My sweet sister Nancy is six years older than I. Nancy plays the piano beautifully, just like our Mother did; and when I think of her in my younger years, I picture her either at the piano playing Malagueña or in her Bisonette uniform on her way to a football game. We experienced some wonderful Towner camping trips together, and at home she played jaxx with me on the smooth solid concrete of our front porch. She taught me how to play Canasta, but she always won; and she taught me there was no Santa Clause. I shared a room with her when I was very small, and when our sister Patsy moved out, Nancy moved into Patsy’s room and left me alone in mine.
Before I was born, my mother and dad took Nancy (no older than six years old) and Patsy to see the Grand Canyon; and, of course, Daddy took family photos of the trip. As the story goes, while posing the family for a photo on the edge of the canyon, he looked into the camera’s viewfinder and was shocked to see Nancy swinging over the canyon on the guard rail like a gymnast. Unfortunately, I have no photographs of this.
Nancy went to L.V. Stockard Junior High School and was a member of the Sunset High School drill team, the Bisonettes. She had many friends and was voted Wittiest Senior Girl in high school. I was twelve years old when she was a senior, and I envied her keen sense of humor and her popularity. I was also jealous of her collection of shoes. During her senior year of high school (or perhaps the summer before) we moved from our house on Mt. Pleasant to a new house on Ovid. Although we moved out of the Sunset school district, she was allowed to finish her senior year there. Her upstairs room in our house on Ovid had a spacious walk-in closet. Inside the closet door on the left was a built-in wooden boxed platform shelf about three feet high. On this shelf is where she kept her many shoes stacked in their original boxes. I loved looking through all of her beautiful shoes. I don’t remember if I did this with or without her permission. When I whined to Mother about Nancy’s collection of shoes, Mother said I could have a lot of shoes, too, when my feet stopped growing. That made me feel a little better, but I still don’t have a collection of shoes to match hers from 1962.
In the summer of 1962, my sister Nancy had major back surgery to straighten her spine which was severely curved from scoliosis. She recently wrote in a letter to me,
I remember Mama telling me to sit up straight one day. I guess I was about eleven. I was on the floor sitting cross-legged. I replied that I was sitting as straight as I could. She argued and told me to stand up. Then she started really looking at my back. After that episode, she showed Daddy, and then we started making doctors’ appointments…. I don’t recall how many doctors we saw, but they all said the same thing:
1) I could stay in a room where I was unable to stand erect until I was about 20,
2) I could have spinal fusion, but if I were the doctor’s child, he would not do that since the correction would not be worth it,
3) [I could] do nothing.
Doing nothing meant that gravity would continue to tug on her spine, and her back would become progressively more crooked. She would become more and more incapacitated, and her life-span would be short.
Then one day in junior high school, Nancy said she was looking at the newspaper or a magazine and saw a full- or double-page advertisement or article about an innovative surgery for the treatment of scoliosis. She said she was surprised and excited to see many pictures in this article of backs that looked just like hers. She showed it to Daddy, and she and Daddy wrote a letter to the doctor in Houston who was performing this surgery. The doctor responded with a few questions and asked that we set up an appointment to see him in Houston. The surgeon’s name was Dr. Paul Randall Harrington, and his ground-breaking surgery consisted of straightening the curved spine and attaching a metal rod to it. This metal rod came to be known as the Harrington rod.
Nancy, Mother, and Dad drove to Methodist Hospital in Houston for a consultation in the fall of 1961 (her senior year), and Nancy said she was surprised to find an entire wing of the hospital dedicated to Dr. Harrington’s scoliosis patients. He encouraged Nancy to talk to some of the patients who were almost well enough to go home after surgery. Suddenly, Nancy said she didn’t feel so alone.
Mom and Dad saw this surgery as Nancy’s only hope for a longer and more normal life, and they scheduled surgery for her right after her high school graduation in the summer of 1962. This is when I spent a couple of weeks in Austin with my sister Patsy and her husband Bob. I believe Patsy, Bob and I drove to see Nancy once, while she was in the hospital in Houston. I vaguely remember seeing her lying in her hospital bed in a room she shared with at least one other patient. Dr. Harrington corrected Nancy’s back from a 72 degree curve to an amazing 27 degree curve. He performed many surgeries of this type in the 1960s and 1970s and is renowned as a pioneer in the field of treating scoliosis.
