I am a firm believer that everything in life happens for a reason. This is how I maintain my optimism, because there is always light at the end of every tunnel.
The most prominent example of this is when I had life-changing surgery in Wilmington, Delaware 10 years ago today. However, all of it came about throughout the unlikeliest of circumstances.
Mitchell and I were in the 6th grade. My cerebral palsy had confined me to a wheelchair at that point. That fall Mitchell agreed to be the 12th player on the junior high football team with our friends. He only played on the team because they needed one more player in order to take the field.
Mitchell’s time on the gridiron didn’t last very long. In the first game of the season against Beaver Local, he broke his leg in two places. He obviously never played football again. What we didn’t realize at the time was that Mitchell’s unfortunate injury gave us a connection that would lead to my second chance at standing and walking.
Mitchell’s orthopedic doctor was a man named Dr. Timothy Domer who is based in East Liverpool, OH. Dr. Domer mentioned to my parents that he was an intern at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. This hospital has some of the most prestigious cerebral palsy doctors in the world. People come from all over the world to Wilmington, Delaware to receive treatment. My family and I were able to find the doctor that would change my life forever.
His name is Dr. Freeman Miller. Dr. Miller operated on countless patients during his 30 years of practice. He has written several medical textbooks about cerebral palsy and he is known as a guru of cerebral palsy in the neuro-orthopedic medical field. My mom calls him a miracle worker.
Dr. Miller has tons of accomplishments, but my family and I noticed other things when he came walking through the door. We noticed his engaging warm smile and his calm voice. He always sported a colorful bow tie that matched his dress shirt. Just like Ric Flair, Dr. Miller was stylin’ and profilin’.
Dr. Miller was focused and direct, but he was also very kind-hearted. He was like another grandfather to me. He saw something in me, and I wanted to learn from him and do all I could to move forward.
He had me do a gait analysis at my first appointment. His assistants strapped small gray stickers from my foot all the way up to my hip and they tracked me as I walked up and down a picture of the yellow brick road from the Wizard of Oz. My every step was recorded on a computer monitor. After the analysis, Dr. Miller gave us the rundown. A lot of work needed to be done.
He explained that I needed a series of 12 to be completed during one operation, and they needed to be done rather quickly. He would break bones so that he could re-align and re-adjust my feet, legs and knee cap. He also lengthened my hamstrings, quads, calf muscles and heel cords. My left foot didn’t face forward like most people’s. It was stuck out to the left. My legs were so tight that I was pulled down into a crouch when standing or attempting to walk. Dr. Miller believed that I was a fitting candidate for this daunting surgery that not all CP patients qualify for. I was scheduled to return to Delaware in the fall for the surgery, then everything changed.
We returned back from this trip to Delaware on a Tuesday and a few days went by. Then it all happened. On Good Friday, I went downstairs that morning just like any other day in my Super Mario pajamas to watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I was chilling out on the couch until my mom got an unexpected phone call.
It was the duPont Center. They had a cancellation in the schedule, so Dr. Miller wanted me to come back next week for the surgery. My world had completely changed. We soon jumped in the car to drive six hours again, back to the place where all the magic would happen.
The days leading up to the surgery were very calm. We stayed at the Ronald McDonald House that was close by. Mitchell and I enjoyed the game room and we even got to meet new kids. We met a family from the country of Jordan. Fadi and David Hanna were staying there because their young sister was receiving treatment for a brain tumor. Both boys would greet us with a smile and a hug every time we saw them. We still think about them to this day.
The date of the surgery was Friday, April 9, 2010. We had to be at the hospital at 5 a.m., so I wasn’t happy about that part of it. They ran tests and then placed me on a hospital bed. They gave me anesthesia as I sat with my family. The lasting image that I have from that morning was my dad bawling like a baby in his Steelers polo. He was scared, but he was also excited because I was going to have a better life.
After the surgery I was in unimaginable pain. My mom stayed with me and kept me company. We watched Paul Blart: Mall Cop at least six times. I’m happy that my mom was there for me throughout this difficult time.
My Grammy came about a week later with a lot of love and a whole bunch of goodies from my mom’s friends and co-workers. She stayed with us at the Ronald McDonald House before we went home. She wanted me to get my blood flowing by going down to the cafeteria. I reluctantly went down and had dinner with her and my mom. I wasn’t very happy about this, but I was still grateful that my Grammy came and I now know that she was just trying to get me out of that hospital room and rolling down the hall.
There were still two months of school left when we returned home. My parents had to go to work, so they had to find someone to stay with me. Thankfully, my Aunt Nisa stepped up to the plate. She came over to take care of me every day and brought McDonalds for breakfast. I will never forget her selflessness because she made sure that I was taken care of when I was stuck in bed. We had good times.
And last but not least, there’s Mitchell. I had to sleep in a hospital bed in the living room, so Mitchell decided to sleep on the couch each night so he could be near me. There were some nights when I couldn’t sleep because of the pain and there was nothing I could do, but Mitchell was there. I had my PlayStation, orange Gatorade and Mitchell downstairs with me. Even though it was tough, life was still good. It is pretty surreal that his first and last football game is what led to my physical recovery. Again, everything happens for a reason.
I had the opportunity to attend a few school functions before the year ended. All of my friends were amazed because I grew a couple of inches taller because of the surgery. This is bittersweet because I haven’t grown taller since. Haha. It felt great to get back out and socialize with my buddies.
This past Saturday my family and I went for a walk in the park with our German Shepherd, Bell. It’s crazy to think that there was a time when I couldn’t even walk across the room. It took many, many months of daily stretches and physical therapy to get me walking on my own. My mom no longer has to be there to support me by letting me hold on to her arm as I walk. Since those surgeries, I have walked a couple of 5ks and I’ve even walked for three hours straight in downtown Pittsburgh. I couldn’t have done it without my warrior mom who always pushed me, and continues to be my rock.
Thank you, Dr. Miller and Alfred I. duPont.
Here’s to the next 10 years!
Michael Reiner is an opinion writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.