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.

 

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Tattoos – Those Chosen and Those Not

 

tattoo work by Keith Killingsworth

tattoo work by Keith Killingsworth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tattoos have always been a source of curiosity and conflict for me.  Not so much the little cross or anchor simply and strategically placed covertly on an ankle or elsewhere; more so the multi-colored tattoos covering major body surface areas.  Why would anyone consciously and mostly irrevocably deface themselves?  It seems I am naive about the burgeoning tattoo, or shall I say ‘body art’ business, but I stand firm in my confusion about and quasi-revulsion of it.

When I saw the tattooed trucker sitting across from me at the communal hotel breakfast at the Burlington, Wisconsin Hampton Inn this morning, I wondered again about tattoos.  Colorful and large, they dominated his forearms as far as the eye could see, jutting out from his short-sleeved shirt.

He struck up a conversation about this and that and I asked him, “Tell me about your tattoos.”  He seemed not-at-all-off put and happily explained that each of his tattoos signifies a life event such that he is now a living canvas.  “Every time I look at any of these tattoos, I remember a special event from my life.”   He explained that his tattoos were not born of rebellion but of careful thought and planning.  He also chose piercings in the same way, and I saw the studs on his ears and eye brows.  I did not ask to see the ones he said were on his nipples because I believed him when he said that they were there.

“Couldn’t you just keep a scrap-book of life events,” I asked.  He laughed.  “I prefer to be the living scrap-book of my events,” he said cheerily.

When he got the first of his tattoos he was in the Army.  Regulations required that he wear long sleeves or face penalties.  When the tattoo was in fact discovered, the Army docked him two pay grades among other disciplinary measures.  “They were that important to me,” he said.

“Are you thinking of getting a tattoo?” he asked.

“No, not really.  I have something like a tattoo.”  I paused.  “I had a serious burn when I was young and when I look at it, I think about how I didn’t want it.”  We got up to refresh coffee and I pointed out my leg injury.  He assessed it with a slow and careful gaze.  “I worked in the hospital unit in the army.  I can understand what you went through.”

He told me there were any number of reasons the people he knew got tattoos, from rebellion to personal statements, from feeling special to receiving attention.

“You know what’s funny?” I asked.  “When you have an injury not of your own making, people avert their eyes when they realize you see them staring at you.  I guess when you custom-create your own spectacle and you see people staring at you, you feel special.”

“Do you know what the current tat trend is now?” he asked.

I had no idea.

“They call it branding.  They take a fire-hot poker and create customized burn scars.”

I must have looked absolutely horrified at the thought, because it did horrify me.  Who in their right mind would purposely scar themselves?  Would they have any idea how painful the burned area would be?  Would it matter?

“It’s all along the same lines as a tattoo,” he continued.  “People like it because it might have a personal significance and because they create the scar themselves.”

He looked at my burned leg.

“I know,” he said.  “I don’t really get it either.”

 

Finding Maggie and So Much More

Maggie Ready for Work

When I called Dian Page at the Green Bay Press Gazette a couple of weeks ago, my hope was to connect the memories in my mind.  For so many years, I have had pictures of my little self at the time of my burn accident but I’ve never been sure if these are real or “created” memories.  It can be-devil anyone to wonder about these things — did this really happen to me or have I made it up?  In my case, I need only look at the scars on my leg to know it did indeed happen.  But how and why do I remember (or think I remember) certain pieces of the experience.

That was my motivation for searching for Maggie, the Nurse.  I had no idea what I would find.  I was ready for anything.

Except perhaps for the fact that I found Maggie and a great deal more.

I didn’t set out to find someone’s Nana, someone’s mother, someone’s son, someone’s sister, someone’s friend.  And yet all these people found me and there was a quite a story to tell.

Maggie Glaser Conard was a pediatrics nurse at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay for some 30 years until her retirement in 1987.  She did not recover from the massive stroke she suffered in 1988 and died at just 60.  “I just wanted to let tell you that your vivid description of her (Maggie) brought her back to life for me.  She was exactly as you described in everyday life; not just in work.  She was crazy about her grandchildren and she made each and every one of us feel the way you felt.  I thank you for this.  You have made my night, my week, my year,” Maggie’s granddaughter Jessi Guenther wrote me from Seattle, Washington.  Something amazing was happening.

Maggie Conard Memory CardIt continued when I spoke to Maggie’s sister, Shirley Warpinski, a retired nurse who still lives in Green Bay.  “Maggie had a gift.  Everybody loved her.  She was happy-go-lucky and always optimistic.  She was just the sweetest person,” Shirley said, telling me that Maggie was valedictorian of her high school in Luxemburg.  “Whenever she had free time at the hospital, she would go playroom and be with the children.  And oh, did she love to read.  She read to the children all time.”

