This is a special blog I am posting for my potential Kickstarter supporters. To help people who are interested in funding the production and marketing of my autobiography, Seeing Light in the Darkness: A Story of Surviving Affliction with Laughter and Grace, I thought it would be helpful for them to have the ability to view a sample chapter of my memoir.
What exists is currently only a limited run, working copy edition. My Kickstarter project is live and will run for a limited time. Those who wish to know more about it, and are interested in helping me spread my message through investing in this project, can go to http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/amazingjeffo/seeing-light-in-the-darkness-a-memoir-of-humor-and?ref=live.
Chapter 5 – Body Traction or “What’s a Nice Kid like You Doing with a Joint like This?”
After 30 days in St. Mary’s, I was more than ready for a change of scenery, but St. Joseph’s Hospital wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. My arthritis erupted, causing my knee to swell to the size of a cantaloupe. The pain and constriction in my knee made it almost impossible to walk. A year earlier, I had been referred to Dr. Frank Babb, a stern-looking Englishman with round, wire-rimmed glasses and an innovator in the field of orthopedic surgery. He founded St. Anthony Orthopedic Clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Arriving back home, we made an appointment to see Dr. Babb. He had already casted me two or three times over the course of the last year (unfortunately not for a Hollywood movie, but for my repeatedly constricting knee). Each of these times, I’d be anesthetized, and my knee would be forcibly straightened, then put in a cast. I’d awake from my comfortable drug-induced slumber, and as the anesthesia wore off, my knee would throb. Eventually the pain would subside as my knee adjusted to being straight. I’d be in a cast for about a month, but each time the cast was removed, my knee would return to its former position: a 45-degree flexion.
Between these castings, physical therapy was prescribed which consisted of my dad dropping me off at St. Joseph’s Hospital three times a week for sessions lasting three hours in the morning throughout third grade. The physical therapist and my parents thought spending mornings in PT and the balance of the day at school sounded like a sensible plan - —but no one had asked me.
As we arrived at school following my first session of therapy, my mom said, “I packed a bag lunch in case you missed the hot lunch.”
I didn’t mind so much the novelty of having a bag lunch at school; since, after all, this had been the daily fare I had enjoyed in front of the TV with my old buddy Casey Jones in earlier times. Though what I hadn’t anticipated was eating alone in the lunch room. The unintentional segregation from my fellow students left me with an overwhelming sense of isolation. I broke down in tears. “What’s the matter Jeffrey? Is your arthritis hurting?” enquired a sympathetic lunch lady.
“Yes,” I sobbed, too embarrassed and confused with emotion to explain my feelings.
“Let me get your teacher.”
Shortly thereafter my teacher appeared with a classmate pulling alongside him her desk chair.
“We don’t have a wheelchair, but Jimmy can roll you around on my desk chair,” Mrs. P. explained.
As we entered the classroom I was overcome by myriad comments:
“I get to push him next!”
“No fair! I knew Jeff first,” rang out the voices.
No breaking of bread, nor the most crowded of lunchrooms, could ever have done as much to give me a sense of belonging and rally my spirit. I felt even more special when a few kids commented, “It must be nice going to school only in the afternoon, huh, Jeff?”
Friendship certainly wasn’t a component of my physical therapy. Over the years, the treatment of RA has greatly improved. But in the early 60’s, they actually used brute strength to straighten arthritic joints. M-m-m…That felt good…Not!! I saw my physical therapist as the embodiment of pure evil, undoubtedly because I needed a channel for my anger and frustration. After soaking me in a very hot therapeutic tub to loosen muscles and ligaments, which also weakened me to a point where I’d be begging them to take me out of it before the 25-minute timer was up, my therapist would strap me face down on a table and hook heavy weight bags on the back of my heel for about a half hour. The procedure had minimal effect, not only because of the relentlessness of RA, but also because of my efforts to relieve the painful stretching by lifting my rear end against the belt holding me down, which countered its therapeutic intent.
Months after completing my physical therapy, my family was out for dinner at a club that was sponsoring a bingo night; I suddenly realized the bingo caller was my evil therapist. I pointed her out to my mom as I gasped, “Mom! Look! It’s that devil lady!” “Jeffrey!” said my mom, “That’s very rude. That’s Helen. She’s a very nice lady.”
