Maybe this time I can do it. Careful now. Remember, step lightly on that first stair. Easy, easy, easy.
As a young child, I had this odd compulsion; to be able to sneak up on my mother in the morning. My older sister would usually already be up and going before me, and Mom would usually be in the kitchen. I would carefully struggle to put on my leg braces on my own.
First, the waist piece. This was solid, leather-covered, and encircled my waist. A thin leather belt-like strap tightened this piece holding it in place. Twister cables were attached to this solid piece with a hinge, extended to the floor, and attached with another hinge to the ever-present saddle shoes. Just above my knees, there were leather straps that encircled the lower thigh and they too were secured with a thin strap and small belt buckle.
I had been wearing these since age five. I was not sure how long I would have to put them on each morning, but I knew that the plan was to put pins in my hips when I was fifteen. These were to be worn all day every day, but not in bed. The plan was for me to wear them for several years without an exact set length of time.
With the straps tightened but the shoes untied, I would continue down the staircase. From the landing where the stairs turned, I could often see Dad reading in the living room with a purring cat on his lap, and my two sisters might be seen there reading too or playing out in the front yard with our dog.
Creak! I froze, jolted back to full focus on what I was doing. Creak, said the bottom stair again as I shifted my weight farther onto it.
Careful now. Quiet! That last step from the carpeted stairs to the hardwood floor of the dining room could be tricky. OK, good, almost to the kitchen….
Usually, at about this point in my attempted ambush, Mom would say quietly something or turn around and grin at the small intruder.
“Oh man! Aaaugghhh!” Again? Caught again! No matter how gently I stepped, either those dreadful saddle shoes fastened to the bottom of my leg braces would make noisy contact with the floor or one of my hinges would let out a distinctive squeak.
Now here’s something you do not hear every day: Mom and I would then go to the cabinet beneath the sink and peer in looking for my oil can. Yes, no wonder I have a figurine of the Tin Woodman from “The Wizard of Oz” hanging each year on our Christmas tree. Like him, I needed frequent oiling.
Even though I had been caught again, it was all in fun.
At this point, Dad might appear asking, “So, Squeak, did you get her this time? Oh, I see you’re oiling up. Here, let’s take that to the garage and refill it.”
Just like that, day after day, Mom and Dad found ways to lighten my “sentence” in those Forrest-Gump-like leg braces and make them either invisible, insignificant, or something with a touch of fun and humor. This morning, Dad was, as usual, joking with his three girls, Squeak, Squawk, and Squirt. “Squawk” was my older sister, no surprise that she talked a lot. My little sister came along seven years after me, was Daddy’s “Princess”, and occasionally went by “Squirt”. Instead of despising my braces or battling this course of treatment for my hip rotational abnormality, Dad made it fun, and “Squeak” became a term of endearment. We had a rather idyllic childhood, something you would not expect to hear from someone who appeared to be “handicapped” and who endured fatigue, pain, and teasing.
As I look back, yes, there was taunting and feelings of being limited and different. They first fitted me for the braces at the age of five, and I no longer had to wear them in either fourth or fifth grade. The years in between were undeniably influenced by these leg braces.
Yet, in contrast to the tales of others’ experiences dealing with a disability as a child, for me, the main lasting impact has strengthened my personality and my resilience.
It all started when I came into the world in a frightful hurry. Apparently, Mom was only at the hospital six minutes before I arrived, and Dad was still parking the car. Unbeknownst to us at the time, Mom and I are both susceptible to a condition called Malignant Hyperthermia (MH). Known for its adverse reactions when an individual receives certain types of anesthesia, patients can also react due to exertion, heat, or high stress or strain. Due to my express delivery, both Mom and I reacted.
While some staff dealt with Mom’s complications from the speedy delivery, others worked on me. Apparently, my muscles reacted by becoming rigid, leaving me in a near-paralyzed state. Back in a time when fathers were separated from the birthing process, my parents were allowed to have Dad bring me into Mom’s room and spend time with me together, for the medical professionals did not understand what was going on and feared that I would survive long.
Eventually, my muscles relaxed, calming these fears. Nevertheless, small abnormalities gradually revealed themselves: one leg shorter than the other, a swayback stance, hips clicking. My parents took notice of these seemingly small things and other telltale signs of a rotational deformity: the way I would sit on my feet or in a “W” position with my feet out to the sides but not in a cross-legged position, my toes turning inward especially when standing, tripping over myself.
By the time of the doctors diagnosed a rotational disability, my parents had already observed a variety challenges which increased when I started walking. They became convinced this was serious and that the rigidity at birth was not without consequence. The ligaments and cartilage around my hip joints were not able to hold the ball and socket together, so my leg would rotate unstably, and I would fall. After this resulted in a collision with the coffee table and a concussion at an early age, I became leery of trying to walk, and my development became delayed.
Doctors determined that my hips had completely formed ball and sockets, and concluded that an odd position in utero was not the cause of the hip rotational deformity, so they went another route. When hip rotational deformities and their accompanying complications last a year or more past the onset of walking, the treatment often involves twister cables, worn from a few months to years.
The plan was for me to wear the braces all day for several years with regular check-ups and measurements, then at the age of fifteen, they would put pins in my hips resulting in near-normal function and mobility. So, I went through my whole childhood knowing of the temporary situation with the leg braces and the eventual hip surgery.
My parents did not coddle or pamper me. It probably helped that we lived in the mountains where an active lifestyle came naturally, and that my mother was a competent, independent woman raised on a ranch not confined by rigid gender roles. I truly felt they were proud of me when I would be out riding my bike, playing Kick the Can, or climbing nearby rock formations. They somehow instilled in me a reliable self-awareness that would tell me it was time to rest.
Yes, I needed to rest more than the other kids. Yes, I had quite a bit of pain that others did not experience. Still, my parents somehow communicated with me in a way that I usually could tell them when I needed to a short rest, a hot bath, or to sleep a bit, without feeling like they would take activities away from me. With the wise orthopedic’s guidance, they accepted and monitored my limitations trusting that I was not wimping out or trying to use this to get attention, and they also did not push me too hard.
Because of this, the braces did not become an enemy, an alien appendage attached to me daily. Even though I could not always put them on by myself and definitely needed help tying the shoes for a long time, they were my helpers in a way. Even a friend? They set me apart, and while this caused some pain, in the long run it brought some benefits.
I have not parted with or discarded those old leg braces. I see them now and then in the basement. When we moved many years ago, people spotted them and inquired. At first, it did not make sense why I would keep a reminder of painful memories. However, I loved overhearing the explanation that I associated them with how far I have come, that they represent accomplishment, grit, and resilience.
Nearly every day I am aware of the former “handicapped kid” inside of me. This medical experience helped me to develop essential resilience and strength, so I smile when I see those braces hanging there, but still not those saddle shoes...I’ll never buy a pair of saddle shoes...but, I carry with me the grit they cultivated.