The Conversation Starter

Over the years, as I’ve gone out and about with various assistive devices, I’ve had plenty of looks tossed my way by strangers. The feeling behind these expressions seems to vary depending on the device. My tinted glasses draw a fair bit of scorn, my mobility scooter raises buckets full of compassion, and my walker always seems to create a mixture of confusion and pity.

I’m fairly used to the looks, but I’m not immune to them. They still remind me that I come across as different, as ‘other’.

My neck brace, however, draws a lot more than looks, or the occasional hushed question.

My neck brace seems to bridge normal social conventions. My neck brace is so titillating that it simply can’t be ignored.

I can’t wear it anywhere without being asked about it.

‘What happened?’

‘What’d you do?’

‘Did you fall off the roof?’

‘Is it a funny or sad story?’

‘Sports injury?’

‘Does it hurt?’

I also get comments about everything from how uncomfortable it looks to the teal colour.

Generally, these questions and comments are a quick back and forth. An offhand query followed by a pat answer as we move through each others lives so quickly that we remain complete strangers.

But since my surgery, something new has started to happen.

I’ve been able to go out on my own.

Before the surgery, I simply wasn’t well enough. There was always a risk that I could have an episode and be unable to carry my purse, unable to walk, unable to communicate.

Now, however, I feel strong, capable, and adventurous.

I’ve started to use uber to get around the city - a taxi-like transportation service.

As a result, I’ve been spending a fair bit of time in a vehicle, alone with another human being.

It’s a pretty rare set up. If you think about it, there aren’t many opportunities to genuinely converse with a complete stranger beyond basic pleasantries.

A car ride is unique. The space is relatively intimate, and there’s no where to rush off to, no real distractions.

Of course, there are times when nothing is said beyond an address, and a thank you at the end, but I’m finding that an extremely rare occurrence - especially if I’m travelling alone.

I still have to wear my neck brace in the car. And even drivers who are completely silent for the first little while seem incapable of denying their curiosity for long.

Every ride I’ve taken so far has included a question about the brace. And a follow up question. And another. And then a conversation.

It’s been fascinating.

One driver turned out to be a surgical resident. He knew all about my condition- Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. We talked a lot about the health care system, the pros and cons of different models and the need for multi-disciplinary approaches to complex conditions.

I spent another car ride answering questions about the onset and cause of my symptoms, explaining the concept of genetic disorders. The driver appeared surprised and discomfited as he acknowledged that being healthy was influenced by factors other than eating well and exercising. That our bodies are not entirely within our control.

In the unique setting of a car ride, once some sort of dialogue is started, it tends to spiral. What starts with a question about my neck brace can move on to all sorts of different subjects. It can lead to talk of family and friends, talk of future goals, talk of travel, and so much more.

After all, that’s the way a conversation works. Two people sharing. One thought prompting another.

The people who have driven me around the city have learned a fair bit about me. And I’ve learned a fair bit about them.

When I was first told that I’d have to continue wearing my neck brace whenever I travelled, I wasn’t overly impressed. The brace is a rather large item to cart around every time I leave my apartment. Where would I put it when I arrived at my destination?

But as annoying as it is, I’m no longer sorry that I have to wear it.

Because I put the brace on and get into a car with a stranger.

And when I get out of the car, we aren’t strangers anymore.