Fall 2000

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Glimpses of Beauty

by Melissa Sparrow

Melissa Sparrow Iím working now at the Kennedy Krieger Institute for children with developmental problems. I see my patients in the morning, before lecture and briefly again afterwards. I see them in their twisted positions on the bed, in their braces and casts. I touch their toes to make sure they are still warm. I touch their dry, cracked skin. I lay my stethoscope on their backs and chests, more as an act of blessing, a ritual of touch, than a physical exam.

The Kennedy Krieger in-patient floor is a place of long-term recovery, a place for damaged children to stay for extended periods of time, after orthopedic surgery, to encourage the simplest of acts: to stand, to sit, to reach. Or after their brains have been injured and they are different from before. They eat tissues and paper towels and call out "sexy mama" to each woman who appears at the door. They no longer see and in their new, darkened state float in fear. They lie in bed with roving eyes and break into smiles when they hear the Sesame Street song, "On my way, everythingís A-okayÖ"

Every day these children descend for most of the day to physician and occupational therapy (PT/OT), entities which thus far for me have been elusive acronyms, places where patients have their bodies stretched this way and that, where they learn the illustrious AOL (activities of daily living). Like so much else I am able, out of ignorance to dismiss, these places represent the unknown.

One day I venture down to PT/OT. I lope along the long, drab hallway, passing the endless row of defunct wheelchairs waiting to be given away to charity, or picked up for repairs. I feel the tolerable, lingering sadness I always feel when I know that children and families have suffered, that they cannot do things they once did, and my children do now: ride a bike, hold an ice-cream cone, sing.

I walk into the PT/OT suite, though, and suddenly itís as if Iíve tumbled into a carnival or a fair, there is so much activity. Sam, my patient with HIV encephalopathy and spastic diplegia, poses, supported by a young man wearing a whistle, and happily tosses a ball into a Jordan Jammer basketball hoop. Another child stretches on a bright blue mat while the therapist extends her left leg, slowly. A rapt mother sits cross-legged next to them, learning the therapeutic technique. Down a hallway, Donald, another patient of mine who was born at 26 weeks gestation and has spastic quadriplegia and mental retardation, lies on a stretcher, hoisting himself up on his elbows. With a womanís help, he pokes wooden pegs shaped like animals into the similarly carved holes: a white cat, a Beagle-type dog, a chicken. In the therapeutic recreation center, Emily, a patient with a neuronal migration disorder and cerebral palsy, leans, supported by a fantastic contraption that helps her hold up both her body and her head. She sculpts a play-dough figure. I think itís an elephant or a tea pot. Larry and another boy chase each other around slickly in their wheelchairs. "Hey you," Larry yells.

"Rock man," the other boy answers, grinning.

Everywhere, men and women in T-shirts and shorts or jeans looking like gym teachers organize activities and help the children along.

Itís a room of happiness, of celebration. A room where you could sit for many hours and watch the small steps and motions and smiles that comprise these patientsí self-esteem. This is what these children can do. I canít believe Iíve waited so long to see what goes on in PT/OT, to recognize how these caregivers, including the child life therapists, contribute to the lives of these children.

I am remembering now, for some reason, another room similarly abuzz with activity from my own adolescence. Here, men and women also helped children perform a variety of tasks. But this room in my memory is a very different sort of place. I am 16 years old, and we are preparing for a Macyís fashion show, all of us teenagers living in Manhattan for the summer. We are dipping our toes in the fast-paced fashion world, shacking up in overpopulated apartments (eight girls to two bedrooms, kitchens filled with rotting diet-dinners, dirty dishes, and dead flowers.) In this room the clothing stylists, hair stylists, and makeup artists gambol about, brushing powder on our noses, lining our lips, spraying our hair. We girls all stand or sit in fixed positions, each with a view into a mirror, each with the fostered ability to ponder our brief moment of perfection, our spot on the pedestal of a cultural ideal.

It is a room where one brief slip would shatter everything, where the tiniest sign of loss would lead to ruin. Itís a room where at one time I thought I could grow up, maybe even become famous, embracing those particular ideals. But each time I tried to embrace something, my hands came up empty.

Now, in this room, here, with these children, I can grow old. Iím happy about my chosen profession. The glimpses of beauty I stumble upon here invite truth and embrace all.