My mind wandered as she drove through the rain. “Everyone told me I was gorgeous; I should go to L.A. and everyone would be beating a path to my door! I would be a supermodel, actress, or spokesperson! Everyone would see my name in lights – Melissa Shaeffer – celebrity! Right after high school graduation, I took their advice. How wrong they were.
I’ve been in town for 8 months. Though I went to hundreds of auditions, the only acting job I got was a commercial for American Express traveler’s checks – I’m the one who yelled “Hey!” when my purse was stolen. I think my face was on screen for all of three seconds.
If everyone gets 15 minutes of fame, I still have 14 minutes, 57 seconds left. Hopefully this time will be different.” I reminisced about the latest audition. I thought that I did pretty well, but I had been disappointed so many times before. As always, there were so many other beautiful women looking for the same few jobs.
I pulled off the highway, and nearing the toll booth, the car hydroplaned, sliding across a puddle as easily as if it were ice! My heart jumped into my throat as I fought for control, barely managing to skid to a stop behind an 18 wheeler. I breathed a sigh of relief. “That was close.” I said to no one in particular as I un-did my seatbelt to get my purse for the toll. I always stashed my purse in front of the passenger’s seat – It’s not like any passengers ever graced this car anyway.
I had no clue that the truck coming up behind me couldn’t stop either. As I was still leaning over the passenger’s seat, the truck behind me smashed into my trunk, throwing my car forward into the back of the truck in front of me. My compact car’s headlights and hood were no match for the truck’s steel bumper. I was thrown forward like a rag doll, my kidneys slamming into the steering wheel, which erupted as the air bags kicked in. My head was viciously whipped from the inflating bag, throwing my body back. I was vaguely aware of a loud “crack” coming from my jaw as it hit the edge of the passenger’s seat before I blacked out.
I came to, looking up at the sky. A young man dressed in white turned to someone else, saying “She’s coming to.” I went to turn her head to see who he was talking to, but something was holding my head in place. It was then I became aware that my body was aching all over. I tried to remember what happened.
“My caaahh?” I mumbled. I couldn’t talk well, and tasted blood. The EMT looked down at me. “Ma’am? You’ve been in an accident. You’ve been unconscious for about 45 minutes, and we had to use the Jaws of Life to get you out of your car. Are you in pain?”
“Aahh haaa” I tried to nod her head “Yes”, but it wouldn’t go. “mmaa pusse?” He seemed experienced in understanding babble, and handed me the purse – it had been next to her on the backboard. Bit by bit, I was becoming more aware of my surroundings. I had been strapped down to a backboard with a strap going over my ankles, and one over my thighs just above the knee. A third nylon strap ran over my hips, a fourth just below my boobs, and the last one ran over my forehead. Large foamy orange blocks had been placed on each side of my head, and a plastic collar held my neck rigid.
I have vague memories of being lifted into the ambulance, and having to wiggle my toes and fingers – I remember being glad they moved. They say that memory loss right after an accident is common. I don’t know if I was conscious or not, but the next thing I remember, I was in a hospital bed, looking up at a TV set in the ceiling.
My body felt strangely immobilized, but my arms were free, so I felt around. I had a fabric band across my forehead, and around the back of my neck. From that band, two long, taut straps rose up toward the headboard, relentlessly pulling my head upwards.
Under my flimsy hospital gown, a heavy duty girdle had been buckled around my hips. Straps went from the lower edge of it to some rings. Some cord went from the rings, down toward the footboard. This cord was pulling my hips downward. With my head held up, I couldn’t see what was going on.
I wanted to know what was going on. I started to unbuckle the fabric band around my head so I could sit up. Just then, I heard, rather than saw, someone walk into the room. He said “Don’t do that – it’s on for your own benefit.” He buckled it back on, a bit tighter than it was before, increasing the stretch on my neck. “If you try to take it off, we’ll have to restrain you.”
He called for a nurse, who came back with a wide strap, maybe 4″ wide, and 5 yards long. They threaded it under the small of my back, and attached it to the sides of the bed.
“I guess I should introduce myself. I’m Dr Travino. It seems like you took quite a hit. You should consider yourself lucky to be alive.” He showed me a Polaroid picture of what used to be my car. Now it was a twisted piece of Cherry-Red scrap metal – I couldn’t identify a single piece of it. Suddenly, I did agree with him – I felt lucky to be identifiable, and alive at that! The relentless dull throbbing in my back reminded me I was still around.
The doctor continued, holding up a replica of a spine. I knew this could only mean bad news for me. Doctors don’t need models to show good news. He started in his diagnosis “You’re on some pretty serious pain medication. The impact twisted your spine like a corkscrew, and then whipped it around like a rope – you really should have been wearing your seatbelt.”
I wanted to explain that I had just taken it off to get toll money, but I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and was too tired to push the issue. The doctor continued with his monologue. “Let’s start from the bottom. Your L2 to L4…” He pointed to the lower back of the model “… has a spiral fracture pattern. Let me illustrate what this means.” He held up a handful of unsharpened pencils, surrounding a balloon. “This is normal vertebrae around your spinal cord.” He gave the stack of pencils a twist, angling each one in a spiral. “This is your vertebrae. Notice all of the sharp points. The balloon hasn’t punctured – yet.”
“You have some options. I can do surgery, but I’m moving razor blade fragments around water balloons – paralysis is possible. If I don’t do surgery, the bones might merge together, smoothing the edges. They might also leave some sharp edges. However, by the time we can predict if they will grow together, it will be too late for successful surgery.”
“You have a similar situation with your C4 through C6.” He pointed to the neck of the model. “You have a slipped disc, maybe two, in between broken vertebrae. Chance of success there is higher, but I have to warn you that failure on the table means death – breathing and heart control go through there.”
“The last, and least, area of concern is your jaw. While it is the strongest bone in the body, it broke in the accident. Surgery there is also optional. Having the operation will spare dental and cosmetic problems, as your jaw is visibly bent, but the recovery will take longer after the operation than letting it heal normally.”
As Dr Travino kept talking, I started to get fidgety – I never could sleep on my back; I always rolled over onto my side. I went to loosen the girdle – maybe I could roll over if it was a bit less snug on my hips.
“No!” Dr Travino grabbed my hand away, pulling it down away from my waist. He guided it a waiting sheepskin manacle attached to the wide strap that went across the bed. A few seconds later, it was secured about 8″ from my waist. The nurse repeated the process on the other side. Now my hands were secured like I was a criminal who might try to escape! I tugged on the restraints, already knowing they weren’t going to come loose.
“We really can’t have you fumbling around with the traction unit – it’s keeping your back from more damage. If you take it off, the entire surgery is moot – you might not survive the night. Wearing it, you’ll be OK. Obviously, you have some thinking to do about the surgery; I’ll give you a few hours to decide, and will be back in the morning.” With that he left me to my thoughts.
This was so sudden. In just an instant, my main concern went from some one shot gig to my permanent well-being. I made up my mind surprisingly quickly. Being alive and able to walk were both more than I could chance – I would nix the surgeries there. As I would be out of work anyway, I might as well get my jaw fixed – recovery time becomes unimportant for some things. And in the morning, I would call up one of those obnoxious injury lawyers. I laid awake for hours, unable to toss or turn. I finally fell asleep shortly before dawn.