“She’s evil!” I insisted.
My mom assumed a pleasant countenance while painfully squeezing my arm and said with an exaggerated smile, “People are just trying to help you. I don’t want to hear any more of that from you.”
I knew I had no chance of winning bingo as long as my therapist was calling out the numbers. Neither winning at bingo nor succeeding at physical therapy was in the cards.
My physical therapy was discontinued once Dr. Babb realized its futility. “Jeffrey, I’ve given this problem knee a lot of thought and decided I have no other choice but to put your leg in traction.” Hearing the word “traction” conjured up images of a tractor. They’re going to put me into a tractor? How’s that going to help? I was once again admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital. Spending all that time prostrate, I could have used a concept like “frequent flier” points, but in my case “frequent lie-er” points. My first few days in the hospital were devoted to measurements, x-rays, and blood transfusions, which left me with a lot of idle time.
St. Joseph’s staff was made up of nuns who were also licensed nurses. Although some people erroneously stereotype nuns as stern and stodgy, I found them anything but. Stunts and pranks were the order of the day. Practical joking in the hospital was, for me, a passive-aggressive way to rebel. I overturned the apple cart whenever possible, launched paper airplanes off the sun deck of the hospital’s roof, disappeared during mandatory nap time, (eventually being found hiding in playroom cabinetry), and raced down the hall in my wheelchair. I pretended my small wheelchair was an Italian sports car– slim, aerodynamic, and highly maneuverable. I could lock up one or both of my wheels by slamming down the hand breaks to either make a hair-pin turn or stop on a dime if a nurse gave me “the look”. The main drag of the pediatric wing provided perfect racing conditions: lengthy and on an incline; my fingers were the pistons, my muscles were the cylinders that revved my motor and got me up and going. Any patient I challenged on the pediatric floor was summarily beaten —I retired undefeated. My little hands were strong. Arthritis hadn’t yet affected them with the exception of that initial finger, which my mom first noticed was swollen as I played with my brother Dave three summers earlier.
Racing wheelchairs wasn’t enough to satisfy or occupy my restless nature, so I decided to shoot hospital booties up the in- house mail vacuum tube. My ammo depot was a canvas cart transporting dirty laundry on its way to be washed.
“Hey mister, can I ride in your thing?” I asked the orderly. “Are you kidding? It’s full of dirty clothes!” said the laundry attendant.
I waited until he stopped to collect more laundry, then grabbed some booties conveniently perched on top of the pile, stuffed them in my bathrobe pockets, and went on my way. I only wish I could have seen the expression on the nurse’s face that opened the tube on the next floor. You might ask, “Where were the nurses while you were perpetrating this?” Strangely enough, standing right there with me, finding it all-so amusing (talk about team building). I became such a fixture at the nurses’ station, they allowed me on occasion to answer the incoming intercom requests. I’d respond to the buzz of the intercom with the authoritative voice of a six -year -old, “Can I help you?” Although I’d typically stutter in a situation like this, I didn’t because I was so exhilarated by their confidence in me.
Once I got into a lot of trouble by taking apart my TV set during mandatory nap time. I used a small tool kit purchased during my just completed Mayo/St. Mary’s junket. The mini toolkit was one of the pieces that I considered essential, and I slipped it into the suitcase my mom packed for me. The toolkit had all that a five- year-old handyman could possibly need—screw driver with interchangeable bits, poker, punch, and a wrench. Getting out of bed, I removed the back of the TV, pulled out some tubes and cables along with unscrewing some other “pieces” (I don’t know what they were). A nurse happened to come in and said, “You took the TV apart!”
“I was trying to get a better picture,” I answered.
“You better get this thing back together before nap time is over or else…”
I stuttered “O-Okay.” Not knowing whose wrath would be greater, my parents or the nun, fear fueled my inspiration, and I quickly put the TV back together in complete working order. Back in those days, hospital’s TVs were an a la carte item: two dollars a day (wheeled in on a “carte”). Later, as weeks progressed after surgically hooking me up to body traction, my father, always tight with a dollar, was outraged by what he called a daily “usury” fee and negotiated to buy his own 19-inch Zenith TV for my personal use and had it delivered to my room.
TV’s must have inspired naughtiness in me. I always preferred a private room, probably to command all the attention from adults.
