Amplitude has proudly featured Chris Prange-Morgan’s writing many times over the years. We’re especially proud to share this article, an excerpt from Prange-Morgan’s first book. Titled Broken, Brave, and Bittersweet: Forging Fiercely Through Disability, Parenthood, and Other Misadventures, the memoir examines trauma and recovery from multiple perspectives.
The core narrative covers Prange-Morgan’s attempts to salvage her leg after a catastrophic accident; her gradual embrace of amputation as the best option; and the scars (physical and emotional) that attest to her pain and healing. While that story unfolds, Prange-Morgan weaves in several parallel journeys. We meet her adopted children, Jade and Kai, as they struggle to build trust and find security in an world that has only shown them unkindness. We see Prange-Morgan trying to ease other patients’ burdens in her role as a hospital chaplain and social worker. There’s a hint of meta-narrative here, too, about a healthcare system that too often fails its most vulnerable stakeholders and offers the least amount of support to the people who need it the most.
In this passage, we find Prange-Morgan brought low by debilitating pain after surgery to reconstruct her ankle, which she shattered in a rock-climbing fall. The excerpt is reprinted by permission of the author. Follow this link to order your own copy of Broken, Brave, and Bittersweet.
It was around 1:30 a.m. and it felt like an eternity. At least an hour had passed and now my pain level was at a “9.” I pressed my call light again. I felt like I was going to pass out from the unrelenting agony. I wanted to die. The nurse came back into my room.
“I paged your doctor—the resident on call—and I’m still waiting for his response. I’m sorry. I know you’re in pain and it’s hard to hang in there.”
At this point I was in so much pain that I had no filters. I couldn’t believe that they had let me go this long. I knew why people with prolonged untreated chronic pain took their lives. I was furious.
I yelled. “You’re sorry? No, I’m sorry! You get on the phone with my doctor now! I don’t care what it takes! I’m in fucking pain! Don’t you CARE?”
Scott rubbed my arm. I could tell he was embarrassed. I had probably woken up the entire hospital ward. “Yeah, this isn’t Chris. She isn’t usually like this. Please. Get her doctor on the line now.”
Within about 15 minutes, the resident on call showed up at my bedside. He was a tall young guy with sandy blond hair which sported an obvious bedhead. He walked to the end of my bed and put his fingers under my cast, above my toes. “Do you feel that?”
“No.” I responded, still writhing in agony.
He proceeded to take out long specialized scissors and cut down the middle of my cast. I began to feel some relief and realized that my leg had been swelling under the cast with nowhere to expand. He pried the right side of the cast out a bit and touched my skin with the cool stainless steel of the scissors. “Do you feel that?”
“Yes, I can feel that.”
“That’s good,” he reassured me. “I wanted to rule out something called compartment syndrome which can be life-threatening. I think you are just swelling a lot and I needed to relieve the pressure by loosening the cast.”
He ordered an increase in my pain medication, which provided a welcomed relief. It helped when he loosened my cast to allow for the swelling to do its thing.
“Thank you for getting here,” I said to him. “I’m sorry I probably got you out of bed.”
He apologized for not getting to me earlier and mumbled something about sleeping heavily and not hearing the pager right away. I felt bad for yelling at my nurse, yet I couldn’t help myself. I was in so much pain—it had to go somewhere.
Scott and I slept well as my pain became better controlled and the pressure of my leg was alleviated, and the swelling was given some space to expand. I had never experienced that kind of agony before, and I never wanted to experience it again.
As I would later find myself at the bedside of patients in intense pain, I would advocate for them. I understood well the tough demands and the busyness in medicine. I also know that pain ain’t no joke. Pain can turn us into monsters if it is ignored or brushed under the carpet. Like the Incredible Hulk, its power has the ability to unearth a quaking, momentous force that causes us to act crazy and irrational. All pain—physical, spiritual, and emotional—sucks. It causes us to do things that we later regret. All organisms in pain seek comfort and release from its obstinate grasp.
I felt like I would be living in anguish and despair forever. I now hated myself for my need to fix and save the world, because I could not save myself.
I was stuck. In pain. I hated what my life had become.
Back home, I didn’t have the distraction of medical tests, hospital rounds, or conversations with medical folks who “got it” to hold my attention. Looking ahead at a hard life trajectory and drenched in resentment, I allowed myself to sprawl out on the living room floor, picking at the gray flecks in the carpet as tears slowly ran down my face. As I gazed upon the flecks in the carpeting, it occurred to me that this was the same carpeted floor my son oozed upon in his earliest days with us, transfixed on the wheels of his matchbox cars and zoning out in a little world of his own. Massaging my fingers through the texture of the rug, I wondered if Kai’s tears and thoughts of despair had trickled into these same fibers in his hardest days. The dread felt palpable and now had been doubled by the despair I was feeling.