The next morning, bright and early, I was woken out of my attempts at slumber when Dr. Travino walked in. I told him of my decision – surgery for my jaw, and that I would hold off on the risky spinal injuries to see how they progressed. He seemed to accept that answer just fine, and told me he would be operating in a few hours. He then turned around and left.
I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. My back was throbbing. My jaw ached. My mind was hazy from lack of sleep, but I wasn’t comfortable enough to get any rest now. I couldn’t sit up, or even move my hands, just stare at a blank television screen. I had no way to track the time, room brightening from the sun. Had it been 30 minutes? Maybe 4 hours? I had no way to tell. I lay there helplessly and waited.
Eventually, the anesthesiologist and a nurse walked in, explaining away the lack of food as getting ready for the operation. They looked over my jaw, confirming what needed to be done. As they were talking in medicalese, I had little clue what they were actually saying. When they were done, they held up the clear mask that would cover my mouth and nose. I understood that part – it was time for lights out.
I breathed deeply through the mask, and in short order, I was blissfully out.
I woke up. My memories of the previous day came slowly filtering back through the haze that filled my mind. The accident. The hospital. The operation. I heard my housemate talking to my agent. The conversation seemed oddly distant, as if I wasn’t even in the room, just hearing it on a radio or something. My housemate, Sophie, was regaling Dr Tavino with a tale about the last time she was in a hospital – she broke leg she had back in high school; she had a cast from below her hips down to her toes that made her crutch around for a few weeks. Apparently, it was awfully tiring having to move around like that. It took longer to get anywhere, especially upstairs, and she couldn’t drive. On the other hand, she loved the added attention – people holding open doors, asking what happened, signing the cast and so forth. At one point, she got stuck in the rain, and the cast got soaked. To get more attention, she chose hot pink for her replacement cast. I couldn’t help but think that I would so much rather have a broken leg than a twice-shattered spine.
As the conversation went on and on, I became more aware of my own presence in the room. I guess it was from the anesthesia wearing off. I tried to say something, but it only came out as a grunt that made my mouth hurt.
Dr Travino leaned over into my line of sight. “Good morning! You probably feel awful – nauseous, uncomfortable, hungry and tired. It’s all normal from the operation and anesthesia, nothing to be concerned about. It will pass. When you were out, the operation went quite well. We wired your jaw around a bite-plate to keep it in place as it heals. The bite-plate has a hole in it, so you will be on a soft diet for the next few weeks. Speaking may be a problem – most patients prefer to keep a note-pad handy for communication. He held up a note-pad and a pen before putting them down within my reach.”
“About your spine, we changed the traction to a more comfortable brace. Once you’re feeling better, you’ll be able to get up and walk around a bit.”
I felt around my waist. There was a two-piece plastic girdle that covered the top of my hips, curving inward over my now artificially narrowed waist. Two metal brackets were screwed across the gap, holding the two halves firmly closed in front. From the higher bracket, a metal rod rose up between my boobs. Around shoulder level, a cross beam came across, ending with a large pad at each end. The pads were up against my shoulders, holding them back. The main frontal support rose a cup that cradled my chin, rising up a bit on the front and both sides. Perhaps “cradled” is the wrong word, as it thrust my chin upwards almost as much as the traction did.
From that chin cup, a strap went around each side of my jaw to another pad behind my head. From the middle of that firm pad, a bar went down my back to meet up with the plastic girdle. It was a quite secure setup, with me lying on the release straps.
My fingers wandered over my teeth. There was something bumpy over them. Then it hit me. Oh my god! I had braces! There were brackets on every tooth, and a wire running down the length of them. There were 5 hooks on each side of my mouth, 3 on the bottom, 2 on the top. A second wire was zigzagged between these to hold my jaws clamped shut on a piece of plastic, about 1 inch tall. The plastic covered the end bits of my teeth in front – a bit more between the teeth, with a crenellated edge for the brackets. I felt that it went full height in back, having an oval hole in the middle that was too small for me to get my tongue through. The thought of spending “the few weeks of recovery time” eating only Jell-O and applesauce was setting in.
Dr Travino said “You’ll need some help getting around for a while, especially dressing and bathing. Some people prefer an aide to come in, others prefer a friend. Let the head nurse know, and she can make arrangements. If you need anything else, call a nurse.” He showed me the push button on a long cord so that I could reach it. With that, he left.
Dr Travino struck me as distant. He may be doing his job competently, but to him, I was a case number; a problem to be fixed as opposed to an injured human being.
Sophie bent over me. She was silent, but her face said it all – “You look like crap.” I tried to smile, and Sophie laughed at my attempt. “You know, some lawyer for Orange Trucking has tried calling. I wouldn’t tell him what hospital you were in.”
I tried mumbling out a “Thanks” before I remembered about the notepad. I started scribbling. “Thanks. I really should get someone to bargain on my behalf. You’re not bad, but I need someone better.”
I scribbled out another page – “I authorize Sophie Carter to bargain on my behalf with Jack Moore.”, signed it, and dated it. Jack Moore is a well known injury attorney. If you’ve driven around L.A, you can’t miss his billboards – “Get as much as you deserve. Expect More. Jack Moore.” I just didn’t trust his fees, and hoped Sophie could do better with that.
I continued on another sheet. “Do the best you can with him, and he can deal with the Orange Trucking attorney. By the way, holding up this pad over my head is tiring. You talk. I listen.”
Sophie said “You made the morning paper.” She showed me page 3 of the local section. I saw the picture, and there I was, strapped down to the backboard, being carried toward the ambulance. My 15 minutes of fame were up. So that’s what I will be known for in life – that woman from page 3. I guess I wasn’t destined to be a regular on the front page, as depressing as that sounds.
Sophie sat down, and talked for a while to keep me company. While I couldn’t see her, it was good to hear her voice, and have her respond to my infrequent written questions. She agreed to help me out as an aide for a few minutes every weekday, but wanted weekends, holidays, and the occasional day off. I thanked her profusely. I hate to impose like this. Eventually, she had to go, I got the remote for the TV, and started flipping channels. I got bored enough to watch a documentary about the history of plastics. It’s amazing what you can find interesting when you have nothing better to do.
I had nothing better to do than to wait for the next visitor, who turned out to be a nurse a few hours later. She come in with a few quite welcome goodies – pain pills, applesauce, Jell-o and some juice. I was quite achy, hungry, and thirsty. At least I was no longer nauseous. I gobbled up whatever the pokey nurse gave as fast as she would feed it to me. She explained she was trying to go slow, as not to upset my stomach. I was so hungry, I couldn’t have cared less. She explained that I had a bed pan for today only – by tomorrow, I should be able to walk the 3 feet to the bathroom. I looked forward to getting up. I wrote out a message to her, so that she’d set up a health aide to help me for the times Sophie couldn’t. Only after a few minutes, the nurse had to continue on her rounds, and left me staring up at the ceiling yet again.
Later that evening, I heard a knock on my door, and someone came in. It’s tough staring at the ceiling, being unaware of everything around you. From the voice, it was my agent. “I have some bittersweet news. The casting director loved your audition. You were going to get the part. Unfortunately, it can’t wait until you recover. I’m sorry.”
It seemed my unsuccessful celebrity career was at an end – there wasn’t much call for a spokesperson who can’t speak, a model in a waist-to-chin brace, or an actress moving tentatively as not to wind up in a wheelchair. At age 18, I would have to move onto another career. And all I had was plenty of time to think about it.
After a bit of uncomfortable small talk, he slipped out the door, glad to be done with the uncomfortable task of visiting me. The closing door echoed the agent’s closing of my file, and the ending of my acting dream.
