By Shannon Jeffries, HoneyColony
Poisoned Water of Anniston, Alabama
In 1979, when I was 13 years old, I was diagnosed with severe scoliosis. The abnormal curvature of my spine meant, according to my doctors, that my own body would soon do me in. First, my deformed spine would double up, then it would crush my internal organs, soon after which it would kill me.
My desperate parents accepted the only option offered: a barbaric and soon to be outlawed surgery with little chance of success. A Harrington Rod, a stainless steel surgical device also known as a “hook and ratchet,” was fused to the length of my spine.
My family is from the South. For us this meant that in the face of hardship, we made our adjustments and soldiered on. So I spent six weeks in intensive care, and my entire ninth grade year bedridden in a full body cast. When I did finally regain my mobility, I felt like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, strung up on a pole. The rod in my back rendered my spine immobile—just as intended. The theory was that as I moved through adolescence, instead of doubling over, my spine would hit the steel fused to it and grow straight. And it did.
Additionally, I developed an amped sensitivity to internal sounds. I could sometimes hear the metal—hard to explain if you are not skewered. A permanent feeling of heavy tension became a way of life for me. My tolerance for pain ratcheted way up. I set off alarms at the airport. Eventually, I got married, had a son, and became an art teacher. Up until then, none of us ever knew about the poisoned water.
Alabama Vs. ‘Monsatan’
By now you may be familiar with Monsanto, the global biotech corporation best known as the world’s leading manufacturer of genetically modified seeds. Some of the company’s other contributions to the planet include DDT, Agent Orange, and polychlorinated biphenyl, better known as PCBs. This chemical is so relentlessly toxic to our environment that the U.S. Congress banned production in 1975 and the Stockholm Convention on Organic Pollutants followed suit (finally) in 2001.
Here’s what you may not know: From the 1940s to the 1960s, PCBs were dumped into watersheds around the country, including the Hudson River and the Great Lakes. During those decades, Monsanto produced these chemicals in Anniston, Alabama, and dumped the runoff into Snow Creek, which spread to Choccolocco Creek, then to Logan Martin Lake, then into the Lay Reservoir, and finally into the Coosa River where my family lived. The PCB runoff affected marine life and created a mind-numbing array of serious and deadly health hazards such as cancer and mutagenic fetus development. In light of this, Monsanto recently settled a $475 million lawsuit with the citizens of Anniston, which I learned about only after the fact.
In The Swim Of It
Both sides of my family hail from Alabama. I mean all of them, every single relative for more than seven generations. My great grandmother was a full-blooded Muskogee Indian who raised my grandmother and her seven siblings on the banks of the Coosa River. The fishing was good there. So was the swimming. My mother and her sister spent every summer day they could splashing and playing with their cousins and friends. When my parents were dating, they took little baskets of fried chicken and big jars of cold sweet tea out to Lay Lake to beat the heat and make out.
They got married soon after my mom finished high school. In 1964, she became pregnant with me. That summer, her mother and aunts picked her up in the mornings while my father was at work and they drove out to Lake Martin. She spent the better part of her pregnancy with her smooth, swollen belly submerged in the water.
I was the first child born to my parents’ generation on either side of the family. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and godparents adored me and bragged constantly to everyone who would listen. “She is perfect,” they exclaimed. I was the fresh, apple-cheeked belle of the baby ball. The eventual diagnosis that led to my childhood surgery did not change my family’s idea of perfection. Despite the gruesome spinal cord curvature, I remained perfectly loved, perfectly adored, perfectly deformed.
Despite the pain and discomfort that it caused me, I wasted little time dwelling on the rod in my spine until well into adulthood, when a seemingly minor injury turned catastrophic. The fused rod began to crush my vertebrae and grind into the casing that housed the nerve endings to my legs. Brutal pain became chronic, and my doctors predicted imminent confinement to a wheelchair.
The neurosurgeons offered one dangerous and risky solution: a surgery to remove the “hook and ratchet” that had been fused to my backbone for more than 20 years. They would replace that rod with a much lighter titanium metal. To help ensure that the new rod would never slip, the surgeons wanted reinforce it with some screws—14 four-inch screws, to be exact. They also wanted to secure two large “cages” around my spinal column, “for good measure.” The package would also include a lengthy hospital stay in Portland, where I now lived, three months in intensive care, and another month in a grueling physical therapy ward. For additional drama, we threw in an undetected pregnancy.
I had an inkling about the pregnancy prior to the surgery, but the home pregnancy tests were negative as was the hospital test upon admittance. We chalked up my nausea and missed period to nerves, and that was that. Only after I was sent home to hospice did I get my first clue that the tests were wrong. Two days after I was released, I lay in my rented hospital bed listening to the hospice nurse read aloud. It was a C.S. Lewis story, “Until We Have Faces, A Myth Retold,” and it held me rapt—until suddenly I felt the wonderful sensation of a tiny butterfly tickling my tummy from the inside. It’s called “fluttering,” and if you have ever been pregnant you know it is a sure sign of just one thing.
I was stunned. For three days, I kept the news to myself. I wanted irrefutable proof. On the fourth day, I bribed the hospice nurse to transport me to a local clinic for an ultrasound. Before we left, I asked her to look at my swollen tummy. “Oh honey,” she said, “that’s just your bowels learning to work again.” This might have made sense if my bowels were in me uterus. Minutes after my arrival at the clinic, I had the photographic evidence that would stun us all. Four black-and-white images of a perfectly formed fetus. Proof positive. I was four months pregnant, with a girl.
The hospice nurse quit that day.
Publicly, I insisted on nothing but positive affirmations on the health of my unborn child. But secretly, I struggled to control my own fears about the hospital drugs and their potential damaging effects. My baby had survived the invasive surgeries, but how could she possibly be unscathed by the constant barrage of chemicals pumped through my system, including anesthesia, antibiotics, anticoagulants, and IV fluids? Meanwhile, the painkiller hydromorphone—better known as Dilaudid—was being injected into my “mother” vein at regular intervals. The pharmaceutical bill alone totaled $138,000.00.
After 12 hours in the operating room, I was left to fight for my life in the ICU unit. The post-operative pain was excruciating and the drugs to quell it seemed essential. But ultimately, a simple, thoughtful request by my frightened and loving husband pointed to a viable alternative. From his post by my side, he could hear the sweet sound of harp music coming from a cordoned off space at the end of my hospital floor. He followed the strains of angelic music until he found a woman who had been hired by the hospital in Portland to play for the dying.
“My wife loves music,” he told the musician. “Could you play for her?” She agreed and wheeled the huge instrument down the hall to the bed where I lay heavily sedated and unconscious.
Photo by margaret durow/Flickr.