Setback, Step Forward



January 1982

I was more than bummed.  As manager of the 7th grade JV basketball team at Cairo American College, it wasn’t like I was on the court during games or anything like that.  However, during practice, Coach Shaheen would let me join the team for drills …which I always really enjoyed.  However, on one warmer than normal January day in Maadi, the suburb where we lived, I had stayed later than usual shooting hoops.

“C’mon, it’s time to get home!” It was my brother, Peter, who had come to fetch me. Just as I began to run toward him, I tripped on the uneven surface of the old court, falling down hard.  For a moment it felt as if I had really hurt myself and Peter had to help me walk.  I shook it off, but on the walk home I wondered to myself how I could possibly manage if I had been injured.  How would I get around? Could I even handle crutches  with my one-fingered hands?  I shuddered at the thought of it since our school was over a mile walk each way down an uneven dirt road. We had no car in Egypt, so the magnitude of that kind of setback would presumably have been disastrous.


May 1986

I fell to the ground in pain. My friend and I had been playing tennis on a dilapidated court at Urbana High School and somehow my foot had gotten caught, resulting in what felt like a bad sprain.  Later at the physician’s office, I waited while my parents discussed options, including whether taking X-Rays of my feet was worthwhile.  It was a bit unnerving to see that even my parents weren’t certain of the best thing to do for me in such circumstances.

After all, not only did I have my hand difference which would make it hard to grab hold of each crutch, my forearms were shortened, making it improbable that I could manage balancing my body and weight.

However, for reasons I chose not to explain to the doctor, I was committed to trying the crutches.  In truth, we were just short of two weeks away from my Junior Prom and I had plans to go with a good friend from another school whom  I had a huge crush on. It had taken all of my nerve to ask him to come to with me, and so  I wasn’t going to give up easily.  “I am positive I’ll be able to handle them Dad….pleeeeaaase?” I was more determined than ever.




Last week while at work I received an unexpected phone call from the nurse at Ethan’s Middle School.  Apparently, during gym, Ethan had taken a tumble playing basketball and hurt his foot.  The nurse was calm, probably accustomed to this type of routine mishap.  However, I was immediately stressed at the news, recalling my own experience in high school, practically feeling the sharp and distinct tenderness underneath my shoulder blades from the pressure of the crutches.  I called my husband to run over to the school because he was closer and waited to hear from them at the doctor’s office.  My mind raced through scenarios. What would an x-ray even show of Ethan’s very different foot? As I suspected, it wasn’t such an easy diagnosis with the first doctor concluding it must be a buckle fracture and the next advising it was only a contusion….

In the end, the recommendation was the same.  A wearable but rigid special boot was most popular, and would allow movement without crutches.  But to our disappointment, the boot couldn’t fit him comfortably.  Crutches for the next few weeks it would be.

When we spoke on the phone, I could hear the anxiety in Ethan’s voice. “Mom, how will I get around from class to class? How will I balance?  How will I carry my book bag?”  I anticipated that the night ahead of us would be similar to those other nights where we prepared together to meet new challenges.  We would practice and practice and ultimately succeed, like when learning to tie our shoes, button coats and operate zippers. I imagined hours together with Ethan trying to move from one end of a hallway to the next, or up and down stairs.

Tommy CaldwellHowever, on the train home from work that night I came across an article about a rock climber named Tommy Caldwell that made me reconsider whether I was focusing on the right thing. Tommy Caldwell2 Caldwell, a career climber thought his career was over when he severed his left index finger with a table saw during a home renovation.  I was struck by a quote from his mom: “It was as if he was hard-wired against giving up.” It occurred to me that Ethan would invariably figure out how to maneuver on crutches.  What was mostly important was to prioritize his state of mind.

So when I arrived home, I dashed into his room without even taking off my coat and told Ethan about Caldwell and how he had just climbed El Capitan against all odds, and in spite of his accident…that getting through something was much more about attitude than aptitude. I also didn’t limit the conversation to Caldwell.

Coincidentally, that morning I had received a text from another friend asking me if I had ever heard of Gerald Green.  Now twenty-eight, Gerald Green was in the 6th grade when a freak accident Gerald Greene(he tried dunking on a makeshift hoop attached to a doorway and his finger got caught on a nail), resulted in an amputation of his ring finger.  But rather than dwelling on the fact his shortened finger made it impossible to palm a ball, hindering his ability to dunk, Green refused to give up his plan to play professional basketball. “I just have to keep pushing forward….when things get bad you can’t quit, you just have to keep fighting.”  Playing now with the Phoenix Suns, Green averages 15.8 points per game.  Given Ethan’s love of basketball which was also the source of his own injury, I made sure to also tell him about Green.

The next morning, Ethan woke up and the fact that he was on crutches wasn’t even discussed.  Instead, he had set his alarm fifteen minutes early to ensure he had time to adjust to his new, slower routine.  Any doubts or fears I had about his new physical challenge evaporated as I drove him to school.  Drawing upon the stories I told him the prior evening, Ethan turned to me with legs slid sideways, as he carefully pushed himself upright, ready to use his crutches for balance.
Ethan crutches Jan 2015Nothing in life is a setback, Mom.  It’s just an experience you have to conquer.” In that moment it occurred to me that it didn’t matter if our child was hard-wired against giving up or if it was something taught.  As with any other physical setback we have experienced, the way to overcome it begins with the mind, and then the body follows.


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