Thirty-nine degrees to the left; nineteen degrees to the right.
I watched as the assistant took note of these figures, and turned back to the glaringly florescent X-ray machine. He continued to use his protractor and ruler to measure carefully along the imperfect curves of a distorted image of a spine. I stared at him wordlessly memorizing the figures as well; etching them into my consciousness for future reference. Mathematics, numbers, and lines had never held such profound significance to me as they did in that instance. I was only thirteen, and very much protected by a sense of naivety that I can no longer say I posses.
Forty-two degrees to the left; twenty-one degrees to the right. I remember standing in front of the mirror three months earlier; I thought nothing of it at the time. After all I had never heard of anything like it. I was dressed in my favorite purple floral swimsuit and was staring at my reflection, struggling to find a matching pair of shorts to my flamboyant ensemble. A simple enough problem. Turning from side to side I spotted it, a slight arching curve on one side of my back. I was an observant child; even then I had the sense to investigate this peculiarity further. And so I turned to stare at the opposite side. Nothing; flat as a table. I knew the human body did not posses perfect symmetry but I was sure this was unusual. I spoke to my mother about it later in the day and she’d promised we would go for a check-up as soon as we returned to the city. She thought I was being ridiculous. I let it go for a while and enjoyed my summer by the coast.
Forty-four degrees to the left; twenty-five degrees to the right. The first consultation was the worst. The doctor was a man of emotionless demeanor; he was cold and direct. I was young and confused. He spoke of curves, angles, alignments, bones and vertebrae. It was a litany of scientific facts and senseless arrogance on his part; I could not keep up with any of it. My parents sat on either side of me listening intently with strict poker faces fixed so firmly I could’ve sworn they were wearing masks. I was not. I began to tear up slowly, building up momentum, eventually reaching full-blown bawling mode as I exited the room. I remember this part more clearly than anything else. I stood up silently, looking once at the doctor and once at my X-ray then left the room with no warning. I noted the distinct “S” shape of the spinal cord on the X-ray screen as I turned to leave. A shape I would come to see often in the coming months. I walked straight and did not stop once. Across the dimly lit waiting room filled with curious whispering faces, out the door, down the stairs and into the car. I could hear my parents calling from behind me.
“Wait for us, where are you going?” My mother shouted anxiously, she was attempting to catch up to me.
“Leave her be, she’ll calm down later.” I smiled once at my father’s words, pausing for just a moment the endless stream of tears that would become a signature feature of my appearance in the weeks to follow. My father knew I did not want to speak about it; I wanted to examine the options and find a solution. I did not want sympathy or to waste time. The degrees kept increasing; each visit the numbers changed. Time was running out. Exponential growth was the technical term they used; and so we had to act quickly.
Forty-eight degrees to the left; twenty-nine degrees to the right. X-ray machines and MRI rooms became my second home, each occurrence more daunting than the next. My parents waited patiently for the results to come out, I discovered more about their characters during that period than I have ever been able to observe in all my years as their child. That year and a half taught me how they acted under pressure, how they made trying decisions, and how they dealt with consequences. My mother was always composed and collected. Always. Never once did she make me feel scared or worried, she was continuously near me making sure I never figured out the gravity of the situation. There were moments, instances even where I could see the concern in her eyes. Flashes of worry or a glittering glow of teardrops, but she never lost control. My father was distant at the time; unable to keep up the required façade of stoic resilience. He worried and I could sense it.
Fifty-one degrees to the left; thirty-two to the right. Surgery. This was the Word of the Month during July of 2007. Should I go through with it? Which doctor to choose? Where? When? How? And worst of all What if…? That was the one question no one directly addressed or answered; to be honest I never even considered it at the time. What if it went wrong? What would happen to me then? I had tried everything else, exhausted all the alternatives. Physical therapy was difficult and extensive, with very little long-term results. Then there came the “brace phase”. A back-brace similar to a cast encompasses your torso like a perfectly fitted corset only less comfortable, and leaves virtually no room for breathing. It feels stiff and rigid; the middle section of your body feels entirely disconnected from the rest. Never the less, it did slow down the curvature progression. A fact the doctors were quick to point out wasn’t quite enough to eliminate the need for, as I mentioned previously, surgery. It was the longest year of my life, not because the days were any greater in number but because suspense and uncertainty governed all my thoughts and actions. I opted out of the decision making process very early on.
“Do what you think is best.” I told my mother on the final phone call before she signed the form confirming the date for surgery.
Fifty-five degrees to the left, thirty-five degrees to the right. Grey’s anatomy Season three episode twelve; that’s when it hit me. It was winter of 2010 and three years had passed since the surgery, I was sitting on my bed with a bowl of popcorn in the midst of a marathon of my favorite TV series. The doctor on the show began describing a young girl’s condition; he diagnosed it to be severe inoperable Scoliosis. I sat up quickly, pushed my popcorn to one side and hired the volume. Scoliosis is a medical condition where a person’s spine is curved from side to side creating an “S” shape, with varying degrees of severity prevailing in the female gender, he recited. I had heard all this before years ago. The patient on the screen had a case that was significantly worse than any I had ever seen, including my own. However, it was not her condition that shocked me. It was the fact that in that moment I realized that I had never once actually read about Scoliosis, I knew nothing about it. I had experienced something I could not fully explain. I paused the show. I felt more afraid than I had ever been throughout the entire process of diagnosis, surgery and recovery. I began to research. It was eye opening to grasp that ignorance had been my weapon for getting through it all. Ignorance is bliss. I still replay that episode every now and then.
One degree to the left; three degrees to the right. A straight line… almost. The “S” was finally gone. I looked at the fresh X-rays with relief; I could see the metallic rods and screws that aligned my spinal cord on either side. Holding me together, I was robotic, mechanical and yet paradoxically back to normal. I compared the before and after pictures, noting the thin, delicate line that ran down the center of my back, directly above my spinal cord. A permanent scar. I chose to keep it, removing the scar would remove my mark of survival. It was a badge of honor, finally it was all over.
One degree to the left; three degrees to the right. It was spring of 2011, I walked through airport security in Heathrow with as much confidence as I could muster. I had carefully removed all my belongings and placed them in the small square box provided to everyone in the line. “BEEP! BEEP!”; the siren went off as I walked through the metal detector. I smiled fondly at the robot in me, amused by the security woman’s baffled expression as she searched me. I asked her to pause her efforts, and reached for my wallet to pull out a small neatly laminated photocopy of an X-ray. My flight companion. A perfectly rigid image of straight mechanical spine.
This is an original story.