Healing at Helen Hayes

Written by admin on . Posted in On Topic OTDT, Opinion and Column.


There I was at the Vermont Stage Co. doing the play Prelude to a Kiss when someone sent me the theatrical greeting, “Break a leg,” which I did. I broke the limb in the bathroom of the hotel I was staying at and had to drop out of the play.

Diana, my spouse and friend, was on a conjugal visit and summoned the emergency services and got me to Fletcher Allen Hospital, where the good doctors (highly experienced in fractures, due to the proximity of skiing places) put the titanium plate in and braced me with a boot. After five days, I was transported to the Helen Hayes Rehab hospital just outside of the city. That was a seven-hour journey by NYPD ambulance, courtesy of my son Conor. It is a service provided to police officers and their families, and it is funded by the police themselves, with a couple of dollars in contributions each month

Now don’t tell anyone, but the Helen Hayes Hospital is a prime rehab facility and, to my astonishment, a state-run place. The outside architecture is somewhat bland, but the buildings rise out of the trees, plants, flowers and grass, giving one a splendid view of the lordly Hudson. The inside part is institutional in appearance, with wide passages, accessible elevators and corridor handrails.

But the human factor is extraordinary. I am referring to the people who minister to masses of badly injured, traumatized, frightened patients. There are people there for optional surgery, like hip replacements and knee replacements, which by now are almost routine. On another floor there are the accident automobile injuries and the large number of young men rendered paraplegic and quadriplegic by motorcycle bravado. One young mother told me she had begged her 19-year-old son not to buy the machine. But he had saved for it: $9,000 and four hours later, he was paralyzed for life, and she was a 42-year-old woman with a future of caring for a helpless, grown-up infant, feeding him, wiping his bottom, emptying his piss bottle and bedpan and watching him shrivel as her own life dwindles into nothingness. Don’t let ’em near a motorbike.

Back to Helen Hayes Hospital. Despite being surrounded by medical instruments and devices, the central energy is generated by a remarkable staff. Every member seemed to share a sense of mission, which was to get you as well as possible. Activities that are ordinary for the average citizen seem miraculous when performed by the folks with the disability, such as taking a step, squeezing a ball, standing up, turning the head and getting out of a chair. If you stumbled, they said, “Rest up,” and, “We will do better next time.” The most important part of the treatment was the fact was the staff understands that no matter how severe your injury, your life could be better if you were willing. They did not promise you could walk again if your spine was severed, only that your life is not over till you fall into despair

I only had the broken leg, but there were times when I thought, “What’s the use? This leg will never be normal,” only to be told, “You are doing great and you are going home.”

Here I am walking laboriously. I am out of the wheelchair. Thanks to Helen Hayes Hospital, the great staff and Diana for the encouragement and the titanium plate in the limb.


Check my website malachymccourt.com and read Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland.

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