Nancy’s surgery was the reason Daddy sold our house on Mt. Pleasant in 1962 and bought the bigger and nicer house on Ovid. Unfortunately, the family’s insurance policy would not cover her surgery. Every doctor Daddy and Mother spoke to up until the time they took out medical insurance told them there was no treatment for her back problem, so the insurance agent changed the form to indicate no preexisting condition for Nancy. When Daddy asked the insurance company about covering her surgery, they said they would not cover it because her back problem was not listed on his insurance application. Of course, if her back problem had been listed, they would not have covered it because it was preexisting. So, in early 1962, Mother and Dad sold the house they bought in 1946 on Mt. Pleasant in order to use the equity to pay for the surgery.
After Nancy’s back surgery, she rode home from Houston to Dallas on the train. She was required to wear a cast from below her hips to her armpits for six months, and she had to stay in a prone position for three or four months, at the end of which time she learned to walk again. Mother and Dad gave up the only downstairs bedroom so Nancy could use it during her recovery. Her only mobility until she began walking again was log-rolling around the king-size bed that Mother and Dad purchased to help make her more comfortable during her recuperation.
Nancy had a television in her room, and she liked to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson late at night. He must have been brand new to The Tonight Show at that time. I was not allowed to stay up and watch him. He came on too late, and Mother said I was too young. One night after Mother shooed me away to bed, I lingered on the stairs outside Nancy’s bedroom to listen to The Tonight Show. I wanted to find out why I wasn’t allowed to watch it. I guess I learned a little, but I still didn’t understand why it was such an issue.
After Nancy began to walk again, occasionally she stepped outside to visit with friends and family. One evening, as she stood on the front porch, a bug flew down the back of her cast, and she became nearly hysterical. I was the only one with hands small enough to reach down her back underneath the cast, so I was somehow able to rescue her from the bug and scratch her back until she said I could stop. I also occasionally swabbed her back with alcohol underneath the cast. She said it felt good. I felt useful.
After six months of recovery, Nancy had her cast removed but not by a doctor. Daddy cut Nancy’s cast off with a carpenter’s saw. Mother begged him to let the doctor remove it, but he did it himself in order to save money, under Mother’s heavy protest but without incident.
In 1965 Nancy married her best friend and high school classmate Larry. Nancy and Larry dated in high school but not each other. They were best friends, and Larry often came over to visit Nancy after his date with someone else. He came over or called frequently; and if I answered the phone, he always addressed me as Ta-Ta-Ta-Tina and chatted a few minutes with me before asking for Na-Na-Na-Nancy, which always made me giggle. While we still lived on Mt. Pleasant, he and Nancy liked to go out to our camper trailer parked in the front driveway…to study. I believe Nancy told me that she and Larry had an agreement that if they had not gotten married to anyone else by a certain date, they would get married to each other.
Larry was an active member of the United States Navy when they married, so they spent the first year or so apart. She flew to see him once when he was in port in Norfolk, Virginia; and he was proud to take her on a tour of his ship, the USS Georgetown. To prepare her for her onboard tour, Larry told Nancy that she would have to follow proper protocol when she boarded, and he taught her what to say and do. As she boarded, she obediently snapped her best salute while yelling, “Request to come aboard, SIR!” exactly as Larry had instructed and as she had rehearsed. The uniformed recipient of her snappy salute discreetly exchanged grins with Larry, who was standing directly behind Nancy. She was then granted permission to “come aboard.”
In 2009 Nancy saw a doctor about some back pain and found out that later in life many of the first scoliosis surgery patients like Nancy had problems resulting from their early surgeries. The articles linked to this post use the term “flatback syndrome,” referring to the problem caused by straightening the spine too straight and not leaving its natural curve. In the letter Nancy sent me about the surgery she said she had no regrets about these residual problems, because Dr. Harrington gave her the opportunity to marry, have three beautiful children, and live a fairly normal life. She said, “God is very good.”