Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Face of Courage

Allow me to preface this tale with a disclaimer. I never eat fast food. ( hand to forehead, palm out, drama queen style). I'm a doctor! I know better than to put that crap in my blessed vessel. (now hand to chest, insulted protest pose). What, you don't believe me? Okay, maybe "never" is an exaggeration. Hardly ever. Rarely. Once in a while. That better? Alright. Just want to be clear. On with the story.

I was running late. I was hungry. I hadn't eaten since breakfast, a cup of coffee and a banana. I was on my way to therapy, a half hour drive followed by an hour of intense mental calorie burning, followed by a half hour drive home. The blessed vessel needed fuel.

My ravenous eyes spotted a Wendy's on the other side of the street. Screech! Swerve! I cranked the G's on my '89 Volvo, took the turn at a blistering 18 mph, and pulled into the drive-through.

"Welcome to Wendy's, may I help you?" A remarkably clear woman's voice issued from the speaker box.

"An order of fries please. With mustard" (don't knock it 'til you've tried it).

"A dollar thirty two at the window, please drive forward."

Taking my foot off the brake pedal, I let the volvo inch forward as I rummaged in my purse for money. When I saw the window out of the corner of my eye, I stepped on the brake and continued rummaging. A dollar...a quarter....a penny...I became aware of a figure at the window. "Sorry, I'm just looking for exact change."

"It's all right. Take your time." The same clear voice that had come from the box. Finally giving up on finding the right change, I grabbed another dollar bill and looked up to hand her the money.

Doctors get used to surprises. We see and hear so many unbelievable things that eventually everything is believable. You put a noodle in your nose? No problem. You drink a quart of rotgut every day? I see. Your parents locked you in a dark closet? Tell me more. From the laughable to the horrific, we learn to react with no reaction. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that the best poker players are ER docs.

I was grateful for this training when I saw the face in the window. The woman (I only knew it was a woman because I had heard her voice) had obviously been in some kind of terrible accident. Her face contained all the right parts, but in all the wrong places. It looked like a wax sculpture that had been left in dappled sun to melt unevenly. The result was a hideous gargoyle mask. Scar tissue twisted her mouth into a grimace. Her eyes were pinched and uneven. Her nose sat askew. One whole side of her face was shorter than the other. To say it was shocking is a gross understatement.

"Here you go. I couldn't find change." I handed her the bills, smiling normally, I hoped. As she turned to the register, I imagined the reactions she must get from the hundreds of people driving through here every day. Many of the cars would have kids in them, kids who don't control their words or faces. Did she hear cruel comments? Laughter? Shocked gasps? Did she see stares of pity and horror? Embarrassed averted faces? Probably all of the above and more. The scarring was not new. She had lived with this for a while.

"Thank you, have a nice day," she said, handing me my fries and mustard.

"And you," I replied, and pulled the volvo away from the window, my bouncy mood sobered by admiration.

Kudos to Wendy's for hiring her. Kudos to them for seeing the woman behind the mask and giving her the job she was capable of. Kudos and more kudos.

But double, triple, quadruple the kudos to her. She didn't hide. She didn't hole up at home. She didn't find work in some back kitchen or night janitor service. She took a job that literally put her front and center. She chose to meet the public's eye day after day after day. She is as brave, in my opinion, as any warrior.

I will never forget that face, not for its contorted appearance, but for the powerful courage that burns behind it and shines through it. I have added another hero to the ranks.


Giovanni said...

Thanks for sharing that slice of life. I especially resonated with "From the laughable to the horrific, we learn to react with no reaction." I know exactly what you mean.


anafaran said...

I applaud your sense of style both in persuasive writing and storytelling in compassionately getting this young woman's story out. What I take from this is inspiration with a 'I', to be courageous even if my wounds and scars are not visible to the world. Thanks Dr. Peg. IMHO this is your most luminous moment thus far as blogsite host.
I wonder if the young woman realizes the extent of her courage and power to inspire people to do the same.

dribear said...

like you peg, my heros come from everyday life. The people who overcome a hard life and shine above the rest. Not the Barry Bonds, Kobe Bryants, or Mark McGwire's.

Sallysis said...

Great story. I'd almost want you to drop it by Wendy's for the woman, if she would only be sure to take it the right a compliment to her courage and not a reminder of her disfiguration (is that a word?)
Nice to finally have found access to your writing! I look forward to more.

anafaran said...

Maybe she has things going on in her life besides this disfigurement.
How can anyone, even with the most well-meaning of intentions, assume the extent of an individual's pain and suffering? Life is stranger than fiction. What if this is evidence of just one of a number of traumas this woman has suffered and it has taken her a long time to just get to this point where she can bring herself to work? Even bringing positive attention to her situation may be upsetting. There's something called the readiness factor. Can anyone assume she's ready to hear your discovery? No, I say leave it.
Everyone experiences pain in their life of one sort or another. It's inevitable. But suffering is another thing. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Maybe this lady has overcome both just by getting out and going to work. Didn't Helen Keller say something to the effect that work is a great salve for our wounds? I suggest we not forget her and people like her and help spread the word about Dr. Peg's compassionate blogsite.

Heather said...

I don't even know what to say. That is incredible. I can just imagine the horrible comments that come her way and the courage it takes to stand up and say, "This is who I am."

Peg Spencer said...

giovanni - It's pretty amazing what we can hear and NOT react to, isn't it? I bet you have some good stories.

anafaran - thank you for your kind words. Good point about wounds and scars that are not visible to the world. We all have 'em.

dribear - I think as docs we are priveleged to be exposed to many heros. I'd like to hear about some of yours.

sal - great to see you! Thanks for visiting and commenting. Interesting idea about taking this piece to the woman in question. I don't think I'd be comfortable with that. I think the best thing to do for her is to treat her normally. Guess that means I have to pollute the blessed vessel with fries and mustard again - oh dear me.

Heather - I'm glad she could inspire you like she did me.


connery said...

I will echo Anafaran's excellent comments here:

"I applaud your sense of style both in persuasive writing and storytelling in compassionately getting this young woman's story out. What I take from this is inspiration with a 'I', to be courageous even if my wounds and scars are not visible to the world. Thanks Dr. Peg.... most luminous ... blogsite host[ess]."

Anafaran, that "Aneurysm" article from last week touched me deeply, too.

I have been lurking here for a few weeks, silently reading and soaking up these earnest and heartfelt essays.

Well-written, deep, eloquent essays and observations, Dr. Peg (if I may). Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry and other professional essayists must be eating their hearts out.

anafaran said...

What Aneurysm article, Connery? I'm not sure what you're referring to. Could it have been another blogger? In which case, could you kindly point me to that spot?

marybishop said...

Vacationing in St Martin, husband and I took a walk down to Orient beach noted for its acceptance of nudity...and the first two people I saw was a 50ish woman with a double mastectomy and an older man without a penis. (You can't help but notice these things.)

I was in a bathing suit, afraid to show all, yet these two people were relaxed and accepting of their bodies even with their noticible "flaws". I felt like you: these people are heroes.

Through adversity they had found the freedom to just be themselves and they were beautiful.

Third person I saw was a young woman with minus 10 percent body fat and what appeared to be two toilet plunger tops surgically implanted in her chest.

Now she was the one deformed in my eyes.

connery said...

"Aneurysms and Anniversaries," Anafaran. A Peggism from 4/22. Don't miss THAT one. And, bring a box of Kleenex.

anafaran said...

Thanks Connery. I was having a blockage of my own. That was a thoughtful piece as well but it wasn't the 'out of the ballpark' one that this one was for me. But yes, I think Dr. Peg has a following and for good reason. I'm one of her loyal fans.

anafaran said...

My daughter who's a second year med student and who is studying for finals which begin tomorrow, just bumped me off her computer asking, while glaring increduously at me intently typing blogs on her dying computer, "what can be so important that you're at my computer at a time like this when I need it?"
Now that she's taking a break playing soccer for one last release of nervous energy I can reread and rewrite what I meant to say in my last blog: It's no surprise to me if Dr. Peg would develop a following. She
keeps posting a wide variety of heartfelt observations in stories that entertain and keep me coming back for more peeks. I keep telling myself it's time to stop spending so much time on the computer but to no avail. I guess I'm a Dr. Pegspot addict but it's a healthy addiction so I'll probably remain a fan for some time. I like the feedback too that Dr. Peg often gives her bloggers. It makes me feel as if she's a real person and not just a doctor/writer(as if that weren't enough!).

connery said...

"...variety of heartfelt observations in stories that entertain and keep me coming back for more peeks. I keep telling myself it's time to stop spending so much time on the computer but to no avail. I guess I'm a Dr. Pegspot addict but it's a healthy addiction..."

I think I know what you mean, Anafaran.

Now let your poor daughter study a little in between Peg stories, okay?


peg said...

connery - Thanks for visiting! And for de-lurking, box of kleenes and all. And for your very kind words. I'm hardly a Dave Barry, but I am a die hard fan of his.

Marybishop - What an experience you had on the nude beach! True heroes, those folks. Bosom-less, penis-less, unafraid. Kudos to them. I had to laugh at your toilet plunger analogy. I see many gals with implants in my practice, but had never thought of that image. Now I can't get out of my mind a picture of a woman with actual toilet plungers, long stick handles and all. Yikes!

anafaran - You are a sweetheart, you are. I'm still waiting for you to start your own blog. You have a way with words. And good luck to your daughter in getting the computer away from you - I mean, with her exams! As you can tell, I approve of her choice of career!


Doc NOS said...

When I was a resident, a guy shot off his face with a gun in a suicide attempt. He basically lived in the hospital for a few weeks, then outpatient visits all the time. By the end of it, he looked terrible, but amazingly better. I think the worst thing about this story is that this woman has old scars, probably no insurance, and will never be able to afford surgery. Meanwhile Pam Anderson is on her 35th procedure.

Peg Spencer said...

Excellent point, doc nos. Ain't fair.

Kim said...

Beautiful post. Thanks you for sharing the experience.

Anonymous said...

Dear Wife:
You know who you are. Your comments here are simply amazing. I laugh and I cry. How proud I am to be your husband.

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