Agents do their job not to make stars out of young women like me, but to make money. They only make money from actors and actresses that get gigs. As I wasn’t going to get anymore acting jobs, he wasn’t going to make money from me. I don’t expect to ever hear from him again.
I turned on the TV, but nothing could bring me out of the self-pity I was wallowing in.
I eventually pried myself enough off the bed to roll over, and had the opportunity to feel the back of the brace for the first time. The bar that went down my back met up with two brackets that were screwed into the two pieces of the plastic girdle, same as in the front. How the heck was I supposed to get this thing off?
I pushed the button to call for the nurse. Within two minutes, a nurse strode into the room. She stopped, glad that I wasn’t convulsing, clutching my chest, or some other life-threatening sign.
I wrote out “How does this thing come off?”
She awkwardly tried coming up with an answer; she apparently thought that someone else was supposed to tell me. “Well, you’re not supposed to. If you remove it prematurely, any movement may cause spinal injury – potentially paralyzing or even killing you. As a precaution, the brace has been made tamper resistant to ensure compliance.”
That phrase – “tamper resistant to ensure compliance” would haunt me for a long time to come. It meant I was in the brace, like it or not, until they chose to let me out. I resigned myself to wearing it for now. At least I wasn’t strapped down to the bed. There was nothing left to say, so the nurse gratefully left. I rolled onto my side, propping up my rigid neck with two pillows, and eventually slid into a tortured slumber.
I was awoken by a knock on the door. A few seconds later, I heard the door open, and a doctor I didn’t recognize walked in and looked down at me. I looked at him quizzically, wondering if he had the right room.
“Melissa Shaeffer, Nice to meet you. I’m Dr Ringler, your orthodontist. I wanted to check up and see how you are doing.”
It took me a moment to realize what he was saying – he was the guy who wired my mouth around this bite-piece. I felt awkward. What was I supposed to do? Shake his hand? Congratulate him on a fine mastery of dental bondage? I settled on grabbing the ever-present pad and pen, scribbling out an “Um…Hi” and showed it to him.
He smiled. “I’m sure your teeth are quite sore. Normally I can use spacers to gently get room for the bands in back, but that takes about two weeks that we didn’t have. It might not seem it now, but in a few days, your mouth will be a lot more comfortable.”
His caring expression and laid back nature put me a bit more at ease. If he came to see how I was doing, I might as well show him. I pulled back my lips as if to open my mouth, but my metal-laced mouth was kept closed on full display.
Dr Ringler leaned in close to get a good look. “Hhmmm… He pointed at my mouth, and methodically critiqued my dental alignment, and the job that he did, jotting down notes as he did so. “I was a bit off-center on #4…upper mandible too far forward…partial cross-bite on 9-13…High on #16…” He gently pulled back my lips further to get a better view.
When he was done, he pulled back to look at my face rather than my teeth. “All in all, I think that the operation went well. Your jaw is securely fastened and stable. I know that right now, ‘securely fastened’ might not seem like a good thing, but a little looseness now can be awfully painful for the rest of your life.
“I have two questions for you. First of all, I have some interns coming in this afternoon. Do you mind if I bring them in to show them the procedure, maybe answer any questions they have? These aren’t just any yahoos off the street, but medical professionals in training.”
I gave it only a moment’s thought before realizing I had nothing better to do than stare at the ceiling. Any visitors would be a welcome break. I wrote out “Sure. I’ll be here.”
He laughed. “I like your sense of humor. Second question, I see you have some teeth that could be better aligned. Your jaw should be healed in about 6 weeks. There is some work that can be done before that, other forces need to wait until there is a solid foundation to pull from. Are you interested in getting further orthodontic treatment? Don’t worry about the cost – with all this surgical work, the orthodontic work will be lost in the insurance paperwork. It’s not an urgent decision – you have time to think about it.”
He was right about that. I had nothing but lots of time to think.
He continued on. “Give it some thought. I’ll be back late this afternoon with the interns. And thanks.” He walked out of my limited viewing range, and left the room.
The decision didn’t take long after he left. He was a pleasant man, I already have the braces on, and it would be free if I did it now. As long as it didn’t lengthen the time my mouth would be wired shut, I would do it.
I stared up at the ceiling. Time seems to stand still when you have nothing to do. Little known fact – the drop ceiling tile has 1,397 holes in it. Well known fact – daytime TV is awful. My back hurt too much to go to sleep, so I laid there.
The sound of the door opening broke me out of my mindless daydreaming. Sophie’s cheerful voice called out “Hi there! I’m back again!”
Next to Sophie, a nurse poked her head into my field of vision. “OK. It’s time to get you up, to the bathroom, bathed, and changed.” All of these sounded just fine to me!
The nurse, a woman in her 50’s built like a football player, gently lifted me to a sitting position. She then showed Sophie and I how to grind up the pills, mix it in some applesauce, and slide it through the hole in the bite-plate. Through the small talk, I found out that the nurse’s name was Brenda.
Once all the medicated applesauce was gone, Brenda gently guided me up. I was glad to be standing. A minor victory! I took the three steps to the bathroom. Walking was odd – every step sent a jolt from my hips to my scalp without going through my back. I also couldn’t see the handle to the bathroom. I fumbled around, and opened it, and was surprised at the bathroom I saw – there was a noose-like hoop hanging from a track in the ceiling, and a stool right below it. The track ran from a shower stall out into the middle of the room. I ignored them, glad to do my business. I knew that in time, I would get to know the apparatus all too well.
I got up, and looked at myself in the mirror for the first time. I looked like a nightmare of my worst bad-hair day. I pale and looking like I was wiped-out tired. There were still bits and smudges of makeup from my audition clinging to my face. My lips were hanging a bit open, showing off the red bite-plate keeping my jaws about an inch apart, and the wiring holding them clamped in place.
I closed my lips. Now it looked like I was hiding a large hard candy between my teeth; I just had that guilty look.
My gaze wandered down a bit. The brace was holding me in a rigid, upright posture; my chin was up, not slouched a bit. However, with the way it held my shoulders back and the pads in back thrust my chest forward, my posture was saying “Hey look! I have boobs!” I stared for a few minutes at who I had become before snapping out of it – perhaps a shower would do me good. I opened up the door.
“OK, time to get you changed and bathed. Stand up on the stool.” Brenda ordered.
I gently got up on it. The loop in front of me was reminiscent of noose above the gallows. I saw that it was one seamless piece of canvas, made into a hoop. There were two tabs that stretched up to attach to the Y-shaped cable that went up to the ceiling hook. One side of the hoop had a slight cup shape to it; I assumed it was for my chin.
The instructions continued. “Put your head through the loop, settling the straps comfortably between the brace and your chin and between your brace and the back of your head, then gently step off of the stool.”
I set the straps as instructed. The straps were a bit loose – for now. I slowly stepped off the stool, feeling my head stay at about the same height. My weight now pulled on the canvas, bringing the tabs up to cover my ears, pulling in the sides of the canvas noose. I had to stand on tip-toe to stay up, and my back really hurt doing it!
Brenda called out “You’re not going to strangle. Ease your feet down and let yourself dangle. Let gravity do the work.”
I eased down a bit. The pain lessened as I did so, settling to a dull throb as I lowered. My heels didn’t quite touch the floor, but they were awfully close.
