The Reality of Illness
FEBRUARy 27, 2020
To anyone who has had their illness, injury or pain questioned, I feel for you. And I am sorry. There is no excuse.
My accident caused clear physical, visual and audible damage, in addition to widespread and ongoing internal and psychological havoc from intense trauma. For months, you could not look at or hear me without immediately knowing something was seriously wrong — and thus, people treated me in certain ways, with greater care, sympathy, gentleness. As my wounds healed and speech improved slowly over time, despite the fact that I was still facing debilitating pain, crippling PTSD and dangerous psychological issues, none of these frighteningly real consequences were as glaringly obvious to passersby or the public. “It must not have been that bad,” “Wow, I thought it’d be way worse,” “Oh, you seem fine!” and other similar phrases from strangers and friends alike are not only misguided, ill-considered and inappropriate, but often received as insulting, hurtful and even somewhat pernicious, likely achieving the adverse effect of what was well-intentioned. I am looking better — and thank goodness, after all of this time, effort, investment and insanity! I’ve undergone a diverse array of complex, nuanced, costly surgeries, procedures, injections, lasers, treatments and traditional and alternative therapies, as well as ice, homeopathy and rest, over the course of nearly six months since my accident — and unless I am facing a temporary regression, negative response to something in particular or chance flare up, when I now wear makeup, keep up appointments and take my medications, the horrors of my accident are barely apparent to the naked, unknowing eye and ear.
This can cause people to question the validity or severity, even actuality of my lived experiences and medical past, present and future — taking the form of an accusatory denunciation or trivializing dismissal which feels crushing, distressing and deeply hurtful, when already vulnerable. And I am far from the only one facing more than meets the eye, as too many live with viscous “invisible” health challenges for a lifetime. Remember that we are all dealing with hardship, pain and agony, whether physical, psychological or otherwise, stemming from an accident, incident, chronic illness, who-knows-what. And things shift constantly, people have blessed good days and overwhelmingly horrific ones without warning or sequence — and doctors and time can indeed work wonders, though the sole guarantee of the path is its non-linear nature. So wherever you are today and whatever tomorrow morning or evening will bring, I hear you, I believe you, I stand with you, I support you.
When I walked through security at SFO this morning — en route to Los Angeles for additional dental work today (fingers crossed!) — I had a flashback to when I collapsed in that very airport in October… which was prior to being rushed to the hospital via ambulance from the same terminal for internal bleeding in December (oyy!). I recall standing there unfathomably weak and increasingly dizzy, waiting for my wheelchair to be hand-inspected after passing to the other side of the metal detector, feeling as if I were on the brink of collapse. “Whose wheelchair is this?” I finally heard a TSA agent ask from a short distance, as I was hunched over the counter. “Hers,” another agent directly in front of me shouted, as he pointed to me. “Nah, can’t be hers,” I heard the man who had asked the question respond.
As I turned toward him, he was already approaching two people to beckon them toward my wheelchair: a frail elderly woman and a younger man with his lower leg in a cast. Both shook their heads to indicate that chair was not theirs, yet he insisted, and so the woman sat down. “It was mine,” I stammered semi-coherently with a heavy lisp and impeded speech. I lifted my head to reveal my face from beneath the wide brim of my hat, seeing his startled look as he locked eyes with the half of my face that was not covered in bandages. He had made assumptions from glancing at my profile — that a young woman with a seemingly healthy physique in a form-fitting coat, leggings and boots with a black felt hat and roller-board suitcase and purse in front of her (or whatever details stood out to him) could not possibly be the one in need of a wheelchair. Then he heard me speak. Then he saw my face. Then he understood, if only to the most minimal, general and surface-level of degrees. Yet it was too late. I collapsed right then and there.
It is in no way his fault that I fell to the floor, a result of merely standing too long in my then-severely compromised state, according to the medical response team who were called to the scene. They underscored the importance of utilizing extreme caution when moving about, especially in public places that are unfamiliar, crowded or busy, and those where a fall would be particularly dangerous. They also told me to always use a wheelchair. The TSA agent who had been helping me — trying to get the chair through as quickly as possible, frustrated by the extended wait, and concerned about my health — explained what happened, in that I WAS using a wheelchair, but wasn’t prioritized because, and I quote, “Silly as it sounds, she didn’t look as bad as some of the others.” He apologized, the man who made the unsubstantiated though not at all malicious assumptions apologized, their colleagues apologized, the supervisors apologized, the medics apologized, additionally after gaining a better grasp on what happened — because it became clear that the system had failed.
It wasn’t simply that it failed me, rather that because someone (in this case, me) didn’t look, at first glance, like the typical injured or ill person, my medical necessities had been immediately questioned, which resulted in not receiving proper and swift attention (in this case, a wheelchair) required both by standard protocol and safety precautions. The impact of said failure proved quite serious, negative and risky for all involved parties (physically, procedurally and liability-wise), however my fall thankfully and luckily didn’t result in further injury — though did exacerbate pain, bring on new stresses and heighten anxiety.
Questioning, downgrading or belittling — even inexplicably challenging or flat out denying — any aspect of another human being’s illness, injury or pain is indeed cruel, insulting, hurtful and hazardous. To the best of our ability, may we be sensitive, may we be kind, may we be loving.