Overcrowding once necessitated getting a little roommate, much to my displeasure. To show my annoyance, I changed my TV viewing habits from children’s shows like Captain Kangaroo and Dave Lee’s Popeye and Pete to news broadcasts and programs like As the World Turns and The Guiding Light.
“You can’t really like soap operas,” asked my roommate’s mom incredulously.
“Oh, sure! I don’t watch kid stuff,” I lied.
Just because I have multiple disabilities doesn’t mean I can’t also sometimes be a jerk.
Except for those times when I’d get in trouble, daytime activities kept my spirits relatively high. But the nights were long. When my parents’ schedule allowed only a daytime visit, at night I paced to the end of the long hallway and back. Each end had a large picture window, one facing the mural identifying by name the New York Tea Company building. The other window framed the majestic Minnesota State Capitol. When the spotlights shone, the golden sculpture of a chariot with a team of galloping horses at the base of the dome magically glowed.
But when an evening visit was in order, I’d sometimes worry too. When dinner was over, I’d lie there wondering, without warrant, whether my mom and dad would come, dreading the thought of being alone. Straining to identify every clip-clop from the hallway, I’d think, That sounds like my dad’s feet, but those don’t sound like my mom’s steps, or vice-versa. Since I was but one of many children in that ward, I went through a roller-coaster of emotions every night until the clip-clops stopped at my doorway.
I didn’t care that frustrated hospital staff once took my call button away after I continually rang it, seeking adult playmates— because it made me eligible for the “no-bell” prize! My charms and offbeat silliness regularly bailed me out of trouble. Combined with my parent’s training in politeness and manners, I was saved from severe discipline, even allowing me to get privileges other children would not receive, such as having tea and crackers with the head nurse of the pediatric ward in her office. One privilege came as a direct result of my courage under fire. Since it often took four people to hold me still enough for an IV insertion, I made the head nurse (the mother superior) promise that if I was a good boy when the IV transfusions were completed, I’d be allowed to have buttered crackers and tea with her in her office. So as it turned out, I had my IV taken out at midnight and then reminded Mother Superior of her agreement. “A promise is a promise,” I said. She acquiesced. After downing many saltines, I said, “I think I would like one more cracker, please.”
“You’ve had enough. It’s now time for bed,” she said smiling. I believe everyone except for me was looking forward to having me encased in body traction for their respective reasons. Dr. Babb wanted to add to his success story portfolio and fulfill his Hippocratic Oath. My parents were hopeful that traction would eventually return their son to a more normal existence. The hospital staff was grateful for the chance to regroup from my ongoing pranks.
The three-month plan was to incrementally turn screws attached to wires elevating my leg and straighten it out over the course of time. I can’t really tell you about the process of being put into full- body traction because I was anesthetized at the time, but I woke up amazed to see this Rube Goldberg contraption around me. It obviously did not come from a kit. In the operating room, doctors assembled a combination of wood, wire, plaster, cotton, and screws. Ta-Da! I was fully casted in plaster up to my chest except for my right leg. This would turn out to be my longest hospital internment—from mid-November 1964 to mid-February 1965.
As with any kid, parents are the center of their universe. Even if few words were spoken, Mom and Dad’s hospital visits were the sparkling pinnacle of my day. Naturally, I wanted their shiny presence to illume my little world for as long as possible. When either my dad or my mom began fidgeting or glancing at their watches I knew time with them was nearing its end. Desperately, I’d begin conjuring up any form of small talk to postpone the inevitable.
“Mom? Could you read me a story before you go? How about The Three Musketeers?”
“The Three Musketeers?! That would take weeks!” I tried a new tactic. “Dad? How’s the dog?”
“He’s just fine,” chuckled my dad. “Mom? Do you wear a girdle?”
“Do you even know what a girdle is, young man?” questioned my mom.
“Um-m, no, not really,” I answered sheepishly. ”“But I heard about ‘em on TV!”
“I think it’s time we tuck you in. Visiting hours are over; we’ll be back tomorrow night,” Mom said reassuringly.
These were emotionally difficult moments amidst the uncertainty surrounding me. Pulling pranks and interacting with staff and were my tools to keep from worry, and to fill the seemingly endless days.
“…With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” 2 Peter 3:8
“Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.” – Bob Newhart