Now it was Sophie’s turn to get instructed. “Notice how her heels are less than an inch from the floor, but don’t touch. If anything changes, you may need to change the hook height.
“Move the stool out of your way – you don’t want to trip. Now take this screwdriver, and unscrew the brace. This is important. Only unscrew the brace when Melissa is in traction, and it gets screwed on before the stool comes back. Don’t take off the brace at any other time, for any reason! Keep the screwdriver in your purse, or somewhere not accessible to her when you’re not home – if she loosens or removes the brace, all bets are off, and we don’t want any complications.
With me dangling out of reach of a notepad, there was no retort that I could possibly give.
Nurse Brenda instructed Sophie about the proper order to unscrew the brace. She loosened the screws around the back of my neck, then loosened and removed the ones just over my butt before removing the ones previously loosened. Sophie and Brenda took the brace off of me. It felt good to be free of it, but I was dangling from the ceiling, and not too brave or confident about testing the limits of my freedom.
Nurse Brenda carefully took off my hospital gown. I felt quite exposed and on display as I dangled nakedly. I was glad that I had a female nurse rather than some male orderly. Brenda showed Sophie how to push me toward the shower. In time, I might be able to propel myself, but for now, I was a side of beef needing to be washed.
Brenda showed me how to turn on the shower, as I couldn’t tilt my head to even see the knobs. With that, she lathered up my feet and calves with soap. Sophie and Brenda closed the curtain and withdrew.
I turned on the water as a gentle spray. It felt wonderfully refreshing on my skin. The freedom of being able to move my arms around normally without a bed in the way was also a welcome change.
My thoughts wandered as I bathed. My heels aren’t even touching the slippery floor. What would happen if I would slip and fall? Oh yeah. I can’t fall – I’m attached to the friggin’ ceiling! I used my arms on the wall to turn myself around, and the water stung as it hit my back. Forget that! I turned back to face the spray.
Once I was done, I turned off the water. A towel appeared, draped over the shower curtain. I took it gratefully, and started to dry off. A fresh gown showed up in the towel’s place. I put it on, meager cover as it was, and opened up the curtain.
Brenda was smiling. “I’m sure you feel a lot better. I’m going to ask you a series of questions. Give me a thumbs up for yes, and a thumbs down for no. First, are you feeling OK?
I flashed the thumbs up.
“Most patients feel better the drier they are before the brace goes back on. Are you OK with staying here for a bit?”
If I would feel better later, I could stay. I flashed the thumbs up again.
“Would you like a notepad?”
Thumbs up yet again, and she returned a moment later with the pad and pen, shaking her head. “You know, I never did care for the wallpaper on the bathrooms on this floor – the blue pattern and the pink runner across the top doesn’t belong anywhere outside of maternity.”
The conversation took off from there. It felt odd, yet somehow right to be hanging from the ceiling, dressed in only a towel, having a written conversation with a friend and someone I met a few minutes ago.
The knock on the door vividly reminded me of Dr. Ringler’s visit. I quickly wrote out an explanation, and we sprang into action. Sophie went out to buy time, and Nurse Brenda handed me the flimsy hospital gown to put on as she got my cage. I mean my brace.
I helped by holding the brace in position in front, Brenda took the back section, and started hurriedly screwing the back post in place. She was clearly a pro at this – within a few minutes, I was secured in my cage, back in bed, and awaiting company.
Dr. Ringler came in, followed by about a dozen students. My hospital room got real cozy, real fast. Not that I minded – I got the bed all to myself, and couldn’t fill it anyway. However, Nurse Brenda left to give us more room.
Dr. Ringler first thanked me for letting his students look, and then asked me if I wanted to continue treatment like he’d proposed. I wrote out a “Yes”, hoping that I wasn’t making a mistake.
Dr Ringler addressed the students. “Melissa has been in an accident, and broke her jaw. I have wired it shut so that it may properly heal. Typical treatment lasts 4 to 6 weeks.” He gently separated my lips to show the work that he had done, going into a medical discourse about tooth number, what kind of brackets, and so forth.
“Each student should come up, introduce yourself to Melissa, examine the work, and ask any questions you may have. Never be afraid to talk to your patient. He or she not only knows more about how the condition feels, but is also the one who is your best advertisement for future business. Talk to them. They will generally like helping you to help them.
The first student came up and stiffly held out his hand, unsure of himself. “Rahid Gupta”. I wrote out “Hi there! I’m still Melissa.” He put his fingers forth, clearly unsure about invading my personal space. I laughed as well as I could with my mouth clamped shut. Smiling, I guided his hands to separate my lips. He took a close look. I got the feeling that this was the first time he had, as a doctor-to-be, looked at oral medical treatment on a person, rather than a cadaver, case number, or animal. I appreciated that Dr Ringler was making sure that the students knew that I was a person, not just a problem to be solved. I liked that.
When Rahid was done, he nervously stepped away.
Dr Ringler corrected him. “Say ‘thank you’, and do you have any questions?”
Rahid stammered “Thank you, and um…no questions.”
Dr Ringler said “OK. Next! And Rahid, go get a high-pull headgear and a facebow – oh fifty one inner, size 4. Oh! And a hand mirror.” Rahid quickly left the room, I can only assume he understood what he was getting, I sure didn’t. I got the feeling Rahid’s bedside manner needed work. The next student stepped up, and the inspection continued.
The student bravely, smiled. “I am Alice Sinclaire. May I take a look at your mouth?”
I wrote out “Why certainly!” I instinctively tried to crane my neck to offer her my mouth, but the back brace prevented any movement. It would still take some getting used to.
She took a close look at what Dr Ringler did, studying it intently. “Does it hurt?’
I wrote out “Heck yes, but the pain meds usually reduce it down to an inconsistent throbbing.” After I showed it to her, I wrote a bit more “Actually, my back hurts a lot more than my teeth. Dr Ringler did something so many other people only dream of – he shut me up!”
Alice laughed, and moved on.
Others looked on, some traced the wires with their fingers, some were better than others. Finally Rahid came back, carrying a wire thing, a black strappy thing, and a mirror.
Dr Ringler handed me the mirror, and had me watch as he put the wire and straps around my head. “OK. This is your headgear. Watch carefully as I put it in.”
I held the mirror, and watched as he guided the metal headgear spokes into the buccal tubes merged with the bands around my back molars. They slid in easily, yet firmly. I saw the arch that connected the two spokes that went into the buccal tubes was merged with another arch. That one ended in two hooks, one a little bit in front of each ear.
He pulled on the straps that were connected to the hook on the left. The strap split into two parts, one going over the top of my head, the other cradling around the back. The two parts re-merged just before the other headgear hook. Dr Ringler gave the straps a bit of a tug to get some tension, and hooked the strap to the hook. The feeling was odd. It was like I was leaning my teeth on my something. Sometimes when I was growing up, I would lean my front teeth on my knuckles – it was like that, but it was my back teeth this time. It also felt odd having the archwires coming out of my mouth. Should I spit them out like a metal cable, or suck them in like a strand of spaghetti? The in-between nature would, like everything else I was wearing, take some getting used to.
Dr Ringler said “It will get uncomfortable after a while. Leave it on for as long as you can. The longer it is on, the more work it does.”
I laughed inside. Uncomfortable? My entire body was uncomfortable! It was only drugs keeping me pleasantly dulled. I looked at the headgear strap in the mirror. There sure was no hiding it – the black strap contrasted with my skin, my hair…it was going to be visible. Hiding it would be as laughable as a balding guy with a poor comb-over. It’s not like I was a beauty queen with this back brace in a hospital bed anyway. I decided that I would just let it show.
