News

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a beautiful event honoring one of my favorite institutions. I want to preface what I write here with a disclaimer that our keynote speaker was incredible, inspiring, and has a story to tell that I think is as important to tell as any of ours. I think the opportunity and the honor of sharing our stories are both critical components in improving our empathy with others and also in improving our own lives–and that is why I go out of my way to write and speak about my own experiences in the mediums I do.

BUT, I walked away from last night and couldn’t stop talking about the speech with my fiance. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would mean in the minds of people who lack the firsthand experience of losing the ability to do something, of being chronically ill, or having medical professionals tell you when something is no longer safe for you.

You see, our speaker is an amputee who lost his leg. His speech centered on having been told by his doctors a laundry list of things he could (or should) no longer do. And then, he climbed Mount Everest. Amazing, right? I mean, honestly, it’s insane. I have absolutely no concept of what it would be like to climb a mountain considering there are days I can barely convince my legs or my spine that we should work together to climb INTO my car or up a few stairs, nonetheless the highest point on Earth.

He said at one point that if you had it in your heart and your mind to do something, that’s all it would take–then you could do it. I looked around the room at that moment. I saw the glean of the beautiful lights in everyone’s eyes. I know most of the people who were in that room and I know they are primarily able-bodied individuals. I could not get out of my mind for even a second this idea that if I WANTED something badly enough, that was all it would take for me to able to do things again that my medical professionals tell me I cannot (or should not) do any longer. I don’t think this speech was meant to imply this. I guarantee if I sat down over coffee with him, we both have the frame of mind and experiences to know the difference.

So, where’s the problem? The problem is in those shiny eyes. The problem lies in the people who have no concept of what it means to be limited by your body–and that there is a big difference between setting your goals based on what your body CAN do and giving up on even having goals because your body doesn’t work the same as others–or like you want it to.

Earlier this week, we had a snow storm. It’s April, so that in itself is ridiculous, but the bigger issue came about when the snow around our apartment hadn’t been removed. This week, I’ve been using my cane and my crutches to get around because I’ve been dislocating my knees and ankles with such frequency it’s necessary for my own safety. So, when it came to be 4pm and the snow from the preceding day still hadn’t been removed, I made contact with the people in charge of our snow removal. I attempted to explain that I wouldn’t be able to safely access my apartment with the snow there. I said “I have a disability and I need to be able to get outside.”

And then, I was told, “There are other disabled people who live here and they’re more understanding than you–and some of them are even in wheelchairs.” I was filled with outrage and disgust for a multitude of reasons:

  1. The experiences of other disabled people do not define what my experiences are. Just because you haven’t heard from others with disabilities does not discount my need.
  2. A wheelchair is not the single indicator of a disability. That wheelchair does not by default make that person the sole indicator of disability access.
  3. People with disabilities are no more meant to be treated as a SINGLE person than any other group–racial, gender, sexual identity or otherwise.

So, when I heard this speech and I saw the reactions, I became more concerned about the experiences I’ve had and continue to have. I cried when we got home thinking that I already have to explain why I’m parked in a handicap parking space and now, when I’m limping into the grocery store with no visible mobility aid from the parking spot they’ve already decided I don’t need, I have the additional pressure of “Well, he doesn’t have a leg and he climbed a MOUNTAIN, so why on earth can’t you get groceries without the handicap space?”

As much as the message that believing in your mind and wanting in your heart enough will make you achieve what you want to achieve is positive and inspirational, it simply isn’t reality for many people with disabilities–and it’s dangerous when an able-bodied person applies that standard. I have wanted to RUN a half marathon for years, but when I got my diagnosis and started working with my therapist and doctors, I knew that goal had to go away. It had to be set aside. It is dangerous and reckless and would potentially harm me for the rest of my days. I CAN set a goal of walking a mile for EDS Awareness next month–and that will feel to the new me just as impressive an accomplishment. Accepting your reality doesn’t make you weak. Sometimes, it makes you smart. Sometimes, it means the difference between having a moderately functional body until you are 55 and wearing your body out before you hit 30.

I can’t take the list of things my doctors tell me not to do and throw it out the window to climb a mountain. It shouldn’t take doing that for others to decide I’ve made the most of my disability situation. I think what he’s done is amazing and should be applauded. I think his accomplishments are more than deserving of recognition. I think he deserves every standing ovation and round of applause he’s received and will receive for the rest of his life.

BUT, if you are chronically ill or disabled and you do what your doctors recommend, you are allowed to celebrate the accomplishments that don’t earn those medals. You are entitled to recognize that for some people with genetic conditions, wishing and wanting and hoping and believing can’t possibly change DNA–and that might mean that maintaining gainful employment and a happy family life FEELS like your Everest. You can find Mount Everest all over the place and you can decide that other goals mean the same thing to you–and you don’t owe it to the able-bodied world to climb anything. You experience in your daily life what most can’t comprehend–and that alone makes you worthy of telling your story–tell it, with or without a mountain.