There is was.  During my three-month hospitalization, I learned to read and at 3 years old, became something of a freaky genius for that day and age.  It came back to me now that Maggie had been the one by my bedside, reading to me, teaching me the letters, encouraging me on during those long days when I was confined to a crib, secured with netting so I couldn’t get out and harm my recovery.  Whether it was 15 surgeries or 20, I knew my treatment was painful and grueling.

“Yes, I remember those nets.  We had to cover the cribs for safety reasons,” shared retired Green Bay nurse Carol Mangin, who worked with Maggie for a “long, long time” at St. Vincent’s.  We talked about my third-degree burns.  “Burns are so painful.  You were lucky yours were third-degree because the nerve endings died and it would not have been as painful as first- or second-degree burns.”

“My mother cared for people for the better part of her working life,” her son Ted Conard told me.  “Caring was in our gene pool I guess since I went into that field and others in our family did too.”  After 35 years of working at Green Bay’s Curative Workshop, Ted recently retired and still lives in Green Bay.  After my discharge from St. Vincent’s, I attended therapy at the Curative Workshop for many long months, regaining flexibility in both my legs after months of inactivity and re-learning how to walk.  “You probably worked with Gloria, a therapist there,” Ted said.  “She was there forever.”

Suddenly, my memories were expanding, connecting.  They were real.

“My mom Maggie had crazy love for children.  She would come home and talk about her patients especially the ones she became close to and I’m sure she talked about you.  She would have grown really attached and her heart would have been breaking for what you were going through,” Maggie’s daughter Julie said.  “She would have thought of you like you were one of her children.”

“Maggie would be so pleased to know that you are pursuing this,” retired Green Bay nurse Mary Thomas explained when I spoke with her.  “As nurses, you touch people’s lives and then they go their own ways.  To know that you remembered, that she touched you and it meant something to you, well, that means something to all of us.”

My sister Susie, a nurse herself and professor of nursing at UWGB elaborated on that thought.  “Nurses do so many things but the human caring is what makes the difference.  This nurse cared for you, she transformed a difficult experience for a child.  In her caring for you, you were no longer alone in that room.”

Once again, what I set out to find wasn’t at all what was there.  Instead I found something deeper and richer.  Yes, I found Maggie and the memories the beautiful memories she gave me.  But now I understand the life she brought to so many people — her patients, her colleagues and friends, and her family.

Her granddaughter Jessi told me about her brother’s reaction to this unfolding story and she included it on her blog as well:

“The first thing that came to mind…is how loved ones have a way of letting us know that they’re still there, they never left to begin with.  What an awesome gift”  ~Nathan Kofler

There’s also a comment from “Carrie” following Jessi’s blog post that makes a great deal of sense to me:

“…..We have named those, God-incidences because its too perfect just to be a coincidence…..” Carrie

These “God-incidences”/coincidences have brought me this far and at every turn of this journey I’ve found something immensely beautiful.  For anyone who has gone through a fire of any kind, be it physical or psychological, we know we would never want to go through it again.  And still there are great lessons and great love to be found.  “It meant the world to me and my family to know that Maggie was loved by so many people,” her daughter Julie told me.  “What a legacy she has left.”

A legacy indeed.

Thank you Maggie Conard.  You have left behind an incredible legacy of healing and helping for so many of us.  I am grateful to be a part of it.

What are the Chances?

In my main ‘day job’ I work with lawyers, lots and lots of lawyers.  Today as I was yukking it up with Craig-The-Lawyer, he mentioned a key meeting tomorrow and asked me to ‘light a candle’.  Without skipping a beat, I quickly retorted, “Well, I’ll do my best but I have a little problem with fire.”

“What is that,” he asked innocently?

Muttering an internal “dang it” for blathering on so quickly with that comment, I pulled out some of my stock burned-leg phraseology, “Oh, when I was a kid I climbed up a stove and burned the crap out of my leg.”

“Did you?” he said and again I added too much more content.

“I did.  I was trying to get a cookie or a cracker from the cabinet above the stove and well, it didn’t go so well.  My shoe got stuck on the burner and it wasn’t pretty.”

“You’re kidding?” he half-queried.  I realized I might now be stuck in one of those lawyer-socratic-phrase interchanges where I would soon head down the proverbial “slippery slope” of this repartee.  I’d offered too much.  I was conversational toast.

“You know, the same thing happened to me,” he said.

“You’re kidding!” I countered, bemused and intrigued at the same time.”

