Body and Soul: Discoveries from Two Weeks in a Walking Boot

On the afternoon of July 4, 2004, I was sitting in the waiting room of a hospital in suburban Seattle, Washington. I’d taken a nasty tumble down the stairs while vacuuming bits of soil left behind by my then beloved pet tortoise, Cookie. All said and done, the incident left me with a very caricature-y hole in the dry wall between flights of stairs, a few screws to repair the fractured growth plate in my right ankle, and a way-cool purple and pink striped cast.

On the afternoon of July 4, 2014, I was hop-stepping through the door of my friend’s house, sporting a not-way-cool walking boot to his backyard barbecue. A little less than two weeks earlier, I had a surgery to remove the screws from my ankle. Traditionally, that kind of hardware can be and is left in the body for life, but they were rubbing up against my tendons and causing pain fairly regularly, so my orthopedic surgeon gave it the go-ahead.

While my 11-year-old-self didn’t have many thoughts on the matter beside “I’ll be damned if anybody tries to sign this masterpiece of a cast,” this time around, the minor surgery led to some major discoveries. They are as follows.

First and foremost, I have a surprisingly emotional relationship with my body. About a week into my recovery, I accidentally caught a glimpse of the area surrounding the incision while coming out of the bathtub. And there it was: a massive, deep purple bruise. When I later showed my friend a photo, he said it looked as if a ballpoint pen had exploded on the inside of my foot. I was flooded with emotion I didn’t even understand, and began weeping. Through the tears, the scientist in me desperately needed to logic through why I’d react so strongly to a bruise. I realized I wasn’t particularly grossed out or scared—I felt profoundly guilty. 

I couldn’t believe what I’d done to my body, which was always so good to me. So good, in fact, that when I get a common cold, I instinctually assume I’m dying because I’m not used to feeling unwell. My body had always done its job dutifully and with such quiet grace, and that bruise made me feel like I put a hero through the wringer.

And that realization led me to another: While I don’t consider my body “me,” the two of us have an incredibly intimate, powerful symbiosis. Reversing course slightly, my father, who is recently in remission from bladder cancer, once wrote me a frustrated email about how good health is the key to good living. This was shortly after I forgot that he’d asked me not to use his bathroom, walked in, and saw a jarring array of pill bottles and adult diapers. He followed in after me, but was too late. “Not much dignity in any of this, huh?” he quipped, with an uncomfortable smile. My father eats well, exercises almost daily, and doesn’t drink or smoke. My point being, there are of course instances in which preventative measures aren’t enough to ensure good health, but I remember thinking how lucky I am to have my health, and how badly I wished I could share it with him.

Recovering from surgery this month put it all into perspective even more so. My body has always served me well in our relationship, and I owe it the same respect and good care. I treated my ankle to copious ice, compression, and elevation. When the boot came off before bed, I’d crawl or hop around the house to avoid bearing weight. I very carefully inspected my bandage every morning for suspicious oozing. (Happily, no such secretions). I didn’t wind up having to take a single one of my prescribed Percocets for pain, and by the time I came in for a follow-up appointment at the surgeon’s office, I was deemed the “world’s easiest patient.” I like to think it’s mostly because I am lucky to have one of the world’s most cooperative bodies.

The holes left behind from now-absent screws in my ankle will have mostly filled in with bone by this time next month, but I intend to respect my body’s hard work and cherish my health long after the scar tissue has matured and my subtle limp returns to a strut.

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