The first time I left my hospital room, my family gently pushed my wheelchair down the long blank hallways, out the door, and into the sunshine. Immediately I tightened the blankets around me, ensuring they kept every inch of me covered. Except, it was summertime, and I was now in Southern Florida — not the type of weather that requires an extra layer.
I hadn’t been outside for over a month, in fact, I hadn’t even seen the sunshine from a window. I’d been in ICU rooms where days and nights blurred together until I was so disoriented that I napped through the days and laid wide awake each night, completely alone with my thoughts and fears as visiting hours were then over. My mom told me how the first time she’d seen the sunshine, after the freak accident that had damaged us both, she had cried at the sight. I was too paranoid to enjoy anything about it.
I felt sweat dripping down my face and could hardly breathe I was so uncomfortably warm, but rather than removing that blanket, I simply asked to go back inside. The thoughts running through my mind were yelling harsh words at me so loudly that I couldn’t pay attention to anything else at all. Each silent, inner scream, reminding me of my brand new wheelchair, the casts on my arms, the tracheostomy tube piercing my throat, my swollen face — and my now missing legs.
Not long before this, I’d sat on a boat on a dream vacation with my family, on a Bahamian island expecting nothing else besides a perfect day. But that boat had exploded, and it had exploded underneath the exact spot that I sat. My bones had snapped and shattered, my spinal cord pierced, causing permanent paralysis (T12 incomplete paraplegic) , my organs shut down, my legs amputated, and my life… nearly lost. I’d been inside this hospital, just barely surviving the air transport back to the United States, in a medically induced coma for the last four weeks. But now I am awake, and nothing is the same.
The first time I really left a hospital, not just to sit outside in another “healing garden” or by a picnic table on the hospital yard, but really out in public, in the midst of able-bodied humans that were not family nor friends, but perfect strangers, was at my next hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. We went to an ice cream shop. Cars sped by and the crosswalk light told us to pause. My family stood behind me. All of a sudden, everyone was around me; in front of me, behind me, to the side of me, all of them so close to me. It made me want to scream because this meant they could all see me.
I had no blanket to hide me. Nothing to pull over me and hide myself. I was painfully visible. I could only imagine what they must all be thinking about this girl out in public with tubes and IVs and braces and some too-short limbs ending at the edge of her wheelchair rather than bending towards the ground. What did they think about my scars? What did they think about my looks? What did they think about my residual limbs? Did they want me to go back to that hospital so they wouldn’t have to see me any longer? I wanted to apologize to them, for what I’m not sure. But I couldn’t find any words, so I kept quiet, silently hoping that somehow maybe they couldn’t see me, maybe they hadn’t noticed me. Maybe…I was invisible.
I’d underestimated my injuries and overestimated myself. I had without a doubt believed that all I needed to fix this all was a set of prosthetic legs, and then I could get up and walk back to reality — out of this nightmare. I thought I could put those legs on, cover them up with a pair of pants and some cute shoes, and no one would ever have to know. I believed somehow I could keep these last months my own little secret. But as I sat in yet another new hospital, finally feeling slightly more alive, I felt myself itching to get out into the world. Caring just a little bit less about what I might find out there and what those around me might be thinking. Now at a rehabilitation hospital, out of kidney failure, and out of critical condition, I was given the freedom to explore the city around me after the end of a long day.
So I did the physical therapy and the speech therapy and the occupational therapy, and then I wanted to feel “normal” again, so we went out to dinner.
Repeating those nights of “freedom” around the intimidating and sexy and charming city of Boston chipped away the pieces of the wall I had so unwillingly constructed. Breaking away at my fears and insecurities until they were no longer even a thought. Sure, I hated being at the level of people’s hips rather than looking eye to eye, and sure, I hated the scene it caused when I couldn’t quite fit through a narrow space, or when a hostess or manager had to pull out a spare ramp to lay over the stairs or had to bring me through a separate entrance, but the evening ahead outweighed all of that. Because I’d finally realized something.
I’m a survivor, not a victim. Being a survivor makes me strong as hell and if someone is staring or if someone looks at me as less than because four wheels are carrying me and not two feet, I wish they’d let me tell them my story. I like to believe that if everyone knew the fight that goes into surviving an absolute worst-case scenario, or the energy it takes to get yourself to go out into this less than ideal world for people with a disability, then just maybe their looks would instead be ones of respect.
Then I decided to believe something else. Maybe the stares I felt following me had always been exactly that. Maybe it was all just curiosity and respect and awe, and it was only my cruel mind that had twisted me to believe that it was anything other than that. Maybe the only one who noticed or cared or paid attention to my wheelchair and my rubber prosthetic feet was me. Not them, just me.
So if you are someone who walks on two prosthetic feet, or if you glide through life on four wheels, or if you use a walker or crutches or a scooter or whatever it is that maybe makes you feel different, I hope you can begin to see these as an accessory to your ongoing story (and also, I use all of those mentioned). If you hate a scar or a brace or a burn or anything physically apparent, know that these are patterns of your beauty, only representing a survivor and a fighter and strength and courage, and all of those characteristics deserve so much love.
We deserve love and respect from those around us, but so much more than that, we deserve love and respect from ourselves. Treat yourself kindly, talk to yourself kindly, shush those harsh thoughts and follow them with a simple compliment. I believe when we love ourselves, this life will love us back.
These days, I am finally proud of my life again. My crutches are my favorite accessories. I paint the toenails on each set of my feet. I take my legs off to swim and to bike, and I do that without a thought. I’m in love with my scars, as they remind me to thank my body for pushing through all it has endured. I don’t always feel good and certainly not perfect, but I am a work in progress, and for that, I know I will always be OK.