The Common Good
January-February 1997

Legs That Will Be Straight

by Ed Spivey Jr. | January-February 1997

The phone call came as it does to many parents at some point in the growing-up years of their children. Colleen had fallen off the jungle gym at school, and could I please pick her up?

The phone call came as it does to many parents at some point in the growing-up years of their children. Colleen had fallen off the jungle gym at school, and could I please pick her up? When I got there, our 11-year-old was in a lot of pain and the emergency room staff soon confirmed that she had broken her right leg, just above the knee.

Two days later, she came home from the hospital with a full-length cast bulging at the middle from two long rods holding the broken bone in place. I felt bad for her—it was a serious break—but silently assured myself with a smile that this was just another rite of passage for an active child.

I was wrong.

Now, two years and three major surgeries later, Colleen is in rehabilitation to learn to walk correctly again, this time with titanium clamps and plates screwed into both femurs and 10-inch scars on her thighs. She's looking with little enthusiasm at another visit to the surgeon to remove all the hardware and is not pleased that she may lose as much as two inches from her adult height.

All this from a little playground mishap that has taught big lessons to a young girl and her family. Lessons about enduring pain and imagining a future without sutures and crutches and sleepless nights in noisy hospitals. Lessons about really tough choices parents sometimes have to make, and never ever knowing if they made the right ones.

It turned out that the original injury had destroyed the growth plate responsible for 40 percent of the length of her right leg. Her doctors felt the condition required closing the growth plate on her left leg to pre-empt the inevitable discrepancy that would result in a lifelong hobble.

They were right and they were wrong, we found out later: The right growth plate wasn't completely closed by the break, and they didn't completely close the left one through surgery.

A year later, after a growth spurt, Colleen had two badly bowed legs and a pronounced—and uncomfortable—limp.

More surgery was required, as well as a lot of soul-searching for two parents who had agonized a long time before letting surgeons cut into Colleen's perfectly good leg, only to have that procedure fail and provoke a worse consequence. With a sense of helpless resignation, we agreed to the three additional surgical procedures that would straighten Colleen's legs and repair her gait, but which would alter her adolescence in such a big way. We were deciding to turn her middle school years into repeated interims of pain and recovery, pain and therapy. The words "it hurts"—spoken with increasing frequency in the middle of the night—trigger much more than her parents' groggy reach for the ibuprofen. It re-asks the question every time: Was this necessary?

A small but poignant symbol has captured this new reality. The kitchen calendar—a family's collective diary—has changed from the chronicle of fun events to a journal of Colleen's procedures, with the days and weeks reduced to only two categories: before or after surgery.

A crisis can strike a family with quick and unexpected force. But it can also be a slow, evolving chain of events that is just as disruptive on a family's life.

Profound worry occupies huge chunks of my day. I think about her at school, a solitary figure on crutches walking in slow motion while a blurry sea of children divides around her and pushes past. I can't help seeing this as a metaphor for her being left out of her own youth, having to watch from the sidelines.

I lay awake pondering the "what ifs" until I finally get out of bed, slip into the girls' room, and quietly pull back Colleen's covers just to see if the shape of her legs has changed since the last time I checked (the night before).

I stare a lot at other children, looking not at their faces but at their straight and even legs, their dancelike movements. And always the questions: Did we do the right thing? Should we have waited longer?

Colleen is brave. We didn't know this before (and I gladly would have waited to find out). At only 13, she has had some really bad things happen to her. She has endured deep bone pain, bleeding, and dozens of stitches. She has watched her dad be utterly useless when I almost passed out during removal of a drain tube anchored inside her surgical wound.

But as she learned to deal with her own pain, she has experienced other things. She has seen children who suffer more, who are suffering still. Little bald and broken kids in the ward who carry the deeper wound of knowing they probably won't get any better.

And Colleen has heard up close the sounds of our sad city. After one six-hour surgery (which was supposed to take only two), she spent the night listening to a teen-ager screaming in the next room. He had been shot the day before, and he was hurting and angry. He screamed for two days.

Colleen has accepted her fate—although her father has not—and she shows little anger toward the alteration of her young life. She is resilient, even with one more procedure to go, and she's almost learning to enjoy the stationary bike and the ankle weights (and the fact that she gets her allowance even when she doesn't do her chores).

The other night at the dinner table she even mourned the recent removal of that damn jungle gym.

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