By Rebecca Brower, ETA ’15-’17
May 23, 2016
I winced and drew a sharp breath as another fiery jolt of pain ripped into the middle of my back. I was paralyzed, bent at a 90-degree angle with my hands braced against the wall. The pain tore through and traveled down the back of my right leg. When it subsided, I took another shuffle-step sideways and continued to inch towards the bathroom—I had only minutes to complete my mission and return to my bed.
It was shortly after midnight. My homestay family was asleep. I had been up for just a couple minutes, but I could feel the nausea settling into the pit of my stomach already. The nausea and dizziness were new, probably from the muscle relaxers I had been prescribed at the clinic.
By the time I stepped out of the bathroom, I was in a cold sweat and my ears were ringing. I stumbled through the now blurry darkness; all I had left was survival instinct to carry me into my room where I collapsed onto my bed.
As things gradually returned to normal, I felt an immense feeling of helplessness wash over me. I couldn’t even make it to the bathroom on my own. As I fought back tears, I looked down at my feet and saw that I had brought the bathroom slippers with me. I kicked them off onto the floor. I was going to have to explain that in the morning.
* * *
Early March 2016
“Can Becky practice with you? She’s a volleyball player…”
At my co-teacher’s request, two of our coworkers paused from their warm-up and turned to look our way, each with a sliver of speculation written on their faces.
Outside of the English office, the teachers at school were largely afraid to talk to me, despite any efforts I made to engage first. Often, I was lucky just to receive a polite “annyeonghaseyo”1 with a bow, and maybe even a shy smile. After a moment, Junho, one of the fifth grade teachers, nodded and passed the ball my way.
* * *
Midnight crept on to 4:00 a.m., and then on to 6:00 a.m. I slept for little bits at a time, but with great difficulty; staying still hurt…rolling over hurt…and sitting up was just impossible. During the early morning, Kakao messages with my mom in New York occupied my time while I waited for Nancy to wake.
I told my mom that I had gone to my host uncles’ garlic farm over the weekend to help pull shoots out of the middle of the plants. There had been no pain while I was working, but it appeared suddenly when I woke up for school on Monday. At first, there was only minor pain when bending over, but it had gotten progressively worse during the day, forcing me to go to the clinic after school with Nancy.
* * *
Late March 2016
“You, main attacker. Me, English major. I hate English.”
Junho was standing on the other side of the net as he joked over his own fear of English; it was one of the first times he had spoken to me out of his own volition. After proving myself capable in the staff game, I had been invited to join the teachers’ volleyball club on Mondays, and those that attended were quickly becoming more enthusiastic about trying to connect with me. In a matter of weeks, one sport had broken down a barrier that I had been struggling to get over for an entire semester and it felt great.
* * *
Nancy entered my room around 7:30, and when I repeatedly succumbed to cringing blasts of pain while demonstrating my inability to get out of bed, we decided it would be best to go to the city. She called and made an appointment for me at a hospital in Daegu, and after a failed attempt to help me out of the house on her own, she then called the EMTs. They arrived a few minutes later and carried me down the stairs of our four-story villa before heaving me into the back seat of the car.
The rest of the day at Wooridul Hospital—a place that I found online was world-renowned for spinal care—was filled with x-rays, blood draws, an MRI, CT scan and numerous localized pain shots that allowed me to wobble to and from the bathroom. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, Nancy left to teach her hagwon 2 classes, and realizing again how helpless I was, I cried myself to sleep.
* * *
“Becky. An ga. 3 You stay. Don’t go.”
Kiljong, a teacher that worked at another local elementary school, stood in front of me, arms outstretched, blocking me from leaving his team. After rock-paper-scissors had left the three teams uneven, most of the women were being redistributed to balance out the teams.
During our first meeting, Kiljong was just another teacher hesitant to talk to me, but months later he would become my closest friend through volleyball, close enough for us to call each other brother and sister.
