2 + 2 = 4…or is it 5?

According to spinabifida.org “more than 10 million people worldwide have spina bifida.” Of those 10 million individuals, “approximately 90%” also have a disorder known as hydrocephalus. This disorder results in a disruption “in the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) through the pathways of the ventricles of the brain.” This abnormal flow of CSF “causes pressure on the brain.” Cerebral spinal fluid is a “clear, saltwater-like liquid that surrounds the brain.” Its job is to provide protection and hydration for the brain. Another function of CSF is to transport waste “away from brain cells.” Cerebrospinal fluid also supplies the brain with “important chemicals and nutrients.” Every “day the brain produces about 500mL of cerebrospinal fluid.” This fluid makes “a continuous circuit through the brain cavities (ventricles), and over the surface of the brain and spinal cord until it is absorbed by the body.” For those with hydrocephalus CSF is “constantly being produced” as normal, “but it cannot get out” to travel its regular circuit. Therefore, “it accumulates and causes raised pressure inside the brain.” This build up of pressure causes the ventricles to become enlarged, which in turn causes brain tissue to stretch and compress (spinabifida.org). Without proper treatment, babies born with hydrocephalus will die very soon after birth.

Within two hours of my birth, I was rushed by ambulance from Community General Hospital in Sterling, Illinois to Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. It was here that Dr. David McLone implanted what is called a VP shunt. The VP stands for ventriculoperitoneal. Basically, what this means is that, I have a shunt that runs from the ventricles in my brain down into my abdomen or peritoneal cavity. This shunt drains the excess cerebrospinal fluid from my brain so that pressure is not allowed to build.

Learning disabilities are quite common for those born with hydrocephalus. Unfortunately, I am one of the many for whom this is true. For instance, throughout most of my schooling I had a very difficult time understanding math, especially algebra. This caused a lot of frustration while I was in high school. Understanding abstract concepts has always been a struggle for me. I can remember being in high school and feeling as if I would never make it through all of the various math classes that I had to take in order to graduate. However, with the help of several very good and patient teachers, such as Ruth Day and Cathy McCallister, I was able to complete my required coursework. I graduated from high school in 1995 and then it was on to college.

I started my college career at Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon, Illinois. Before starting at Sauk I had to take a placement test. To my horror, I was placed in remedial math. This meant that I would have to work my way up through several math classes in order to graduate. Starting out in remedial math classes was almost enough to make me want to through in the towel. However, I persisted and slogged my way up the ranks. In hindsight, I feel as if these classes helped me to review concepts that I had forgotten since high school. I also spent a lot of time in the Learning Assistance Center, receiving tutoring and extra help with my math classes. I give a lot of credit to Kay Turk and Jerry McNair for helping me pass these classes. They provided me with special attention, which enabled me to receive my Associate’s Degree in Communication Arts. However, this took me three years due to all of the time spent making my way through all of the math courses that I had to take.

After graduating from Sauk Valley Community College in the summer of 1998, I was on to Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois. To my relief, once I enrolled at Trinity I realized that I would not have to take any more math! This is because I transferred in with my Associate’s Degree in Communication Arts. I cannot tell you how happy this made me. Maybe getting my four-year degree was something that was actually attainable after all.

I then completed two years at Trinity, where I received my Bachelor of Arts in Communications. I followed this up in 2012 with a Master’s Degree in School Counseling from St. Xavier University. Math is still my enemy. Ask me to do long division and I will just roll my eyes. Algebra is just a distant memory. I could not even begin to tell you how to do trigonometry or calculus. However, I am pretty good with geometry. I think this is because I can visualize angles, circumferences, and areas.

In conclusion, I’d write a 50-page research before I would ever attempt to do physics. Words are fun to me. I like to express myself through the written word. Equations are pointless to me. However, essays are something that I could write endlessly. I know 4+4 = 8 and that 5 x 2 = 10. Addition and multiplication are easy, but please, for the love of God don’t ever ask me to do long division ever again!

Diagram of VP shunt (https://www.ausmed.com/cpd/articles/hydrocephalus-and-shunts)

The House Call

This device was both friend and foe for many years.

Growing up I received some of the best medical care that was available for people who were born with spina bifida. I was fortunate to live just a couple of hours west of Chicago, which was home to Children’s Memorial Hospital. If you have read some of my earlier posts, you might recall my fondness for this place. Despite the pain that I experienced in that building, there were also lots of memorable moments.

Many of the memories connected to Children’s Memorial involve the doctors that I was blessed to have had there. First, there was Luciano Dias, who was a kind and gentle man. He had a passion for what he did and that showed in the way he treated his patients. He performed many of the orthopedic surgeries that enabled me to walk. Everytime I went to see him for my yearly check-ups he always showed great concern for me not only as a patient, but as a person.

Another wonderful doctor that I had gave my parents some great advice after I was born. He told them simply to “take me home and love me just as they would any other child.” This doctor’s name was David McLone. He was my neurologist for several years. Dr. McLone was a man with a great deal of compassion. His advice to my parents was some of the best that they would receive during a time of great uncertainty and fear. When I was born in 1977, not much was known about spina bifida. I am sure my parents were scared and unsure of what was in store for them. However, by the grace of God, they had some of the greatest doctors on whom they could rely for encouragement.

Besides Dr. Dias and Dr. McLone, there was also Dr. William Kaplan. He was another doctor who looked at me not as just another patient. He truly cared about working to improve my quality of life. Dr. Kaplan went above and beyond to ensure that I received the best treatment that I could.

As I noted in my last post, one of the most common problems that people who were born with spina bifida have is bowel and bladder incontinence. There are various procedures that I have had to help with these issues. Dr. Kaplan, who was my urologist while I was growing up, performed a few of these operations.

For instance, in 1986, he implanted a device called an artificial urinary sphincter. This device had a tiny pump that was inserted into my scrotum. From this pump there was a line that ran to a valve that was placed around the neck of my bladder. This allowed me to have control of my bladder. Every time I needed to urinate, I’d simply squeeze the pump a few times, which then released the valve at the neck of my bladder. The only problem with this device is that if you pumped it too hard it would lock the valve around the bladder. This was something I’d learn the hard way.

One summer day shortly after having the artificial urinary sphincter implanted, I was in the bathroom at home using the toilet when I put too much pressure on the pump and it locked up. What was I to do? I had to pee and my bladder was locked up tighter than the Hoover Dam!

Not knowing what else to do, my mom called Children’s and they suggested that we come right away to Chicago. As you might recall from earlier in this story, we lived two hours west of Chicago, and I had to pee! Therefore, we got in the car and made our way into the city. Dr. Kaplan was informed what had happened and he asked my parents to drive me straight to his house. Here we were making a house call in reverse. Fortunately, after two hours of torturous travel on a full bladder we arrived at Dr. Kaplan’s house.

He then instructed me to lay down in the foyer of his home where he proceeded to perform a miracle, at least in my eyes. He was able to get the pump of the artificial sphincter to release the valve that was holding back the floodgates. I then proceeded to relieve myself right there on the floor in Dr. Kaplan’s foyer.

This was a moment of great joy, as I finally had found relief. However, I was not sure about what had just happened either. Dr. Kaplan took it all in stride. He acted like it was just another day at the office. I am pretty sure his wife was not pleased about me using the entryway of their home as a toilet, but she was gracious. I also now had a story to tell.

Life is never dull when you have a body that operates in ways unlike most “normal” ones do. However, not many people can say they have urinated on the floor in the homes of one of their doctors. I am proud to say that I am perhaps one of the few.

Put the Crippled Kid up Front…

Thanks for joining me!

“Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.” — Lord Byron

Me at 6 years old looking quite dapper for my debut in a medical journal. The eyes were blacked out to provide anonymity. However, the leisure suit was screaming “I’m loud and I am proud!”

Writing a blog is an idea that I have had for quite some time. However, I have always hesitated because I was not sure anyone would be interested in anything that I have to say. Then, it occurred to me that writing is something that can be very therapeutic. If people enjoy what I have to say then that is just a bonus.

Since I was in high school I have always enjoyed writing. Being a life-long introvert, writing gave me a way to express myself. It also helped me to unlock some of the thoughts I had kept bottled up inside of me for many years.

When I was born my parents were told to take me home and love me and to treat me as they would any other child. The problem with that is I was not like any other child. I was born with a birth defect called spina bifida, which would require frequent trips to Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Children’s was like a home away from home for much of my adolescence. Despite what you might think, I have fond memories of Children’s. The nurses and doctors there provided a level of care that was second to none. This was also a place, where as a young boy, I began to see the absurdity in life.

Self-deprecating humor got me through many days and nights in the hospital. If I was not able to laugh at situations it would just lead to frustration. Having a disability is frustrating!

Living in a world that was not made for someone like me forces one to overcome. Thank goodness for my stubborness and for my sense of humor. They are two assets that I have used in my life to climb over obstacles.

This leads me to why I chose “Put the Crippled Kid up Front” as the name for this blog. This comes from an incident when my family and I were at a local restaurant. The wait for a table was quite long, so my mom whispered, “put the crippled kid up front.” I then walked to where the owner of the restaurant could see me. He took one look at me and we had a table.

Since this time “put the crippled kid up front” has become an inside joke for my family. It is a way that I have used humor to overcome obstacles. It has also led to some surprises along the way.

In this blog I will share some of those surprises and will explore how living life with a disability can be both challenging and rewarding. I hope you will stick around and see where life has taken me.