A friend of mine recently wrote on Facebook of an encounter in a parking lot.
The woman parked in a handicapped spot and got out.
Another woman said to her, “Well, you look perfectly normal to me!”
Just because someone looks healthy, it doesn’t mean he or she is perfectly fine. Like we learned in kindergarten: it’s not what’s on the outside that counts, it’s what’s on the inside.
Yes, I’ve heard of healthy people talking their doctors into signing off on a handicapped license plate so they can park where they like. But the majority of these folks really do have a medical problem that you just can’t see.
Another friend of mine has asthma. Because of the dangers of asthma attacks during pollen season or when the ozone count is high, her doctor recommended she have a handicapped plate so that she could minimize her outdoor exposure during bad days.
She said, “Oh, no.” Because she looks healthy enough to a stranger, she feared that when she came back out of a store or restaurant, someone might have slashed her tires out of anger.
I know exactly how these women feel. I, too, deal with bad health issues that no one can see.
Just this week I was walking through the central office for Mount Airy City Schools. Someone asked if I was hurt. “You’re limping today.”
I pleasantly replied, “I often do.” And I kept on going.
I was in basic training in Fort Benning in 1989 when I injured my left foot. I struggled on and made it through basic, but the foot continued to bother me during AIT (advanced infantry training). After weeks of limping on one leg, I sprained the arch in my other foot and was done. Three months into my military career, I got the boot with a medical discharge.
That left foot hurts every day. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
Making matters worse is that I also have nerve damage in my spine that sends phantom pain signals for my left foot and calf.
In my early 20s I started having back trouble. Just a few weeks after my daughter was born in 1997, I ruptured a disc in my lower back.
And when I say ruptured, I don’t mean a little bit of disc stuck out of my spine. No, the surgeon said it was more like the disc exploded. He drew a diagram of the biggest chunk — it was the size of the end of my thumb, and kind of resembled one of those Pink Pearl erasers I had in grade school. He went to the trouble of measuring it: 3.6 cm long, 2.4 cm wide and 0.8 cm thick.
He said it was the biggest single piece he’d ever seen, and then he joked that two doctors got into a fight over who got to keep the chunk.
There were six or seven smaller pieces in there, too, the doctor said. The debris was just floating around, banging against nerves and getting pressed against them when I moved.
A couple of days later when he came by on rounds, the doctor said to me, “Once I saw how severe your injury was, I have no idea how you walked into the hospital on your own that morning. You should have been in a wheelchair, unable to walk.”
I was only 25.
By the time I was 34, I’d undergone three back operations, each one more severe. I have metal rods, screws and brackets, a wedge of bone off my hip, and something that looks like a paper clip on x-rays all working together to hold my spine intact.
After the last surgery, the surgeon told me that if I were lucky, this reconstruction would last me 10 years before I’d need more work. That was almost 11 years ago, so I feel like I’m living on borrowed time.
I have heard other people with back troubles say things like, “Oh, I have good days and bad days.”
Me? I have good minutes and bad minutes.
One time when I get up from my desk, I might walk across the office just fine. The next time I might limp badly because of foot pain or muscle weakness in my left leg.
There are medications that can help with nerve hyperactivity, but the side effects make it impossible to take the meds and hold down a job.
One pill gave me problems focusing my eyes. Another one made me so dizzy I couldn’t drive a car.
Regular pain pills can affect one’s ability to concentrate and function — and possibly lead to dependency and addiction.
So, I take nothing and cross my fingers.
Could I have a handicapped license plate on my car? You bet.
Like my friend said, however, nobody can see what is wrong with us, and that can lead to bad encounters. So I persevere.
Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.