My Turn: How a Spinal Injury United My Family

I remember holding a wide-temple pair of black D&G knockoff sunglasses in my hand. What I don't remember was how I ended up on the ground at the Valley Stream Wal-Mart on Long Island. So when I came to and found hair accessories strewn around my long legs, and my mother at my side asking if I was OK, I was agitated. Worse were the pitying faces of the other shoppers gathered around me.

It was my third fainting spell—and a direct result of a car accident I had last year. My first spill took place six months earlier when I was living at my best friend's house in Northern California during my initial phase of physical therapy. The second thud occurred at another friend's house three weeks before the Wal-Mart incident.

Both my mother, who was originally from Boligee, Ala., and my father, a West Indian from St. Vincent, were happy I had come home. Their less-than-subtle campaign to lure me back East had grown stronger as my symptoms worsened. Even my 25-year-old brother, who'd had to move out of the well-furnished bedroom I'd left behind, was glad to have me closer. Returning meant having my retired social-worker dad on hand to take care of me. But it also meant surrendering my independence—something I love almost as much as my family. We reached a compromise: I would stay for a few weeks then head back out West.

Three decades before my accident, during another shopping expedition with my mom, I had watched from the periphery as a woman had a seizure in a department store. She flailed on the faux-marble floor as her sister dithered between clearing the crowd and calling for help. The memory of that bug-eyed woman came to the surface as I tried to recall what had taken place during my seizure. This time, I was the spectacle, not the spectator, and I wasn't sure what had happened between my reaching for the shelf and the moment when I landed on the floor.

My mother, a freelance court reporter, was able to fill in the details of my blackout. After placing the sunglasses on the shelf in front of me, I rose to a standing position with open but glazed eyes. I then tumbled backward in slow motion—eyes still open—snagging my T shirt on the barrette and scrunchie hooks before falling. The incident lasted less than 30 seconds and inspired a new family rule: I was not allowed to leave the house without a chaperone. Not exactly good times for a 6-foot-4 gay man who'd lived alone since college.

I'd come to New York to consult with Dr. John Bendo, an orthopedic surgeon at NYU's Hospital for Joint Diseases about the injuries I had sustained in the accident: two herniated cervical discs (C4-5, C5-6) and spinal damage. My West Coast neurosurgeon, Dr. Benny Branvold, thought the blackouts were related to the spinal injuries. He'd recommended a double anterior discectomy, where they remove the discs in the neck and fuse the bones together with titanium pins. Bendo had performed a similar surgery on me five years earlier when shooting pains resulted in a herniated disc (C6-7) that caused a significant loss of arm strength. Since the surgery had been a resounding success (I had been able to resume my yoga, cycling, and Rollerblading), I thought it best to see him for this new problem.

But before I could get to Dr. Bendo, I first had to get out of Wal-Mart and to the emergency room. A manager knelt beside me and asked whether I wanted an ambulance. Had the fault been Wal-Mart's, I would have asked for one. But it hadn't, so my mother drove me to the hospital. The manager escorted me to the entrance in a wheelchair.

The visit to the ER turned into a weeklong marathon of X-rays, CAT scans, MRIs and other diagnostic tests at Franklin Hospital Medical Center that proved inconclusive. But my subsequent visit with the orthopedic surgeon turned out to be more decisive. I found out that my C5-6 disc was severely herniated. The C4-5 disc even more so. It was pushing against the spinal canal and causing it to narrow. That, in turn, impeded the signal it needed to function properly. I was in serious danger of becoming paralyzed, and there was no telling what might set my spine off—or whether the paralysis would be reversible. There would be no returning to California, so I gave him the green light to perform the surgery.

Nine grueling months later, I still struggle with decreased range of motion. But my friends and their endless stream of jokes about passing out in Wal-Mart, of all places, helps. Though neither the tests nor the neurologist have been able to determine whether my passing out was related to the herniated discs, I haven't had an episode since.

When I began postsurgical physical therapy, I realized that my West Coast workout clothes weren't warm enough and I found myself back at Wal-Mart with Mom. They didn't carry sweatpants with a 36-inch inseam, but all wasn't lost. Instead of being wheeled out, I walked out on my own this time.

I finished physical therapy four months ago. And as a result of the patience of my family, who has weathered many of my frustrated fits, my return to New York has become a permanent one. Contrary to the stereotype of the fractured black family, our foursome is so tight-knit, my friends have dubbed us "the Huxtables." And I can see why: we've reinstated our nuclear-family birthday dinners and break out the Scrabble board several nights a week. It's hard being an adult living with your parents, but I remind myself several times daily that I've been lucky to have them. It seems my injury and my return migration were more than mere coincidence: I needed them to hold me together, and, it turns out, they needed me, too.