The other night I was thinking about my back surgery. Don’t ask me why it popped into my head (these things happen) – I don’t know the answer. And I was actually thinking not about the surgery, or recovery, or pain, or what-have-you, but the questions I asked the doctor in my last pre-surgery appointment. Random, right?
What came to mind was the memory of how surprised the doctor appeared to be that I was the one asking the questions, and that I was being an adult about it. My mom was there with me, but I was the one who’d written up the questions in my ruled school notebook. I asked how long my recovery would take, and when I could go back to classes. I asked if I’d be able to swim again (at that point I was right on the cusp of Junior National times). I asked if I would set off metal detectors. I asked about the risk of paralysis. I asked if I’d have pregnancy complications in the future as a result surgery. Wait, WHAT?
I wasn’t yet sixteen during those appointments, but I knew that I needed information. I needed to know not only how much it was going to hurt and possibly mess up my high school experience, but also how much it was going to affect my entire life. Whenever I look back at the questions I asked, how calm I was, and how much research I’d done, it brightens my day. Teens are smart. They can be careful, thoughtful, amazing human beings who weigh risks and imagine the future. And I know because I remember being one.
But you’ve probably been wondering up to this point ‘What the heck is she talking about?’ Surgery happened because I developed a severe case of scoliosis by age fifteen. I was homeschooled during the years when you’d be tested for it in school, and by the time I hit my freshman year of high school, the hump of one shoulder was noticeable, but not horrible. Still, when I went in for the mandatory physical exam for swimming, they measured it and muttered and asked if I was in pain. I wasn’t, so I didn’t think much of it. I cut my hair boy short that year, dropped a lot of time in my best events, and spent my days with friends, playing cards by the pool.
The next year when I went in for the physical the doctor looked grave and told me I’d have to have surgery immediately. I listened in shock as she told me the scoliosis had gotten 14 degrees worse since last year’s exam, and that it was progressing at a rate so fast that it would impact my internal organs before I turned thirty. I started bawling. I couldn’t stop. I was fifteen, I had just qualified for senior regional times, I was going to be the best swimmer on the high school team that year. I was my class treasurer!
I was crying so hard that my mom ended the appointment and hustled me out of the office. She sat hugging me in the car for a solid half hour before she tried to talk it through. I think we were both stunned, because I remember her telling me over and over that there was no way I’d have to have surgery immediately, that we’d get a second opinion, that we’d do research, maybe I could wear a brace, but that it wasn’t happening today, right now. We’d find another doctor. Eventually I calmed down, but my only clear memory from that moment is “But it doesn’t hurt!”
We did get a second opinion, from one of the best orthopedic surgeons on the West Coast. And it was that man who told me that the sooner I had the surgery, the more correction they’d get. I didn’t have to have it immediately, but I shouldn’t wait long. And that’s how I ended up in his office that day, a week before my sixteenth birthday, asking him questions about not only my immediate future, but possible lifelong complications. My mom told me afterwards that she was proud of me for being so mature, for doing the research.
Looking back on it, I’m proud too. For myself, and for all teens dealing with things that aren’t fair. It’s a big reason I read Young Adult novels. Kids handle life-changing circumstances every day with dignity, wisdom and grace. And when someone writes a book about a teen facing these things, I remember my own story of something that wasn’t fun or wonderful or perfect, but was real. It reminds me that I am stronger than I suspect. Thank goodness, yeah?