Fragile bones, thick skin — 3 steps from comedy to emergency

     Greenfield Library at the University of the Arts where Scott Clifford researched Roman History and suffered a brutal accident. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Greenfield Library at the University of the Arts where Scott Clifford researched Roman History and suffered a brutal accident. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    The carpet met with my skin like coarse sand paper as I stared at a bunch of pretzel crumbs in front of me. Blood leaked out of my nose. Yeah, I was going to fail this semester, there was no way around it.

    The carpet met with my skin like coarse sand paper as I stared at a bunch of pretzel crumbs in front of me. I wondered if any of my teeth were hiding in that pile as blood leaked out of my nose. Yeah, I was going to fail this semester, there was no way around it.

    It was my junior year of college at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Finals were taking over the lives of every student. Illustrators were illustrating, musicians were practicing, dancers were dancing, filmmakers were editing, and I was laying face down on the floor of the university’s library.

    I have a rare genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). It causes defective collagen to be made for my entire skeleton, severely weakening the structural integrity of my bones. This condition is classified into many types, depending on the symptoms and severity. I have Type III. It’s not the most severe, but it causes me to be physically confined to a wheelchair, and I have to be very careful to avoid injury.

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    Falling down stairs for me is like poking a grizzly bear in a cave and wondering why it’s eating you. It’s the opposite of being careful.

    The fall of Rome

    My thesis film was at a standstill, because my lead actor had dropped out of the production. And I had five other classes to deal with — one of which was Roman history. My teacher would, as she put it, “wax poetic” about the role of women in Roman society, military tactics of famous generals, and how the prevalence of sexual deviancy in Roman society was overstated by Christian propagandists in order to gain followers. My final assignment was a group project with three classmates that involved — not Roman sexual deviancy, sadly — but Roman slavery, a subject that I had failed to study until now.

    After two sleepless nights, I met my classmates at the library to discuss the project. I checked the time on my cell phone and noticed a man staring at me from behind the counter. The light reflecting from his bald head had caught my eye. Many people look at me funny when they first meet me. They see the wheelchair, the curved limbs, the barrel chest, the short stature, the pale complexion, the amazing hair — and they wonder how I exist. I didn’t go to the library often, but he’d been working there since I was a freshman. What was his problem?

    That’s when things tilted to the side and I realized that he had a front row seat to an epic disaster. The perspective change was like a shot set up in one of my movies. The wheelchair tilted forward until the front wheels couldn’t hold, and it tumbled down three … five … steps. Who’s counting? My seat belt held me in place, and when I landed, the weight from the wheelchair bore down on me. I released the belt so I could lie flat on my stomach. Adrenaline coursed through my veins as everyone looked at me.

    Yes, this just happened. Yes, someone already called 911.

    My right arm took most of the fall. It felt fine — as long as I didn’t move it. My legs felt as if they were stabbed from the inside. That’s not an exaggeration. I had metal rods grafted to my femurs and my spine to keep my bones from curving as I grew.

    I sure could have used Wolverine’s mutant healing ability at this point, but all I had was the metal skeleton. The good news was that those rods kept my legs from shattering. Unfortunately the rods had moved around during the fall, making movement difficult and causing muscle spasms, my body’s attempt to keep things together as the adrenaline wore off.

    One of my study group partners rushed down to help me. He moved my wheelchair out of the way and assured me there were no broken teeth among the pretzel crumbs.

    The next thing was to make the dreaded phone call to my parents. By this time in my life, I knew how to handle it. I had to be polite but blunt — to the point that an outsider might think I were joking or being apathetic.

    My dad answered.

    “Hey, Scott!”

    “Hi, Dad. Taking the day off, I see?

    “Yeah, man. I have to use my vacation days before AT&T takes them away. What’s up?”

    “That’s cool. Listen, I fell down some stairs at the library. I broke both of my legs and probably my right arm as well. You should probably meet me in the hospital.”

    Questions, questions

    The ambulance driver did his best to keep the ride smooth on Philadelphia’s pock-marked streets. In the back, with the EMT, I started answering the repetitious questions I would endure from everyone I met for the rest of the day. He tightened my straps and checking his cell phone for the Phillies score.

    “How did this happen again?”

    “I was looking at my phone and fell down the stairs at the library.”

    “How many stairs?”

    “Three stairs. Three BIG stairs.”

    “Why would you do that?”

    At the hospital — a children’s hospital better equipped to deal with people in my condition than others in the area, even though I had 23 years and a five o’clock shadow — a nurse with a heart necklace scribbled notes on her clipboard.

    “Do you do any stunts?”


    “A lot of wheelchair kids come in here because they think they can do stunts.”

    “I don’t do stunts.”


    In the room where I was to stay overnight, the gray floor bled into the gray walls, which bled into the gray door, which opened to reveal my decidedly more colorful parents. They were dressed for a dinner party, not a hospital visit. My younger brother strolled in behind them to hide in a corner of the room.

    They made me to explain what happened — details that had not changed since I last told them on the phone. Recounting the story yet again might have made them feel better, but it didn’t change anything.

    My parents helped manipulate my limbs to get the best shot possible with the least amount of pain in the X-ray room. Patients waited in single file behind me, begging for pain medication.

    Hours later, the results came in. They were amazingly inconclusive. The doctors theorized that I had suffered from multiple micro-fractures all over my body, an unsurprising phenomenon for me and people with OI. These micro-fractures could hurt as much as a normal injury. An MRI could reveal more, but tempting fate by introducing the metal rods in my legs and spine to a powerful magnet was a bad idea. The only thing to do was secure my injuries with splints and wait for my body to heal itself.

    Recovery and reminiscence

    It would be a month before I could move around again. I would have to finish my junior thesis film over the summer — with a little help from my friends. The film wasn’t great, because it was rushed. I would also have to write a 10-page report about Roman slavery in order to pass that class. This I finished with the help of “Gladiator” and the HBO series “Rome.” I got an A, though don’t ask me how.

    I’m a graduate now. I still visit my university and its library. There is no awkwardness when I sit in the worn furniture, no anxiety when I see that staircase. Just a nod between the bald man and myself as I converse with my friends. It’s as if nothing ever happened here.

    Many people ask me if the cumulative effect of my injuries affect my psyche? What happens when my parents are gone and I can’t afford health insurance because of my unique condition? Am I scared? The answer is yes and no.

    I know that I have to take more risks than the average person in order to keep up with society. I know that even most of my friends who don’t have my condition are having a rough time right now. No one my age is getting a decent job no matter what his or her major is. The world is changing, and the young are being left behind. On top of all of this, I have a rare genetic condition that tilts the odds against me. If there is one thing I am truly scared of, it’s the possibility that it was all for nothing. I’m paying my dues and then some. Isn’t that enough?

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