Since my dad was dead, and my mama didn’t speak much English, it was up to my brother, sister and I to conquer all the ups and downs of life. This particular situation was one that required all hands on deck. At the young ages of nine, thirteen and sixteen, we were all mini-adults, well trained in dealing with things we really should have never dealt with, but that’s life. Looking back, I realize that it was probably too much responsibility for us, but in life, you have to play the cards you’re dealt and deal with the issues that come your way – you know, survive when it counts.
I am and always have been a survivor, determined to fight. But there I was: nine years old and in extreme back pain, and I didn’t think I needed to survive this one. But the reality was that I really had no idea why I was in pain or where I should go to fix the issue. No one in my family really knew. My brother and sister were both a little older, and they could have helped me figure it out, but at that point, I don’t think anyone was thinking it was a serious situation that really needed urgent attention. At that point, we all just thought “the pain will pass, it’s only temporary.”
In search of a solution, my mama called Claudia, my third cousin, because she had heard that Claudia had recently had a car accident and was seeing a chiropractor. They spoke about how Claudia was feeling, and how much better things were getting for her, and that’s all it took. After that conversation, my mama was convinced that I should see him too. A few days after my mama spoke to Claudia, I had an appointment.
I remember the first time I walked into Dr. Gray’s office. It smelt like mildew and wet dog. The walls were covered in old, gray, textured wallpaper, and the magazines were all ripped in the corners. The 12-inch TV was in the left-hand corner by the window of the waiting room, and if you peeked into the check-in office area, there was usually three women and a Border Collie sitting around all day, waiting for patients to come entertain them. Dr. Gray’s two daughters worked for him as the office masseuse and office assistant. He always brought his dog to work, and the dog would run around the office, chasing the air. I don’t remember the third lady too well. I want to say her name was Susan, but it might’ve been Nancy. Regardless, it’s not important. I was more interested in hanging out with his daughters, because they were both young and fun. Tracy and Cindy were both blonde, tall, and heavier-set women. If you didn’t know they were all related, you would never have been able to tell. Dr. Gray was short, with salt and pepper hair and a giant mustache. If you have ever seen the show Parks and Recreation, he was Ron for sure, and his daughters were two Leslies. Dr. Gray always wore chinos, a brown belt, and Sperrys, and his polo shirt, decorated with palm trees, was always tucked in. His personality was less than thrilling, but his daughters had enough charisma to get people coming back – I’m not sure if anyone would have returned just to see him.
My first visit to Dr. Gray was nerve-wrecking. Since we didn’t have health insurance, we had to make sure that the car insurance covered all of my medical expenses – I think my brother even had to call in advance to make sure that everything was covered – he was always the one taking care of those types of things. But the memory is foggy, and I haven’t taken the time to ask my family what specific role they each played in getting me to the chiropractor. When we arrived, the women behind the counter handed me a mountain of paperwork to fill out, and since mama didn’t speak English, it was up to me. You know, at that age, being handed a ton of paperwork was like being handed a mountain of homework – who really wants to do their homework? I wanted to watch the movie that was fading in and out on the 12-inch TV or flip through old magazines or run around the waiting room pretending that I was a magical Doctor that was there to cure everyone of all their pain. I didn’t want to sit there filling out paperwork. But that was life. That was my life.
So I sat there, patiently trying to get to the end of the paperwork, ignoring my urges to be distracted. I remember getting to the page with the outlined body, where I had to draw in the type of pain I was experiencing and where I was experiencing it. It was the first time I ever had to fill that sheet out. Now, almost 20 years later, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve filled out that sheet – it’s been many, many times. When I finished all the paperwork, I handed it to my mama and pointed to the line where she needed to sign. She placed her signature on the page, and we walked up to the counter together to hand over the paperwork.
A few minutes later, my name was called: “Miss Velez”. Miss Velez was what all adults called me when they had no idea how to pronounce Eliana (for future reference, it’s pronounced Eh-LEE-AH-NUH). My mama and I stood up and followed Tracy,the younger of the two daughters, who was guiding us to a room right past Dr. Gray’s ‘’official office.’’ Dr. Gray’s official office is where he kept his degree, pictures and war-time memorabilia. He had been in Vietnam when he was younger, and I don’t think he came back 100%. One day, many years after that first visit, he told me his wartime story about how he had gotten shot in the head, and then he proceeded to show me his helmet. I remember thinking of Forrest Gump when he told me that story and how he was like the real-life version. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. He was the kind of person who would make things up just to seem more interesting. I guess I’ll never know.
Tracy guided us to the room and handed me a gown. Dr. Gray wanted to take X-rays of my spine, and I needed to remove all my clothes and jewelry(though I was allowed to keep my panties on). My mama sat in the chair, staring at me while I undressed. My mama pretty much always wore the same thing shorts and a tank top. Her hair was really short and super curly, and she would blow dry it to try to get the curls out. As she sat there staring at me, her legs were crossed at the ankles, and she was holding her purse with both hands on top of her lap. She asked me about what the lady had said and what was going to happen. I stared back at her in bewilderment, almost like I didn’t understand what she was asking. I was trying to multitask, and it was proving to be more difficult than it probably should’ve been. I desperately tried to answer her while figuring out the jigsaw puzzle gown I was handed. Does the opening go in the front or the back? If I put it on in the front, I can tie it myself, but if I put it on in the back, no one will see me through the holes. I always wanted to do things myself. I didn’t want anyone’s help – ever – and this, like every other time, was one of those times. But the dilemma was that I also hated being naked in front of people I didn’t know. I didn’t want anyone to be able to see me, even if it was just a tiny hole. So naturally, I opted for putting the gown on with the holes in the back and, because I refused to have my mama help me, I scrambled around to figure out how to tie it myself.
