You know those medical history forms they ask you to fill out almost every time you wheel into a doctor’s office? I can never cram all the surgical operations into the allotted space.
I start with 1965 and work my way up until the present. But most of what I write begins in 2005, my 40th year with a spinal cord injury, and runs up to the present, 2018. During that 13-year time period, I have had 11 operations — major heart surgery, stent placements, a below-the-knee amputation, a colostomy, flap surgery on my left ischium and much more. In contrast, in the previous 40 years of paralysis, I had four major operations. Does that tell you something about aging with an SCI?
I have written about some of these ordeals in the pages of New Mobility, mainly focusing on causes, procedures, and listing some of the tools we need to deal with the conditions that lead to major surgery. But at least half the battle of emerging from surgery with hope intact depends on the mindset we bring with us prior to entering the operating room.
Facing Major Surgery
Somehow, the operating room has never been a fearful place for me. The same goes for recovering from surgery. Following my most recent surgery, I was visited by a friend who has supported me throughout all my operations since 2005. He happens to be a pastor of a local church that I no longer attend. We often get together for coffee and talk about writing, the nation, our families and more. The last time we met, about two weeks ago, he said, “I don’t know how you do it. No matter what life throws at you, you always just get up and go on. I’ve never seen you down, even after the nine-hour open heart surgery.”
Until he said that, I never really thought of myself as an “up” kind of person. And I still don’t. I think the key to my staying hopeful has something to do with the way I feel when I’m being rolled into the operating room.
I always meditate upon a favorite psalm of mine in preparation for going under the knife. I started doing this daily in 2005 on my 60th birthday, nine months before I had open heart surgery. The text is a brief excerpt I have memorized from Psalm 62, written by David, son of Solomon, over 3,000 years ago. It starts like this: “My soul finds rest in God alone.” And it ends with, “He is my fortress. I shall never be shaken.”
We all have our belief systems, our favorite sayings or thoughts, or maybe we envision a peaceful scene to calm and center ourselves. When I pray Psalm 62 before I go to the operating room, I pray continuously, similar to saying a mantra. It becomes a state of mind, a place of comfort and peace. No matter what may happen on that operating table, I feel I will be OK — even if I die. I believe this state of acceptance is connected to a place deep within, an underlying feeling of gratefulness.
A Grateful Heart Nurtures Hope
A grateful heart may be the most important tool we have when it comes to remaining hopeful in the face of surgery or any major challenge, whether it has to do with health, wealth, an uncertain future or a troubled past.
My sense of gratefulness did not come easily. For years following my paralyzing accident I was bitter, angry and resentful. It took me a long time to “accept my paralysis.” To me, that phrase means that in the larger context of my life — which includes not only the entirety of my experience, but also how I think about the civilized world and what it means to be human on a planet rich with diverse forms of life and natural beauty — I feel fortunate to be who I am, where I am, when I am.
It means I have to accept my past, which is filled with mistakes, selfish behavior and regrets. I can only do this by forgiving myself, and I can only do that by realizing that we all have our faults, and to be imperfect means we are fully human.
It also means I have to have hope for the future. This is even more difficult, especially if we get so caught up in what’s wrong with our nation or the world that we lose sight of the big picture. We lose perspective. So I must forgive others as well as myself. This does not mean that I must be passive in the face of injustice, inequality, oppression or tribulation. It means having faith in the ultimate outcome.
When all of this comes together, and truthfully, there are days when it doesn’t, I am ready to be wheeled down that long hallway on the way to my next major challenge, no matter what it may be.