“So, are you back to 100% now?”
People actually ask me that. Smart people. People who I thought understood the extent of my injuries, but nobody could ask that who really understands.
Anyone who has ever rolled a vehicle knows that a body shop can make it look shiny and new, but it’s never right again. The doors never close with that satisfying “thunk,” and the electrical system is haywire more often than not. My body is like a vehicle that’s been in a rollover accident. It looks okay, then when you look closer, you can see a lot of cosmetic damage. It looks like the frame is fine, but it’s bolted together in places and the electrical—nervous—system is heavily damaged. It drives okay, but don’t leave town without a backup plan.
I’m a fan of long drama series with a consistent, if slightly shifting, cast. Those shows are often medical dramas, like ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and the Australian show All Saints, which I discovered a few years ago and got addicted to. It occurred to me while watching All Saints that TV and movies could contribute to the idea that humans can bounce back unaffected from grievous injury. In All Saints, the paramedics are shot, hit by vehicles, crushed under falling building beams—you name it, no cartoon character ever fared worse than Ben the Ambo (ambulance driver) and his crew. In one episode you see his loved ones clustered around his bed in the ICU; 3 weeks later he’s back on duty without so much as a shaved spot in his lush hair.
Few of you have probably seen All Saints, so I’ll go with more familiar examples. The plane crash on Grey’s Anatomy, in which Arizona Robbins lost her leg. There were a lot of episodes after, where she learned to use her prosthetic leg, and of course there was the drama between her and Dr. Torres, who had to make the call to amputate. At least that was a real conflict in their constantly manufactured angst.
It’s been a few years now and Dr. Robbins zips about without so much as a hitch in her getalong, and we have to be reminded now and then that she uses a prosthetic leg. She never pauses to show a moment of exhaustion and unstrap her leg and massage the aching amputation site. She doesn’t use her Skechers roller shoes anymore; that is the only sign we see that anything changed. On the one hand, this is a positive image of a person coping well with amputation, but is it realistic? I don’t know anyone with an amputation that high who doesn’t show any evidence in her gait at all.
Amelia Shepard, the neurosurgeon, just had a brain tumor removed. We can’t see that it affected her gorgeous long hair any, and she returned to work without any residual effects from that surgery. No hand tremors, no speech blips, nothing. The cartoon character peels herself off the floor, pops back out to 3 dimensions, and resumes huntin’ wabbit.
Some shows handle injury more realistically. In Body of Proof, a devastating car accident left Dr. Megan Hunt with a neurological condition that caused a hand tremor, which caused her to lose a patient in surgery. The premise of the show is that she’s still a brilliant surgeon but she refuses to risk a living patient’s life again, so she became a medical examiner (coroner).
In many of these shows, injured characters go through the tired trope of lashing out at their physical therapist, who is usually a willowy blonde woman. I understand that it’s common for people to have anger issues when adjusting to a new normal, but in reality, that’s usually delayed a few months. It takes the brain about 4 months to process a total change in life, and the anger sets in after the worst is over. Adrenalin carries you through the hardest part. For me, it was delayed by years and I’m just going through the worst of it now as I bottom out financially.
It’s TV, I get it. Bang bang, you’re dead—we rarely see the real effects of a gunshot wound. And we need our heroes back for subsequent episodes, so they bounce back faster than real time, with no lingering effects. I wonder, though, how all these TV stories have influenced how people think of real people when they are injured. Our attention spans are shorter, our minds hold fewer details about our friends. I’m not one to visibly wince and wax dramatic about my issues; when my spine reaches the end of its broadcast day, I just go take care of myself. People think I’m just fine, and I only tell them I’m not on a need-to-know basis. This leads to the occasional response to declined invitations that is distinctly lacking in empathy.
Do those stories bug you too? A lot of you have illnesses or other issues than injury, I just got to thinking on TV themes this week and started writing about it. If you see a topic out in the world you’d like to see discussed, feel free to suggest it.