When I was born, I had two things. I had a condition called congenital talipes equinovarus, or ‘clubfoot’. I also had a pair of kind, loving parents who happened to be Christian Scientists. Christian Science is a fringe religion that rejects all doctors and medical care, and my parents were fervent believers.
I was born at a hospital, so I imagine that there must have been at least one doctor who saw my deformed feet and offered medical treatment. I don’t know what the doctor said, but I know that my parents refused treatment for me. Instead, they took me home and started praying. And praying. And praying. Prayer, as far as they knew, was the most effective treatment for the ‘illusion’ of deformity. My parents loved me, and they were determined to ‘know the truth’ about my feet until my feet reflected that truth.
I’m amazed that I learned to walk, given how radically deformed my feet were. My feet were turned sideways, toward each other, with the soles facing each other. When I started walking, the soles of my feet didn’t touch the ground at all. I was walking on what should have been the sides and tops of my feet. I fell down a lot.
For three years, my parents watched their little boy toddle around on his sideways feet. Their church told them that my feet would be healed, if only they were pray hard enough. I can only imagine how agonizing it must have been for them to pray and pray for a healing that never came. I wonder if maybe they blamed themselves for their failure to heal.
Eventually, around my fourth birthday, my parents decided to take me to a children’s hospital. The surgeons cut me open, severed and reattached my tendons, and moved some bones around. After the surgery, I spent a couple of months in a pair of full leg casts and a tiny wheelchair. The casts came off sometime around my fifth birthday. I graduated to leg braces and crutches, and eventually to normal everyday shoes.
As an ex-Christian Scientist looking back on my childhood, I always thought that, regarding my feet, I’d gotten off relatively lucky. Sure, my parents had delayed medical intervention for three years, but I did get help eventually. The surgeons did a great job, considering what they had to work with. I’ll never have a full range of motion in my feet, and I’ll certainly never be Fred Astaire, but I can walk and run like a normal person. Most people who see me don’t know that there’s anything wrong with me. What more could a guy with clubfoot ask for?
My rude awakening came one day when I was in my late twenties. I was spending the day walking around a museum with a friend of mine, and after a few hours, I asked my friend to stop for a minute so I could flex my sore feet. I explained that my feet get sore really easily, and I mentioned that I was born with clubfoot.
“Really?” she said. “I was born with clubfoot too!”
“Oh, cool!” I said. “I’ve never met anyone else like me! Do your feet get sore too?”
“No,” she said. “Right after I was born, I had braces, and the braces fixed my feet. I don’t have any lingering effects.”
It was a shock. As soon as I got home, I went to the internet, and learned that my friend’s experience was typical. I had thought that my feet were the best that modern medicine could give to a child with clubfoot. Now I realized that there had been a window of opportunity during which my feet could have been made normal with braces—completely, utterly normal—and that my parents had missed this opportunity.
I love my parents. They made a really bad decision, but I don’t blame them. I blame Christian Science. I blame a belief system that tells parents that suffering isn’t real, that doctors make things worse, and that the best way to help their child is to deny that he has any problems. I blame a belief system that leaves a young boy to teach himself to walk on sideways feet.