Do you remember where we left off? I think I was telling you about how excited I was that I had found the name of the type of doctor that helps people with scoliosis: an orthopedic. Right. An orthopedic.
An orthopedic was going to be the cure-all. The person who was going to fix everything that was wrong with me. An orthopedic was the key to my future. Or so I thought. But why wasn’t I more excited?
I stared down at my chicken soup and full glass of whole milk and I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t drink.
My mind was running at a million miles an hour and I couldn’t control my thoughts. I was terrified of looking for an orthopedic and making an appointment. My breathing became faster and my pulse began to elevate. The anxiety was taking over. My sweaty palms grasped the spoon so tightly that I began to lose circulation in my right hand.
With each inhale, the excitement exited my body. It drained out of me the same way that blood escapes your veins: slow and steady and without an end in sight. With each exhale, my mind searched for a last ounce of excitement, but the more I breathed the more I lost sight of my desire to celebrate and the more I realized it was too late. Fear had already begun to consume me. Perhaps, I would never find anyone who could actually help me, I thought.
I began to feel sick.
Fear nibbled at and attacked my thoughts. It suffocated my sense of pride and success. It controlled my mind and my every move. It ate away at my happiness. Fear left me mummified in my seat. I wanted nothing more than to celebrate my victory, to start a search for orthopedics in the area, but instead, I stood up from the kitchen and walked away. I told my mama that I would finish the food later, but I never did.
It took several days for me to muster-up the courage to make an appointment. I kept picking up the phone with the intention to make the call, but as soon as I heard the dial tone, I would hang up. I was convinced that no one would be able to help me. I was petrified that maybe I would have to suffer with my scoliosis progressing forever. This happened at least 10 times over a period of several days before I finally made the call.
After scanning the overwhelming list of orthopedic options in Orlando, I only called one clinic to make an appointment. Their earliest appointment for new patients was a month from that day. I took the appointment and hung up. That was it. Now all I had to do was patiently wait for an entire month, but secretly, I was thrilled. It gave me time to mentally prepare for what the doctor would say to me. It gave me time to think of questions and to fully daydream about what the appointment would be like.
A month later, the day of the appointment had arrived, and my mama drove us to downtown Orlando, near Lake Eola, where the orthopedic doctor had his practice. She parked the car, and we walked to the entrance and pressed the buzzer to be let in. A quick buzz trilled through the intercom and the door latch unlocked.
We walked in, and above the reception area were several emphatic signs that read Geriatric Orthopedic. I didn’t think twice about the signs. I had no idea what geriatric meant anyway. So, instead of asking the receptionist, I grabbed my new patient paperwork and took a seat next to my mama.
With pastel-like colors, AARP magazines, walls covered in posters that listed common orthopedic problems in senior citizens, the orthopedic doctor’s waiting room area seemed straight out of a nursing home. Was I in the right office? Well, no one said otherwise, so I just proceeded to pretend that all the senior citizen references were a simple coincidence.
I was nervous to see the doctor, I wanted his opinion, I wanted to hear the verdict once and for all, but also, in a strange, self-indulgent way, I was excited about being there. I have always enjoyed going to the doctor. For many years as a kid I wanted to be a doctor, and going to see one always felt very satisfactory. I loved how doctors had the ability to put together clues to come up with a diagnosis. It fascinated me how much they knew, and how they managed to help people. But as soon as my name was called, Miss Velez, all I could feel was the horrific fear overcome me.
“Come on in,” the nurse dressed in purple scrubs said as she appeared at the door. We stood up and she motioned us to the nearest exam room. “Did you bring your X-rays?” she asked. I had about a million X-rays from all my past sessions with Dr. Gray, but I didn’t know I had to bring them. In fact, I had left all of my records with Dr. Gray and I had no intention of ever collecting them, because at that point, I had no desire to ever see Dr. Gray again, but I didn’t say that to her her. Instead, I simply responded, “Ugh, no, I’m sorry.”
“Fine, we’ll have to take new ones, but they will have to be paid out-of-pocket since you don’t have health insurance.”
“How much are they going to be?”
“You’re looking at $250 – $300, and it might be more if the doctor feels like you need additional images.”
