ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE WITH GOD (AND 33,000 WOMEN): THE TJEJMILEN
I usually talk about living in Sweden. Today I’m going to talk about living with scoliosis. The word originates from the Greek, meaning “to bend.” It’s the medical term given to the spine when it curves—either an S-curve or a C-curve.
In my case, it’s an S. My vertebrae are compressed and rotated, so if I bent forward to touch my toes, you’d see the protruding bones of my ribs and shoulder blades. The cause is idiopathic, which means no one has a clue why I got it. 65% of the cases are for unknown reasons. And like most females, my symptoms began with the onset of puberty and Junior High.
I remember the day of the scoliosis screening in gym class. All the girls lined up in the locker room and we were told to take off our shirts and bend over. (You can imagine our dread.) After the nurse examined our spines, we were free to go to class, however, I remained longer and got a few more looks. And when I left, it was with a note for my parents. I was to see a doctor for further testing. But I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t in pain.
A few weeks later at my appointment, the x-rays told the full story. I had a rapidly advancing curve that required immediate medical attention—the use of a back brace, 24 hours a day for what would eventually become the next two years of my life.
My brace was my constant companion. Getting it off to take a 10-minute shower was the highlight of my day. Every morning was the same: shower, slide on my “body sock” (a thin cotton garment to prevent chafing and sores) and with the help of my mother, together, pull the stiff plastic jacket over my mid-section and attach and tighten two Velcro straps—my “girdle” (as my grandma called it). From just below my breasts to my hip socket, this medieval torture contraption, functioned to teach my bones and sinews to move in new directions; directions they didn’t want to go. It was an internal battle waged against my spine to keep vertebrae from slipping further and further off track.
My parents bought me a waterbed to help ease the pressure of the brace as I slept. They also bought me a new wardrobe to fit over the awkward plastic that added several inches to my waist and hips—luckily it was the 80’s and baggy was “in.”
My mobility was limited. I couldn’t attend gym class (the one bright spot). But as painful as it was, the toughest part was being “different.” I was 13 and different was the worst thing you could be. Still, I knew each day when I put on my brace I would get better. I would be like everybody else. I would be okay.
But two years later, after countless doctor’s appointments and adjustments to the brace to accommodate my growing body, nothing had been able to stop the letter S from taking over my spine. I’d gone from a 20-degree range curve to a 70-80 degree range curve. I needed surgery, and I needed it soon, or the pain that I’d begun experiencing would increase exponentially. Untreated, my scoliosis would damage my organs and diminish my lung capacity, not to mention the physical deformity I would have to endure. There was no debating. Surgery was scheduled for the summer of 1987.
What I can briefly tell you here, from that long ago summer, is that when I woke from nearly 10 hours on the operating table it felt like someone had lit my back on fire. I’d never felt that degree of pain and I’m not even sure I’ve felt it since (even after 4 C-sections.) The drugs helped, of course, but there were weeks and months of excruciating recovery. I had to have help to walk, to sit, to use the toilet. In the beginning I was completely dependent, like a baby, relying on hospital staff and mostly my mother—a Saint, I tell you, who should’ve gotten some kind of honorary nurses certificate (but instead earned a halo. At the same time she was taking care of my grandmother with Alzheimer’s, but that’s a story for another post.)
The good news was, the surgery had been successful. I’d grown two inches in one day! My fully fused spine now consisted of 2 Herrington Rods fused with bone from my hip, attached to my vertebrae with a series hooks called “German Buttons.” It was a relatively new procedure, much better than the old one that required a full body cast for a year!
Six months later, no longer hampered by a back brace, I was jogging. By spring I’d grown strong enough to try out for the hockey team. I was running. Everyday after school, practicing. I loved it. But then something happened. A pain I’d never felt before, low in my back, like something poking me hard. It turned out, all that running jarred one of the rods loose. I had to have a second operation to remove it, which meant I missed the start of hockey season. And when I returned, it was as team manager.
After my sophomore year of High School, I never ran much. Maybe a few miles at a time. For exercise I’d bike or do water aerobics or fast walk. But when the Tjejmilen race came around, I don’t know what got into me…there was just something in me that had to try. I’d never been in a race. Could I do it?
