42: Of Detour and Determination

42: Of Detour and Determination

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Of Detour and Determination

People are made of flesh and blood and a miracle fibre called courage.

~Mignon McLaughlin

Shivering from cold and shock, I hold my son’s hands as he lies on the snow in a spreading crimson pool, both legs jutting at odd angles. He’s been caught as a pedestrian between two cars colliding on the icy highway, and I fear for his life. We lock eyes and somehow he stays conscious until medics arrive. As they load him in an ambulance, he manages to say, “Thanks, guys. I know you’re doing all you can for me.”

An orthopedic surgeon inserts metal rods in both legs, shattered from ankle to knee. The bones will heal, but because of extensive damage to muscles, tendons, and nerves, and gaping wounds that invite infection, the doctor gives Ben only a fifty-fifty chance of keeping his legs.

“I wish it were a dream and I’d wake up,” Ben says, but he maintains a positive attitude toward his healing. He weans himself off heavy pain medications because he hates the feeling of being “half there.” Six weeks after the accident, now late May, he returns to his junior year of high school in a wheelchair.

But his right leg begins to sag and gurgle, signaling infection. A doctor famous for “saving limbs” is our only hope of avoiding amputation. The doctor scrapes out infected bone, grafts a muscle from Ben’s chest to the site of the infection for increased blood supply, and puts a shunt in a vein next to Ben’s heart, where massive doses of antibiotics will be pumped into his body twenty-four hours a day.

I’m terrified as we wait two long weeks to find out if the graft has taken. “Don’t worry, Mom,” Ben says. “I’m young and healthy. I’ll heal.”

When the bandages are removed, Ben’s leg is pink, but extensively scarred. Still, he keeps his steady good humor. “My calf looks like a kidney bean covered with cheesecloth,” he jokes to his rugby team.

In a third surgery, doctors take bone from Ben’s pelvis and fill gaps in his legs where new bone has not formed. Beads of sweat on Ben’s forehead and his deathly pallor reveal the excruciating pain of his transfers from wheelchair to bed. Yet he doesn’t complain.

Still wheelchair-bound in early July, Ben takes on the rehab of an old VW bug. Daily, he slides from wheelchair to concrete garage floor and goes to work. He also finishes several projects to complete his junior year.

He begins turning wheelchair wheelies on the driveway. “Do you think you could do something safer?” I ask as he falls, pulls himself back into the chair, falls again. But he’s determined to do whatever it takes to be physically active again.

Next, he assaults the hill outside our house, wheeling a little further uphill each day until he can go around the block.

He trades wheelchair for crutches shortly before school begins in the fall, and swings from class to class, his books and homework in a backpack.

I assume all is going well until the attendance office call about truancies, and fail notices arrive in the mail. “I need to be outside exercising,” Ben explains to the vice-principal and me. “They want me to care who gets prom queen and king. I just care about walking again.” He’s courteous, but firm. Although I’m a teacher, I understand, and sign papers to withdraw him.

Ben works as hard at healing as any student works at maintaining a 4.0 grade point average. “Look, Mom!” he calls to me one day. “It hurts, but I can do it.” Holding the crutches out from his sides, he puts his full weight on his legs. Tears of joy run down both our faces.

Soon, he uses a cane, his gait a shuffle because nerve damage has permanently affected every movement of his ankles and knees. After another four months, he feels steady enough to walk unaided, and then to ride his bicycle. “I’m getting there,” he says.

He tries skateboarding again, wincing with pain and battling discouragement as he twists his permanently weak ankles and struggles to work around the limitations of nerve damage. Finally, he puts his skateboard away. Snowboarding is out of the question. He hikes, once again, into the woods he loves so much, but he can’t go far, nor can he hike steep terrain. When he tries to run, the impact hurts too much.

One afternoon, he tells me he’s been thinking about it a lot, and decided he’s healed as much as he’s going to. He expects chronic pain and breakthrough bleeding for a long time to come.

“I accept it,” he says, but for the first time a black cloud of despair settles over Ben. How do I comfort my son, now broken in spirit as well as body?

He retreats more and more often to his room. His good humor fades, as does his desire to exercise. I suspect marijuana. “I’m worried about you,” I tell him. “You’re so negative these days.”

“I’m fine, Mom. You’re the one with a problem,” he says.

I pray for my son and try to keep communication lines open.

One day, when he borrows my car to go to his counseling appointment, he rolls it. “I wasn’t speeding,” he says. When I see the car, ski rack torn off, the top, front, and rear dented, anger at Ben’s recklessness mixes with relief that he’s not injured. Obviously he’s been speeding. How can he feel immortal when he’s come so close to death?

“I’m afraid you’re going to kill yourself,” his sister, Tami, sobs. “What would we all do without you?”

When I ask Ben what he plans to do in the next year or two, his answer sears my heart. “How can I plan even a few months out? Life is so fragile. I might not even be around.”

Ben’s counselor advises that Ben needs time and support to heal from post-traumatic stress disorder created by the accident, not drug treatment. “It’s hard to imagine what he’s been through,” he says.

Family and friends pray for Ben and gather around him with love and encouragement. He continues in counseling. After five months of struggle, he somehow finds, again, the will to move forward with his healing and his life.

“I’ll try Merlo Station,” he decides, and registers for his senior year at an alternative high school in our district. In classes of twelve to fifteen students and a community of support, he earns straight As. Once again he skateboards, battering and bruising himself hour after hour as he practices various tricks, working around his physical limitations. “I can do just about everything,” he says. “It just takes a lot more effort.” He snowboards again, though for shorter periods. He still can’t hike steep terrain or long distances and he can’t run, but with great determination he focuses on what he is able to do.

In June, fourteen months after his accident, Ben shuffles across the stage to receive his high school diploma. Our family cheers wildly. He’s shown us all how to enter a dark place, reach into oneself for immense courage, accept the help and support of others, and emerge into the light.

~Samantha Ducloux Waltz

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