“I want you to write about this.” He supports me every step of the way…but he’s never going to let me climb a mountain.

I had some glamour shots taken while getting my infusions done–enjoy!

I still remember my first hospital stay after my first surgery. I was 15 and afraid. I woke up from surgery, though, and everything seemed totally fine. All I wanted was Taco Bell. I would have traded anything for Taco Bell. I begged my mother to go get me Taco Bell–and she did, because I was her child, I had just been through a challenging endeavor, and it was a simple request. As far as we both knew I was fine. As soon as she left, my pain levels rose, I began violently throwing up all over my bed and myself, the swelling inside my cast on my leg became too much–and I pushed that call button next to my hospital through terror and tears.

I’ll never forget the nurse who came through the door and moved the curtain around my bed. I was embarrassed. I was “grown up” and I didn’t want to need my mom or help, but I was covered in my own vomit and I couldn’t move at all because it hurt too much. She didn’t even think a thing of it. She didn’t just do her job, though, she held my hand with her other one, which made cleaning me up much more difficult. She stayed by the side of my bed and held that hand, releasing only once so I could remove my arm from my hospital gown. She let me cry about things I was too embarrassed to say before she held my hand–I told her that I had a catheter in and I had my menstrual period and I felt dirty. I told her I was so nauseous I didn’t know what to do. After she finished cleaning me up, she stayed by my bedside until my mother got back, holding that ugly pink tote while I continued to throw up all the red Jell-O I thought I needed after surgery. I know I threw up on her that day. I still remember her pretty pink scrubs and her name being Jennifer. I remember she was pregnant and there is no way the smell of my vomit didn’t bother her. But she stayed there while I threw up and she stayed there and let me cry–and she made me feel comfortable enough to tell her how mortified I was.

I should have seen that as the start of a lifetime full of nurses being the warriors on the battlefield that is my chronic illness. I don’t know that I often have a chance to acknowledge all of the work all of the nurses have done for me in all of my years seeking treatment. It was another ten years of seeing doctors after that first surgery before I got my EDS diagnosis and there were nurses at every doctor’s office and dozens of visits trying to understand what was happening, all of whom played a role in me finally figuring out my life and my body. They were just as much a key component of my diagnosis as any doctor, because I’m not sure without them I would have been strong enough to keep seeing doctors.

Too often, when things are just too bad and I need help, it is an amazing nurse who has to take my phone call. I have tremendous doctors, but that means they see a lot of patients. My nurses have taken many phone calls from me crying that I need help with something. Those same nurses have hunted down my very busy doctors to get prescriptions filled, appointments squeezed into calendars and referrals made for me–none of which would have happened without their loud, booming voices speaking for the patients they represent.

Part of what I’ve sought to do through my work in real life and in the words on this blog is to advocate and speak for the patients who face a lifetime of incurable, chronic illness; what I’m telling you right now is that nurses do this one hundred times better than I do every single day–and often while being vomited on, yelled at, and not getting enough sleep.

This morning, I had my first round of an infusion therapy we are experimenting with for my pain. It is administered entirely by nurses. The first nurse attempted to get the IV in twice. I have wonderful veins for IV placement, but my EDS skin makes it so challenging. After she didn’t get it the second time, I was crying and she apologized so quickly, wanting to find a second nurse. She asked me if I was in pain from the needle pokes. As I choked back the tears and told her it wasn’t her and it wasn’t the needle pokes, but just that I’m so scared and I’m so tired of trying everything and nothing working so this just felt like another failed attempt already, she got another nurse to do the IV, but only so she could hold my other hand while she did it and tell me it was going to be okay. She sat there next to me and let me know that she was going to be there every second I was there making sure I was okay. She is a highly trained medical professional and she still fetched me a soda for comfort, carried my purse because it’s hard on my crutches, and asked me questions about the work I do in the city I live in. She couldn’t cure what’s wrong with me, but she did distract me for moment. When she held my hand as the other nursed inserted the IV into my other arm, I flashed back to being 15 and covered in my own vomit as a nurse took twice as long cleaning me up with one arm so she could make sure I felt safe and secure while she did it.

The nurse today kept her word. Katie checked on me several times throughout the process. She brought me extra pillows and dimmed the lights when it made me tired. She took notes on my side effects and fetched the emergency nausea prescription I have to carry in my purse when the side effects got to be too much. She made sure to offer to slow down my drip when I was uncomfortable.

Katie was a wonderful nurse. I hope she gets the recognition she deserves–but what strikes me is that she isn’t even all that unique. I have encountered dozens, maybe hundreds, of nurses with this level of dedication to their patients. If doctors are the generals on our battlefields, they are our foot soldiers–and I will salute them every single time.

What do you want me to write about next? Thoughts?

CHANGE THEIR WORLD. CHANGE YOURS. THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING.