We often search for that one epiphany, that oneinstant of self-discovery that defines our existence and purpose in life. It cancome at any time, without warning. After living through a traumatic experience,your world is altered and you cannot view life the same way. You realize what toworry about and what not to, what is important and what is insignificant. Thereis one moment of understanding and fulfillment that will always remain with me:the removal of my external fixator. It was the end of one chapter in my life andthe beginning of another.
I vividly recall the anxiety of the waitinggame, the sweating and irrepressible quivering. My orthopedist entered the roomand I was instantly immobile. The sounds and excruciating pain consumed me; Ifelt entirely separated from my body, as if I were viewing events on television.At that moment, my entire medical history flooded my mind and I realized howemotional the past 10 years had really been. Despite the physical roller coasterI had been trapped on, I had come out on top. It was finally over.
I cameinto this world with a million and one orthopedic dilemmas. I had a discrepancyof two inches on my right leg. Four fingers, an absent fibula (bone in my leg), aresulting malformed ankle joint, a crescent-shaped femur and several missinggrowth plates completed the list of congenital defects. The doctors werecompletely stunned by my appearance at birth and refused to let my parents seeme. I was considered severely deformed and rushed to intensive care, a pack ofpanicked interns following close behind.
Nearly a year later, moving pastthe catastrophe of my birth, I was a happy and healthy child cautiously taking myfirst steps. My mother told me that it looked as though I was entirely aware ofmy disability and compensated as necessary. I walked normally on my left foot,standing on my tiptoes of my right to balance. As time passed, the discrepancyincreased to four inches, which proved a challenge. My parents had special shoesmade with a four-inch lift. With this help, I was able to lead a relativelynormal life, and participate in many of the same activities other children did.
Because of the absent growth plates, my right leg lagged even fartherbehind as I grew. It was estimated that by the time I was grown, there could be a12-inch difference in length between my legs. My parents began searching thecountry for an orthopedist for a solution. Almost all the doctors had reached aconsensus: amputation. My parents refused to accept this and continued to search.
Finally, in 1991, our prayers were answered. My parents discovered anovel procedure being performed at a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland known as theIllizarov for the brilliant Russian doctor who developed it. The invasive seriesof surgeries began with breaking the bone. Then, a number of screws were insertedto support the limb. These were bound together with rings that circle the leg.Over several months the space between the two bone portions was widened byturning screws a quarter turn, up to four times daily. After this, the patiententered the consolidation phase, when the bone was given a chance to restoreitself. Essentially, the body's ability to regenerate tissue was manipulated.After the bone had calcified, the apparatus was removed.
I have had myright leg lengthened three times, starting when I was four prior to my foot,ankle and hip operations. When I was 14, I made the difficult decision tolengthen my right limb for the final time. I had developed scoliosis from thelength difference and was forced to wear a back brace at night for two years.
I had gone through life knowing I was very different. I refused to wearshorts for fear of reaction and I couldn't wear sandals since my right foot neverfit into them properly. Skirts were out of the question, as were high-heeled shoes. I always avoided swimsuits because of my scars.
The rare times I decided to be daring, my temper and feistiness got thebetter of me and I had no problem telling any staring people where to stick it. Iwas tired of constantly being angry; I knew I had to do something, regardless ofthe pain. It will make you stronger, I told myself. You'll be thankful later.
I left the house with my parents early that July morning in 2002completely consumed with fear. I continually asked myself why I had decided onthe surgery. I was told many times I was out of my mind to make this half-inchdifference. I didn't really have an answer, just my vision of walking barefoot ona beach without a limp.
The operating room had a distinct smell, which Iremember to this day: Wite-Out is the only way I can describe it. I watched as atleast 20 doctors, nurses, interns and aides scurried around the large room. Ifelt nauseous and wanted to faint. When I saw my orthopedist, I thought, Ah, youcan't lose it now. It's Dr. Roye. I walked unhurriedly to the operating table,yelling all the way at the anesthesiologist to knock me out. I savored thatmoment and the last steps I would take without crutches for quite a while.
As I hopped up onto the icy table a dreadful chill ran through me. Dr.Roye assured me everything would be fine, and somehow I believed him. A mask wasplaced over my nose and mouth. I closed my eyes and let that horrible artificialbubble-gum smell consume me. A sharp tingle went through my body and I felt asthough my head was soaring 20 feet above me. I was out cold.
Exactly fourmonths and 12 days later, on the eighth floor of that hospital, Dr. Roye's nurseentered the room and placed a million gauze pads on the table, along with twowrenches. I distinctly remember the color draining from my face. I wanted thefixator off my leg so badly, I just wanted to wear jeans and sleep comfortably!Then Dr. Roye entered the room and studied my x-rays in silence. He looked at meand said, "Uh, Bri, you look a little green. Are you okay?"
Ianswered, "I think I'm going to be sick!" He handed me a wrench but Isaid I'd rather him remove the final ring, and he agreed with a smile. The outerrings were then removed, as well as the side railing. That wasn't so bad, Ithought.
Then I heard, "Brace yourself!" I looked away, andclenched my teeth. I heard a crunching sound and frowned deeply. A sharp pain ranthrough my leg. I had to scream. After all the screws were removed, my leg wasbandaged with mountains of gauze. I marveled at the sight: my leg! It was shakinginvoluntarily from the trauma, but as strange as it sounds, I was the happiestgirl in the world: my legs were the same length, after 14 years.
Leavingthe hospital that day, wearing pants for the first time in four months, I wasglowing. Nothing, nothing could have put a damper on my mood. I had at lastreached the end of a long and winding road. Perhaps I chose to go through theordeal to prove to everyone, and more importantly myself, that I could do it. AndI did. I survived.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.