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  • Writer's pictureGalen Warden

Being Tough Saved John's Broken Feet

In Rumble in the Bronx, Jackie Chan famously leapt from a rooftop down about twenty feet onto a fire escape across an alley. He landed on his feet, falling forward, and sprawling into the building. Daring leaps are often a part of action scenes, and my oldest son John had seen many of them when he took his own in 2008.

John Strazza in a wheelchair with bandaged feet.

John Jumps Like Jackie

While hiking in South Carolina, John leapt from a high riverbank down onto a boulder below. It seemed like a fine idea at the time, but both of his heels shattered like lightbulbs on impact. Medics carried him from the site after several failed attempts to stand, and the long process of understanding the consequences of his action-adventure stunt began.

John was 28 when his life was sidelined by that daring leap. The first doctor he saw for his injury explained in simple, pragmatic terms that he would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. Heels shattered that much were impossible to repair. His landing on the boulder drove his tibia (shin bone) down into his calcaneus (heel bone), shattering it into too many pieces to put back in place with surgery and screws.

But the owner of the barber shop where John worked had a neighbor who just happened to be a foot surgeon. He agreed to see John as a favor to his neighbor, and John’s fortunes turned favorable.

Surgery and PT

One-by-one, the surgeon moved a dozen little bones back into place through a few small incisions—each little screw securing another possibility my son might walk again. The surgery lasted six hours. Afterwards he told John that, realistically, he could not predict the final outcome. There was still a chance he would not walk, but this was his best hope.

John used the wheelchair for a year. If he went out, a friend would carry him down the apartment stairs on his back. He began cutting hair again as soon as he was able, while sitting on the arm of his sofa in his apartment.

John had a customer at the barber shop who had become a great friend and happened to be an excellent physical therapist. When he graduated to crutches, John began a year of weekly physical therapy. Success with this treatment would determine whether John would ever walk again. Without weekly hard work, the surgery would have been futile. John was determined, though pain was his constant companion. He began working at the barber shop again. At first, he could do only one haircut a day. That was the longest he could stand the pain. After several months, he was able to work part time, then eventually full time.

He did walk again, because being tough saved John's broken feet. He dedicated himself to physical therapy, he pushed himself to keep going in spite of the pain. His full recovery took eleven years. That was the first time he jogged like he used to. During that eleven years I often asked him how his feet were. He always said, “They hurt, but it’s ok.”

An Expensive Lesson

John’s accident was a very expensive lesson, but it paid him back with two invaluable dividends.

John on Nursing School Catalog

First, it exposed him to the pinnacle of medical care: he got to know the elite surgeon who pieced his heels back together. John was so inspired by that experience, his surgeon, and all those that cared for him, that he decided to change careers and he started nursing school three years after his accident at thirty-one. Inspired to be the best he could be, John was class president, graduated valedictorian, and was so helpful to others that his fellow students elected him winner of the Leadership Award. He didn’t stop there. He continued his education and became an acute care nurse practitioner, all the while working full time and helping me to pay for James’s care.

The second dividend that expensive lesson won is that nothing phases him now. He works in a high-pressure nursing environment, performing heart catheterizations and caring for post-operative cardiac patients. When people ask him how he remains calm when everyone else is so stressed, he says it’s because, compared to never walking again, nothing is a bad day.

And John was tough. He was used to hard lessons. As the oldest of six with an absent-while-present father, John had been saddled with too much responsibility too young. Unfortunately, that backfired.

Expensive Lessons Began Early

We heard the chains first. Metal hitting marble, the irregular rhythm echoed from the floor of the courthouse through the high, vaulted ceilings. John, Tim and I were waiting in straight-back old wooden chairs by ornately carved pillars in the Essex County Juvenile courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, surrounded by mothers. No fathers. The guard solemnly and unceremoniously swaggered by us and into the courtroom followed by a shockingly long line of teenage boys in orange jump suits with chains on their ankles and handcuffs on their wrists. It was a terrifying scene for a mother. We were waiting to be called so I sat with these mothers and my boys, trying not to stare. But I couldn’t help noticing that some of these mothers looked even tougher than their sons. Others looked frail and desperate. None of us looked confident or proud. Our shame or anger hung on us each informing our visage and disguising our natural beauty far more than makeup would have enhanced it, but we didn’t put it on to come to juvenile court that morning. We didn’t care to pretty up. Let the shame show. Let the anger seethe. Let the resolve build. These are our babies.

