My mom, dad, and I were all in a patient waiting room in Minneapolis. A small room in an area of the children’s hospital. I was cold, wearing nothing but a thin, paper hospital gown.
It was the late 80s and I had turned 15 the day before. Half my head was shaved and I wore my hair ratted out and hanging over one eye. My earrings had been removed and no eyeliner traced my eyes, but my fingernails were still black.
A doctor came into the room. He was wearing a white smock, had a thick, black mustache, and spoke with a slight Latino accent. He was one of the two doctors they had flown in to do the surgery to remove my birth defect.
I had spent the entire last year being tested to find out what was wrong with my kidneys. There was no indication anything was wrong other than what doctors said. I suffered no pain and felt no symptoms, but I was told I had a major health issue that needed to be resolved.
A routine physical a full year before had set everything in motion, and now they believed they had found the problem. My operation was going to be filmed because it was so unique.
I was nervous, shivering under my skin. I had developed underlying anxiety throughout the prior 12 months, constantly wondering when a doctor would tell me more terrible news and force me to do another embarrassing, uncomfortable, or painful test.
Dr. Mustache smiled at me and said, “Can you get on the table?”
“Good…good. Now…lay on your side facing the wall.” I imagined that he was a drug smuggler on Miami Vice and did as I was told.
My parents were only a few feet from me and I heard the snapping of rubber.
“Good. Now, I’m just going to raise your gown and…”
I felt his entire finger go up my anus. There was no warning. No preparation.
He left it there awhile, moving it, prodding me, then said, “Well…nothing is wrong there.”
It had been this way all year. I felt a lack of control and the absence of consent. 15-years-old but treated as though I were five. My body was going through teenage changes and it had been poked, needled, and tested as though I was a sick infant in a maternity ward.
I had begun the year as an innocent High School Freshman running cross country and playing classical piano on the “good kid” trajectory. I ended the year as a pleasure-seeking punk rock teen with a misfit’s gothic, bad attitude, getting high and rolling around with girls in trailer parks and in the backseats of cars.
The year had left me feeling isolated and I didn’t feel I could communicate what was happening to anyone. Deeply embarrassed about having my kidneys and urine tested and examined, I didn’t feel I could tell my teen friends what was happening. And frightened that telling my parents or an adult how I felt might lead to more tests without my being able to consent.
I stayed quiet about my health condition. Music playing in my headphones was my best friend.
After Dr. Mustache removed his finger from inside me and took off his rubber glove, he asked me to leave and follow the nurse. In another room with bright, fluorescent lighting, I was told to lay down on another paper-covered table surrounded by a curtain.
I lay there staring up into the lights, feeling vulnerable, naked, and cold under nothing but the hospital gown. The murmurings of other young patients and nurses tapping their pens as they wrote on clipboards were the only sounds.
Someone came into the room but didn’t say anything. They brought my hospital gown up and over my stomach so I was exposed. Then, without warning, I felt them grab me and begin to shove something up inside the most intimate part of my body.
Excruciating pain electrified every inch.
They shoved harder and I felt something crawl its way up into my body. I dug my fingernails into the paper on the clinical table and it tore as I grabbed it. This faceless person continued to shove and a billion heated needles felt as though they were entering through the inner walls of my organs.
Then, I felt what I thought I also heard. A pop! The tube seemed to enter my bladder. My body was full of artificial instruments in the most tender places. Places that I’d just begun to explore as a teen.
As I lay there in pain and agony, I began to hear moans and then screams through the curtain nearest me. A boy, years younger than me, was screaming. I could not stop listening to the frightened wails of this boy. His soul pouring out and shattering.
Then, they began to fill me.
Liquid began to pour upward into my body, filling my bladder. I needed to pee, but it was flowing the wrong way.
When my bladder was completely full, I heard, “Ok, go ahead and pee now. Go ahead.”
A male voice with the dull thud of a Minnesotan accent was speaking. Each “O” sounded more hollow than the one before.
I let the fluid slide out of me and it hurt terribly. The tube gripped the walls of my sex and pinched as I let myself go. Then, again without any alert, they pulled the tube out. Slip, rip, out. It was both a painful shock and a small relief.
When the test was finished, I went back to the room where my parents had been waiting. They looked embarrassed and had looks of empathy for me on their faces. The test results came back quickly. There was nothing wrong. This final experiment was not needed.
The next day I went in for surgery and spent the next eleven days in the hospital.
When in recovery, my parents were at the hospital every day making sure I was comfortable and taken care of. Even though I didn’t feel I could communicate and be honest with them, they were excellent caregivers who worried about me constantly.
I have a six-inch scar on the bottom left side of my back and another small scar next to it where a four-foot tube inside my body emptied out fluids. I acquired both of these permanent marks from my surgery. These scars have been the epicenter of chronic pain for over 30 years.
My birth defect, surgery, testing, and trauma are not the only cause of pain, but they’re part of it. My scars and pain are part of my story.
A giant aspect of my story is that you can suffer and still lead an incredibly rich life. Despite this hurt and other traumas that followed, I started playing shows as the singer in an indie rock band and traveled out of the U.S. for the first time less than a year later.
All of my positive and negative experiences changed me, but even at a young age, I always looked for a glimmer of light in the darkest black. Hope is one of the reasons why I’m still here and one of the motivations for writing this vignette from my life.
I wrote this for all those kids and young adults in all those hospital rooms being tested on, examined, and analyzed. Those who feel they have no control. All those young people who are scared. All the youth who feel they’re alone and isolated. Those still-growing people who cannot consent and can only do as their told.
I understand what you’re going through, and though you may have scars, they will be part of the story you get to tell. Your history is powerful and your scars are part of your courage and survival. Your bravery and resilience will become tools you rely on to be heroes.
I am a hero, not a victim. And so are you.