This week’s pose is by Laura Ricci, women’s health physical therapist. Following major orthopaedic surgery requiring fracture of her pelvis, she writes from her newly found perspective as a patient, rather than as health care professional. What she learned is a call to action for all of us.
Living with Disability: A Physical Therapist Tells Her Story
One month ago, I had one of the largest orthopedic surgeries you can have – a periacetabular osteotomy. A periacetabular osteotomy is a hip preservation joint surgery in which the pelvis is fractured in multiple places (mine was fractured in 4) to separate the acetabulum (or hip socket) from the pelvis and rotate it so that the ball of the largest leg bone in the body (femur) has adequate joint coverage. Without this surgery people are condemned to a life of pain.
Four sterling silver screws were used to hold my new hip joint in its new position. This surgery was necessary because, about five months ago, doctors finally discovered the reason for my long history of hip and pelvic pain…I have adult hip dysplasia, which simply put, means my hip joints failed to develop normally. My hip pain gradually became worse to the point where I could no longer walk or sit without pain.
I had this life-altering surgery on April 21, 2014, and even though I am a physical therapist and understand the anatomy, surgery, and rehab, I can tell you actually going through this experience is quite different than treating a patient with this issue.
Same but Different = Discrimination
For the first month after surgery, I was pretty much homebound and receiving home health physical therapy and nursing care. One month post-op, my mother and I traveled back to see my surgeon for my first checkup.
It was when I was finally out of my cocoon and back out in the real world when I noticed it – people treat you differently when you are in a wheelchair. People avoided making eye contact with me, give me sad, despairing looks, or walked quickly in front of me to avoid holding the door or elevator open.
When I was in the wheelchair, I felt invisible. I had never fully realized that disabled people are treated this way – until I became one.
For example, while signing in for a PT appointment, one woman reached over me (while in my wheelchair) and grabbed the clipboard and pen out of my hand! She proceeded to explain to me that she had missed her last PT appointment and she couldn’t miss another one.
Does that make it alright to pretend like I do not exist and take things out of my hands? I think my shocked and startled look got to her, and after signing herself in, she handed the clipboard back to me, saying, “I’m sorry, I’m…” to which I replied, “In a big rush?!”
The funny part was that I was called back for my appointment about 15 minutes before she was, which is what I like to call karma or divine intervention.
Are we in that big of a hurry that we cannot wait 30 seconds? To make matters even more awkward, the rest of the people in the waiting room, as well as the office staff, acted as if nothing happened. It made me wonder: would this have happened if I was not in a wheelchair? Was it easier for her to treat me this way because I was in the chair?
After physical therapy, my mom and I decided we would take the hotel shuttle to a restaurant about a mile away for dinner. Another woman quickly walked in front of us on our way to a shuttle to sit in the front seat. My mom and I realized I would not be able to get up the three large steps to sit in the back seat of the van. The lady asked if she could help me from the front seat of the shuttle, and when I asked if she would mind letting me sit in the front, she became very upset saying “Well, what’s the big difference between this seat and that one?!” To which I answered, “Well, my pelvis was fractured in four places, I cannot put much weight on my surgical leg, I cannot bend it past 90 degrees, and I am a physical therapist and know I cannot safely get into this van that way.” Then I crutched away. It was not worth it to me to argue over a seat with this lady. I just did not understand why someone would offer to help you, and when you explain how she could help you, she become upset, almost offended!
After experiencing these two incidents, happening within hours of each other, I was reminded of a quote from the movie “Tangled,” in which Rapunzel tells the thugs in the Ugly Ducking, “Find your humanity!” Would it hurt us to take one minute out of our day to help someone else? …To hold a door or elevator open for someone, to give someone a smile, or to ask if they need help? I can tell you from experience, once you lose your mobility, the simplest things become challenges and take more time and effort.
Going through this journey has given me a whole new respect for the disabled, and it is my intention that by sharing my story, more people will offer respect and decency to everyone around them, especially the disabled. I urge all of us to find our humanity, and do something kind for our fellow man, particularly those in need. You could completely change someone’s day and make yours better in the process.