“Yeah, I must have been four or five and I wanted to get some of the cookies we kept in the cabinet above the stove.  But keep in mind that I was kind of short fellow then so I took the phone book with me, climbed up the stove and put the book over the burner.  Wouldn’t you know it but I accidentally turned the burner on high.  I got the cookie, but the book got torched and I’ll tell you, the whole thing scarred me for life.”

“It was a gas stove, wasn’t it?” I interrupted, now taking over the role of questioner.

“Matter of fact, it wasn’t.  It was an electric stove.  My wife was talking about getting a gas stove the other day and I told her that based on my experience with the electric stove, we could not get a gas one.  That would be certain death for me,” he laughed.

“Wait.  Are you telling me you had the exact same experience I did but you didn’t get burned?”  I couldn’t believe anyone would have a similar story, an almost verbatim same experience.

“What I’m telling you is that I seem to be a whole lot smarter than you,” he teased.  “I brought along that phone book and it worked a whole lot better than your strategy did.”

And so it was true.  My mind raced.  How many families kept cookies in the cabinet above their electric stove?  How many little kids had exactly the same precocious crazy idea as Craig-The-Lawyer and I did?  How many more people did I know who would share some sort of similar death-defying childhood feat?

In my earlier blog post, Cabinets Above Stoves (https://annegallagher8.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/cabinets-above-stoves/), I wrote about my strange sensitivity for placing goodies above the cooker.  It doesn’t seem so strange anymore.  In fact, I can attest to countless conversations with my relatives and childhood friends who, as adults, will tell me, “You know, I have to tell you.  I’ve told my kids about your accident and it’s how we talk about being careful in the kitchen.”  At first, it used to take me aback to hear these things, as if burning-my-leg-by-climbing-up-a-stove was my lasting legacy.  Over time however I found it almost reassuring — that if I was to be the poster child for stove-related accident prevention, I could live with being a something of an off-beat hero.

By the way, the wry title of this post “What are the Chances?” is obviously a rhetorical question.  Years ago, I might have thought that running into people like Craig-the-Lawyer who have similar stories to share was an anomaly.  Now, I know that it is just the path I’m on these days.  Lots of serendipity.  No coincidences.

Chance Encounters

May is a uniquely busy month for parents with school-age children.  As the school year ends, there are celebrations galore – from the athletic banquet to the spring concert, the father-daughter dance, the girl scout bridging ceremony and the end of the basketball travel team league.  At a certain point, any sane adult simply starts going through the motions.  My mental state was precisely there as I joined the line cascading around the corner for entry to the Spring Show, the annual song-fest where each of eight grades and kindergarten sings a couple of numbers.

Directly behind me in line stood R and her daughter M, the teenage girl burned in a home accident just weeks before.  Thick white burn tape provided a necklace around her neck and her arm was tightly bandaged in the same special tape.  Before I knew it, I had re-introduced myself to R and told them I too was burned as a child.  As I said it, I like itching myself.  It seemed to come from my stomach, which turned itself slightly at the thought.  As we talked, M shared, “I itch all the time.  It’s constant.”  I remembered the feeling well.  Insatiable itching that seemed to crawl inside with no good way to relieve it.  M also said that her burns were second degree, which immediately relieved me and I told her how well she would heal.  It’s the 3rd degree burns that leave the nasty scars — 2nd degree can heal with nary a reminder.

When they asked what happened to me, I told them about my burn accident, then gently rolled up my pant leg to show them a little of the scars.  “Yours seems so much worse than mine,” M said and I immediately felt bad that she focused on my injury when hers was so recent and raw, itching as it healed.  Her mother R looked and me, her eyes brimming with wet and said, “See M, look at Anne.  She’s successful and pretty.  We can make it through this.  It didn’t stop her.”

Like me, M didn’t like it when people stared at her.  We talked about “to tell” or not to tell strategies, to make eye contact or not to.  M seemed remarkably mature for a teenager.  She had a presence.

“M, it may not feel like it right now, but your burns are a gift.  Look how they help you teach other people.”  I believed it as I said it.  It would not have been the gift I’d chosen for myself, but I always felt right with it.

The line began to disperse as we entered the school gym for the Spring Show.  R hugged me tightly whispering, “thank you” as they wandered off to their places.

As the 4th graders began “Getting to Know You,” from the Lion King, I wondered:  How much more difficult are these burns for a parent? R was there when M’s leaned over the gas stove and her scarf caught fire.  She choked up as she told me about it.  They are replacing the stove with a smooth-topped electric model.  I understand.

Please. A Pleaser?

