By Jhassel Arellanes, LPC
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes, 17 seconds
Every boy has heroes. Growing up, I found mine on TV and in comic books, but what I didn’t realize then was that my biggest hero was an arm’s length away.
I was born on an October afternoon, and my mother says that I was much anticipated. She suffered no pain during labor, and after giving birth, the doctor released her two hours later.
I grew up in Mexico, in a place where it is often above 100 degrees, with high humidity.
The first two months of my life were normal. I have no recollection of the following events because I was only a few months old, but my mother shared this tale with my brother and me.
One hot afternoon, while Momma was doing hand laundry with one of her friends in our back yard and I was in a playpen with the friend’s 4-year- old child, Samantha, a dog quietly snuck under the backyard fence and began biting Samantha and pulling at her clothes. My mother and her friend ran over and hit the dog with a stick, but it kept on biting Samantha, and then it turned on me. It was only after the dog ran away that they noticed Samantha was unusually quiet.
When we were brought to the hospital, the doctors said Samantha had lost too much blood, and that we didn’t get there quickly enough. Sadly, Samantha died from the dog attack; I survived but was in serious condition. My Momma, whose first child had undergone 17 surgeries for cysts in his brain, was devastated that I was hospitalized with internal bleeding and multiple lacerations. Nevertheless, she endured.
The doctors told her, “Your child won’t last more than a month.” But she had faith and prayed to God for a miracle. After a month, the doctors said that I would live only two more months. My mother laughed at them and said that they were already proven wrong because I had survived past the first month. But, she did seek a second opinion at a different hospital.
After surgery at the new hospital, the doctors gave this prognosis: I would live only three more months. Doctors’ orders were to take me home for a better quality of life. Momma occasionally brought me back to the hospital to check my brain because I had developed encephalitis and other illnesses that affected my spine.
After a year, my mother refused to listen to doctors anymore and did not treat me with palliative care.
By my second birthday, I started to show signs that I could crawl, and then stand. Maybe I was thanking my mother for her faith in me. And although it did bring a smile to her face, she immediately took me back to the hospital to ask the doctors how that was even possible. She was told that my spine had returned to its normal state and that I could recover about 20 percent of the strength in my legs, provided I received corrective therapy, which I did get.
By age 3, I was able to stand with both my feet, holding on to the nearest wall. I had a wheelchair, which was soon replaced by crutches, and then orthopedic shoes.
The shoes were odd: gigantic and black, with clips on the sides, and straps that led to a thick, gritty belt. There was a trick to putting them on, twisting each shoe inward. In theory, my legs would go from looking like bent straws to holding me up. Of course, I would still have to use crutches to keep steady.
Those shoes came with a warning: I should never walk or stand by myself. So, I became dependent on them, and believe me, I got a lot of looks and poor treatment from people on the streets.
One summer day, the temperature was so high it was like Armageddon outside, but it was nicer than being inside because we did not have air conditioning. My mother had gone out and left my 11-year-old brother to look after me. Shortly after she walked out the door, my brother said, “Don’t go out. Don’t open the door for anyone. There’s cold water in the fridge. You’re going to be okay,” and then he went out to play street soccer with friends – what kids in Mexico do well in any weather! My brother was popular in our neighborhood and skillful with the ball and his feet. He was the one I loved to follow.
The heat in my house was absurd. My lips were chapped, and the weight and metal of my shoes had steamed my toes better than any slow cooker. It felt as if my feet were melting, and eventually, the rest of me would follow. So I decided to do what I had never done as a child: I went outside alone.
By the time I got to the middle of the street, I was almost on the ground because in order to walk I had to force my body to lean forward. Still, I loved the sun on my face and the ground under my feet, and I thanked God I wasn’t in that steamy kitchen anymore.
My brother saw me and said “You’re crazy if you think I’m going to let you play. Momma will kill me, and when she’s done with me, she’ll kill you.” After a few minutes of begging (and agreeing to trade one of my favorite action figures), he caved. His condition was that I stay near the goal, but do nothing to stop the ball or the kid with the ball. I was to be like a statue — with a hat and big shoes…and straps.