* * *
“Becky?” I woke up sometime in the evening when I heard my name being called. I looked to see my homestay aunt, who lived in Daegu, approaching my bedside with a look of concern on her face. She had no doubt heard about my hospitalization from Nancy and had come to check on me. Unlike my homestay mom, my aunt couldn’t speak English, but the kindness and patience that she had when she spoke allowed us to bond and understand each other in Korean.
My aunt was there the next day too to wash my hair while Nancy ran down to the third-floor billing department and back again, trying to get things squared away with the insurance company. My assigned doctor had come in first thing in the morning to give me the diagnosis on my back: two herniated discs. Treatment would be an endoscopic laser surgery where a scope would be inserted through a small incision and a laser used to trim the ruptured areas.
The doctor said the procedure was a simple one that would take just about 20 minutes, require only local anesthesia and be relatively painless. He also said that in just a couple of days I would be able to return to a normal daily routine, and I was relieved. I thought about how nice it would be to be able to walk comfortably to the bathroom again and maybe even get back on the volleyball court again.
* * *
Early May 2016
“I’m staying for a second year!”
My three co-teachers just smiled and nodded. They already knew; the Fulbright Office had told them before they told me. I turned back to my computer, smiling and optimistic about the second year that now lay ahead of me. It was finally official: I would have at least one more year of teaching in Uiseong, and one more year of volleyball.
* * *
Two days later, I was laying on my stomach in an operating room while my doctor donned a surgical gown with help from a nurse. As the nurses drew a giant blue sheet over me, sheltering my body in a translucent blue bubble, I thought about something else the doctor had told me about the surgery. He had told me that I wouldn’t be able to play volleyball for three months.
Pulling me from my thoughts, the doctor announced that he would be starting as he gave me three shots to numb the area around my tailbone. Almost immediately after, he declared that he would be making the incision and pierced my skin with the scalpel.
He had said that I wouldn’t be able to feel anything at all, but he was wrong… I felt it all.
My screams were like ones you hope to only hear in a horror movie. As I cried out in response to the pain caused by the scalpel, followed by the initial shove of the scope, one of the nurses reached under the sheet and squeezed my hand. I howled and whimpered once more as the scope was hammered further under my skin. My hands balled into tight fists and my face grew warm as the doctor paused to give an order to the nurses. The comforting hand slipped away, my IV wiggled and shortly after the first laser buzzed across the middle of my spine, the blue bubble went black.
* * *
Early June 2016
It had been a little over a week since the surgery. Despite the prescription pain medication, I couldn’t sit for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time, and walking to school and back took extra time as I couldn’t go any faster than a waddle. The brace cinched around my waist garnered empathetic stares from older folks, and plenty of questioning about how I had hurt my waist. But what hurt more than the scarring hole that had been carved by the path of the scope was the part of my heart that felt like it was missing.
I winced as I moved and seated myself on the edge of the stage in the school gymnasium, next to the plastic little flip-scoreboard we used every week for volleyball.
I turned the panels of the scoreboard as the game carried on, laughing and smiling at the comical antics that ensued on the court. At times, there were more jokes flying across the net than passes of the ball, and it made me feel thankful that I could enjoy this much, even if I was yearning inside for even one pass, one set…or maybe one serve-receive that I could have for myself.
* * *
As the ball ricocheted off my arms and straight up into the air, I felt the familiar surge of adrenaline from a spike-receive radiating through my body. Everything before, and everything thereafter too, I felt it; the sting of a hard serve, the soft push on a set, the flattening of my stomach against the ground as I laid out to catch a ball just out of reach.
A dull ache in my lower back reminded me every now and again of what had only just recovered, and that it would still be sometime before I could do certain things again—like serving overhand and arcing my torso just right for a backset. Regardless of what I still couldn’t do, just seeing faint red marks left on my forearms once more gave me an uncontrollable feeling of giddy happiness. They were marks, red from where the ball hit, marks that told me I was back, that proved I was no longer confined to the sidelines.
Rebecca “Becky” Brower is an ETA at Uiseong Elementary School and Danchon Elementary School in Uiseong, Gyeongsangbuk-do.