Tracy came in a few minutes later to guide me towards the X-ray room. It was a small office, and the X-ray room, was literally at the end of the short walkway. As I walked into the X-ray room, I looked at everything around me. This was the first time I had ever been inside an X-ray room. It looked and felt just like a laboratory. The air was stale and dry, as if life itself had been sucked out of the space. The giant machines lined the center of the room and the right-hand wall. In the right-hand corner of the room was a small space, where Tracy could stand away from the radiation that was being emitted through the machine. As soon as we walked in, she guided me to the left-hand side wall, where an X-ray machine was ready to take my images. She then told me that she was going to go get the machine ready and I needed to stand against the wall with my arms up perpendicular to my body. She grabbed the camera and placed it close to my body and explained that when she tolds me to, I would need to hold my breath and stand really still and not breathe. She went on explaining that if I didn’t do it right the first time, we would have to repeat the process, so it was super important to be really still. She ran into the small space and set up the camera and said “Ok, are you ready? Now, hold your breath.” The machine started making weird noises, and I wasn’t sure if it was normal. I had never had an X-ray before, and it didn’t feel like it was a good sign. I stood there holding my breath, wanting to move around. It was so much pressure to stand still and not move. I remember how agonizing it felt to hold my breath for ten whole seconds and remain that still.
“OK, you can breathe,” she said. I gasped for air. Man, was that brutal.
A few seconds later, she came up to me and removed the film from inside the machine and added a new film into it. I moved around, twirling my feet and playing with my gown as she placed a tiny magnet along the wall so that everyone knew it was my right side. The process was then repeated, but this time, I had to face the other wall. When it was done, Tracy told me to go back to my room and explained that she was going to review the images and would let me know if we needed to take more x-rays.
Tracy wasn’t married and didn’t have any kids. She had recently graduated from college and was working for her dad, because it was the easiest thing to do.
I walked back into the room and sat next to my mama. She looked at me, took out her hair brush to comb a stray hair she thought she had, and asked about how it went in the X-ray room. I went through the story really fast. I’ve never been one for too many details. I wanted to get to the point and move on. She didn’t have much to say and quickly started talking about something else as we waited for Dr. Gray to come in with his master plan on how to make my pain disappear.
Ten minutes passed, and we were still waiting.
Had he forgotten about us?
He hadn’t forgotten. He walked in moments later with my X-rays in hand and looked armed and ready for battle. He immediately shook both our hands and introduced himself. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Dr. Gray.” My mama’s limited English often paralyzed her, with the exception, of course, of those times she had to introduce herself. It was her moment to shine. She proudly put her hand on her chest – the universal sign for me – and said “Yolanda.” At that age, handshaking seemed so awkward to me. Like, who would actually want to shake my hand? I didn’t really understand the etiquette behind proper handshaking – so either Dr. Gray got a super intense “it’s nice to meet you” type of handshake or I handed him a dead fish. Hopefully, it wasn’t too bad.
He then turned around and put the X-ray up onto the illuminated wall – the place where the X-ray could be projected, before turning around to stare at us both. I just didn’t know what to say or what I was looking at. I was so confused. Why was he staring? My mama’s eyes had opened wide, and she knew immediately that something was wrong. I didn’t understand what was happening. I thought humans spines looked different than what I was looking at. Why were there such weird curves? Was that normal? A million thoughts trailed in, and I think he could sense my confusion. He knew the fear in my mama’s eyes. He looked at me and quickly broke the silence by saying, “You have scoliosis.”
“Scoli – what?”
“Scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine”
He then grabbed an image of a normal, healthy spine and explained to me what a normal spine looks like, and told me that my spine was not like that. My spine had a 45-degree curve and a 20-degree curve. He went on to tell me that it was not deadly, and that I was going to be just fine, because I had gone to the right place. He had fixed his daughter, Tracy, who also had scoliosis, and he would do the same for me. He assured me that there was nothing to worry about. All I had to do was go see him every week, and with his adjustments, I would be back to normal. He was going to fix my spine.
I felt so fortunate to have found him. I thought I was so lucky that I had a doctor who knew how to fix me.
Confident in his ability, I told my mama what he had said, and told her that it was going to be fine. Dr. Gray knew how to fix me. She looked at me and made weird noises, the I’m-feeling-sorry-for-you kind-of-noises, and then said, “Oh, no. Everything is hereditary. Your Great Grandma, Andrea, had the same thing.”
After Dr. Gray’s lesson on scoliosis had passed, he laid me down with my right side on the medical bed and my left leg curled up. He grabbed my left leg and pushed on my hip, and it cracked. It was such a relief. Then he told me to flip around, and he did the same thing to my right side. Wow. I had never felt better. He then had me lie face down and told me to take a deep breath, and as I exhaled he cracked my spine all the way down. It felt amazing. I didn’t want to move. The last and final thing he adjusted was my neck. I needed to lay with my face up, and relax. He grabbed my head in his hands and, with one swift motion, cracked my neck. I thought I had found heaven. This chiropractor was amazing – I was floating.
We walked out of the office, and I thought for sure I would be fine. I thought I would go visit him for a few months and he would make my spine go back to normal, just like he said he would.
But that didn’t happen. The road ahead was much longer than I could have ever expected or imagined. I just wish someone would have prepared me for this lifelong battle. I wish someone would have prepared me for the harassment I faced at school, for the rejection, for the long-lasting feelings of deformity (thinking that I would never be normal), for the strength I needed to have. For all of it. I really wish someone would have told me that I would be dealing with this forever, and that it would only get worse.