My COVID Summer in Casts

Bzzzzzzzz—I could hear the buzzing of the saw as it got closer to my skin. I could really feel the heat now. A few more eighths of an inch and we’re there, I said to myself. You can do it. You can do it. The buzz of the saw rose to such a high pitch, I could barely stand it. It started to tickle! I knew we were close.

In 2020, I have learned that even in hard times we must and we can continue on. I was born in China with dislocated hips and atypical rigid clubbed feet. At six months old, I was adopted by my parents, who decided to treat me in the United States. Since then, I’ve had four surgeries on my right hip and three serial cast treatments on my feet. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I discovered that I had a relapse of clubbed feet. At first, we thought I might need to have surgery to correct them. My parents and I contacted my orthopedic surgeon and nurse, who both practice at the University of Iowa, to ask for their advice. We sent pictures of my feet and a video of me walking so that they could determine the situation. After reviewing the videos and pictures, the doctor determined it would be best to do serial casting on my feet. So our plan for the summer needed to include visits to the University of Iowa for the casting. My parents and I had many discussions about the timing. Generally in the summer, I would be going to camps and swimming with friends; this year we also had plans to take a family trip to Costa Rica to study Spanish and attend a yoga retreat. Since most of our usual summer plans were canceled, we decided this would be a good summer for me to spend six to eight weeks in casts.

The University of Iowa has a world-renowned center for the treatment of clubbed feet, and that is where I originally had my treatments as a baby. The center was established by Ignacio Ponseti, MD, a Spanish orthopedic surgeon who wanted to make care accessible to children around the world who could not afford surgery. He developed a non-surgical technique, today known as the Ponseti Technique, in which he would gradually realign clubfeet with a series of casts. My doctor and his assistant are world experts with clubbed feet, and we trusted they would know how to deal with my relapse.

We realized we could also spend time at our family lake home in Minnesota. Hey, if you’re going to spend all summer in casts, it is more comfortable to be in northern Minnesota than in hot and humid North Carolina. We decided to drive rather than fly to Minnesota because of COVID-19. We packed up and brought along two friends that are the same ages as my sister and me. As we traveled I was nervous because we saw lots of people not wearing masks. It took two days of driving to get to Iowa. The night before casting, I swam in a pool one last time. The next morning, my parents and I went to the University of Iowa to get my first cast. After a quick check-in, they called my name and we went to the casting room. I got to choose what color I wanted: I picked a yellow cast.

It sucks to spend a summer in casts, but the first good thing that happened was I only had to cast one foot. The second was that I did not have to take out the compost at our lake home since that involves walking to the garden where it’s often damp and muddy. I learned that in a cast, it’s fun to do puzzles and play cards for hours. It was still possible for me to play yard games like croquet, corn hole, and ladder toss. Although I could not go swimming or tubing in the lake, I could go for lots of boat rides. I enjoyed making dinner every night with my family. I had fun eating s’mores around the campfire. Most of all, it was nice to have a good friend there to do things with and to be surrounded by family, people who I knew really cared about me.

My first cast was the hardest because it felt hot and bulky when I was used to spending a lot of time barefoot. An additional challenge was that I could not put weight on that foot for 24 hours in order for the cast to harden, so my arms got a workout using crutches. There were other challenges living with a cast, like dealing with hotspots and the cast tearing at the end. One of the hardest things was the hotspots. Hotspots are where the cast rubs on the skin, and they can eventually turn into blisters and open sores. I certainly did not want sores, so my mom and I had to figure out how to fix this problem. My mom found the nearest walk-in clinic, which was one hour away, and we obtained a prescription to have a little square cut out of the cast over the hotspot.

During our time in Minnesota, we had to make the nine-hour drive to Iowa City two more times for cast changes. On those visits, the doctor would remove the cast with a special saw, stretch my foot, and make sure it was in a good position for the new cast. He would first wrap my foot with a cotton gauge, then add wet plaster, and finally a wrap of fiberglass casing in the color of my choice (I chose blue for my second cast and purple for my third). After the third cast was removed, he stretched my feet and I tried to walk. My foot felt like jelly because the muscles had lost their tone and became weak. I used crutches and began to slowly bear weight on them. After about a week, I was walking on my own and started adding other activities such as tubing and swimming. I finally felt free!

In conclusion, the lessons that I learned from this crazy COVID summer were that even through challenging situations, the support of family and friends can help you through such difficult times. There were some moments when it felt really hard, but my family distracted me with cooking good food and playing fun games. The experience has made me stronger and motivated me to help others when they’re feeling down or going through something difficult.

Lian Petrella

Lian Petrella (she/her). Grade 7, Carolina Friends School in Durham, N.C.

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