Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Return of the Tin Man

Last Tuesday, at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia, I met the Tin Man. He had been in hiding for over a decade. I had hoped that I wasn't going to ever see him again, but fate is fickle and has its own determined mind.

I met him for the first time when he was only five. He had been exploring the notion of gravity and falling and the possibilities of bouncing on hard surfaces. He didn't become the Tin Man that day. His elbow was only encased in plaster, a slight but painful fracture. Jungle Jim's and playrgounds and the allure of testing gravity, however, made my wife and me hyper vigilant.

Thirteen years later I received a phone call on Labor Day. I was told to report to a field close by. There had been a accident. When I arrived at the field, at the same time as a local police officer, I saw a crowd in the middle of the field. The police officer was a giant, maybe seven or eight foot tall. His shadow blocked out the Labor Day sun as the two of us walked to the crowd. He saw the individual sitting on the ground before I did.

"Oh sweet Jesus," he said, and his legs became wobbly.

I wondered if I should try to steady his massive frame when I saw the teenage boy on the ground. His left arm looked terribly wrong. Instead of extending out in a linear line from his elbow, as most human arms do, his lower arm was shaped like a U. His wrist was curved back around, almost even with his elblow.

The arm required lots of tin and steel, plates and screws. Scars remain today, two angry lines like railway tracks with spike marks heading nowhere.

In college, it would be the Tin Man's left collar bone. A playful wrestling match with a friend went wrong. His body found itself in the air again, and, when he crashed, the collar bone went from a horizental support beam to a vertical compass point. It would take a plate and many screws and tin to keep the compass point down. Today, when the temperature drops low, the plate, still there doing its duty, reminds the Tin Man of how cold life can be.

Various finger breaks and sprains have popped up now and then, but only splints were needed. It looked like the memory of the Tin Man was going to finally fade away. It looked like my son, Jim, was no longer going to be in need of metal supports and struts. The days of scaffolding, both external and internal, were over.

And then, last Tuesday, Jim was tempted once more by the siren song of gravity. While retrieving a soccer ball from a garage roof, he caught his foot 12 feet above the ground and began to fall to earth. Only this time, it wasn't his elbow or his arm or his collar bone that was on a direct collision course with earth. It was his head. Somehow, miraculously, he managed to almost right himself when his right foot and ankle made contact, taking the full weight of his body.

The trauma surgeon at Hahnemann Hospital called it a pilon fracture. Rods now extend outward from his skin below his knee to a super structure down his leg to a rod that runs right through his ankle. Eight screws are holding his lower fibula bone together. A second surgery will involve securing plates along his tibia to fix the shattered bone there. More tin has now been added to the Tin Man.

In The Wixard of Oz, the Tin Man journeys to the Emerald City to ask the all powerful wizard for what he desires most: a heart. But, the all powerful Wizard of Oz tells him, "A heart is not judged by how much you love, but how much you are loved by others."

In each of these gravity-defying mishaps, Jim has discovered that pain can be sudden and terribly real, courage is needed to put parts back together again, and the true nature of love is when it's freely offered by others, expecting absolutely nothing in return.

Copyright (c) 2012 by James Hugh Comey

The picture at the top of the blog needs the following explanation:
The sketch on the left was drawn by Jim to indicate where metal has been added to his body and to show the external fixator. The sketch on the top right was made by Dr. Susan Harding, the trauma orthopedic surgeon after Jim's first surgery, to explain the amount of work done and still needed on his right leg. The X-ray shows what a pilon fracture looks like. Jim's was 50 times worse.


  1. WOW! What an amazing story! I hope the Tin Man is recovering and that he doesn't need to make another apprearance for along time!

  2. Thanks for reading "The Return of Tin Man." Jim has now had the second surgery, the external fixators have been unscrewed, the stitiches are gone, and now he has a long physical therapy journey to complete. Thanks for your good wishes!