All too quickly, the group filed out of the room. I hoped for Nurse Brenda or Sophie to come back. I was disappointed; they must have left. I lay awake for quite a while, staring at the TV set into the ceiling.
There was a knock on the door – dinnertime! The thought of food made me realize just how hungry I was. I sat up, and the door opened, and the smell of pizza filled the room. OK, it was hospital food, but any port in a storm!
The food attendant, or whatever her title was, came up, and pulled out the tray that hung off of the bed, pulling it up just over my lap. My mouth was watering. She pulled out a plate of…a milkshake and a small bowl of applesauce, with jello for dessert. The milkshake was the weight-loss kind, with no ice cream anywhere near it. She gave me a gruff “There ya go.”, and turned away. She’d never make it as a waitress. I thought of what I got, looking up at the cart full of pizza longingly. I really wanted the pizza, the aroma filled my nostrils, but there was no way I could eat it! My eyes wistfully followed the cart out of the room. I went to look back on the plate sitting on the tray, just above my lap. With the brace keeping my chin up so high, I couldn’t even see it! I held it up for another look, remembering where each item was on the tray. Oh well. Its food I can eat. I’ll regain my health, and be out of here in a few days anyway.
I took off the headgear, and my teeth started to throb. Through the pain medication, I couldn’t really tell how much; everything was fuzzy and hazy – both physically and mentally. I had gotten used to the pressure, and had forgotten about the headgear, but the loss of pressure had them start to ache.
I put back on the headgear, and the throbbing went away. I held up the tray to look at it again, re-assessing my situation. The milkshake had a straw, and I could slurp down the watery applesauce too. I grabbed the straw, and slurped down dinner, still wearing the headgear. My mother would be appalled at the rude noises I was making while eating. I’d have to work on that some other time.
As I finished dinner, I scootched myself bit by bit down the bed as best I could in this body-cage. I lay there, wondering how much longer I would be in this hospital bed.
As I laid there, my mind started to drift. I rolled over like a log to go to sleep on my side. The headgear just got in the way. I can’t sleep well on my back, my stomach is right out, even before the brace forcing me to look straight ahead – I need to sleep on my side. I didn’t feel bad about taking off the headgear – I had worn it for a lot more hours than Dr Ringler had expected.
As I released it, my teeth felt uncomfortable, kind of loose from the sudden loss of pressure. The feeling continued until I drifted off to sleep.
The next morning, there was a knock on my door. A moment later, my chief doctor strode in. Dispensing with any formalities or bedside manner, he abruptly said “I have good news. You could be discharged as soon as this evening, and will be free to go home.
I was astonished. How could I go home like this? There was no way that I could cook a meal with this brace on. I couldn’t even see the stove! Much as I treasure my independence, I needed some serious help!
Just then, Sophie burst into the room, darting around the wooden statue that claimed to be my surgeon. Or would he be a cardboard cut-out? Anyway, Sophie just started talking a mile a minute at me. “I just heard that you’re coming home tonight and I’m like really excited ‘cause I spent so much time getting everything ready for you, you’ll be so impressed. I got the bathroom – the second bathroom, the one with the stall, not the tub, set up just like the one here, with the track in the ceiling and all, and don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause I’ll be around to take care of you – I got a few days off of work, so it will be just so great that you’ll be home; even though you can’t talk and all, it will be just so great to have you back to where we can hang out and all.” Even if my teeth weren’t wired shut, I wouldn’t have been able to get a word in edgewise. Sophie was a responsible enough person. I hated to be a burden on her, but if she was willing to do it, I was sure willing to get back to civilization.
Nurse Brenda walked in. “I hate to break up this party, but if you want to be going home tonight, you have a long day of physical therapy ahead of you.
Brenda helped me stagger to my feet. I was glad that I managed to stiffly walk a few steps without assistance over to the bathroom track for a bit of a scrubbing before I got dressed. Even though this was only day two, I was falling into a routine. Step up on the tub edge, put my head into the harness, and then slowly lower myself off. Brenda showed Sophie how to check the fit of the harness, and took out the special screwdriver. She said “Remember. You hold the screwdriver. If you give it to her, it’s too easy to take off the brace, and then get into the harness. That’s when accidents happen. Got me?”
Sophie smiled and nodded. I got the feeling she was going to enjoy this minor power trip.
Brenda then handed over the screwdriver, and instructed as Sophie slowly loosened and removed up all of the screws holding the girdle shut. The next step was to take off the neck ring, gently releasing me from my brace. Brenda then took a close look to make sure that I wasn’t developing any sores – not that I could see if I was or not, forced to look straight ahead as I was. It really was something that someone else would have to do for me. In the future, it would have to be Sophie. I would just have to get used to being naked, hanging from a harness, and getting inspected by my housemate.
Brenda then showed Sophie how to clean my body – I could clean anything I could reach, but to begin with, I needed help cleaning my feet and lower legs. Brenda gave us the choice – either shaving my legs would have to wait for a few months, or Sophie would have to do it. Sophie empathized with me, and agreed to shave my legs for as long as it took.
When we were done (it still seemed odd to think of showering as a group activity), Brenda handed me my clothes and helped me get dressed. I chose to dispense with stockings or tights; they would just be too tough to put on right now. Finally, Brenda showed Sophie how to put the familiar and formidable brace back on, and Sophie kept the screwdriver. I felt around for my headgear, glad that I remembered where it was. It’s odd not being able to see anything less than 5’ tall near you. I finally found it, and slid the facebow for my headgear into the buccal tubes that would be on my teeth for the next few years. I pulled the straps around my head, and felt the familiar pressure on my teeth. In time, I’m sure I would get used to the changes in pressure. For now, it was quite uncomfortable for the first half hour or so.
Brenda pulled up a wheelchair. I was confused. Couldn’t I walk OK? Brenda explained that it was hospital policy; patients with questionable walking didn’t walk outside of P.T. due to insurance. She rolled me down to the P.T. room – Physical Therapy. It would be a room that I would get to know all too well. When she opened the door, I was absolutely astounded at the odd assortment of stuff that was in there. The first thing that grabbed my attention was the driver’s portion of a car, mounted on a wall. It did not include anything that would be in front of the dashboard or behind the back seat, or anything on the passenger’s side of the car. One area was set up as an exercise room, complete with the padded mats and mirrored walls for aerobics. Next to it, a set of stairs rose up, ending in a blank wall. For a first time patient, it was very surreal.
Brenda rolled me in a little, and unconsciously tried to turn my head to look around. Needless to say, my head didn’t get very far; post-accident, I had to turn my whole body to look around now. A picnic bench, complete with table cloth and one place setting, was set up next to a counter from a cafeteria. It looked like a setting of make-believe or a setting from The Twighlight Zone. Sophie went to the picnic table with a newspaper – she wanted to have an idea what I was going through.
Brenda helped me to my feet, and I started to stumble. Almost immediately, I felt Brenda’s arms on my back, steadying me. “Don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal. The brace changes not only your movements, but your balance as well. You’ll get used to it after a while.”
I could only think “How long is a while? How much longer after this ‘while’ will I have to be screwed into the brace?” The distinctive clicking sound of a woman in heels interrupted my thoughts. Normally in a case like this, I would glance down to see if she was teetering around on 4″ heels in a vain attempt to look taller, or wearing more sensible footwear. Now that my gaze was forced slightly upwards, I had no hope of looking.
