This is an essay that Stefan wrote for his college applications. The surgery that he writes about was to remove a benign tumor on his vertebrae. The operation took place in Boston the summer before his junior year in high school.
by Stefan Pierson
I looked up at the mirrored dome on the ceiling as my stretcher was wheeled down the sterile hospital corridor. I saw my reflection in a hospital gown with tubes and wires attached to my body. I felt nervous and uneasy. I remember trying to push thoughts to the back of my mind, thoughts that I had wrestled with for the past couple of weeks. The continuous beeping from my monitor and the antiseptic smell added to my anxiety. I felt powerless; everything seemed out of my control. An osteoid osteoma tumor had invaded the fifth cervical vertebra at the base of my neck, tucked dangerously close to my spinal cord and the major blood-carrying artery of my spinal column. Since this was an uncommon and challenging place for the tumor, I was referred to a surgeon at Boston’s Children’s Hospital. I was only the twenty-eighth patient for this complex tumor.
My stretcher’s destination was the operating room for spinal surgery. In disbelief, I tried to disconnect myself from that reflection. I told myself this surgery could not be happening because my life was good. I had soccer, skiing, wakeboarding, waterskiing, friends, family, school and me. I had always depended on my body to be healthy, strong, and coordinated. What if I come out of surgery and I cannot walk or use my arms for the rest of my life? I rationalized that my younger brother, who has many special needs, was already in a wheelchair and that fate would not allow this to happen to my family again. Somehow, that invented logic did not seem convincing enough to calm my fears.
As we passed under the second mirrored dome, I thought how odd the hospital gown with its peculiar color and design looked on me. That second reflection brought back a memory from several years ago. Flashed into my mind was my grandfather lying in a bed in intensive care after having triple bypass heart surgery. His hospital gown looked so out of place because I was accustomed to seeing him with a plaid shirt. He is short in stature like me and has a ruddy complexion from being outdoors. My grandfather was familiar with the hospital personnel because he would stay with my younger brother during his many stays in the hospital. However, what I remember most about the visit that day was the hospital staff that came by. They came to hold my grandfather’s hand and tell him they were praying for him or thinking about him.
Many times, I had witnessed my grandfather acknowledge people no matter who they were and say something special to them. He would naturally go out of his way to hold the door, make a pleasant comment, or joke to invoke a smile. He was never selfish and would always strive to make someone else’s day better. What I had come to understand that day was how genuinely he cared for people and the respect he has for all. I realized that all these people really appreciated my grandfather, not because of who he was or his funny jokes, but because of how he treated them. While my grandfather lay there, unable to joke or move to help others, it did not matter. His character drew so many visitors that day.
The sound of footsteps transporting me to the operating room seemed to drag on almost endlessly, but finally my stretcher was shuffled through the double doors. My last vision was of bright lights and gowned people with surgical masks. The last thing I can remember was the taste of bubblegum.
During recovery, I had time to rest my body but the mirrored reflections and my thoughts surrounding them were active in my mind. Relieved that I was able to move my fingers, toes, arms and legs, I was now curious what my scar looked like. Knowing that the scar would change my physical appearance, when I looked in the mirror, I found myself thinking more about what defined me as a person than what I looked like. The immense pain caused by the tumor was gone. It was literally a huge weight lifted from my left shoulder. I was now able to reflect on the images that were so vivid in my mind and think about the image I want others to see of me in the future.
By the time I was fully recovered, I acknowledged two changes in me: one was the three-inch scar on the back of my neck, and the other was my perspective on life. The realization that I might have lost my physical abilities enabled me to better appreciate those abilities. I continue to push myself to succeed, because that is my nature. My physical skills define much of who I am today, but it is my character that I want to distinguish me in the future. I want to earn the respect of the ball boy, the referee, the rookie, and the best soccer player on the field; the janitor in the school and the principal; the athletes and those in wheelchairs. Ironically, it was the fear of losing my physical abilities that gave me the insight that I want my non-physical qualities to define who I truly am.
When people say I remind them of my grandfather, I smile. I hope that my character continues to grow to be like him. There is no better reflection.