You may have seen what math folks call “Venn Diagrams”. These illustrate sets and subsets using circles that may or may not intersect. For example, a graph illustrating all college students may be shown as a large box, with a (very) small circle in it representing college students who go to Ursuline College. I found myself thinking of this way of portraying the world when I recently found myself with not just a broken leg but also a broken arm.
It all started when I was multi-tasking and stopped on my way out the door to drive my daughter to school. Oh- I forgot to bring some papers I needed for my morning meeting; I would just run back in to get them. However, when I had almost reached the door, I slipped on some ice and fell, hearing a “crack” that signaled to me that I had broken my leg. Luckily, my husband was still home, and he was able to call the ambulance for me. I was also lucky that my daughter, while frightened, listened when I told her to stay in the car, thus preventing both of us from being injured at the same time.
I was patched up and sent home with a boot and crutches, being told to stay off the leg for a week and then to come back to see the orthopedic doctor. However, after one week, as I was trying to get to the car to go back to the doctor, my crunches slipped and I fell backwards, banging my leg on the entrance to my house and breaking my right arm in the process. Instead of getting better, I found myself in the hospital with a broken arm and a (re-)broken leg, almost completely helpless and in need of assistance to do anything as simple as get out of bed. I felt like Humpty Dumpty, as I waited for the surgeon to put me back together again.
As I waited for surgery on both my limbs, one nurse told me that she had seen such injuries before, but that they were in people who were much older than me, by about 40 years, at least. It soon became clear that my bones broke so easily because they had been robbed of calcium from the anti-seizure medicine I have taken for almost 20 years. While I did take calcium supplements for the last three years, at the suggestion of my neurologist, it seems that the damage was too severe to prevent the results I encountered. I have since taken it upon myself to alert everyone of this side effect of the miracle drugs that allow me to live a normal life and to even function as “mom’s taxi”. If you take them, you might want to talk to your doctor about taking calcium supplements, perhaps along with vitamin D.
As I lay in bed, unable to move half of me, I entered the world of people with disabilities. When I think of people with disabilities, I think first of a woman who is my own personal hero, whom I have known most of my life, whom I will call “Elizabeth”. She was born prematurely over 40 years ago, before medicine knew what to do to help such tiny babies, and was so small her grandfather said that she was “smaller than a loaf of bread”, which was an understatement. On her first birthday the doctors gave a name to the fact that she barely used her right arm and leg; “Cerebral Palsy”.
Despite her difficulties, she never faltered as she navigated the world of children who had full use of their limbs. I remember her trying out for the cheerleading squad in her small grammar school, and being amazed that she would have to courage to even try out for it. When the coach called her mother to tell her that she was being put on the squad, she did so saying something about how she would probably not be able to participate all of the time. Funny, from what I heard, she never sat out one cheer during those years on the squad, but instead became the darling of the squad because she was so tiny and cute. Even in her second year on the squad, she was the “littlest cheerleader”.
Elizabeth was in the final years of a very rigorous college program before anyone figured out that she had a learning disability. She went on to earn a master’s degree, and today works with people who have developmental delays or have experienced traumatic brain injuries. She is married with a little girl who is both beautiful and brilliant, whom I am proud to call my goddaughter. More conversant than some children twice her age, I fully expect her daughter to earn some letters, of some form, after her name someday. Elizabeth has taught me what it means to triumph over physical adversity, and has been my role model these past few weeks as I have learned to live without my right limbs.
So what does this have to do with Venn Diagrams? This connection was suggested to me by a conversation I had several years ago with someone from the office of Multicultural Affairs at Ursuline, and may actually have relevance to the current discussion about health care reform going on in our country. It was suggested that, instead of thinking of disabled people as a subset of all people, perhaps we should, instead, think of most of us as being temporarily able bodied. As I learned in the last few weeks, such a state is one that is most likely only temporary, although it is a state that, thanks to my health insurance and some wonderful health care professionals, I am well on the way to rejoining.
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts