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by James Richardson
Chapter 1: Introductions
I was having pains in my back so I went to see a psychiatrist. He had me start a regimen of exercises which stretched my leg muscles. After three weeks my pain had not gotten any better. I went to see him again and he prescribed a spinal brace.
"This brace will provide full-time stability for your spine," he said, "and part-time traction." I wondered what that meant.
That day, I went to see the orthotist. He looked at the prescription and said, "My, you must have quite a deformity in your spine. This calls for quite a brace." Again, I wondered. "First thing we'll do is take your measurements," he said. "Please strip down to your underwear and follow me."
When I was ready, he ushered me into a back room of his shop. There was a sink, shelves full of supplies, tools, a work table with a work lamp, and a strange metal thing hanging in the corner. It looked like the top half of a wire-frame mannequin with the horns of a bull. He gestured for me to sit on the stool next to it. As I sat, he took hold of the frame contraption with one hand and worked a control panel on the wall with the other. Electric motors whined and the frame started moving downward.
"Please raise your arms. I'm going to guide the measuring frame over your head." The frame descended over my waiting arms, and when it was down far enough I threaded my hands and elbows through the arm holes. Eventually the frame stopped, and after a few quick adjustments with the control panel, I was inside.
He guided my hand to one of the bull's horns sticking out of the "forehead" of the frame. "Okay, now put your hands on these bars and hold them there. We want your shoulders positioned correctly for the measurements." He started working on different parts of the frame, tightening all the straps until they gripped my body firmly. One around the hips, one for the waist, one for the ribcage and one just under the armpits. There were secondary straps which wrapped around my shoulders.
He moved away to pick up some smaller contraption made of the same metal and padded strapping as the frame. "Now hold your head up and back." I arched my neck to look up and he slid the smaller part between my throat and the cables which suspended the frame from the ceiling. He attached the section of frame to the main body and also to an extra cable dangling from above. The part snapped together behind my head.
"Now, sit up straight and tall. We want to measure how long your spine really is." I adjusted my posture and he worked the control panel again. A smaller motor took up the slack in the loose cable and I felt myself being pulled upwards by the head and neck. Just before my butt would have lifted off the stool, the motor stopped.
He said, "Okay, you can relax now." I slumped into my usual sitting position, but nothing happened. "Try to wiggle around." I tried bending my back, turning my head, nothing moved. I was held solidly. He picked up a clipboard and stared making notes on it. He looked closely at each strap on the frame and read the lines and numbers on the straps. He reached over for a tailor's tape measure and pulled it around my neck. He took measurements at the base of the neck, in the middle and just under the chin, below the ears.
"Now, this frame pretty much gives you an idea of how it feels to wear the brace. Is there any part which is uncomfortable or too tight or chafes your skin?" I told him how I felt like I was choking. I have a large adam's apple so the padding supporting my chin was partially closing off my airway. It was difficult to swallow, too. "Hmm," he muttered to himself. "Looks like we might have to use a halo."
He spoke to me, "Okay, we're done for today." He let me out of the measuring frame, loosening all the straps and raising the frame so I could extricate myself.
"Come into my office." I followed him into an adjacent room with a desk and chairs and filing cabinets. We got on the phone and called the psychiatrist. Over the speakerphone, we discussed the need to use a halo. As we spoke, the orthotist produced a small photo album and flipped about halfway into it. He turned the album around to me and pointed to a picture of a man wearing some kind of space-alien brace around his head. The caption read, "Halo."
I got the willies. I wanted to call the whole thing off. My back pain isn't bad enough for that! Isn't there some way to make my back feel better without making me look like a freak? They thought about it, discussing various options, and after a while the orthotist looked at me with a smile. "I've got an idea," he said. "Let's use that new maxilla plate." After a short pause, the doc agreed.
We got off the phone and the orthotist said, "All right, just one more measurement and then you can go home." He sat me down on the stool again and held a ruler to the side of my face. He held it vertically against my shoulder and horizontally at the level of my mouth.
"Give me the name of your dentist so we can arrange some 'interdisciplinary cooperation.'" I gave it to him and went home.
The next day, the dentist's receptionist called me and asked me to come in later in the week. I told her I had just had a cleaning two months before and she said, "Oh, no, this isn't a cleaning. We need to take an impression of your teeth." I didn't quite know what it was for but I went anyway.
It was just like getting braces at the orthodontist's office so many years ago. The technician mixed up a bowl of gritty, pink goo and spread it on a plate. She shoved it between my teeth, even though it was too big, and held it against the roof of my mouth with her finger between my lips. I closed my eyes to try to relax and smelled the aroma of her hand so near to my nose. My tongue inadvertently brushed her knuckle and my eyes flew open. She was looking at her wristwatch with intense concentration. I could almost see her lips moving as the seconds ticked by. None too soon, she pried the quickly hardening paste out of my mouth and told me to rinse. I did, gladly, and went home.
Two weeks later, the orthotist called and said, "Your new brace is ready." I went down to his office to pick it up.
Before we see how this fits, let me explain how it works. Most braces of this type have a cervical component which holds the head in position. The component has a pad which contacts the back of the head and another pad which cradles the chin. Since you need to be able to wear the brace all the time, we made your cervical component detachable. When you go out, you take the neckpiece off and nobody can see the brace because it's entirely covered by your clothes. When you get home, you put the neckpiece back on to get the full spinal traction."
"Most people who can't tolerate the standard chin support get a halo component instead of a cervical component. A halo has four steel rods which rise up from the shoulder section of the brace. The rods bolt onto a circular piece of steel which goes around your head above the temples. Metal pins are drilled into your skull and bolted on to the steel ring. In this way, your head is supported from above. You still get the full traction effect without any interference whatsoever with breathing, swallowing or chewing. The disadvantage, of course, is that you look like a lightning rod."
"The newest technique, which we're trying with you here, is sort of a compromise. The brace's cervical component still contacts the back of the head, but instead of trying to hold the head with the soft tissue of the neck, it holds the skull in place with a plate on the roof of your mouth. These steel parts here," sliding his finger along the smooth, shiny metal of the brace, "extend from the rear head pad, around your ears, across your cheeks and into the corners of your mouth. At that point they connect with a dental component which holds your upper jaw. The component has metal bands which run from the steel bars, between the lips, backward along the upper gums, around the rear teeth and into the molded plate on the roof of your mouth. In this way, the skull is held in position, the neck and throat are not irritated, and you don't look like a telecommunications receiver."
I couldn't wait to get the brace on. Immobilized spine, tightly gripped torso, rigidly positioned shoulders, neck and head held still by a cross between and headgear and a retainer, except that it was a spinal brace giving me a lisp! With all those sensory inputs, I absolutely could not forget that I had the thing on.
I started wearing my new spinal brace all the time. I went to work without the upper section, of course, but otherwise, I wore it most of the time, even out of the house. Occasionally I would come across someone wearing an orthodontic headgear and they would look at me at first with comradely recognition, and then with awe as they saw how complicated my 'headgear' was. Once I saw a girl wearing a scoliosis brace. She look at me and tried to do a double take, but of course she couldn't move her head either. Instead, her eyes grew wide with wonder.
Oh, by the way, my back feels much better now, thank you.
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