Paralyzed at 15

By Rich Kolasa

I’d been running track the day before. I remember the flame in my lungs at the end of it. The next day was a birthday party for one of the neighborhood kids. We were all hanging out, talking and flirting. Just a few awkwardly placed teenagers on a swing set. And there was this throbbing in my heel. A throbbing that no amount of shoe emptying would resolve.

Over the course of the evening, the throbbing crept up from my heel and spread into my calves. I felt proud that I’d done such a number on them running the day before. I rubbed on some tiger balm and laid in bed a while. It didn’t get worse, but it didn’t get better.

I remember some instinct setting off a red flag in my mind. Sort of like ‘Sorry to bother you, but you’ll want to get this looked at’. Very nonchalant. I let my mom know it hadn’t gotten any better, and that I thought we should go to the hospital. It’s odd that she was so quick to agree given my calmness. I probably would have sent me back to bed. But off we went.

The ride to the hospital was uneventful. I even felt a little bit better as we went. By the time we were five minutes away I felt completely fine, if not embarrassed. What I didn’t know was that the nerve endings in my legs had already been nearly obliterated. My legs felt better because I couldn’t feel them. It never crossed my mind that something had happened – until I tried to exit the vehicle.

It was dark. Fluorescent light from the ‘EMERGENCY’ sign threw shadows as it came in contact with the open van door. I swung my legs out and stood. It was as though someone turned up the gravity. I grabbed hold of the door and held myself up, the last vestiges of strength keeping me from hitting the ground. I called over to mom, my voice tinged with a sort of stunned curiosity. I can’t recall a single thing we said to each other.

My initial memory of the walk toward the Emergency Room door is one where we were too stunned to panic. Somewhere deeper, though, is a memory of feeling Mom’s fear as she supported me. It was the way she was breathing. I’d not heard that sort of discrete desperation in my life before or since. I wasn’t particularly light, either. Thank goodness for the gentleman who helped her get me to a wheelchair- if not for him I would’ve been laying helpless on the pavement watching my legs die.

I’m not sure how being traumatized in other situations works, but when you’re traumatized in this specific situation, you really don’t care that your legs have stopped working. You’re just casually answering the nice nurses’ questions about whether you have any preexisting conditions, or whether this has happened before. No ma’am, I am not an expert in this particular realm of life.

Panic set in when I realized my body was in shock. wasn’t in shock, mind you, but my body was. I was watching tv in the hospital bed, and some time went by before I realized I hadn’t been breathing. I’d just stopped and my body didn’t even care. If I got too distracted by something and forgot to breathe, I would stop breathing. That freaked me out most.

The doctors of hospital #1 weren’t equipped to handle whatever had happened to me, and were pretty timely about moving me to another one. I was strapped down to a stretcher and sent on a 45 minute ambulance journey. I’d never ridden in an ambulance before. Some part of me was excited but mostly I was terrified.

Everything between that bumpy stretch of highway and my bed at hospital #2 is blank for me. I just don’t remember how I got from the ambulance to a bed. I do remember the neurologist though. Quirky guy, fun, letting me know that I probably didn’t have MS, but that it might be good to check anyway. The test was a simple MRI. I could fall asleep during one of those, if not for the lab technicians asking if I’m okay every 30 seconds. The results came back within the day, and I did not have MS. That sounded great to me, and so I smiled and listened to him wonder after what it might be.

As provided by Google;

Transverse myelitis is a neurological disorder caused by inflammation across both sides of one level, or segment, of the spinal cord. The term myelitis refers to inflammation of the spinal cord; transverse simply describes the position of the inflammation, that is, across the width of the spinal cord.

This is what the neurologist figured I had. I know now that it is what I had. Knowing for certain, however, would require a needle the length of my forearm to be inserted into my spine. And they’d do it with some local anesthetic.

In the entirety of my sensory experience on this planet, I have never felt something so strange as a needle delving into my spine. Imagine a small balloon. It’s not an ordinary balloon. Instead it’s made out of something both elastic and tensile. Something you can’t pierce but still has all the other balloon properties. Now place that balloon inside of your back, and push a needle into it. Did you feel your spine cringe? It’s called a Lumbar Puncture.

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