Sunday, January 3, 2016

Grey's Anatomy: Disability Representation Series: 10x15 - Throwing It All Away

This episode of Grey's Anatomy is a favorite for me, in large part, because of these scenes with Arizona.  It's moments like these (two seasons after the plane crash and Arizona's amputation) that give me hope that her injury has not been forgotten about.

In the first 30-40 seconds of the first clip, we see that Arizona's prosthesis has fallen victim to her daughter's sippy cup full of juice.  

A couple of things stand out about this to me:  first, seeing adaptive equipment in a person's natural environment.  Arizona doesn't sleep with her prosthesis on anymore than I could sleep in my wheelchair.  At night, it (and my crutches) are beside my bed (just like Arizona's leg is beside hers.  

The second thing is Arizona, frustrated, telling Callie that she has told Sofia (their toddler) not to play with her leg.  Callie corrects Arizona.  At least in Callie's presence, Arizona has not yet told Sofia that her leg is not a toy.  I like this moment because it points to a very important aspect of having adaptive equipment around children: we want them to be comfortable around it, and not afraid of it, but we also want them to respect it, and to understand that we need it to move around.  I think it makes sense, given that Arizona is relatively new to her injury, that this conversation may not have come up yet.

The next 10 seconds of the clip, we notice that Callie has come into the bedroom with a box.  She, Arizona and Sofia have recently bought this new house and are still unpacking boxes.  Callie has stumbled upon Arizona's wheelie sneaks.  She asks Arizona what she wants them and Arizona says "trash."  She has no use for shoes with wheels anymore.  

I like that Callie asked what Arizona preferred she do with the shoes in this instance, and I like seeing the reality of the continued adjustment for Arizona, regarding what to keep from her former life, and what to let go of.

From :57 to 1:47, we see Arizona at work, talking to a little boy, Jared, about the surgery he'll need.  Jared is distracted by Arizona's prosthesis, which is visible under her scrubs.  Jared asks, "Are you a robot?"  Jared's mom is pretty mortified and reprimands him to have, "Manners!" but Arizona laughs and tells Jared that he has a "valid question."  She then explains, in simple terms, that she was injured and lost her leg, and got a new one.  Jared asks, "Can you jump super high?" And Arizona says "no" but when his mother isn't looking, she nods at Jared and mouths, "yes," and Jared is impressed.  

I love that children's curiosity and questions are addressed this way, as well.  Too often, kids innocent questions are shut down by mortified parents and kids grow up to be nervous around disabled people, or prone to ignoring us altogether - a side effect of being taught to ignore our disabilities.  I love that Arizona addresses Jared's question directly and honestly (and also with a little humor).  I often share the story of the moment my youngest brother surprised me with the question, "Why don't I have crutches like you?"  I responded with as much candor as Arizona, and my brother was able to accept this answer and move on.  

At 2:54, we see Stephanie and Jo, discovering an abandoned 9-month-old baby in a cardboard box outside the hospital.  It's Arizona who discovers the baby has surgical scars on his chest and they immediately begin to assess his cardiac health.  

I appreciate that this aspect is shown because its presence is a comment on how medically fragile babies (and by extension, disabled people) are at risk for abuse or abandonment.  We don't know why this baby was abandoned, but it's a safe guess that his medical needs played a role.  In an episode dedicated to the theme of discarding (things, people, and experiences) it's notable that this baby is abandoned like trash himself, and was only found by chance.

At 3:27, Arizona is struck by a gurney being pushed by Stephanie, and the fall breaks Arizona's prosthesis.  Stephanie is understandably shaken and sorry, but Arizona says it's okay, she has another in her car.  She has to wear her "old beater leg" until her other one is fixed, even though it chafes her.  
This is another great instance where just the existence of a scene and its content is such an important part of the commentary on disability issues.  Grey's doesn't give us a lecture on the fact that adaptive equipment is expensive and ridiculously difficult to obtain.  They show us that.  Arizona doesn't have 12 billion spare legs.  She has one spare in her car, probably, for an unforeseen event like this.  It's a spare because it stopped working for her and the 5 years, or however much time insurance tells her she has to wait before renewing adaptive equipment passed so she was allowed to get another, which was covered.  With her good leg injured, Arizona is forced to wear one that hurts her.  But, as she says, "it's better than nothing."  So, so true.  And I love that this scene exists to comment on these types of moments experienced by the disabled community.

