Telling the Tales of Torment

Shari’s message was one of five on my voicemail when I returned to the office after a COVID-inspired work-from-home quarantine. She told me she was one of our hospital’s first scoliosis patients 43 years ago, and, after seeing the patient stories during our recent telethon, she wanted to give back and start volunteering.

Because of COVID, volunteers aren’t allowed in the hospital right now, but I knew Shari had a story to share. Indeed she did. I made the decision to lead the story with something that should make all of us uncomfortable. She talked about being a kid so severely bent over from scoliosis that other kids called her a monster.

A monster.

All these years later, tears fell as she recounted the bullying she endured.

What I have learned in my first six weeks as Storyteller in Chief for Shriners Hospitals for Children — St. Louis is that, if there is one common element our patients share, it is bullying. Joey talked about kids not wanting to be his friend. And Ashleigh shared how our prosthetist helped her deal with the bullying.

What I see when I talk to our patients and former patients are some of the bravest people I have ever met. They have endured tremendous physical pain to be treated for conditions they didn’t ask for and didn’t do anything reckless or stupid to bring on. Yet when you talk to them, it’s rarely the physical pain they talk about. It’s the emotional pain of being bullied and being an outcast that sticks with them.

This hits me as a storyteller. I think I can sometimes get caught up in the hope that this hospital’s medical geniuses bring to people. The stories I am telling are often built around that theme. But I cannot ignore the harsh realities our kids face when they walk out of our building. So after hearing how crushed Shari was and still is, even 43 years later, I decided to put the torment at the very top of her tale.

Frankly, I want people to see it. I want people to feel it. I want parents to read it and then sit down with their kids and say, “See this? Don’t do this or you will be grounded for the rest of your life.” I want educators to read it and pay extra special attention to our kids who are in their schools, to protect them from the nastiness of their classmates. I want the better part of our human nature to shine and for us to lift these kids up as examples of courage, not as monsters.

Bullying sucks. I bear the internal scars from my own experiences. Were I granted a superpower, it would be to put a protective shield over all children who walk through our doors to make them impervious to the ridicule of their peers.

In so many cases, our doctors can help them to the point where their physical limitations are gone or at least strongly minimized. It’s those emotional scars that remain. And there’s no doctor in the world who can make them go away.

Just ask Shari.

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