But being out in the street with my brother and the other kids was much better than watching them play from the kitchen window. As time passed, the temperature rose, and so did my love for the game. Then, a kid came along and kicked the ball hard and it hit my stomach. My brother pushed him and yelled, “Go easy on him, he’s sick and can’t move well.” The boy replied, “If he’s going to be here and play with us, he’s going to be treated the same.”
So, my brother dragged me for a few feet down the street and said I had to go back home, but I begged him, “Let me play!” He looked down at me as if I were a puppy, said nothing, then released my arm, and the game played on. Over the next few days, every time my brother went out to play, I followed, and he said nothing. It was our secret as brothers to keep from mother.
A few weeks later I went out, but that time was different. There were many more kids and some were left out when the teams were picked. I stayed on my brother’s team because being the goalie wasn’t the most popular position anyway. Three minutes into the game, our team was dying. The kid who kept teasing me and shooting the ball toward my stomach was a good player. Every time he scored he’d mock the way I walked. My brother pushed him harder than normal as they ran toward the ball, but the kid was bigger than my brother. The other team continued to thrash us, and I became furious. About seven balls got passed me that day, and that big kid was rushing past the defense and shooting right to my stomach. He didn’t care if he scored or not; he just shot as hard as he could.
At one point, the kid pushed my brother to the ground, pretending that he’d shoot hard from close range. That’s when I reached my boiling point! I took a step forward and kicked the ball as hard as I possibly could. My celebration was immediate. I knew what it felt like to defend! But then, I looked down and my hopes crashed.
I forgot about my orthopedic shoes, and the metallic clip on the side had cut right into the side of the big kid’s foot; there was lots of blood. Now kids in my country often played soccer barefooted, so the boy’s foot was pretty torn up. My brother rushed me back to the house to clean off the blood. He did the best he could, but it wasn’t enough to escape my mother’s eye. She immediately took me to the clinic, hoping that the blood would not rust the metal of my shoe.
The doctor tried to keep my mother calm as she ratted me out about playing soccer. The doctor then lifted me up on a table, stripped me of my metal armor, and then stared at me. He was frighteningly quiet. I started to pray, and then my mother interrupted and asked if the shoes were reparable. He ignored her question and brought me down from the table only to make a strange request. He said, “I want you to stand on one foot.” I’m not sure what was funnier: his request or the look on my face. Then he said, “Now, stand with your other foot. Go on.” The moment I realized the floor was cold, it hit me – I was standing without those shoes. I was so stunned that I couldn’t talk. The doctor said to my mother: “Your kid is fine now, Maria. He can stand on his own. You can throw those shoes away.”
The doctor explained that since I was no longer standing and holding onto something, my shoes worked on my muscles, which got stronger when I was in the goalie position. My mother cried and I was relieved that she wasn’t upset. After we got home, she sat me down and said, “They told me you’d only last for a few months. Then, they told me you would never be able to stand; walking was out of the question.
“Never let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do Jhassel.” My mother’s words burned into my mind, and since then they have kept me going.
My love for soccer and playing alongside my brother was, in fact, the key to my unexpected recovery. To this day, it’s something I remember every time I kick a ball.
In my lifetime, I’ve only met a handful of people who I consider heroes; my mother is one of them. Her strength, will, and resilient spirit continues to inspire me every today. She was the reason I left a hospital bed, a wheelchair, crutches, and special shoes behind and walked into life. Everyone has a hero. This is the story of mine.
By Eric Greenleaf, PhD
I met Jhassel in Puebla, Mexico, when I was presenting a workshop that he helped translate. He is tall, lean, and strong, and we hiked up a steep ancient pyramid to a church where we could see the surrounding city, mountains, and volcanoes. We swapped life stories up and down that trail.
Jhassel’s life proves, just as Erickson’s did, that resilience and inventiveness feed discovery. And, just like Erickson’s, Jhassel’s strong, supportive family aided in his recovery.
Erickson once said of himself, when asked how he helped top athletes perform under pressure, “I win gold medals every day.” I think Jhassel Arellanes deserves a gold medal!
This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 37, No. 2 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter.