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The Joys and Pains of Monkey Business

November 22, 2017

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, November 22, 2017

One thing leads to another. Recent events in our family have reminded me of this basic truth.

Son Adam, now 8, and daughter Zoe, 11, have become big fans of the American Ninja Warrior television series. We don’t even have television service at our home and the Smart TV, which is oxymoronic in my opinion, is only on for weekend family movies. Still, they are hooked on a series that they have watched – maybe – a half-dozen times, mostly when visiting their grandparents.

On the show, contestants attempt to navigate a timed course of zany obstacles bearing names such as Salmon Ladder, Helix Hang and Floating Monkey Bars. The obstacles are suspended above a pool of water and most contestants end up wet when they lose their grip and come crashing down. Those who successfully complete the course within the allotted time advance to the next round, with hopes of reaching the finals in Las Vegas where the champion takes home a $1,000,000 prize.

Inspired by the high-level of athleticism demonstrated on the show, Zoe and Adam have been constructing American Ninja Warrior courses in our unfinished basement. In one configuration, Adam ascends one slippery, vertical, seven-foot, metal support post, grabs hold of the main horizontal, load bearing beam, one hand on each side, and swings back and forth, inching his way forward to the next metal support pole and back to the floor. A gymnastics mat is placed under this part of the course to protect falling contestants.

A low-profile, practice, balance beam, mini-trampoline, old couches, exercise equipment and lots of imagination are the remaining ingredients used by Zoe and Adam to create, test and recreate increasingly challenging courses.

But there is always room for improvement, and so when our young ninjas asked if I could build money bars along the ceiling of the basement, I figured there’s no harm in that. And so, for a total of $18 we purchased five 4’ lengths of 1” dowel rods and twenty hanging, metal brackets. Together we cut the dowels in half, used the screw gun to mount the brackets on the exposed ceiling joists, slipped the dowels in place, and then screwed the dowels to the ceiling for extra security.

Standing on the arm of the couch each took turns grabbing the first bar and swinging to the next. Within a week or two each was swinging all ten rungs across the basement, and back, mats and an old mattress lining the floor to protect from falls.

All the gripping and swinging produced not just callouses on Zoe’s and Adam’s hands, but tears in the skin too. We took care to clean and treat the wounds, and at our insistence, Zoe took a break so her hands could heal, Adam – not so much.

A few weeks later, Adam sprained a finger when he slipped and fell during an unrelated outdoor adventure, with his buddy Jasper and I. That evening we iced his hand a few times and all seemed well. The swelling returned the next day, and the next, so we took him to an orthopedic clinic to rule out a fracture. With a negative x-ray, significant swelling, absence of fever, and minimal pain, his condition was a bit of a mystery.

By the next evening his hand looked worse, with additional swelling and discoloration, so we promptly went to the local emergency room. Two hours later we were transferred to the regional trauma center where specialized care awaited.

A long night of visits by multiple care providers, tests and intravenous antibiotics ensued. By 4:00 a.m. we were moved from the emergency room to the pediatric wing. Adam was evaluated by an orthopedic doctor at 6:00 a.m. and a hand surgeon an hour later.

Early Sunday morning, my wife Lori at his side, Adam was wheeled away to be prepped for surgery. A 90-minute procedure followed during which a series of incisions on his left hand and right middle finger allowed for removal and drainage of pockets of raging infection.

By Tuesday afternoon, Adam – along with his exhausted parents, and concerned sister – were more than delighted that he was home. With two wrapped hands, daily cleaning and changing of bandages, three doses per day of atrocious tasting antibiotics, dependence on others for managing basic functions, limited activity, and weeks of healing ahead, Adam is showing progress each day and full recovery is expected.

Our best understanding is that two strands of basic, everyday bacteria entered his body through the monkey bar tears on his hands and festered unnoticed for some time, and that the fall and finger sprain coincidentally brought attention to the hidden infection.

The ordeal has been challenging – overwhelming and frightening at times – for all of us. Yet we feel so fortunate that Adam’s prognosis is great and the situation was not worse. We feel tremendous gratitude for access to excellent health care services and the wonderful support of neighbors and friends. And most of all, we – Adam, Zoe, Lori and I – relish the heightened tenderness we feel for each other in the wake of this intense and difficult experience.

As for the monkey bars and ninja course, we will be making upgrades, including fitted grip gloves to protect competitors’ hands. And with the pending medical bills, I hope one – or both – of them make it to the Vegas finals, because the million-dollar prize could come in handy.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website fatherhoodjourney.com.

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