember putting on a bathing suit and going into a round metal tub filled with warm water (maybe this was precurser to the modern-day hot tub but a whole lot less fun and definitely without the jets). Today I called the Curative Workshop and records from the 60s are long since destroyed. John, the medical records historian, has only been working there for 17 years which unfortunately didn’t help me. He also didn’t remember a worker there named Audrey. Another person I remember as the woman who helped me in that metal tub so many times over so many months. So, another strike-out today on the information front.