Another woman walked around me, an enthusiastic woman dressed in a professional lab coat. “Hi. I’m Crystal. I’ll be handling your physical therapy. There are so many things that you move your neck and back, taking it for granted. From what I understand, you are set to be released as soon as you show that you can get around adequately. If you’ve got the will and the stamina, and someone to care for you at home, we can probably go through enough of the basics to have you out late today or sometime tomorrow, and you can sleep at home. What do you say?”
I was all for it, but with my mouth wired shut, all I could do was give a nervous thumbs up. I realized that Crystal was looking down, maybe at my folder. The result was just an awkward silence.
Crystal must have noticed the note of the orthodontics in my folder. Her head snapped up, and the embarrassment covered her face. “Oops. I didn’t mean to. Well, I…” she stammered. I smiled, and let her know that it was OK – I was going to have to get used to awkward silence sooner or later. I realized I was coming to terms with my situation.
“Well, let’s get started.” Crystal started talking about some of the common difficulties being in my situation. I could not look down to tie my shoes. Velcro or slip-ons would be easier, as I couldn’t untie a knot. I would also have to get used to walking again. I was now a bit more top-heavy – it really changed my sense of balance. Walking down stairs would challenging, as I was looking slightly up, instead of down at the stairs.
I was encouraged by the thought of sleeping in my own bed tonight. It would turn Sophie into a live-in aide, but if she was willing to do it, I was willing to take her up on the offer.
The day passed in a myriad of exercises, re-learning how to do common daily tasks. Crystal ran me through everything from how to get into a car to how to pick up a dropped object from the floor. An entire hour was spent on how to get in and out of bed. Another long section was devoted to how to get dressed. I hadn’t realized until then just how short my arms were. With my shoulders thrust back the way they were, I couldn’t reach my feet to put on my shoes! Apparently, the way to do it is to reach behind my butt, and slip the shoe on there – things like that must come from years of practice. Even though each task would normally be quite easy, lugging around a back brace, and having to do things in a different way made it quite tiring. She said it would get easier over time.
One particularly frustrating lesson was done right before lunch. Crystal got a plate with steak, green beans, and corn. It smelled wonderful. I was wondering how I would be able to eat it. Crystal went over looking at the plate at a distance, remembering what was on it, and where. I could feel around with the silverware to check while I cut things. She said that normally, at this point, we would go over how to eat while in a brace like mine. Given my dental situation, that lesson plan would have to wait. My braces were like a chastity belt for food – Nothing would be coming in for the foreseeable future, and I had no control over when it ended. Sophie and Crystal had the steak dinner. I was given a nutritional milkshake.
Right after lunch, I had to use the bathroom. I wrote out a note, and showed it to Crystal. “Good!” she said. “We need to go over what to do in there anyway.” We went in, and Crystal made sure that I sat down carefully – not plop down like I usually did. Crystal and Sophie then stepped out while I did my business, re-entering after I was done. Crystal started in “OK. Wipe like you normally do.” I felt like I was being treated like a toddler during toilet training. I reached between my legs, and my arm was stopped short by the brace. Without bending over, or rotating my shoulder forward, I just couldn’t reach far enough! I wiped what I could. Crystal then showed me how to use a curved stick wrapped in toilet paper to clean the rest. She said that many other things would work, such as the curve from a plastic coat hanger. The alternative was to have assistance in wiping. I tried the “reach” method. It didn’t work too well. As humiliating as it was, I think that the “assistant” method would have to be used for a while.
I had a profound thought – I was glad that the students weren’t witnessing this part. At one point, Crystal must have been a medical student, and watched in a group as someone tried to wipe their butt, and ask questions. At least my audience was only two people. Give thanks for small favors.
The physical therapy continued. Every hour or so, she would check to make sure everything was going OK, checking for blood circulation, any numbness, and so forth. Each check would also come with a warning not to attempt to move anything covered by the brace, even while bathing. Any motion would come later. I was told it would not be tomorrow, not next week, but just the vague “later”. I was content with that for the time being; Crystal had installed the fear of permanent damage quite well.
It was about 7:30 at night when Crystal finally said “OK. I think we’re done here for today. Given that Sophie will be around to help you, I think you’re OK to be discharged. You can sleep at home tonight. Congratulations!”
I was elated. Yes, I exchanged one bed for another, and Sophie would be taking over for Crystal and Brenda, but it was a start toward normality. I was wheeled out, and in half an hour, I was headed for home.
I was woken up the next morning by the phone ringing in Sophie’s room. I had disconnected the phone in my room – I couldn’t use it, and the sight was too depressing. Well, at least I was home. One step at a time!
A few minutes later, Sophie came into my room. “Jack Moore, your lawyer, called. He’s worked out a settlement of 3.4 million dollars, plus lifetime health coverage for all accident-related costs. After fees and taxes, it comes out to about a million and a half. He wants to know if you’ll go along with it.” In her best Regis Philbin voice she called out “Who wants to be a millionaire?”
While it wouldn’t cure my back, or help me to open my mouth, the financial security did sound nice. I wrote out a go-ahead. I was soon to be a millionaire, but with what life ahead of me? What was I supposed to do for the next 40 years? Be a professional cripple, and then retire?
I sat in bed for a while pondering. With the brace holding me so rigid, I didn’t want to risk getting up without someone around in case I needed help. Hopefully, in time, I would be able to take care of myself.
Sophie came back into my room, and convinced me to get up. She helped me upright, and I shuffled off to the bathroom. I did my business, and wiped up afterwards the best that I could. It really was tough without bending forward or even moving my shoulders. I sat there wondering “Did I get it all?” I had no way to know. It’s not like I could feel it. I couldn’t look in a mirror, as my head wouldn’t turn enough. There was only one way to find out. As embarrassing as it would be, I had to ask my own housemate to look at my butt. I sat for a moment, gathering up the courage, and then wrote out the note. This time, I was glad that I didn’t have to say it.
I let my nightgown flop down, and showed Sophie the note. She read it, and looked up at my face. I just wanted to shrink down and disappear. She laughed, which really eased my tension. She lifted up my nightgown. “Oops. You did miss a spot. Let’s take a trip back to the bathroom.” She wiped up the missed spot. At that point, I realized that I couldn’t do any unsupervised “number two’s”; at least not until I got better at it. It was like needing to go through potty training as an adult. I would need assistance wherever I went; I was sure the lack of freedom would be difficult and embarrassing at times.
A few hours later, I stiffly sat down in front of the computer. I pulled up my e-mail, and was surprised to see a letter from my agent. I thought he wrote me off as dead or unemployable – to him they were the same. I opened the e-mail:
Great news! Remember the last audition you went on, right before the accident? The casting director was very impressed by you. He’s now casting for “Heather’s”. He’s got a spot for a date of one of the regular cast members. Once he saw there were no speaking parts, you came to mind. You got the part if you want it. He’ll provide transportation – Thursday at 5 AM. Let me know ASAP.
I was amazed. My acting career, which I had thought sputtered to an end after a short life, was miraculously revived, better than ever. What should I call this? My “back-from-the-dead zombie career”? I’d heard of “Heathers” – it was a new show, said to have used “Cheers” as a model. This one was set and filmed in Las Vegas at the Venetian Casino during off-peak hours. I quickly typed out my reply-
Count me in! If I can wear clothes from my wardrobe, let me know what kind of clothes to wear – I’d rather not have to change.
What I didn’t say was that I couldn’t change if I wanted to – the brace was literally screwed onto my body! Just a few minutes later, I had my reply –
Dress like you’re going out on a date to the casino. Let the brace show, it was written into the script. Congratulations and good luck!
I felt like a star. A part had been written specifically for me! What an honor! I sat in dreamy eyed shock for a few minutes. I guess my fifteen minutes of fame wasn’t quite over! I quickly wrote out a note, and showed it to Sophie. She jumped up and down, screaming in joy! All the movement and screaming that I wanted to do – at least I had a surrogate rejoicer! What else are friends for?
That morning, I got up, an odd mixture of still asleep and so excited that the back brace had to hold me still. After Sophie attached me to the head harness, I showered. It’s been less than a week, and already it seems to be the normal way to do things, as if I would ask “How could you shower without being tethered to a ceiling track?”
I got dressed in the standard “dating” outfit – a black dress that came to about my knees, black pantyhose, and black pumps with about a 2″ heel – comfortable enough to move around in all day. Sophie screwed me into the brace, and I put my headgear back on. It was habit, and Rick wouldn’t be coming for about another hour.
Right on time, Rick Onastasi pulled up in his Lincoln Town car. It even looked like a limo! Sophie wished me luck, and I walked out, chin held high. Whether it was pride of actually being in a show that held my chin up, or the brace, I’ll never know.
Rick got out opening up my door. It was him looking me over for the first time since the accident that had me realize – I still had the headgear on! Embarrassed, I quickly went to take it off.
“Wait, wait!” Rick interjected “leave it on if you would. I think it helps to make the part.”
Now I was a bit concerned. While I sure didn’t know I was portraying if orthodontic headgear would “help to make the part”. I remembered how the physical therapist said to get in the car, and followed her directions carefully. Just as in the practice room, I had to take it slowly and easily to avoid banging my head on the car’s roof.
Rick drove off, and he started talking about the “whole project”. I was a date for Brian, a main character – my brace would provide a bit of comic relief. He said that “At first, it was going to be just a visual – something different. Then the writers really started to open up and have some fun with it. I think it should get quite a few laughs!”
At first, I took that as the writers were going to be having me make a fool of myself; to have people laughing at me. Then I came to my senses. It was like an epiphany. Just like Steve Martin playing “The Jerk”, Jaleel White playing Steve Erkel in “Family Matters”, or David Spade’s many characters, I was playing a role. If I was going to succeed as an actress like this, I had this one opportunity. I should play it to its fullest. If the audience laughs their heads off while pointing at me, I was doing a wonderful job entertaining them.
We finally arrived at the Venetian Casino. As he parked, it hit me – this was the first time that I would be out in public since the accident! What would people think?
Rick took me through a door marked “employees only”, and entered a maze of corridors and rooms. The public would have no clue that all this stuff is back here! He dropped me off into the room being used as a makeup and hair studio. It struck me like an assembly line. All of the “no-name” actresses lined up, first- come, first-served. After wardrobe (which I thankfully skipped), the first two chairs were for hair, the next three were for makeup – apparently that took longer.
Once I got to sit, my long hair was combed, and pulled back into a pony-tail. A silver barrette kept it quite snug. The hairstylist called out “Next!”, and I was off to makeup.
The makeup artist was equally brief. A bit of brush here, an eyebrow pencil there, and I was off in less than five minutes. Now if only I could get myself done up this well, this fast everyday!
I followed the crowd, and was handed my script. I would be Mary Perkins. It only had the scenes that I would be in. I read through it. My first scene was a “grand entrance” to where friends were meeting at a bar area. I thought about how to play the character. My first thought was ram-rod straight, structured by the brace. It didn’t seem right for a sitcom. On second thought, a bubbly personality would be a lot funnier. I thought I’d play her that way. This would be a lot tougher with not only not being able to alter dialogue, but even vocal inflection was out. Some ideas I came up with were a lot of over-done grinning (mouth closed until other characters explained my predicament), large waves hello, wide open eyes, and things like that.
Before I knew it, shooting started. I got ready with my date, Brian. We walked in, and there I was, making exaggerated waves hello to the cameramen. I smiled, and accompanied my date, walking on by as Brian greeted imaginary people.
“Cut!” was called, and we were lined up again. The director called out for some of the extras not to look toward the camera, and to look more nonchalant. Brian should smile more. To me, it was a carefully thought out “Good. Yeah. Do that one again.”
The scene was shot again. If it made it past the cutting room floor, it would be five or ten seconds on screen. We were then quickly herded out of the entrance. The cameramen only had a limited time that we could film in the entrance, so all entrance scenes were shot back to back, regardless of the order the viewing public would see them.
As we walked away, still side by side, Brian said “Hi there. I hear that we just finished your first professional gig! Congratulations!” I turned to face him, and saw that he wanted to shake my hand. We shook, and I took out the pad. I wrote back “Thanks. I actually did one commercial before.”
He laughed. “Keeping in character with that ‘no talking’ thing. Well done.” He gave me a thumbs up and an approving smile.
I wrote back “No, really. My mouth is actually wired shut to fix a broken jaw.” I bared my metallic smile so that he could see.
A stunned “Whoa.” was all he could say before we were led over to the dance floor. Before the accident, I was a pretty good dancer. Now I had to really plan out my moves. What could I still do? Then it came to me – get really into it, just as long as I don’t fall over and further injure myself.
They started Playing Maroon Five’s “She Will Be Loved”. I blushed a bit, knowing that the lyric “Look for the girl with the broken smile” was at my expense. Well, Rick did warn me that the writers really got into it.
Swallowing my pride, I boldly went out on the dance floor. As soon as I started to move, I became so aware how much of my dance style was head and torso movements. My balance was off due to the weight and restriction of the brace. There I was, trying to get down and funky with my arms and the rest of my body was like a stick! I started getting in the rhythm as much as I could with some jerky bopping moves. I knew I looked absolutely ridiculous. What was I trying to prove? I turned to face the cameraman, and I saw him laughing at what I was doing. Once again, it was clear – I was absolutely looking ridiculous. That is ridiculous and entertaining the viewing public. It was my job, and one laughing cameraman made me love it once again. I made sure my lips were slightly open so that my braces showed, I played it up.
Towards the end, I tried a twirling move. My shoulder couldn’t get forward like it normally does, and I fell into a couple who was dancing next to me, bowling them over as we tumbled to the ground together.
It took a bit as we tried to untangle ourselves from each other. I couldn’t speak to apologize, and I didn’t have my note-pad on me. What was I going to do? I felt really bad that I knocked them over. I would find out later that me bowling them over was the only camera footage of them that would make the final cut.
I tried to get up, but with the other dancers all around, I didn’t think I could. As the song ended, some of the other extras who were dancing helped me to my feet. I got off the dance floor. I felt fine, but I knew that I would be paying for those few precious minutes for days to come in back pain.
About half an hour later, I had a sitting scene. I was just glad it wasn’t another dancing disaster scene. All I had to do was sit there with three others around a table, and look at whoever was talking. It turns out the copy of the script that I was given didn’t have all of the “redlining”, the last minute changes, in it.
I sat down, and the conversation started out asking what happened to me. I started writing out notes, but to every question, Brian answered it before I got done writing. After note number 5, I gave up in frustration, tossing the pad and pen away. I would need to remember to grab it later.