I began training, one kilometer then the next week two. I worked my way up to a 7K but found it impossible to go further. It was so hard, and so painful. My back was aching. I’d started to think I made a mistake by signing up. That’s when, last week, I confessed to a friend I might not do the race at all. (I had a head cold too.) I told her if I went at all, I was just going to walk.
Then she wrote me these life-changing words…
“The right thing to do when you get inspiration is to trust it and act on it and you did that…now if you don’t run that stupid race, you won’t be able to close that circle of learning and experience that your soul called forth because it knew somehow that it needed that…so you have to run that damn thing!”
I had to run that damn thing! She was right. I knew she was right. I had to run. I was petrified though. The entire morning of the race I felt shaky. My hands were trembling as I safety pinned on my bib number, 38490. I was praying. Man was I praying. “God, help me. Make up the kilometers I never trained to run. And if you could, just run with me.”
I was sure God had more important things to do, but I asked anyway.
When I got to the Djurgården, where the race was to take place, I met up with the fifty other women from Church (22 of them sister missionaries), who’d come from all over Sweden to race in their “Mormon.org” T-shirts.
(Note: You see we Mormons do these crazy things so people will think we’re normal. Lots of Swedes have no idea we’re Christian and not a cult. So we figure if we smile (and don’t have horns on our heads) and wear pink t-shirts, people might catch on that we espouse Christian virtues like the one written on our shirts, just above the website, “Vi Vill gå den andra milen.” It means, We will go the Second Mile.)
Well, just then I wasn’t thinking about the second mile. I just wanted to make it through the first. Our group met on a hill for a photo, then we separated into our individual groups of 2,000 to start the race (I was in group 12). There was a lot of cheering and music and dancing around, but I can tell you, I stood in the middle of thousands just plain petrified, waiting for that gun to go off. Again, pleading, God help me. And then, Bang! I was off to a slow shuffle, we all were. Elbow to elbow, trotting along, everyone squished together, until those further on broke away and we could find some space to run. And then, suddenly, I ran. I mean, I ran like never before!
My first kilometer was over in 6 minutes. My heart was pounding. I knew I couldn’t keep up that pace or I’d be dead at the first water station, (there were four). So I deliberately slowed my steps and my heart rate, and tried to keep a steady pace. I wasn’t listening to the music playing over my headphones. All I could hear were my footsteps and those of the women around me.
I checked myself internally…was I in pain? The answer was startling. No. It was the strangest sensation. I felt fine. I felt better than I’d ever felt running before. I tried not to wonder if it would last, I tried just to have faith that it would, that whatever had inspired me to start this race, would help me finish. I remembered the words of my friend. I prayed and visualized I would make it to the end.
It was one of the hottest days of our Stockholm summer. I was sweating like crazy. I jogged toward every water station with my arm out and thanked whoever put a cup in my hand in a mix of English and Swedish, “Tackthankyoutack.” By kilometer eight I knew I had a blister on my right foot and my toes were throbbing, but I’d already started dreaming of the finish line. I knew my family was going to be there and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t want them to see me walk. I had to finish strong.
On the ninth kilometer, coming round the bend and into the city, I heard my name, “Mom.” I looked out to the side and there were my three boys running. Jonah had somehow spotted me among the crowd and for a minute they ran alongside cheering me on. After that, I could have gone another whole mile, but by then I could see the finish line.
I’d made it! I’d done it. But I hadn’t done it alone. I’d had friends and support along the way. I’d had God. It was the first time in my life I’d run that far or that fast. It wasn’t just about crossing the finish line. It was everything that led up to it. Overcoming my fears, training, pushing through limits, trusting that God (The Universe), had a plan to teach me, something that I needed to know about myself. I gave all that I could give and that was enough because God gave me the rest. He came in the form of words from a friend, support from family, cups of water handed to me along the way (and Cooper’s coaching, I couldn’t have done it with out you!)….He brought me that Second Mile.
I’m so grateful for life’s lessons. The ones you might not want, the ones that are hard and painful and take more than you want to give. Because those are the ones that make you humble enough to learn something about yourself. We’re all a lot stronger than we know. For me, it took the Tjejmilen to find that out.