Breaking My Neck in Cairo

I moved to Manhattan last June with a broken neck. Seven weeks earlier, while living in Cairo, I had over-rotated a flip. I was doing parkour, a kind of acrobatics in the street. When I landed, so to speak, I hit my head against the ground so hard that it broke my C-5 vertebra from the front to the back. I arrived in New York City struggling to carry two large duffle bags and wearing a thick plastic neck brace.

Because my condition towed that delicate line between sympathy-inducing injury and gaze-averting Disability, most strangers said nothing. For recent acquaintances and new coworkers, though, my medical history always functioned as the go-to conversation piece. After each introductory handshake, I delivered my spiel: “Hi, I’m Spenser. I broke my neck doing parkour in Egypt. Totally misjudged the height of the ledge I flipped off. Oh no, don’t worry. The doctor said I’ll be just fine.”

In Cairo, the healthcare had been flawless thanks to a few well-connected friends. After a moment’s wait and zero copay, I had seen the head of neurology at the University of Cairo, a friendly man who spoke impeccable English and warned me that American doctors were more concerned with avoiding malpractice suits than treating their patients. He had prescribed me six – and then eight – weeks in the neck brace and assured me I would recover completely. I had arrived in New York with another seven days left on my sentence.

Oh no, don’t worry. The doctor said I’ll be just fine.”

Fairly arbitrarily, I found a neurologist who was willing to see me on short notice. For three hours, I waited, sitting on a stained chair, clutching my MRIs, and praying that the doctor would let me remove the brace a couple of days ahead of schedule. After signing a file cabinet’s worth of forms, meeting with an assistant, waiting another half hour, and, inexplicably, being asked to undress, the doctor came in.

As soon as I mentioned the Egyptian physician, my new doctor grumbled something about ‘that country’ and set aside the medical report. He glanced at the x-rays perfunctorily and then pronounced his sentence: six months minimum, possibly longer. Foolishly, I had expected him to see the films and start laughing. “Fresh MRIs be damned!” the doctor would shout in my fantasies. “You take that brace off right now and get to living, boy!” he’d exclaim, at which point I would cartwheel out of the clinic. Instead, the doctor told me to meet him in his office, where he’d give me a full report. I put my clothes and neck brace back on.

In his office, I begged the doctor to reconsider. “Well, you could always be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life. Is that what you want?” I shook my head. “That brace could save your life,” he spat. “You could be walking, get hit by a bike, fall down, and die.” As respectfully as possible, I mentioned the Egyptian neurologist’s more optimistic prognosis. The doctor’s face contorted, horrified I would compare his expertise to the guesswork of a Third World charlatan. He commanded me to return in eight weeks.

If this were a Woody Allen movie, a pigeon would have pooped on my head as I exited the building. Instead, I called my mom and walked to the subway. At every intersection, I stood unnecessarily close to traffic, desperate to win the unspoken competition of who could jaywalk the most aggressively. “I may be injured,” I silently projected to passersby, “but I’ll be just fine.” In the wet heat of summer, my neck became sodden with sweat that then gushed down my back and soaked my t-shirt. Underground, I boarded the train and timidly looked for an empty seat, feeling as if I were wearing a woolen scarf. As I sat down, I swore the other passengers rolled their eyes. “Faker,” they all seemed to whisper.

During my seventy-five days in solitary plastic confinement, I thought I was the main attraction in a city where it’s almost impossible to stand out.

The next week, I found another neurosurgeon – one whose waiting room didn’t reek of cleaning chemicals. Like every doctor before him, he told me how lucky I was that the fracture missed my spinal cord by a few millimeters. He then explained the logistics of my injury and told me that, in two weeks, we’d know if I had properly healed, or if I would need surgery.

Thirteen days later, I returned to his office and tried to steady my hand as I signed in at the reception desk. After fifteen minutes, the doctor called me in. “I know you’re pretty nervous,” he observed, “so I’ll tell you upfront that you’re fine.” I exhaled. “And let me suggest you take up a less risky sport, like golf.”

And just like that, it was over. I was now free – just one of a million other young transplants in New York with a dollar, a dream, and a fully mobile spine.

During my seventy-five days in solitary plastic confinement, I thought I was the main attraction in a city where it’s almost impossible to stand out. In my head, every chuckle, every lingering smile, every discrete whisper was directed at me or at my expense. But now that I’m no longer Disabled, I realize how severely I overestimated this city’s emotional involvement in me and my neck. New Yorkers are certainly judgmental, but, like a supernova, the Schadenfreude burns bright and quickly fades. Life here presents an endless stream of opportunities to gawk, stare, scoff, and smirk, so what stranger has the time to dwell on one young man with an exceptionally sweaty neck? Looking back, it wasn’t the imaginary whispers of strangers that really embarrassed me.

Moving to a new city, I wanted to put my best foot forward, but my orthopedic companion did the opposite. Like a disgruntled wedding guest who’s taken full advantage of the open bar, my neck brace demanded to be the center of attention. It forced itself into every conversation; it lingered stubbornly in people’s memories. As a result, my injury – and by extension, my reckless oversight – always took center stage. When a coworker smiled politely, or a peer from college gasped, or a doctor shook his head with concern, I knew what he was thinking: “What a stupid mistake.” My friends at least addressed the issue head on, but I could only be the butt of so many parkour-related jokes before they lost their humor. Now that I’m abled-bodied, though, I’m finally able to start my life here on my own terms: “Hi, I’m Spenser. I spent last year in Egypt studying Arabic. It was a great experience, but I love living in New York.”