Thinking about the days, weeks, and years ahead, I could not grasp what a life well-lived would now look like. Pain had wrung me out like a soaking wet towel ready for mold to start setting in. I secretly hoped I would waste away, or at least, fall asleep peacefully and not wake up. Maybe I would be lucky and get cancer from all my scans and X-rays, ushering me swiftly out. My mind was restless, thinking of ways to escape this pitiful, torturous life I now inhabited—bereft of pleasure and overshadowed by anguish, with the certainty of more suffering now on the immediate horizon.
The person I had been was now lost forever. My sunny character and everything about the person I knew myself to be had been lost in the shadow of my former pre-accident self. A strong sense of shame and worthlessness began sneaking in, and I deemed that I would become a wretched, sullen person—a drain on society and a solemn burden to my family. I thought about my neighbor who had taken her life. My thoughts turned dark and ugly. There may no longer be a place for me here, I thought.
In an ongoing subtle tug-of-war in my thinking, my mind darted from the life I once enjoyed to the present moment, where I was forced to behold the littlest beautiful details, from a wheelchair in my kitchen with an elevated, casted foot. Managing to bring my attention to life’s smallest features—the softness of my cat Oscar’s plush fur, the sick humored banter between my caring husband and parents, the scent of my kids’ freshly shampooed hair just after bath time—I was able to cope with the arduousness of the moments which came and went each day. In time, my darkened thoughts began to brighten, despite the mounting daily challenges.
Feeling like the “eternal patient,” my life felt centered around waiting for medical appointments, medications, and news about my shattered ankle which would require more surgeries. I started to look into ways I could weave more of these smallish bits of gratitude into my life by simply noticing more, because my life had slowed down enough to perceive the world around me with greater intensity. Pain continued and, at times, intensified. Yet joy was also magnified. Milkshakes tasted like heaven and the birds at the feeder became my peeping little friends, ready to greet me from the window every sunny April morning. My life’s rhythms were mirrored by the earth’s rhythms—the weeping of the rain, followed by the promise of sunshine and the kiss of the gentle spring breezes. Why, I wondered, should my life look any different?
In the days that followed, I made a distinct effort to pay attention to all the things I could find pleasure in. We termed our fluffy tabby cat, Oscar, “the counselor cat,” as he had an uncanny intuition for when I was having a rough day. Peering from across the room at me with his slow-blinking, squinty little eyes, he just knew when I needed a snuggle. I welcomed him into my lap with open arms, a scratch under the chin, and another exhale in gratitude, ushered in by his gentle vibrating purr.
Oscar had broken his little paw as a kitten when the kitchen screen door slammed shut as my dad was leaving the room one day. Fortunately, it did not require surgery, but because he had broken it on the growth plate, we were informed that it could cause Oscar problems with arthritis as he became older. The little rascal chewed through two casts before we realized they were causing him too much distress, and eventually the bone healed on its own.
I continued to wonder if this experience of Oscar’s rendered him more compassionate and sensitive, as shown by his frequent locked-on eye gaze and slow, blinking kitty kisses. His gentle purr and loving gaze helped me feel connected and understood—as if he knew at a deep level what I was feeling. Stroking his soft and fuzzy, warm striped coat, Oscar helped me to know that life was still okay, if only for a moment.
The hospital bed in our living room (with me in it) invited pets and kids to gently come aboard to get in their snuggle time. One chilly afternoon, I invited Jade and Kai to join me under the blankets while I read them the story Go, Dog. Go! in their fleece-lined pajamas. Kai giggled in excitement—this felt like a first, as usually he had no interest in snuggling. “Go dog, go!” he pointed to the hound in the car.
“Vroom vroom!” I smiled, not knowing how long this feeling would last.
In the warm glow of the lamplight, we all became drowsy and dozed off before I reached the middle of the book. Peacefully, I awakened to see my two little hoodlums nestled tightly under each arm, both curled up with rosy cheeks and exuding unencumbered serenity. I wondered if they needed this experience to feel confident and secure again—to know that Mommy was going to get better, and was still here to provide warmth and comfort in the aftermath of all the upheaval.
I wanted to capture this moment in time—their trusting and vulnerable, warm little bodies, snugly radiating that all was right in the world for the moment. Shoring up my broken, pieced together, hardware-laden body were these two pudgy little bookends.
Looking down at my snoring son, a profound sense of gratitude blanketed the moment with a deep, abiding awareness that for now, things were okay. Kai had trusted me enough to fall asleep with his nose in my armpit. He trusted me enough to be vulnerable, praise God. I didn’t know about tomorrow or what the future would bring our way, and in that instant, I didn’t care.