The other couple clearly considered me to be damaged goods. Their snipes of “Metal Mouth Mary” and “Perfect Posture Perkins” were strewn throughout the conversation. Yes, I was on the new fad – “no eating, wire your jaw shut, diet.” As the other couple left, they wished me well, and told me “keep your chin up!” I was the butt of so many jokes in just a few minutes.
My parts were over, filming was done. The woman who seemed to take so much enjoyment about calling me “Perfect Posture Perkins” came up to me. “Oh my god! I just heard that you actually were in a car accident! I thought that what you’re wearing came from wardrobe. At that point, I realized that I forgot to pick up my pad and pen from when the script said I should toss it.
I held up my finger for the “wait a second” sign, and went back to the table. From a distance, I spotted the pad of paper. The brace kept my chin up high, so the closer I got, the more it went out of sight. I guessed where it was, knelt down, and started feeling around for it.
The actress knelt down to get it for me. “Here you go. I’m Cathy McGreggor.” I took the pad and stood up, looking around for my pen. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Cathy raised her hand up into my visual range – she’d wanted to shake, but I just couldn’t see it.
Cathy continued. “Good! I thought you were going to leave me hangin’!”
I looked around for my pen. I was mute without it!
Cathy asked “Did you lose something?”
I made a scribbling motion with my hand on the pad.
“Oh!” Cathy fished a pen out of her purse, and we started a conversation. Hers was verbal, mine written. And to think that I had weeks left for this. It sure was different.
After just a few hours, it was time to go home – my fifteen minutes of fame were done. At least I had a bright spot to remember as years of healing lay ahead. I got into the car with Brian, and his monologue of the day’s trials and tribulations kept me entertained as he drove me home.
I thought back to when I watched the episode of Heather’s with a gathering of friends and family. Everyone was there – Jenny, even my Aunt Sarah showed up as a surprise. I loved it. I WAS ON TV! Everyone around was happy for me, they complimented my performance, but I’m not sure if it was heartfelt, or the social thing to do to make me feel better. Either way, it was a total party atmosphere.
The sound of the phone ringing in Sophie’s room broke me out of my daydream. Despite a week to two going by, my jaw was still wired shut; there was no use of me answering the phone as I couldn’t talk understandably. The thought of my disability was a bit depressing.
I went back to my financial examination. While I had a lot of money, I had to always remember that this is what I have to live on for life. I would need to be frugal, and invest the lot of money. This lump sum included all medical expenses unrelated to the accident, as being disabled for a living doesn’t come with health insurance as a benefit.
A message popped up on my screen – I got an e-mail from my agent. I was amazed! Did someone ELSE want a no-name actress in a back brace with her jaws wired shut? Was there a market for this kind of thing? I opened it up.
I’ve got great news! The audience feedback for your performance on Heather’s was wonderful! The producer wants to write you in as a re-occurring character! Let me know if you’re willing to do it. I think it’s a really great opportunity.
I’m also getting inquiries from fans, wanting to know contact information. Do I have your permission to give it out?
If my jaw wasn’t wired shut, it would have fallen on the floor. Heather’s wanted me back? I had a blast doing it – of course I wanted to! I had fans? That was a double surprise. I leapt at the opportunity, my fingers whipping up a quick response. A few e-mails went back and forth, and I encouraged him to give out only my e-mail address for now – I’d give out my physical address later if it went that far. My phone number just didn’t matter, as I couldn’t answer it. I gave an enthusiastic “yes” for the role, and by the end of the day, I was reviewing the contract. My agent told me to pay attention to Section 4, article 3, “Contractual continuations”
In heavy legalese, this clause covered what was to occur if the actor/actress was unable to perform for medical reasons that the contract was subject to cancellation with the show that the actor/actress had to behave in public, not get tattoos in visible locations or radical hair style changes, things to that nature. Mine had an additional sentence. It said “The actress agrees to continue wearing all orthopedic and orthodontic appliances present at time of the prior contract until the expiration of this contract.”
I looked at the duration of the contract, and thought about when I would be done with treatment. I would be in the back brace for considerably longer than the contract, but the orthodontic bondage was due to be off before then. How much? Damn! I didn’t remember the exact date! It was written on my calendar, and that was on the opposite wall. As I couldn’t just turn my head or torso to look, I carefully stood up. I turned my entire body, and saw that I had one appointment in two weeks, and my jaws were due to be two weeks after that. The contract went for over two more months! I looked forward to solid food instead of putting things in a blender, having weight-loss shakes, applesauce, and other soft foods. I really wanted to bite into a hamburger with fries!
I sent my agent back a response. Could we alter that clause? The response came back – they were firm on it, it was integral to the contract. While they didn’t require the talk-show circuit, they did encourage it to promote the show. I couldn’t be in public talking, while my character was known to have no ability to talk. It was also a publicity thing – hiring a real disabled actress for a disabled role.
I was torn. I really wanted out of the dental wires, but I really liked being an actress. I had one happy thought – I had healed enough to get ready for bed by myself, albeit still with the help of the traction system in the bathroom. My neck was still not to be left unsupported for even a minute while changing. Sophie and I agreed that I could leave the screwdriver hanging in the bathroom on a cable, to cover times that she was not home.
I went to bed, still awake, and thinking about it. I stared up at the ceiling, alternating scenes. The first was me at a local burger joint, happily munching down a mouth-watering third-pound burger. The other scene was me having fun, shooting another scene of Heather’s; talking with the regular cast members and stage crew. Which did I prefer?
I got up the next morning, and went up to Sophie, pad in hand. I wrote out for her to come to the computer, and showed her the e-mails, and contract. I wrote her out a short note, and showed it to her. What should I do?
She thought about it for a minute or two. She finally said “This acting gig is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The film, friends, and memories will go on with you forever. The whole wired jaw thing? You will have been like that for so long that a few more weeks will just blend in. Take the job.”
I realized that she was right. I printed and signed the contract, and sent it back to my agent. Sophie said she would call the orthodontist, telling him not to take the wires out. I listened on – it was bittersweet news, hearing my sentencing to silent months spent in a talking world.
About a week later, I got my first script – the Halloween episode. It was shipped along with a black dress with shiny silver accents. Once again, the brace would be fully visible. In reading the script, I found out that I was to be dressed up like an android. The metal on my teeth, and metal on the brace would be polished, and small electronic parts would be attached into the dress, and placed into my hair. I’d seen a lot less tasteful outfits make it onto Halloween episodes! At least I wouldn’t be dressed as the over-done hooker or cross-dresser! While I have no speaking lines, I continued to review the script carefully. Just like Silent Bob, my facial expressions and subtle actions were all I had; they had to replace all dialogue.
On the morning of the shoot, Rick Onastasi, the producer, showed up to drive me for the trip to Las Vegas. He greeted me, and he was a gentleman enough to hold the door open for me. Getting into a car with a back brace takes some getting used to – you need to sit first, then swing your legs in. I did it step by step, just like I was taught. I buckled up the seatbelt (yet another form of immobization in my case), and we started off. He had a familiar monologue – He was happy to have me be on board, joining the team, etc. . . I don’t know if Rick was talking to me, or wanted to hear his own voice. Either way, it was better than silence – radio stations don’t go out into the desert like that, and I couldn’t talk back. He couldn’t even see my notes while driving. I couldn’t help but think “His attention to the road + my jaws wired together=I’m mute”. It’s handicapped math.