Thursday, March 25, 2010

"You can run, but you can't hide..."

My senior year of high school, I was recovering from the Crisman Snook, and taking my down time to really focus on my music. I was applying to colleges, and more importantly, beginning my auditions to the music conservatories. As I mentioned, I had been singing my entire life, and had been classicly trained for many, many years. My dream was to be a Broadway actress. I had a powerhouse voice, and the acting chops to hold my own, but my senior year, I came to the harsh realization that there was no way I could gamble my future on a career that is just as much dependent on dance as it is singing and acting. And with that reality check, went my hopes of making it big on the "Great White Way"...

In lieu of this dream, I traded--not necessarily up or down, but over--for a career in opera. My voice was always my true gift anyway, and I could have a very successful career in opera without having to trust my legs to be there for me. I got in everywhere I applied, and eventually chose the DePaul University School of Music in Chicago. My parents didn't want me going to New York in case I fell and had to have surgery, and DePaul does have one of the top five opera schools in the country. (It also didn't hurt that they were giving me $127,000 in scholarships!)

So I moved to Lincoln Park in Chicago and began my freshman year of college. I was a little worried about my ankles holding up, walking around campus, the city, and up and down the four flights of stairs to my dorm room, but they seemed to do okay. I was sore and had a lot of twists and rolls, but nothing significant. It was really starting to look like I was going to be okay...

And then I got my first kidney stone.

I couldn't pull myself out of bed for almost two weeks from the end of October to the beginning of November. The pain in my back was so excruciating, I could hardly lean over the side of my bed to vomit into the trusty trash can that had become my constant companion. When I started vomiting blood, I got extremely nervous. I had someone rush me to the hospital where they discovered that I had a 7mm kidney stone. My parents took me to the hospital at home, where a urologist promptly performed a cystoscopy procedure to remove the stone the next morning.

In the beginning of December, they found another stone. I had to have a lithotripsy right before Christmas, and passed yet a third stone on New Year's Eve (now there's a party...). 

When I started back at school just after the first of the year, I thought things were turning around. I had a new, wonderful roommate, and I was really starting to feel comfortable with the "college life." I had caught up from my missed time at the end of the previous trimester and was back at the top of my class (which only had a total of nine people, but don't let that fool you--this was an unbelievably competitive program).

Unfortunately my reign was terribly short-lived. One night right before Valentine's Day, I came home from class and I felt the unmistakable flutter of nausea that foreshadows the writhing pain of another stone. It was about 10pm and I called my dad to warn him that I felt another stone coming on and that I'd probably have to take the train home in the morning to see my urologist. I tried to take a Vicodin then, but it was too late.

See, there's this vicious, cyclical game my body enjoys playing with me when a stone is on the move: I know the unGodly pain to come will cause uncontrollable nausea and vomiting, so I take a Vicodin to cut off the pain; but the Vicodin never really gets a chance to help me out, because my body is too busy purging it, in pain. It's one of my least favorite Catch-22s.

After a few hours of non-stop Barf Fest in our suite's bathroom, my roommate was kind enough to help drag my weak, writhing body to the shower so I could just lay down with the hot water running. She begged to call my parents or an ambulance, but in my typical stubborn fashion, I choked out an "I'm fine" and locked the door.

The hot water helped for a little while. The muscle spasms slowed and for a short time, I could almost breathe again. And then the stone shifted and continued on its path of complete and utter destruction. I tossed and turned on the floor of the disgusting dorm shower until I couldn't muster the strength to move another muscle. Not even the one that happened to be blocking the drain. Our shower had a recessed floor with about an 8in step down to the floor, which was now filling up with water. I could feel the water slowly starting to leak into my cracked mouth, but I was to tired and defeated to care. After a moment, I realized that if I didn't move off the drain, I was going to drown. And in that same breath, I realized that I didn't care. I just wanted the pain to stop. I would do ANYTHING to make the pain stop.

I closed my eyes and resigned myself to my fate just as the door smashed open and my parents, along with the RA, my roommate, and half the residents down the hall who had heard my screaming came flooding in. My mom dove into the shower to lift my head while my dad turned off the water. I guess it's probably a good thing that my roommate ignored me and called my parents anyway.

They rushed me to the hospital and discovered that I had THREE stones, all attempting to pass through one ureter. [Note: to give you some perspective on the gravity of this situation, an average kidney stone is 1-2mm and often brings grown men to tears. I had three stones of 3, 5, and 9 mm all trying to pass through a tube the diameter of the ballpoint in a Bic!! That's just not right.] They had to do surgery to remove them right away because my kidney was severely infected. Then they had to insert a stent into the ureter to avoid a complete collapse from the damage.

