Archive for Wednesday, July 26, 2000

Savoring everyday blessings

July 26, 2000

A fresh breeze has touched my son's life.

Two weeks ago today, my son, Harold, who is 13, entered the hospital for surgery that would straighten his spine.

Harold is one of approximately 2 percent of Americans who suffer from scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. No one knows why idiopathic scoliosis occurs, although it does seem to run in families. By a ratio of about 9 to 1, more girls than boys have scoliosis.

Harold's scoliosis was found during a routine physical when he was 4 years old. From age 5 through 12 he wore a custom-made plastic brace that helped hold his spine straight.

Even though there were hopes that this might help, we were aware that surgery was perhaps inevitable. Without the surgery, an increasing curvature of the spine might have cut off the air supply to his lungs.

Children typically do well with this surgery, which uses a variation of the "Harrington Rods," developed by Paul Harrington in the 1960s to help patients whose spines had been damaged by polio.

In this procedure, two narrow metal rods are attached to the spine, straightening it. Barring complications, the rods remain in place throughout that person's life.

But as with most medical procedures, there is a risk.

We were told the immediate risks could be death or paralysis which made it a little bit harder to say, "See you later," as we left Harold in the pre-surgical suite.

But Harold, as always, had handled the situation in his typical never-mince-words fashion.

Trying to look at the bright side as we had walked toward the hospital a little earlier, I had noted that he would have a lot of souvenirs from the hospital after his surgery.

"Yeah," he grunted, as he opened the hospital door, "A metal rod down my spine."

But in the pre-op suite, after being given medication to help him relax, Harold could barely keep his eyelids open as a nurse anesthetist fitted him for an oxygen mask. But even so, he mustered the energy to ask: "What are you going to do with that thing after you're finished with it?"

The nurse grinned, "Why? Do you want to keep it?"

And so, we returned home with many souvenirs, including two metal rods that will always show up on Harold's chest X-rays and of course an oxygen mask.

As I sat in the surgical waiting room during the seven-hour surgery, hospital patients passed through the corridor, evidence of their health challenges clearly visible. I realized then that waking in the morning is not a simple thing for everybody. For some, the first thought might be: How do I get out of bed, or how will I manage to fend for myself today?

At the time, not knowing how Harold's surgery would come out, I guardedly tried not to think about that too much.

What a relief it was when Dr. Marc Asher told us late that afternoon that the surgery had been a success and that Harold could wiggle his toes.

Harold, for his part, overlooked the toe part and went straight to the point.

"This sucks," he said.

The first week it was hard to get past the pain. Never having experienced pain like that, I tried to imagine what he must have been feeling. Childbirth was all I could think of those last minutes before the baby is born. A few minutes I could take but weeks of that intensity of pain? Forget it I'd be grumpy, too.

And so his lamentations continued as we took turns staying by his side in the hospital room, patiently trying to help.

A week later, Harold was discharged from the hospital. Our first stop on the way home? McDonald's, of course. It had been a long dry spell without fast food, but even so he only managed to eat a few bites of his meal.

The next day, after a fairly good night's sleep, Harold wanted to run errands with me. We stopped at The Mirror office where Harold proudly walked inside, standing straighter than he's stood in years. Then a stop at Dad's office where Harold measured his height and found out the surgery had made him a full two inches taller. And finally, a stop at the home of a friend who underwent the same type of surgery years ago.

During our outing, as the summer sun heated the car, I turned on the air conditioner. But Harold turned it off and rolled his window down, saying: "Mom, you don't know how good it feels after being in the hospital just to feel the wind on your face."

As my son continues to recuperate and return to the active life he has always led, I want to think that all of us have somehow been enriched by this experience.

I think in his mind he'll never see the world in quite the same way again. Little things will be bigger things for him. As he goes through life, I would hope that he would always remember to appreciate so much that we take for granted: being around people who love you even when you're grumpy, life-saving surgeries, physicians like Dr. Asher who dedicate their professional lives to helping others, and even the most simple, activities such as sitting, standing and walking.

We could all take a lesson from Harold, whose life has been refreshed by this second chance: Wherever you are, whatever you do, once in a while, think of this young man, who by no means is a hero, but who has conquered challenges that most of us live a lifetime and never experience. And when you think of him and of others who face life's major trials, you might take a moment or two to appreciate the blessings in your own life.

Or, at the very least, take time to feel the wind on your face.

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