Every child in chains was once a sweet innocent wrapped in a blanket, held as if every other life in the world could be weighed against that one life. I know we all felt it. But we were not all up to the task. When there’s no money, there’s no excuse good enough to help a child stop wanting what other kids have.

Of course you deserve it. Of course you’re as good as they are. You just can’t have it because we just can’t give it to you. I would if I could. That Game Boy and much more.

I could see that all of us were in those shoes at the Essex County Juvenile Court that day. Broken women. Some responded with helplessness, like me, others with rage. My heart broke for all of them. I knew my son wouldn’t go to juvenile prison. I knew we had more of a chance to make it out of our tragic situation than they had. And we did.

John was charged with throwing rocks off the parking garage at Livingston Mall. Cars had been damaged; John was pointed out. Charges filed. But John was in Florida with my father at the time and it was really Tim that had been on that parking garage roof, not John. Mistaken identity, strong sibling resemblance and default assumption were all to blame. John was the bad one. He’d been in trouble before.

When he was called, all three of us went to stand before the judge. “Who do we have here?” The judge asked. “I only need to see John Strazza.”

“This is John Strazza,” I explained, presenting my oldest son. “But he was in Florida with his grandfather when this happened. This is my other son, Tim. He was on the roof that day, but he says he didn’t personally throw any rocks.”

The judge looked at me and my two sons and turned to the prosecutor. “What does the state want to do in this case?” “Dismiss,” the prosecutor said after a long pause. Then immediately, CARACK! The gavel hit suddenly, unexpectedly, as the judge declared, “Case dismissed!”

John, no doubt, deserved consequences he never suffered for his bad behavior out in the world, but he was my angel at home. He was brilliant, he could read on a first grade level when he entered kindergarten at not-quite-five, but that didn’t fit the cookie-cutter style of his education, so his achievements weren’t properly rewarded and encouraged in school. He had good grades, though, right through sixth grade. But when his father became depressed and things spiraled downward financially, John was on the frontlines of the battle for our family.

Too Much Too Soon

Music was John’s early saving grace, as it later was for James. His father taught him to play guitar when he was very small, then electric guitar. By the time John was 14 he was joining his father at the Feedbag in downtown Bloomfield – a dive bar with a room in the back for parties that had an open mic for musicians every Thursday night. John and his dad played the blues while other musicians accompanied on drums and bass. It was an amazing, magical thing to see father and son ripping away on blues guitar together, the smoky room full of admiring locals. “You gotta see this kid,” they’d say to each other. They’d come to the back room from the front of the bar and crowd around just to see John play. One night someone handed him a $20 bill. John needed the affirmation. His ego wasn’t a problem because he had such a hard life at home. This was medicine. It was great.

John took his big brother role seriously and I depended on him too much. He helped with everything except cooking—from changing diapers to doing laundry and putting out the trash. I was able to ask for his help because I could rely on him. But it was too heavy a burden for a teenager and it had consequences. He made fun of other kids and got into fights at school. It broke my heart but I didn’t know what to do. He started high school and they sent him to Anger Management there, but it failed. They called us in and asked us to take him to a therapist.

John’s face was beet red and he was fuming with rage when he came back to the car after the first session. “This is a big mistake,” he huffed. “I feel madder than ever.” I had to trust that she knew what she was doing so I brought him back the next week. The session ended the same way. The third time, however, he was calm. He was better. He seemed ok. I called her later and she said he didn’t need to come back if he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to, he never had, but she had gotten through to him with the message he needed at 15, so we stopped. We had no health insurance so it was just as well. Here is a piece of the wisdom she’d imparted to him:

“If your dad were in a wheelchair, would you be angry if he couldn’t do things with you, go to your baseball games, be the dad you need?” His answer was a quick and easy “Of course not.” “Well, depression is his wheelchair.” Keeping this in mind, his anger at his father, which he was taking out on the world, calmed down, and he calmed down.

One piece of advice which she had for me was to give him his own space in our tiny, crowded home. So together we built him a bedroom in a corner of the basement. He really seemed to like it. Our tiny three-bedroom, one bathroom home had three kids to a bedroom. One bedroom was so small that my husband had to build bunk beds into the space between the closet and the wall – it was too short for regular bunk beds. The crib went next to that and the three girls slept in there. John, Tim and little James had shared the other bedroom, but now John had his own room – which looked more like a fort. His anger was more controllable, and I didn’t get any more calls to go to Bloomfield High about his behavior. I learned years later, though, that he would sneak out of the basement window at night. He started smoking when he was pretty young, but I’d never seen it. He hung out with thugs and became a thug out there in the world, driving cars before he had a license, smoking and drinking. He joined a gang of sorts and tried drugs. I don’t have a lot of details because I’ve never asked for details. Our eventual eviction and move to another area may have been, unwittingly, exactly what John needed.