I took a deep breath in and told my mama what the nurse had said. She immediately responded by saying we should go ahead with the X-rays, but that we’d have to pay them in monthly installments. I hated being the financial burden that I felt like I was. My mama lived her life paying off my doctor’s visits. Each time something else came up, a new monthly bill would arrive, and with each new bill, it meant one more sacrifice for all of us. One more sacrifice for the entire family.
“Okay, my mama says it’s fine,” I said and she smiled and walked out.
A second later, the X-ray technician was at my door.
“Hello, ladies! So who’s the patient?”
“I am,” I answered and enthusiastically stood up.
The X-rays took a total of two minutes to get done. I had done so many X-rays in the past year that by that point, I was pretty much a pro. I knew exactly how to position my body, when to breathe, when to hold my breath. I was so used to the sound of the X-ray machine that it was like a strange soundtrack in my mind.
“Okay, sweetie, you can head back to the exam room, the doctor will be in soon.”
I walked in the room to find my mama nodding off in her chair with her legs crossed at her ankles and her arms grasping her purse. I sat down next to her and patiently began waiting for the doctor to come into the room. A few minutes later, the door knob began to turn and just like that, he was there.
“Good morning, Miss Velez,” he said as he sat down and opened my chart. “Hmm,” he said, looking down and then glancing back up at me. “So here’s the thing, I’m not going to sugarcoat this for you. I looked at your X-rays, and well, you are in pretty bad shape.”
Concerned by his reaction, I said, “What does that mean?”
“You’re really young. You have so much growing to do. If you continue to grow, so will your curve, which means you are only going to get worse. Probably much worse. At this rate, you would be lucky if you make it to 30. You have to have surgery. I would suggest trying to have it immediately. If you do not do it soon, your lungs and heart will collapse and you will die.”
He said it in such a casual manner that I almost didn’t understand the words he was saying. My mind could not grasp them.
What do you say to someone who’s just told you that you could die prematurely if you don’t have surgery? I had prepared for surgery, I had prepared for potential bracing, but I hadn’t prepared for that. I didn’t even think death was on the table. I thought that my condition was serious, but not to the point that I could die.
“Ugh,” I managed to utter. I could feel the trembling sound of my voice as it came out.
“Um, okay, so what do I have to do to have surgery? Can you do it?”
“No, you have to see a pediatric orthopedic. I am a geriatric orthopedic,” he said, emphasizing the difference in the words, and continued on, “I only see older adults. You are a little too young to be one of my patients. I’ll have the nurse give you a few recommendations.” He stood up and walked out the room.
“Que dijo? Dime que dijo.” My mama asked me what he said. Pestering me to tell her. Despite her rising panic, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t really respond to her. I whispered to her that I would tell her later.
I don’t remember walking out of the exam room or filling out the payment installment paperwork, but somehow I managed to do that, I managed to pull myself together just long enough to walk out the doctor’s office with the list of recommendations for pediatric orthopedics at Nemours clinic. For a moment after leaving the doctor’s office, we both stood in the doorway. I could sense my mama felt the foreboding mood; she was certain that the doctor had said something awful to me.
She looked at me and said, “Ya, dime que dijo.” Now, tell me what he said.
That was all it took.
I began to cry uncontrollably. It was the first and last time that I allowed myself to completely give in to my emotions in the torturous months that followed.
I blurted it out in between sobs. I told her everything he had said. I told her that my curve was going to crush my heart and lungs if I didn’t have surgery. I told her that he couldn’t help me. I told her that I had to have surgery immediately. I told her that I didn’t know how surgery was going to be possible because we didn’t have insurance. The more I spoke, the more I cried. She tried to console me. She tried to tell me that everything was going to be okay, that we were going to find a way to get my surgery done. She said that there was no way she was going to let my curvature progress. She said all that without letting out a single tear; she said all that with a smile on her face. But I could see the fear evident in her smile. I could sense the concern in her words. I felt her sadness as she spoke. Get yourself together, I thought, you shouldn’t be crying, but the tears continued down my face as we drove home. I felt like a fountain that had been left running. My eyes spewed out tears, as if that was my natural state of being. The more I told myself to stop, the more powerful the tears became.
I wiped my runny nose and it left a trace of mucous combined with tears on my forearm, but I didn’t care. All I could think of was whether or not I would ever make it to my 30th birthday.