Through :48 on the second video, we see Arizona and Cristina (who is my favorite character!  Yay!) doing a work up on the baby who was abandoned.  Arizona asks how the baby is doing and Cristina lets her know what she has found out regarding some of the medical procedures the baby has had done.  Arizona asks, "Have you cuddled him?  If I was left in a cardboard box, all I'd want is cuddling, right?"  Arizona picks up the baby and holds him.  Before she leaves, she hands the baby to Shane, who is nervous.  Cristina, though, says, "Take the baby.  She's right.  He should be cuddled.  You're not gonna hurt him."  

I love this scene because Arizona is so aware of the baby's emotional needs and not just as a set of symptoms.  And once she draws Cristina's attention to that fact, Cristina continues to make sure the baby's emotional needs are met (through Shane) once Arizona leaves.  I think it is no exaggeration to say that when she first lost her leg, Arizona felt worthless, but now that time has passed and Arizona's gotten her sense of self and confidence back she knows our worth does not lie in what we can physically do.  

This baby isn't out there contributing to society.  He's not going to the office of baby 9-month-olds from 9 to 5 and bringing home a paycheck.  That does not mean he doesn't need to be loved and held and accepted.  This seems obvious but there are still so many people out there that would sooner ignore the disabled population, say it's like their medically fragile baby died just because they are not perfect, or actually abuse and murder disabled people.  Those grave facts make it clear to me just how necessary and powerful it is to have a scene like this included in Grey's Anatomy - especially as doctors and surgeons themselves are typically very focused on fixing and healing and not necessarily on emotional needs.

At :50 to 2:20 we see Arizona and Callie with patient Alyssa Cramer, a preteen girl with Arthrogryposis, which is causing her severe pain.  She is in for another corrective surgery that might or might not have an impact on her pain.  Alyssa asks if she can have a double amputation instead of the scheduled surgery but her father is worried about disabling her.  Alyssa says, "Disable me?  I'm disabled now." Callie, who has worked on Alyssa for years, tries to convince her to go with the scheduled surgery but Arizona surprises them all when she says, "I'm not so sure."  Callie is upset that Arizona didn't back her up and says it's like Arizona wants Callie to "throw away" three years of hard work on Alyssa by agreeing to an amputation. 

What I love about this scene is the fact that we see Alyssa speaking for herself about what she's experiencing.  Her dad fears the stigma she'll face if she gets the double amputation, seeing the surgery as taking something away from his daughter, instead of realizing what she'll gain from a life largely free of pain and aided by prostheses, should she choose to wear them.  It's really notable that Arizona can see what Alyssa might gain from amputation, and it says a lot about her own healing that she is able to recognize how the surgery will help Alyssa instead of seeing it as someone "giving up" on Alyssa, or seeing Alyssa as less than whole.

From 2:21 to 3:13 we see Arizona seated on a couch with her prosthesis beside her, while Miranda helps bandage another of Arizona's blisters from her beater leg.  Alex comes in to pitch an idea for little Jared, to cut down on the invasiveness of his surgery and the length of his recovery.  Alex is midway through his explanation when he realizes Arizona is without her prosthesis, and instantly turns around and says, "I never see you like that!"  Once he leaves, Miranda smiles and says that Alex "came off his hinges" when he saw Arizona without her leg.  Arizona then says "There are two kinds of looks that you get: Without the leg on, they feel sorry for you, and with the leg on they think you're amazing and brave or...a robot..."  

She's not wrong.  The same thing goes with other adaptive equipment. Without it (and even sometimes with it) I get pity, and if I am out in public, I'm doing "such a good job."  I like these moments because they make me feel so much less alone.

And finally, from 3:13 to 4:33 we get this amazing conversation between Alyssa's dad and Arizona.  He asks if Arizona has kids and when she says she does he asks how she could recommend a double amputation.  He worries about kids making fun of Alyssa if she is "crippled" and Arizona interjects to correct him by saying "disabled."  He asks how she could do that and Arizona wordlessly pulls up her scrubs a few inches revealing her prosthesis.  Alyssa's dad is stunned and asked how long Arizona's had it.  She says she's had it since before they met, and he says he never noticed.  Arizona says simply, "Why would you?"  She shares about her fears from early on in her recovery - that she wouldn't be able to care for her daughter, or work, and that now there are "very few things I can't do."  
This scene is so full of goodness:  Arizona correcting Herb's ableist language.  Arizona choosing to reveal her own medical history because she knows it will help Alyssa if her dad understands that a double amputation won't limit her daughter nearly as much as being bedridden and in pain all the time.  I love that Arizona tells him she had fears early on, but she adapted, and is now able to do many of the things she did before.  She shows him his ableist ideas are wrong and harmful, and he is able to maybe come around and understand that amputation is for the best in this case.

From :22 to :57, Callie confronts Arizona about telling Alyssa's dad amputation is the right call.  She is so invested in doing the originally planned surgery, Callie cannot consider doing an amputation on Alyssa.  Even when Arizona points out that Callie has done palliative amputations before, Callie says they were on a soldier - a grown man - not a child she has been trying to help for three years.  Arizona says that she thinks Callie might be afraid to amputate in this case and that it might be Arizona's own fault (due to Arizona believing that Callie was the one to amputate her leg, which has caused many problems between them.)

This scene is interesting because it shows us that the trauma of the accident that caused Arizona to need an amputation didn't stop at Arizona.  It extends to Callie, too.  Living with Arizona post-injury and dealing with Arizona's anger for months has changed Callie and made her want to fight even harder for people to retain their intact bodies.  I love, though, how Arizona gently starts to challenge that notion.  Given that Arizona's pretty far along in her own healing process and in finding her identity now as a disabled woman, it's great that she's able to caution Callie that she is too close to this and is letting her emotions take over her judgment.

From 3:18 to 4:40 we see that the Cramer's have asked to see Arizona.  Herb needs to hear again that Arizona thinks amputation is the right call.  She begins to explain, and Callie jumps in...and agrees with Arizona, having realized that more surgery would likely mean more pain for the rest of Alyssa's life.  Herb says, "She'll never run?  I'll never walk her down the aisle?" and Callie says (brilliantly) "Not unless we amputate."  Herb agrees and asks them to schedule an amputation.  He wants her pain to stop today.  Alyssa hugs him and thanks him.  

I love this storyline because it challenges the notion that a person needs a whole body (or a working body) to be happy.  What we need are people who listen to what works for us, and adaptive equipment that will help us live the lives we want to live.

Through 1:53 of this next video, we see the ongoing storyline involving one of the residents, Leah, having lodged a formal complaint.  Arizona has assumed the complaint was against her (since Arizona cheated on Callie with Leah but now is back together with Callie.)  It turns out, though, that Leah's complaint is actually against Callie, who, as Leah points out, "chose not to teach me in a moment which put a patient's life in danger."  Arizona takes this to heart and during Alyssa's amputation, Arizona puts aside her and Leah's personal history and teaches Leah, encouraging her to watch because Arizona is going to have Leah do the other leg herself.  

I continue to be struck by just where Arizona must be in her own healing process to be able to perform the very surgery that she so resented for so long.  I think it shows that she has come really far in how she views herself and also what was done to save her life.  She's moved through her grief and her anger.  I also appreciate that she can take a note.  When Leah points out that Arizona and Callie chose not to teach her, Arizona steps up and makes a point to do just that.  She keeps it professional and does her job as lead surgeon at a teaching hospital.  She doesn't let her emotions lead, she makes sure Alyssa is taken care of, and she also  teaches Leah.

At 1:56, we see Cristina coming into the attending's lounge to update Arizona on the baby (whom Cristina has crassly named "Oscar" because he was found in the trash.)  Arizona is bandaging her blisters again.  When Cristina notices, Arizona says, "Bad leg day," and Cristina, not missing a beat, comes over, sits down heavily beside Arizona, props her feet up on the table and says, "Me, too."

I love this moment because, first of all, Cristina does not flinch at Arizona without her prosthesis, as Alex did earlier.  She was in the plane crash, too, and is well aware of the extent of Arizona's injuries so they do not faze her.  I also love that Cristina doesn't fall all over herself or become awkward when Arizona mentions she's in pain related to her injury, Cristina simply says, "Me, too."  She isn't super self conscious about it.  I always appreciate a lack of fear and/or awkwardness.  To me, it indicates a level of acceptance that isn't really matched by any of the other surgeons so far.  (Though, to be fair, Cristina is the only one who was stranded in the woods with Arizona.  The others - Miranda, Alex, Callie, etc - don't have that insight.)

Next, Cristina asks if Arizona still dreams about the plane crash.  Arizona says she does, especially when she's anxious.  She says she dreams of their coworkers, who were also trapped with them, and the pilot.  Cristina admits that she dreams about Arizona screaming - says she wouldn't stop screaming - and sarcastically but gently thanks her for that.  They hold hands briefly and Arizona says "Good job today" treating the baby.  Cristina says he is a lucky kid.

I love this brief moment of connection because we actually rarely see Cristina's guard down in this manner and I wonder if Arizona being in a more vulnerable state (without her prosthesis) brings this out of Cristina?  They are tender, asking after each other, knowing the trauma of the crash was equally devastating psychologically, if not more than physically.  Cristina, who is typically quite guarded and sharp is softer here.  I love seeing that, and I love how honest they are with each other about how the crash still impacts them today.