By the time I was recovered and ready to go back to school, I had already missed another two weeks of classes. Then, just as I was about to return, they discovered another stone and a large cyst on my ovary. Realizing that I probably wouldn't be returning right away, I talked to my school about taking a medical withdrawal for the trimester. The outcome: They made a big to-do of explaining that they never, EVER allow withdrawals from any of the music programs for any reason, but because I was the most promising student in my class, they would make an exception just once. Well "HALLELUJAH!"  --Oh wait. I forgot the stipulations. Because OF COURSE there had to be stipulations: Sure I could come back the following trimester and they would even hold my spot in the opera performance program, but I would have to forfeit my work for the year and begin over as a freshman. Oh yeah, and I'd have to do it without my scholarships.

Did I mention that DePaul University's School of Music costs $47, 000 A YEAR!?!?!

Well, with an offer like that, how could I refuse? I'll tell you: very easily. What other choice did I have. We were struggling to afford the school with $127,000 in scholarships! It wasn't even an option to continue without them. So I packed up my dorm room, said goodbye to the handful of friends I had been able to make in my short time there, and headed home.

Over the next year, I moved back in with my parents, enrolled in the local community college, got a job at Barnes & Noble, and began the journey toward figuring out what I would do with my life now that I had lost the only dream I'd ever had. My kidney stones and ovarian cysts continued to plague me throughout the year, along with their new-found friend, the migraine, as I took 30 credit-hours each semester so that I could make up for lost time at DePaul and still earn my Associate's Degree before the end of the year so that I could get the hell out of there and move on with my life. It was definitely not the happiest time in my life, but I did get the chance to stand back and reevaluate my life. I spent my fair share of time just resenting the cards I'd been dealt, but at some point I slowly began making a new life for myself: new friends, new career ambitions, new dreams. Once I got over my anger, the year actually passed quite quickly and soon I was applying to transfer schools. My options were far more limited this time around. As a senior, I applied to schools like The Manhattan School of Music for voice and Yale for pre-law. Now, because of money, I was limited to the public state schools. Joy. My friend, Megan, was attending Northern Illinois University and said she had a spare room in their apartment the following semester. So just like that, I became an NIU Huskie.

Well, it seems that my feet were about as thrilled with this plan as I was: a month and a half before I moved to DeKalb, I blew out the lateral ligaments in my right ankle walking to my car after a Pat Benetar concert. I had to go in for surgery two days later and spent the rest of my summer in bed and eventually on crutches. As a matter of fact, I was still in a boot and on crutches when I started at NIU in the fall, and was stuck with them until October! Ugh.

Fortunately, though, this did not stop me from pushing myself toward my new dream: studying abroad in France...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Let's start at the very beginning..."

Let me preface by saying that I don't know if I even expect anyone to read this, or if it's really just for my own piece of mind, but either way, I think it's about time I documented this crazy journey I've been on.

My name is Brianna and I'm 22 years old. I'm from a teeny, tiny farm town in rural Illinois and I've lived here my entire life. I have two brothers (Mitch, 19; and Jake, 7) and a sister (Abbey, 9).  My parents, Lana and Tony, were high school sweethearts and have been married for 24 years.

As a child, I wasn't particularly active--I did gymnastics and cheerleading, but I wasn't what one would consider a particularly athletic child. Rather, I tended to devote my time and passion to music, theatre, and academics. I knew all of the presidents, in order, by the time I was 2 1/2, and had sung for my first wedding by 3. It wasn't long after that, that I decided I was going to be a Broadway actress. By about 5 years old, I had completely set my mind to this goal, and I never once had a doubt that it would happen.

When I was ten, I gave up on the gymnastics and cheerleading. My coaches had always marveled at my unparalleled flexibility, but my joints were so loose that I lacked the ability to hold myself together when I needed to. After repeatedly spraining my ankles and wrists, and acquiring the uncanny ability to fall constantly and without pretext, my mother decided that it was probably best I just leave those sports behind.

Unfortunately, the sprains continued despite my subdued activity. When I was twelve, I sustained a particularly rough sprain that required me to sit out from my sixth grade gym class. My mom had delivered the note from the doctor that morning, but somehow, by the time I reached my 9th period class, the teacher had decided that the note was forged. I begged and pleaded with her to just call my mom or doctor, but she wasn't willing to listen. And unfortunately, I wasn't willing to disrespect a teacher in order to stand up for myself. (I was that goody-two-shoes suck-up in the class that never even had my name on the board, nonetheless a detention! I got straight A's and was always the teacher's pet. More than that, however, I was also raised with a very deep respect for my elders. When an adult tells you to do something, you say "okay" and do it. No "ifs," "ands," or "buts." There was no way I was going to talk back to a teacher or tell her "no," no matter how wrong she was. I just wasn't programmed for it.) As punishment for the "forged note," this crochety old woman took my crutches from me and made me run two miles in the grass around the baseball fields. Then, despite my tears and cries of pain, she forced me to join the other kids in soccer.

