When I was first diagnosed back in Kelowna at the age of 11 I went, at least temporarily to a local doctor by the name of Dr. I-Can't-Deal-With-Children O'Farrell. Maybe that's a bit unfair of me, my memory of that whole time is a bit blurred, and any recollection I do carry of him generally involves me feeling about two inches tall. I'm sure he was/is a good Doctor, but his experiences were with adults who figured the high arches in their feet gave them reason to complain until they had passed out. Perhaps it was a mercy that my spine went as crazy as it did and quickly became a surgical matter. Mom and I were given an option, go to the Vancouver Children's Hospital, or Calgary.
Talk about playing Russian Roulette with my body. We knew nothing of either of the places OR the surgeons we could potentially be meeting. Vancouver was closer, but most of our family remained in Red Deer, just about an hour and a half north of Calgary. Granted the journey to Calgary was twice the length and thus twice the price, but if surgery was eminent, which is was, we would probably be better off closer to family. Calgary it was.
Ding Ding Ding! Congratulations Sawisky Family! You are the proud new owners of the single most Awesome Ortho Surgeon ever.
Mom picked wisely, and thus began the adventure of a life time (technically actually it was only about eight years, but who's counting?) Dr. Elf (name changed to protect the innocent) was a tiny burst of energy who entered the room of the old Alberta Children's Hospital, shook my hand with the enthusiasm of Robocop (who I assume must have one hell of a handshake) and got down to business. Now, my memory is a bit flaky at this point, but according to my mother Dr. Elf could be summed up as such: Concerned with the state of my back, straight to the point, knowledgeable, and totally without a sense of humor.
That quickly changed.
Now before I go on there's one thing you need to know. Right around the time I was diagnosed with scoliosis, my dad left the family. It was an affair, another woman, the usual story really. The major point of this is that he was absent throughout my entire hospital experience. If for 8, 9 years we were going to the hospital every 3 months... Well, you do the math, that's how many times he wasn't there when I needed him. And no, he never came to visit me during the surgeries either. While I've just lately forgiven his other transgressions, the fact that he was absent during some of the toughest moments of my life still pisses me off. I wouldn't even mention it except the combination of family angst and bodily angst is what started my emotional descent into the underworld of sarcasm and smarm. And poor old Dr. Elf would be front and center in the target range.
Being the good mom she is, and not wanting me to accidentally offend my new surgeon and cause him to say, sew up my incision funny as punishment for my attitude, she wrote him a letter explaining the situation. What was going on at home, and why, for the most part, I was perhaps exhibiting a bit more teenage angst than normal. That's when everything changed.
Now, I think we can all agree that with the various health care systems across the world, most of us are lucky to get surgeries before we become human Slinky's (slinkies?) let alone see a specialist within a year of the requisition being sent in. Health care systems world wide are in disaray, and for the most part we, as patients, know it and experience it every day. That's why I remind myself daily just how lucky I have been. A few meetings with the Elf later and mom was noticing the change (I wouldn't see it until years later); he was taking more time than needed, asking questions that were completely irrelevant (how many surgeons care about how your middle school grades are?) He was taking an interest, at first because I think he felt like someone ought to, but soon enough it progressed to something natural. Every three months like clock-work, I knew I'd better have at least two or three interesting stories to tell him about my classes or my vocal lessons or my writing, or else he would give me that Elf Look that continues to strike fear into my heart to this day. This ortho surgeon, who had dozens if not hundreds of kids passing through his office every week, and yet he chose me, made me feel like I was worth something during the time in my life when the one man who should have been there for me, was totally absent.
I know he came to appreciate my combination of maturity and sarcasm. As I got older we would take to upping the smarm ante and see who could crack the other first. I won with my glorious explanation of what cliff jumping was and why I had been doing an awful lot of it lately (to which he responded, eyes wide with fright "You haven't really been doing that, have you?")
Dr. Elf, replacement father. It never occurred to me that he didn't have to be acting this way. He could stand at the door, talk at me for ten minutes, order an x-ray and say 'See you in three months.' Not him though. Maybe it was the fact that my spine kept moving and he found my reaction to the whole situation a little strange ("The curve has grown." "Meh, it happens." "No, no it doesn't.") Either way, at the end of the day, he remains the single most important person who has ever entered my life (who didn't have a legal obligation to actually do so like family or teachers) and it was only during my last visit to the ACH, when I was 18 and thus no longer a 'child' that I realized what an impact he had made on my life.
He always asked me about my writing, when I was going to get published. He asked about my music, if I was going to Honor Choir again. He asked about my grades, and then proceeded to interrogate me as to why my math grades weren't good. I told him, I'm an English person, but apparently that's not an acceptable excuse. He was so involved and he never had to be. I can't imagine he does that for every kid because hey, that would drain a persons emotions faster than a frat boy with a keg. Even if he did, I'd still feel as special as I do now, and certainly just as grateful.
When I had to go to the Foothills he helped me pick a new surgeon, a good friend of his (a brilliant choice for that matter), and gave me a hug and said goodbye and boy did I cry and cry and cry, and I really didn't know why I at the time. Then it hit me, it was like saying goodbye to the dad I had always needed but never had. This whole time I had been filled with so much resentment because I figured my dad bailing on us had left a giant hole in my heart. Turns out there was a hole, just a little one, no bigger than a splinter, and it had been bandaged over a long time ago by this man. I felt ridiculously guilty for not realizing the impact he had on my life sooner, even to this day, I know I became who I am now because of his influence.
Maybe I'll write him a letter, try to catch up. He's got to be nearing retirement now, and I think he'd get a riot out of my Private Detective career (either that or I'll cause him to have cardiac arrest. Maybe I'll just tell him I've been cliff jumping again.)
If I'm trying to make a point I think it must be this: Don't take the support for granted. Yes, we're lucky to have each other, and our friends and families, but there's another aspect to our care that can easily get overlooked. Maybe not all the specialists are winners, and the ones that give you five minutes out of their day before pushing you out make you want to slash their tires and throw a medical cadaver in the backseat of their Benz with the leather interior. The bad ones are always going to be around, but the good ones? They can make the biggest impact in your life, not just medically, but without ever saying a word. Blink and they can be gone, and yet their simple actions can stay with you for the rest of your life.
I know I'm never going to be able to put my writing off without feeling the eyes of the Good Doc bearing down into the back of my head and giving me that look that says "I did not put you back together just so you could sit around watching the Food Network all day, young lady! Hop to it!"
And I will hop to it, after Top Chef and Ace of Cakes.