Two days after my grandmother’s funeral, I walked my dad into the UNC Hospital Neurosurgery Unit. After seven months of pain and exhaustion, he planned this surgical removal of a synovial cyst from his lumbar spine. My grandmother’s death felt sudden but she planned it for years. After an emotionally draining week, I realized that both the death and surgery had the perfect dose of medical intervention.
From both sides, I come from a family of robust genes. At 91, my grandmother leaned on a cane but still walked every day. Her gastrointestinal plumbing remained as intact as her opinions about Obamacare. At 66, my father loves the physical labor of owning a plant nursery and maintaining a farm. Until this back condition, he had rarely called on heroic western medicine. Emphatically rejecting medical intervention, my grandma signed her first living will in 1979. Always independent, she never wanted to be hooked up to life support.
Entering the hospital with my dad, I keenly sensed of my health as autonomy. We were corralled into elevators and a system of costly Band-Aids for chronic disease. Usually I prefer the stairs and consistent, introspective steps self-care.
During the hours of pre-op, I noticed the patient in the next room was a prisoner. He prepared for surgery with two corrections officers and cuffs on his hands and feet. This antihero looked so depressing and expensive: enough to keep me doing squats, and eating chard, and staying out of trouble.
Despite investing in my health every day, I still pay into industrialized disease care. I want my ass covered if/when the shit hits the fan. Facing debilitating pain, a massage therapist suggested that my dad should strengthen his core. He didn’t need the canned response, he needed a shamanic surgeon.
After opening up Dad’s lumbar vertebrae, the surgeon avoided the more extensive spinal fusion. Recognizing Dad’s active and healthy baseline, the doctor expected a full recovery. Self-care is being your own hero.
At home in West Virginia a month later, my dad and I kayaked down the Greenbrier River. When the rapids tipped us over into an accidental but refreshing dip, I knew Dad wasn’t following doctor’s recovery orders but he was obviously back to normal. Carrying my grandmother’s legacy of feisty self-determination, I practice handstands while listening to “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” I’ll take care of myself but know I still may need a medical team for me like there was for Dad.