Through :45 in the final clip above, we see Callie, home and frustrated, after a difficult day at work.  What strikes me the most is that in her list of things that made her day terrible, Callie says that she "failed a patient."  She still sees Alyssa needing a double amputation as a failure, because her treatment option as the orthopedic surgeon didn't work.  We also hear Callie address Arizona's cheating with Leah and how she keeps thinking she and Arizona are okay now, that they've bought a house and are moving forward, but now she's dealing with some of the fallout borne of Arizona cheating on her and Callie is not sure they will ever be okay again.

This perspective is interesting because it is so layered.  Callie and Arizona look at the same patient and come to the same conclusion ultimately but Callie sees it as a failure, likely because she feels she has failed Arizona, also, in making the call to amputate Arizona's leg.  Life is messy.  Relationships are not cut and dried, and when one person goes through something so traumatic and the other is left in limbo waiting?  That's a trauma, too, and we can see that it has affected Callie.  Even though, as Arizona has said, she wasn't on the plane, almost losing Arizona left its mark on Callie.  They are coming from such opposite places with regard to this and that is a difficult thing when it's someone you love.  I like that they don't shy away from showing that here.

At :45, Arizona says that for over a year she has been thinking only about herself and Callie snaps that she shouldn't apologize one more time because it's getting very hard to keep forgiving her.  Arizona talks about how she had to figure out how to be herself again and who she is now.  She talks about how she was previously a naturally happy person who used to skate at work, and then the accident happened and "everything was hard.  Everything took thought and planning."  Arizona says she wanted to tear down who she was, throw it all away and start again.  That she is starting to have a sense of who she is now.  She has realized she doesn't need much to be happy but who she does need is Callie and Sofia.  But Arizona is afraid that she's realized all of this too late and therefore has made Callie give up on her.  Callie turns and walks out of the room, causing Arizona to break down in tears.  

I appreciate this part of the scene so much because it's been a long time coming.  Arizona has done a lot of rebuilding and a lot of soul-searching.  But more than that, she has made mistakes.  I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the fact that Arizona, while disabled, is still portrayed as fallible.  She hasn't become a perfect, innocent angel due to her amputation and she hasn't become a monster because of it either.  She's human.  She makes mistakes.  She hurts the people she loves.  I cannot tell you the amount of media I see out there where the disabled character is either can do no wrong, or is disabled because they are bad, or they become bad and bitter once they are disabled.  All of these are portrayals that dehumanize disabled people.  They do us no favors.  That's why I appreciate so much that Arizona retains her humanness.  I also love that she addresses the process she had to go through adjusting to certain aspects of being disabled - lacking spontaneity - etc. which is something many disabled people (myself included) can attest to.  Arizona's fear of Callie "giving up on her" has been prevalent since after the crash.  However, early on, Arizona felt that Callie would be "giving up on her" if she let them amputate Arizona's leg.  Now, she is afraid Callie will leave her.  And in this moment, it appears she has.

At 2:16, though, Callie walks back into the bedroom, with Arizona's wheelie sneaks, still in their box.  Callie hasn't thrown them away after all. She kneels at Arizona's feet and, softly, honestly tells Arizona, "You shouldn't have to give up anything," while sliding the shoes on her feet.  Then, we see Arizona skating on the sidewalk in the dark, in front of their house, Callie supporting her.  They are both laughing.

This is such a lovely moment of acceptance, forgiveness and love.  I found myself thinking, too, that Callie knows what it's like to have to redefine who you are after an injury.  It's only been a couple of years at this point, since a car accident caused Callie to suffer (among other things) a traumatic brain injury.  While not the same thing, Callie knows what it's like to fight your way back from something like that.  She knows how, in the heat of the moment, you may lash out, hurting those closest to you out of frustration.  She knows, too, that Arizona never gave up on her.  So, without patronizing or pitying, Callie ministers to her wife, and yes, there is something almost reverent about it.  It's so powerful watching these two women supporting each other so that Arizona can hang onto a piece of her previous self that made her so truly happy.

This is such an excellent episode and has so very much depth and really important aspects of disability and positive representation that are rarely seen.  It might be one of my favorite episodes of Grey's ever, for disability representation.  (I know you couldn't guess by the 4,000-word-long epic blog post dedicated to it.)


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  1. Wow, great review! I need to watch this! I too noticed the tendency for disabled characters to be either angry or perfect. I can tell you as a disabled person I am neither and I have made mountains of mistakes and ruined friendships in the process. Certainly not something I am proud of but I want more disabled people portrayed as the flawed humans we are.

    1. Oh, I hope you do watch it. I've reviewed a couple other episodes of Grey's for disability representation (I know 12x04 has a blog post dedicated to it and so does a later season 12 episode.) While not perfect, Grey's does have some really incredible episodes / moments of disability representation.