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The Dressing Room

Rating:; Genre=Fiction; Pages=7; Characters=13,588;
I sat in the dressing room, wearing only boxers and a T-shirt for what seemed an very long time. I wondered if my nervous anticipation would be noticed. I still worried that it would be, and, in my mind, I rehearsed the kind of reactions of resignation and distress I imagined would be expressed by "regular" folk faced with long term confinement in a brace. Actually, that proved unnecessary; when the orthotist in training entered the room with my brace sitting on top of a trolley type cart, my second thoughts were genuine.

The basic brace, the torso part, was a perfect cast of my upper body. Although it was clear that some adjustments had been made because chest to waist taper exceeded my natural drop. It was made of smooth, gleaming black plastic. While I estimated that it measured about 24" back and sides, the back was longer, and I could see that it was molded to firmly grip my hips and ride low over my buttocks. It might as well have been a body cast. The only visible openings were at the neck and arms; these holes, which appeared to have been edged with soft rubber rings, were no larger than would be necessary to accommodate my collar size and wrap me tightly under each arm. It appeared seamless and decidedly rigid. I'd seen thermoplastic moldings, like the Boston Brace, in pictures. These usually had a seam down the front, or along the side; they could be bent sufficiently to wrap the torso and then were held solidly by Velcro tapes. The absence of such strapping was disconcerting.

In this case, the only breaks in the glistening black plastic surface were stainless steel. Metal strips, with what looked like rivets ran down the sides, from right below the arm pit, to where the plastic ended just below the hip bone. They followed the contours of what I was beginning to think of as my "jacket". There were additional metal fittings at the front and back of the collar, and on each shoulder. These, I could deduce, would be used to fit the cervical component. Similarly, there were metal connectors in front and back, immediately above each thigh. These seemed obvious, too; they'd be used to attach the thigh spicia cuffs. What was puzzling, however, were two short metal protrusions, one in the middle of the abdomen and another at the small of the back. I tried to imagine their purpose.

It had only, probably, taken a few seconds, but it seemed longer before the young man obliged me by beginning his explanation. That was hardly comforting.

"Your orthopedist came up with a tall order, Sir, " he said deferentially. Did I also detect a hint of apology in his voice?? "Essentially, he's asked for a brace with all of the rigidity of a plaster or fiberglass cast, but without the weight. He also insisted that it provide sufficient allowance for limited mobility, so that you not be, necessarily, bed ridden. In fact, his prescription calls for you to be up and about, on your feet, and going about some of your usual activities on a daily basis. Though, obviously, under extreme restriction." He paused, looking me in the eye. "Ah.. Ah.. by the way... ", he seemed to have difficulty saying it, " he called this morning and modified his orders. Seems that instead of the three weeks he originally talked to you about, he now has decided that it'd be best if you wear the brace for three months." I heard the words, but I found it impossible to react.

He continued, watching me for signs, I assume, of surprise, or refusal. I was just dumbfounded. "So, we've had to come up with some modifications on our usual body jacket. I do want your informed consent before I apply this; three months wearing this could seem like a lifetime."

"First of all, remember that this is a traction brace. As you know, we casted you for the mold after you had spent 48 hours in pelvic and cervical traction. The jacket, once we apply it properly, is going to stretch your spine beyond it's natural limits. Even before we attach the cervical and thigh components, it is not going to be a comfortable brace to wear. As you'll see in just a minute or two, the fit is going to be so tight that you will feel like you're a sardine packed in a tin can." He tapped the brace. " We usually make these shells out of 1/8" or sometimes 3/16" polyurethane. In your case, we have gone to a full quarter inch. We also wanted a complete, perfect, form fit, with significant pressure on the abdomen and along the spine. This cannot be achieved with rigid plastic, but we think we have solved the problem. You, Sir, will be the first to experience it."

"What we've done," he rambled on, me sort of lost, and pointing to the short metal connectors on the front and back of the plastic case, "is add a couple rubber bladders on the inside of the case. One covers the abdominal area, the other, most of the back. The only area not covered is the chest. You're going to have a difficult enough time adjusting to the chest pressure and relearning how to breathe. The concept isn't new. It was used in the seventies by a few ski boot manufacturers trying to give their customers a custom fit. Once we secure the shell, we'll be attaching hoses to the two valves. Using air pressure, we will then inflate the bladders for maximum abdominal compression and maximum immobility along the spine. When we have that --- you have to be honest with us --- we'll give you an hour or so of the air pressure so you can adjust and be certain --- we'll replace the air with more thermoplastic. I have to warn you, it will become almost unbearably hot for fifteen minutes or so --- almost, the heat will dissipate, but the pressure will remain. The thermoplastic will harden, but you will be gripped, rigidly, without an eighth of an inch of give. "

"Now, this is where I want you to listen up, and listen up good. This brace will be comfortable in the sense that nothing is going to cut into your skin; no chafing, no abrasion. But it is going to be an absolute form fit, even more than a cast, without even a hint of give. Because of the rubber lining, it is also going to be hot. You will most likely sweat in it, most of the time."

"You with me?", he said with purpose. I gave a weak nod.

