Things were very confused round about August, 1969. I had come to Britain for a short-term visit. How long could the thing last, after all, but a few months? I had traveled about the Continent. And now there was this confusion about my going home. Was I going or was I staying? The latter had seemed preposterous only a few weeks before. But somehow I already had London connections, family connections of all things…unexpected and baffling. And as though to further cloud the picture, something was happening outside. It was what the British call weather, and the cold mists of August already swirling about London nights defied reason and explanation. Where was I? And why, of all things, was I making an appointment at Stoke Mandeville Hospital?
Then and now the place was a renowned center for spinal cord injuries. Having survived mine, I wasn’t terribly interested in pursuing the matter further. After all, I was up and about and walking everywhere with one crutch. I had mastered the London tube system, regularly stepped on and off buses, escalators, and every other inner urban mechanism thrown my way…so why more medical care? Because I succumbed. A flock of German Jews of my parents’ age was strongly advocating this. And to a delayed adolescent, this was not good news. More persuasive, cousins my own age were telling me Stoke Mandeville was a good plan. In retrospect, everyone must have been rather proud of this particular medical institution. Caroline, my doctor cousin, rather mildly and soberly suggested that yes, this was probably a good plan. In short, the sense of familial concern, cloying from one generation, inclusive from another, tilted the scales. People cared and I cared that they cared, so who cared whether or not I actually needed to schlep into Buckinghamshire to see a doctor? Besides, this was one of those moves that had a note of permanence about it. A move that suggested a move.
We drove there, I do remember that much. We very likely had a country tea at some point in the day, for I had become a major fan of this British pastime…a cozy, gemütlich gathering about a table over warm liquids. A most attractive experience to one who has been low on family. The hospital probably startled me a bit with its architectural remnants. Stoke Mandeville had been a Victorian hospital, then a World War II hodgepodge of temporary buildings, then whatever it was now. I do recall walking through one of the wards. The ceilings were impossibly high, everything brick, a definite Dickensian feel to the whole. The sisters, nurses still being called that, were dispensing tea, of course. The place looked cold, even in September. But I was only passing through, fortunately, the ward being en route to the office of Dr. Walsh.
He was a tall, easy-going man who seemed to take his time. I told him I had encountered some knee pain a few months earlier when visiting New York, the subway steps getting to me on a couple of occasions. He did not seem concerned. No, I was not doing anything wrong. In fact, I was doing everything right. He seemed most impressed that I was already trying to find some sort of work. He asked about my sex life, an embarrassing matter, but just asking was enough. This set a tone. Everything was okay, no holds barred in terms of discussion. Get a job and get laid, good advice for anyone…and that was more or less that. Except for my brace.
It was an American monster. A huge stainless steel contraption that fit under my trousers, extending from my crotch to my shoe. Why I needed this long leg brace is beyond me. But my circumstances were beyond most medical professionals. People with my sort of spinal cord injury were generally in wheelchairs, and that was that. I was schlepping about, and this leg brace was the best that physical medicine types of that era could imagine. Getting it on and off seemed to take days. I do believe that Stoke Mandeville was the place where someone suggested that my brace need only extend to some point below the knee. This was a major breakthrough. It was the difference between driving a semi truck and a minivan. The short leg brace slipped on more or less like a boot.
The problem was my spasticity. The short brace worked fine, but the involuntary strength of my leg also worked it to death. The metal posts designed to hold the shoe onto the brace kept bending. I made countless trips to Stoke Mandeville, then to a brace maker in North London. Then back to Stoke Mandeville where the brace fitter, a Scot who had seen it all, including his own polio, kept staring at my bent leg braces. ‘Aye, he’s a strong laddie,’ the man observed.
Dr. Walsh wanted to see me again in six months. Then another six, and another. The same thing transpired each time. Was I working? Was I getting laid? There were no wrong answers. But the trip to Aylesbury, a major undertaking involving a train and taxi, made my Stoke Mandeville visits something of a burden. I wondered if they were really worth it, these trips. Eventually I stopped. Meanwhile, I always had the sense that whatever happened to my body, well I wasn’t alone. There was always Dr. Walsh. And being a disabled person wasn’t like being sick. It was much like being anything. Work and sex were the secret to health, it seemed. In short, health would largely take care of itself.
The older generation of my British extended family seemed quite pleased that I had paid a visit to Stoke Mandeville. It was as though they had expected a cure. I never told them how little had transpired there. Nor did it occur to me that my assessment was wrong. Plenty had occurred. This was another country, Britain. The idea of preventive healthcare, of ensuring that a person had a life, which is to say, some reason to be healthy…none of this occurred to me at the time. But it was characteristic of the British approach to rehabilitation medicine. And I thought I was going through the motions, pleasing everyone by making these needless trips to Aylesbury. But I was slowly redefining needless and need. While learning most of what there was to know about healing.