5 min read

Reaching New Heights

At one point, I started growing sideways.

I have always been defined by my height. Standing at 5’9, my size has always been the talk of parties amongst the low 5-footers. In Asia, I am tall, and that is all I am. That’s all I’ve ever been.

Like everyone else, my body inched upwards growing up, until it didn’t. At one point, either I grew too fast or my genetics finally unveiled itself, but I started growing sideways. My legs were extending at such speed that my knees and thighs still have the stretch marks to prove it. But my spine had its own mission in life. It didn’t want to go up, it wanted to go right. Which, ironically, wasn’t right at all.

By my first year of university in Melbourne, it had gone so far right that it was pressing against my lungs and hurting me whenever I sat. My spine was a question mark and I tried to look for an answer. No amount of daily physical therapy could reverse the damage, and so I sought after one of the state’s leading orthopaedic surgeon. After a single session, the case was closed; I was to undergo spinal fusion 9 months later to avoid further impairment.

But I had a chance—although only a fraction of a percent, according to him—of lower body paralysis. 

Do you know that feeling of dread when you see a bee fly past? The risk of being stung is low, but you still stiffen at the sight of the tiny yellow insect and hope to God you’ll be fine.

My surgeon brought up the model vertebrae sitting on his office desk and explained what he was going to do me.

I pointed at the long rubbery tube down the spine, nestled between the vertebral body and arch. “What’s that?”

“That’s the spinal cord.”

“What happens when your instruments slip and hit it?”

I knew what would happen even before he explained it to me.

There are certain inevitabilities in life. If you really want to make your life miserable, you can always assume every worst case scenario is an inevitability. 

Even though he said a fraction of a percent, in my head it might as well have been fifty. I wanted to prepare myself for the inevitability of that bee sting. Mentally, and I suppose physically.

The next morning, as I waited under a tram station, I saw a woman in a wheelchair park herself next to me. As the tram screeched to a halt, she realized that it was the old tram model; a hellhole for the disabled. I watched her roll past me to talk to the tram driver, who shimmied his way out of the glass booth and fitted a wheelchair ramp to the steps. People waited as she got on. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her the entire journey.

Have you noticed how the world is designed for working legs? There are stairs everywhere. Elevators are constantly full, broken or in the process of breaking. Ramps are always too steep. Things are always too high, even for me. People are always on their phones, paying little attention to anything beyond their height’s peripherals.

That’s how I saw the world for months. Why isn’t this pavement paved well enough? Why is this sidewalk so narrow? Why is the disabled parking spot always taken by a car without a sticker? This was a world for feet—for speed. I reveled in it when I traveled to Europe. I felt the rough cobblestone paths of Zurich on my sole like a foot reflexology path. Fifty percent. I climbed up the narrow staircase of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Fifty percent. I stood shoulder to shoulder in a small glass elevator leading up to the Eiffel Tower. Fifty percent chance of paralysis.

But when I was wheeled into the operating room a few days after I had spent New Year’s in Paris, suddenly it was sixty percent. When my surgeon told me to count backwards from ten, it was seventy percent. When he told me to wave goodbye to all the nurses in blue scrubs, it was eighty percent.

Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Murphy’s Law.

I awoke six hours later trapped in rock hard cement. Or so I thought. As my body sunk deeper into the bed, I thought I must’ve weighed a tonne. I knew they were going to drill metal in my back but it felt like they had put a few Newtons of gravity just for laughs. Things were dripping and beeping around me in an unfamiliar room.

Ninety percent.

I hardly noticed when the nurse came in, but she did. She appeared right in front of me, mumbling something I was supposed to reply to but I didn’t. She touched my toes and pinched it.

“Can you feel this?”

A fraction of a percentage.

“Yes.”

For months after, amidst the recovery and physiotherapy, my surgeon measured my height. I had gained an inch.

Now, whenever people ask how I got so tall, I tell them it’s written in my bones. But I don’t tell them it’s because I didn’t get stung by that bee when I was 18 years old.