"Now listen!" again the emphasis was imperative. " Because of the absolute rigidity and the heat, this brace is not going to be pleasant to wear. You could not be allowed to even have the chance to adjust it or remove it, because the temptation would be too great. You need to wear this for the next three months, with only very, very limited exceptions. We couldn't have you readjusting straps in the middle of the night. " He was pointing, now, to the metal strips which ran the length of the jacket, from arm pit to hips. "So, once in, you're in. Just like it was a cast. These strips go together tongue in groove. They are then secured, by us, with special locking bolts. It takes a special tool and a fair amount of effort, even with the tool, to disengage. Once the jacket is applied, you are totally at the mercy of the man with the tool. The jacket cannot be removed without it. Your doctor's orders --- I want you to think about them --- is that that happens for fifteen minutes, every other day, so you can shower. At the end of that time, your case is riveted back on. For the most part, you will wear your jacket 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the next three months."

I was eyeing, at this point, the plastic case. I knew I would soon be in it. I was only wondering how long I could wear it before I lost interest.

"So, Sir," he said to me with finality, "do you wish to consent to being jacketed for three months? Please, then, sign here, on the dotted line." My hand trembled, and I had difficulty manipulating the pen, so great was my excitement. But, I signed.

Another assistant entered. I was made to take off my T-shirt. "It's designed for skin contact," the one in charge told me. The assistant pressed the back of the jacket against my bare skin. It was cold, but it conformed nicely. The opposing part of my clam shell was then pressed against my chest. The two men worked to engage the tongue and groove seams under my arms. Already, I felt rigidly gripped from neck to hips. One man went to work on the left, the other on the right, securing the locking bolts of my new prison. When they had secured all of the half dozen bolts on each side, the sense of finality was overwhelming. I was now locked into a rigid plastic shell that I had no power to remove. I knew, from the tight grip on my hips, that it would be difficult sitting down except in the most exaggerated, rigid, posture.

They then connected the valves in front and back to air pumps. I tried to be honest. I felt the pressure on my stomach and across my back increase until I felt squeezed. The abdominal "bubble" pressed in and up until I might as well have been in the tightest of corsets. The expansion of the bladder across my lower back thrust my shoulders back and my chest up, so that I was forced into a genuine military "bracing". As they had suggested, the heat from the in flow of the thermoplastic reached just below the unbearable stage. But, when it hardened, I had only one part of my body, from neck to coccyx that I could begin to move --- I had about a 1/4" at my chest, to let me breathe.

The thermoplastic that had been pumped into the air bladders had to harden under air pressure behind it, and I was left in my new turtle shell, sitting alone, for an hour or so while that happened and they could disconnect the pneumatic pressure.

An hour later, I found it difficult to get up off my chair when they came back. A brace encompassing the hip bone and gripping the upper buttocks makes even the flexion between upper and lower body difficult. I was forced to breathe more shallowly that I ever had. I became partially excited knowing that I had no choice but to live through July and August encased in my new "home". The fact that it was secured on me by manipulable "rivets," but rivets nonetheless, was exciting. I was already adapting to my new, chosen, "lifestyle." I was going to live in it for every 24 --- with a fifteen minute break - and then, only if they were honest to their promises. They'd offered me the possibility of having the "chest" and "back" of the casing decorated with NFL logos, and since I had now resigned myself to several months of this, I let them do it. I let them plant a Cowboy's decal square in the middle of my chest.

Looking back, three months in the jacket would have been enough. But, it was not all that I'd bargained for. I'd asked for immobilization and I got it.

"Now for the cervical control," one of them, I don't know which, said. Metal rods were slipped into the fittings at the back, front and sides of the neck. A chin cup was placed under my chin and a large, padded, "rest" engaged at the back of my skull. "Remember, this is a traction brace", one of them said, as he started manipulating turnbuckles which extended the rods. It was not designed to be comfortable or pleasant. My throat was stretched into abnormal position, with my head thrust back, stiffly, against the rear support, and I found myself looking, primarily, at the ceiling. The stretch across the front of my neck was almost painful.

"Get used to that pressure," I think it was the senior, the trainee. "Each week, we're gonna give it another turn or two. Maximum pressure is required. Eventually, you will be looking ONLY at the ceiling. We won't get you stretched that far for two months or so, but last two, three weeks, you will be looking straight up! I'm sure you'll come to accept the weekly adjustments of your head gear. You're gonna, eventually, accept the wrench, pushing your head further back, like it was just a normal thing."

Then, to complete my immobilization, they added thigh cuffs bilaterally. These were, more or less, plastic cylinders that were strapped around each of my thighs. They actually went from just above the knee to just under crotch, and they were as rigid as the jacket. These, they connected back, front and sides to the jacket, with its metal fittings. Rods ran from the cuffs to engage the jacket fittings in every direction. I'd learn, over the next few months, the difference between limited and no mobility of the lower extremities. When all three of these rods was locked into position, rigid, from waist to knees, and already secured from waist to chin, I could not get up. When the boys came and locked the thigh rods, I could not even get up with the aid of crutches, and a great deal of help.

Anyhow, that was five months ago. Nothing has really changed. My jacket is still on. I've no idea when it might come off. Not soon, as best I can figure. Every week or two, I have to go back. A turnbuckle is adjusted here, a rivet tightened there. I have no choice, because I cannot escape. I am totally at their mercy. I am released from the jacket for a few minutes every other morning, but otherwise, I wear it even in bed. Right now, at night, the thigh joints are unlocked, so I can stumble out take care of nature. But the threat is there. I've been shown diapers and rubber pants. If I cease to cooperate and accept tighter, more restrictive adjustments to my brace, then I will be forced to wear them. Think I'll accept another 1/8" neck stretch, or even another two months in my bracing, than do that. Then, hell, what would YOU do, to get OUT of this thing??

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