“Jessica has the most unusual feet I’ve ever seen.”
When I was 12 years old, this was the note written from my doctor to the orthopedic surgeon tasked with doing something about this apparently unique problem.
I had no idea my feet were different from other kids’ – at least I don’t remember caring until around this time.
When we went to do our swimming classes in the last year of my primary schooling, I remember trying to hide my feet by standing one foot on top of another to hide the bony protuberances: the joint of my big toe was shaped like a bunion and caused my toes to skew towards the little toe rather than straight like they should be.
Of course, I didn’t want to be different from the other kids.
My feet didn’t stop me doing anything physical. I could still run—fast—I tied for 1st place in the 100-meter sprint with my two best friends that year, and I played netball and tennis competitively and loved it. I was used to the pain I got after doing physical activity and the wide shoes I needed to accommodate my unusual shape.
I wasn’t that keen on the idea of surgery, but my parents told me stories about my aunt who lived in America who had the same feet as me (awesome genetic lottery, thanks family!) and that she hadn’t had her feet corrected until she was an adult. Apparently, this was a lot more disruptive and a “bigger” operation when it was left this long.
The surgeon announced he could correct the problem, but we’d have to wait until my feet had stopped growing. They took some x-rays to look at the growth of my bones and by the time the surgery was scheduled, I was into my second year of high school.
So now that I had to have an operation, I knew my feet actually were pretty different. I’d spend hours looking at them as I sat on my bed, pulling my big toe towards the midline, trying to make it stick in that important upright position, thinking if I did it enough, maybe I’d avoid the hospital trip.
But no amount of tugging and wishing fixed the problem.
We decided to schedule the surgery for the long summer break—the Australian holidays that we have around Christmas time into January. My feet would be in plaster for eight weeks which, to a thirteen-year-old, sounds like a really long time.
But I preferred to be out of action (and the swimming pool and the beach) over the holidays rather than deal with the social embarrassment of plaster and awkwardness at school.
I remember the lead up to the operation quite well. Of course, I was anxious about what it would be like—how much it would hurt—but more than that I really felt compelled to make the most of every last moment that I could move freely. I went for a last rollerblade around the block in the pre-dawn light, relishing the whip of wind through my hair, the freedom of flying down a hill with the pavement crackling under my wheels.
After the operation I spent the summer mostly hanging out with my sister and her friends, on the sideline of the swimming pool. I was too self-conscious to organise any time hanging out with my own friends.
The surgeon wasn’t happy with the result of that first operation, so later that year, I had the left foot redone and the right one done as well. This time there would be metal pins and plates in my feet. They’d cut the big toe joint, re-position my toes and shave some of the knobbly bunion off.
And this time, there was no avoiding mobility aids at school. I couldn’t catch the bus with my friends and so Dad drove me to school. As both my feet were in plaster this time, I left the hospital with what my cousins quickly dubbed “the veggie mobile.” A walker, like I’d seen elderly people shuffling around with. The height of uncool for a teenage girl! My cousins made me laugh though, as they decorated it with a sign. There was no way I was taking that thing to school, so crutches it was instead. At least crutches were kind of cool as the other kids could have a turn on them. My cousins and a few friends signed my casts.
It was weird having new feet. When I went to get my plaster off and stitches out my feet felt so foreign to me: the different shape, the slash of stitches and the stink of left over yellow antiseptic. They even smelled different. Suddenly, my vision tunnelled in a black spiral around the doctor’s head, closing in and closing in until I passed out.
I’d never had wicked scars before, but now I did—all the way down my big toe and part of my foot. In the way of young children I guess I’d imagined that the doctor would give me new and flawless feet, or at least that the scars would fade.
The fainting and the experience of going under the anaesthetic—not like being put to sleep, rather a chunk of time just goes missing like it never happened—fascinated me. Years later I’d study psychology at school and university and have a little smile to myself when we studied altered states of consciousness. Thanks to my feet I’d already experienced a few of those!
So how did the operation turn out for me? I experienced less pain which was (and is still) great. I was never as good as playing tennis afterward. For some reason I lost my tennis mojo. I lost the movement of my big toe so that when I try to lift it up it just sits there. This isn’t such a big deal – sometimes I have to do my own version of an exercise at the gym; and I have to man-handle my toes into shoes, I can’t just flex my toe and get it to wriggle into flip flops.
The doctors advised that I shouldn’t wear high heels, and that I should always wear supportive shoes. The teenage and young adult me wasn’t that impressed with that advice. When I started my first job, all the young women in the office wore fashionable strappy sandals and flip flops that were exactly what my doctor had warned me against. There was a summer there that I disregarded the medical advice and wore what I liked. The podiatrist couldn’t believe the state of my feet: I had layers of blisters hidden away under my calluses.
These days I take better care of my feet and I’m not so worried about fashion or how weird my feet look. I even found a pair of sandals that can fit my still-wide frame and are the best combination of supportive and fun! So of course I bought a few pairs in black and Tuscan red. My aim for this year is complete a 20-kilometer hike. I’m confident my feet and I will make it.