It wasn’t until I talked to my Aunt Mary that I fully understood how I’d become a pleaser, and I wasn’t really pleased about it.  Not that having a pleasing behavior is always a bad thing; it’s just that I’d never pieced together this aspect of myself in quite this way until I spoke with Aunt Mary.  Aunt Mary is my mom‘s only sister and since my mother’s death, seemed a ripe source of information about my accident.  Yet, the conversation was uncomfortable.  As we talked, it seemed to me that Aunt Mary was going out of her way to not blame my mother, since the accident did indeed occur on her watch.  As my mom ironed in the basement and my sister Susie played nearby, I snuck up to the kitchen to get some crackers, secreted away above the stove.  “Aunt Mary, the accident was my fault,” I told her.  “I knew what I was doing and remember doing it.  I have no one to blame but myself.”  Aunt Mary seemed taken aback and heartily disagreed.  “Annie,” she said with exasperation, “It was not your fault.  You were two years old.  How could it ever have been your fault.”  Her words hung in the air.   I thought about them for a long time. 

For the first time in my life, my perspective changed.  For the better part of my life, I felt guilty about the accident, believing that I had caused my own fate and was forever doomed to be responsible for it, which I must add, I always have been.  I rarely felt sorry for myself, fully rehabilitated myself and developed a persona of never letting other people down.  In my young mind, I reasoned that because no one talked about the accident, particularly my family, they knew what I had done and how stupid it had been.  I pledged to myself never to let my family down again…..and became a pleaser.  Straight A’s.  Editor of the school newspaper.  Athlete.  Generally good person.

Aunt Mary’s words had such power and made so much sense.  When I thought of my own children as two-year-olds, I’d marvel how the train was in motion, but the conductor was rarely home, which is to say, they didn’t know enough to be responsible for much.  Yet I didn’t give my small self the benefit of that doubt.  In fact, I’d never thought of it any other way than that it had been my fault.  In my mind’s eye, whether I’d created the memory from strands of conversation or whether I actually remembered it, I saw myself going up those basement stairs and heading for the stove.

The power of not talking about it meant that I had to give myself an answer however far-fetched it might be when I examined it as an adult.

How might my answer have changed if the event would have been processed this way as a child?  How might my behavior have changed?  These days my pleaser tendencies are not so noticeable and I like to think of myself squarely as a “B+”, hardly a type A anymore.  Age mellows me.  Exploration like this frees me.

Ash Wednesday Penance

Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian o...

Image via Wikipedia

Arriving back to the office after receiving my ashes at 8:15 a.m. mass at my children’s school, the dark oily cross on my forehead reminded my colleague G that she too needed to get her Ash Wednesday ashes as the Lenten season started.  “How was mass?” she asked as we began our workday.  “Fine.  It’s always good to go to the all-school mass when my kids have their all-school mass,” I said, then lamented, “Well, except that I didn’t get my regular pew this morning.”  “You mean, you sit in a particular pew at church?” G inquired.

I laughed.  Of course I did.  But once again, what seemed intuitive to me for so many years was a revelation to someone else.  “Oh, you have to blog about this one,” G said when I explained my usual practice.

The truth is that I don’t like to kneel.  More pointedly, it hurts to kneel after a certain amount of time.  It’s something about the skin on my burned knee, which may be too thin, too physically addled or just too banged up from all the surgeries.  It’s another area where I need to make do and in the case of going to church, it means avoiding the pews with  in the front of the seating bench .  I’ve been doing this so long it doesn’t seem novel  anymore, just routine coping.  To get along, go along.

At St. Josaphat, the church is dark and cavernous, never falling prey to the 1970s “modern” church movement that carpeted so many structures and took away their original details.  Here, the original, beautiful tile floors are intact, as are the original wooden pews with pull-down kneelers in the front of the seating bench in almost all the rows.  As you enter, the church has a wide vertical wide aisle all the way to the altar.  Mid-way through the church another wide aisle cuts horizontally across.  It is here at this intersection that there is a row of pews with no kneelers.  When I go to church, that row becomes my usual spot.  No kneeler, no problem, no attention drawn to me because the people sitting in these rows cannot kneel.

On Ash Wednesday, the all-school mass meant there were 200 some children taking up the first rows of the church; adults found there spots in the back.  With a kneeler to contend with and people on either side of me, I simply did the modified kneel at the appropriate times in the mass — kneeling with the left knee while half-sitting on the edge of the pew so my right knee did not have to bear the weight.

My colleague G found this church practice of mine somewhere between amusing and awkward and odd.  “I wonder how many things you do like that,” she said, “Where you just adapt and don’t think about it anymore.”

I didn’t know the answer.  It’s something I think about now as I try to compile all the pieces of my story.