Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Intestinal fortitude

      When I was in Jr. High, I had a choir director who, upon wanting more volume and a fuller richer sound would instruct, “come on girls, dig deep…give it everything you’ve got!” His arm would rise up in the air shaking at the apex of the crescendo, as if he could raise our voices with his arm, shaking the sound out of us with the intensity of his hand. He would raise his voice with his arm, “use your… “.  At the risk of offending our sweet young ears, he would refrain from saying the word “guts,” and rely instead on his choice phrase, “intestinal fortitude.” I came to understand that intestinal fortitude was something you had to dig deep within yourself to find, especially when you had to “sing” full on and raise your volume.

     I have been one of those lucky people, who has had no problem with raising my volume, or singing full on when the opportunity to do so arises. But when I found myself in a very lonely and vulnerable place, walking out of an able-body in an able-bodied world, and into a disabled body in an able-bodied world, my voice became dramatically muted. 

      It was a terrifying reality, for me, having to depend on other people to provide everything I needed and wanted.  I had never before depended on anyone for anything, and now, after having three of my limbs amputated; I was entering a physical rehab facility unable even to sit in a wheelchair for more than an hour at a time. My dependency on others was overwhelming, humbling, and left me feeling powerless, and damaged.  My voice was becoming weaker with every passing moment, becoming so quiet that it was almost inaudible.

     I was in a long-term rehabilitation facility.  It took me less than 24 hours in that facility to recognize that I was one of the lucky ones. My body was dramatically and permanently altered, but I still had the brain that I entered into this world owning.  Many of the other people in this facility had sustained severe traumatic brain injuries. Their situations were far more critical, far more devastating than my own.  The desperation and despair in my new “home” was pervasive.  And I felt myself slipping under that oppressive and destructive spell—my voice becoming softer with each passing day.

     I was in my room, watching the nightly news one evening, when a nurse came in to give me my night time medications.  As she poured the potpourri of pills into my hand, I noticed that they did not look like the ones I normally took. When I questioned her about the pills, she insisted that these were my pills. “You’re mistaken” she casually said, waiting for me to pop the unknown meds into my mouth and swallow.  I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I was terrified to take these pills not knowing what they were, or what they would do to me.

     “Dig deep,” I heard my choir director say, “use your full voice and give me volume!”  I shook my head, and adamantly refused to take those pills.  I demanded to know the names of each medication. I knew what I was taking, and I knew what every pill entering my body was intended to do. I also knew that these were not my pills.  Much to my surprise…and dismay, she could not tell me what the medications were. I told her that I wanted to see the nurse who was in charge.  

     When the new nurse came in, she had my meds—the correct ones, and an apology for the “mistake.”  I asked her how many others had been given the wrong medications, knowing that the majority of the patients on my floor would not be able to recognize what medications they were getting. She shrugged, and stated that “they” would sort it out. It left me wondering how many gravely disabled people had been given the wrong medications.

     The following day, I spoke to my physical therapist about the mistake. He shook his head sadly, and murmured that it probably wasn’t this first time something like this had happened.  “What?” Not only was I incredulous but I was furious.   I dug deep, and increased my volume, and began to “sing” as loud as I could. I went to the director of nursing and told her about the incident, and I lodged a formal complaint with the chief administrator of the facility.  

     I began my crescendo the night I got the wrong pills. I hit the apex of that crescendo when I signed my name to the formal complaint.  It took every ounce of my intestinal fortitude to sing full on the day “Cindy Charlton” was signed on the “dotted line.” I didn’t know if there would be retribution for my actions. When you’re dependent on strangers for your care—inept ones at that, retribution can be a very real threat. Not saying anything, however, and allowing the possible endangerment of others who could not sing at all, was not an option for me. I had to sing and sing loud, regardless of the personal cost.

     I left rehab several weeks later, a neophyte on my new prosthetic legs, a hook for a right hand, and my voice stronger than ever. My intestinal fortitude was once again well established…maybe even stronger than before. I found that not only could I sing for myself, but I could sing for others who no longer had a voice.

     Intestinal fortitude is a necessary tool in the survivor’s tool kit. Sometimes, when you are the most fearful and afraid to sing, remember to dig deep and sing full on no matter the consequences.  You may shake with the increasing crescendo, but when you get to the height of your voice, you will realize that there is no better gift than to find your own personal power…your intestinal fortitude.