It was so difficult for me to see this mature young man in my home, holding the baby and helping with laundry, only to discover that he’s another kid out in the world. It broke my heart. He was my angel. He rescued me in an impossible situation. His help with the other kids and around the house was less than perfect, but, with his father lying on the couch depressed, it was the help that allowed me to get out the door each day for my very first job. Each day was a profound struggle. John made it more possible for all of us to survive that struggle.

I knew it was a heavy burden for a teenager, but he took it on willingly. He didn’t complain. He pitched in, donning the super-kid cape I needed him to wear. I believed in him and believed that he would outgrow the bad habits he was taking on out in the world. I used to put my hand on his chest and say, “I love your lungs, and I know how smart you are. I really believe that by the time you mature, say, 25 or something, you’ll wise up and stop smoking.” I did that kind of thing a lot: planted a message, showed my faith in him, my love for him. But if I ever found cigarettes in the house, I threw them out. A few short years later he told me he had cut back to hardly smoking at all. I knew that his message to me was, “FYI, I’m mature now. I’m not waiting till I’m 25.” The challenge of maturity being the trigger for quitting had resonated with him. He wanted to grow up. Take responsibility for his health in some small way. Cutting back was good – it made me very happy and I showed it.

John failed 10th grade. He’d been such a perfect student when he was little. Very eager to please. But he was teased when we moved from Connecticut farm country, where being a good boy was praised, to Bloomfield, New Jersey where nice guys finish last. He was picked on for no reason that I could tell, and he was only in second or third grade. But he figured something out. He started fighting. He discovered that if you hit someone who was teasing you, they’d stop teasing you. He became the bully.

I didn’t realize the extent of this until much later because I was so focused on my problems at home and finding a job. John became popular, the kids liked his pranks. The visits to the principal’s office and consequent detentions weren’t deterrents but badges of honor. It was in Bloomfield High that he really started misbehaving, and he failed the 10th grade. But we were struggling through the worst time of our lives, and it was difficult to do more than take him to the therapist and give him his own room.

The situation at home, which demanded too much of him, was not getting any better. His father still wasn’t helping at home and I still had dinner to cook and homework to help with when I got home from a long day of work at the factory, plus freelance on the weekends as well.

When we moved to Rockaway John had a fresh start. He made a lot of friends quickly and, using his natural talent, began cutting hair in our basement. Cutting hair was something he really liked to do, the work earned him a little money, and the strong social element was perfect for his big personality. Our house became a hangout.

Hard-Won Success

After repeating tenth grade, he was admitted to the Morris County Vocational and Technical School in Dover for his junior year, where he studied cosmetology three days a week. He had a goal: become a barber and officially cut men’s hair for a living. This move from the traditional classroom, where John was not doing well, to a demanding, technical school where he had a goal to aim for, changed everything for John. Bringing prior experience and skill, he could take pride in his accomplishments, and it really turned him around.

In his senior year, John earned straight As in both the traditional courses he was still taking and at Morris County Vo-Tech. He had two graduations, and it brought tears to my eyes to see him enthusiastically embraced afterwards by his teachers at both schools. He had been cutting hair for most of his male teachers, and he’d won just about everyone over with his humor and new, more relaxed attitude. He lived a true feel-good Hallmark TV movie transformation from angry, failing kid to well-adjusted success story.

He passed the cosmetology test on his first try and became a professional barber at a wonderful shop where the owner who took him under his wing, and treated him like a son, would later introduce him to the surgeon who saved him from a lifelong sentence in a wheelchair. It was an ideal ending to a childhood full of struggle for a brilliant boy with so much potential.

John Strazza, RN

John’s hard-won success in life was built on a foundation of struggle and expensive lessons. Through it all, he never lost his passion for being a nurturing big brother, and now he nurtures patients with that same high level of care.

Pushing Paid off, Unlike James

John got through his injury by pushing through pain. A lifetime of being tough was good preparation for it. By contrast, no amount of effort, perseverance, determination, or working through pain brought James to the other side of severe ME/CFS. Having watched me turn our lives around, the birthright of all my children is working hard, being tough , tolerating pain, and focused determination.

But it didn’t serve James. It made him worse and worse until he could no longer sit up or lift a fork.

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