That was it. About half way through the game, I fell to the ground in so much pain, I couldn't stand anymore. She threatened to have the principal call my parents, but by that point, that's all I wanted. And that's exactly what happened. My mother got called in to come get me, and was instantly furious at what she heard, considering she had hand-delivered that note only that morning. We immediately went to my podiatrist and, after an MRI of that left ankle, discovered that I had torn up the ligaments pretty badly. It would need surgery. So, at twelve years old, I had my first left ankle repair.

It took months in a wheelchair and on crutches, plus weeks of physical therapy before I was able to walk again, but that ankle remained weak and often painful. For the next two years, I often had to sit out of gym class--a point that my doctor made VERY clear was never again to be disputed--and I had to avoid certain activities (like running in the grass) that lent themselves to rolling my ankles.

My freshman year of high school, I had another major gym class fall, and I returned to Dr. Wood (my podiatrist) who promptly informed me that I would need another surgery. The MRI showed that his previous repairs had held, but the ligaments were now tearing from the bone. He said the chances were "one in a million" and that I just had "really bad luck." (These were words I would come to hear all too often over the next few years.)  The surgery was a success, but unfortunately it didn't keep me from going to my first high school dance dateless and in a wheelchair. I also had to forgo the first two play auditions of the year. My parents had to drive me to school everyday, and accompany me to my classes on rainy days, because slipping and falling on the wet tile was just too great a liability, considering my complete inability to recover my balance and my high likelihood to dislocate or tear at the joints when I fell.

One Sunday in late November, just a few weeks after my surgery, I was up getting ready to go to church with my family, when I had one of the most dangerous accidents of my life. I had taken a shower in my parents bathroom, because it was easier to maneuver on the crutches. My cam walker boot was off from the shower, leaving just the compression bandages from the surgery. Hobbling out of the shower, I wrapped a towel around myself and started the trek from their room to my own. I paused at the top of the stairs to call down to my dad at the bottom to toss me up some lotion.

And that's the last thing I remember before waking up in the hospital late that afternoon. I was in unbelievable pain all over my body. I had stitches across my chin and mouth. There were new bandages on my leg, bruises all over my body, and a collar around my neck. I completely freaked out.

My father slowly began to explain to me that just moments after I had made my lotion request, he saw my eyes roll to the back of my head. He said is knee-jerk reaction was anger that I was joking and screwing around by the stairs. And then my body just fell forward, almost as if in slow motion. My face hit the stairs first, and immediately the momentum carried my legs up over my head, cracking my neck, and finally propelling my legs through the banisters. There was blood everywhere. My ankle stitches had reopened and my teeth were coming through my chin. Then the shock set in. As my dad rushed to hold me, me body began shaking and convulsing uncontrollably and I was still unconscious. He screamed to my mother that I had fallen down the stairs and to call 9-1-1, but my mother, very cranky after having been in the hospital all night with false labor, was not in the mood for my "dramatic antics." She called from the living room to "shake it off, [I] would be okay," but when she turned the corner, she completely freaked out. She called an ambulance, followed by the nurse that lives across the street. I was still unconscious and shaking uncontrollably. Unfortunately, I was also completely naked. I had just gotten out of the shower, and when I fell, my towel had stayed at the top! So the ambulance is coming, I'm naked, shaking, and bleeding, and yet they couldn't put any clothes on me, because they thought I had broken my neck. They draped the towel over me once the paramedics got me on the stretcher, but needless to say, I'm SO thankful that I was unconscious!

It was a pretty terrible ordeal. I didn't end up breaking my neck, but I sustained many painful injuries. They came to the conclusion, later that evening, that I had had an allergic reaction to the pain killers I was on, and that is what caused me to pass out. To this day, I get very nervous every time I pass by the entrance of a flight of stairs...

That was definitely my scariest accident, but that's not to say that the next few years were a cake walk...

The next summer, I was walking up to communion during a mass while I was teaching vacation bible school, and I managed to tear all the ligaments in both ankles without ever even tripping or twisting. I spent the rest of the summer in two boots and a wheelchair.

The next year, my junior year of high school, I was invited to sing at Carnegie Hall in New York City. About three hours after I stepped off the plane, I stepped down a stair at Planet Hollywood and plunged the rest of the way down. Tore all the ligaments in my left ankle again. They tried to fly me home, but I insisted on staying for my concert, which I performed from my wheelchair.

As a result of that injury, we had to do a Crisman Snook Procedure on that left ankle a month before the end of my junior year. Doc let me go to my prom the Saturday night before the procedure (which I attended in my embarrassingly tulle and flower-flowing carriage of a wheelchair), but as of Monday morning, I was down for the count. They harvested a tendon from my calf, then anchored it to an implant they put in my heel, looped it through the hole they drilled in my fibula, and anchored it all back in to stabilize the joint. It was incredibly painful and took seven months until I was really walking again.

And then, as if by some "Off to College" miracle, I got a MUCH-needed hiatus from my ankle troubles for a while...