The night after I had surgery to close up a pressure sore, the nurse came into my room to introduce himself. His first question: “What is your condition?” I’m thinking, condition? What do you mean by condition? He’s got to know that I just had surgery. Is he asking how long it’s been since the surgery? Is he asking whether I’m in pain? Is he waxing political? After a few minutes of confusion (some of which was feigned, I will admit), he finally said he wanted to know why I am disabled, that is, how I came to be using wheelchair. Apparently, “What is your condition?” is a nice way of saying, “What is wrong with you?” (I always want to say, “nothing” just to make a point, but we all have room for improvement.)
I suppose it was a fair question given his job. Heaven forbid he should look at my chart. So I told him: I sustained a spinal cord injury 27 years ago.
The next question: “How did it happen?” Strictly speaking, that’s none of his business, but everyone asks the same thing. At that moment, he was the only thing standing between me and pain medication. So I told him the story of how I broke my neck by being run over by a car.
Clearly, he was moved. “That is so sad,” he said as though the accident had just happened. “I’m sorry.” He then explained how hard the whole ordeal must be for me and how unfair my plight is. This is where I start to get annoyed. I know he is trying to be sympathetic and all that, but really he’s just expressing his own ignorant fears. Am I supposed to feel good knowing he thinks my life is a tragic mess? Is this where the pathetic cripple bonds with the sensitive caregiver? I can’t play this game. It’s got to stop.
“No,” I say, “It’s not sad.
“When I first found out I was paralyzed, it was sad. I was utterly inconsolable. But I’ve got to say that after 27 years, I’m pretty much over it. Moved on. True, it would be extremely convenient to be able to walk again, but I’m not hiding in the attic waiting for a cure. I’ve been paralyzed longer than I was nondisabled. Almost all the best moments of my life have been post-injury — college, marriage, friendships, travel, kids. I have to say life is good, crippled limbs and all. Just because you are too small-minded to imagine a quadriplegic having a complete life, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.
“Surprising as it may seem, what is really concerning me right now is not the fact that I broke my neck almost three decades ago. I’m much more worried about how I’m going to make it through the next few days in the hospital so I can get back to my seemingly pathetic life. The truth is that my worst nightmare is to be stuck in a hospital bed, separated from those who know me, completely reliant on strangers who see me as nothing more than a sad story in a broken body. Is that where I am now? Because, really, that would be sad.”
Okay, I might not have said all of this. But in any case, he didn’t get it. In his mind, I was just another cripple mad at the world. Or maybe to him I was an inspirational cardboard cutout, heroically denying the horror of disability. Either way, it was a terrible waste. Authentic human connection is what gives life meaning, but it rarely comes on the cheap.