Jeanette Lee was diagnosed with scoliosis at 12; she has undergone more than 10 neck and back surgeries
At 18, she discovered pool and says it "healed her"
She became a pro pool player at 21 and a world champion at 23
Editor’s Note: Jeanette Lee is a world champion pool player, mother of six, business woman and philanthropist. Diagnosed with scoliosis at 12, she has undergone more than 10 neck and back surgeries. Most people don’t know that Jeanette lives in constant pain. Yet she refuses to give in. The opinions in this article are solely those of the author.
At 12 years old, my life changed when I was diagnosed with scoliosis.
I was told that my back was crooked, and my doctor was going to straighten it. It seemed pretty simple. Two days later, I went into surgery and woke up in a living hell. Implanted in my back were two 18-inch Harrington rods.
I was in excruciating pain. I felt as if I was being burned alive from the inside out. Through tears, I looked to my mom for comfort. I wanted to scream but couldn’t. Under the influence of heavy pain medications, moans were the only sounds I could muster. No one told me the surgery was going to hurt, and I was not prepared.
After the surgery, I was left with a long bloody Frankenstein scar down the center of my back.
In the hospital, I was suited in an enormous heavy cast and with severe pain I was forced to sit up. Several times a day I was lifted up and made to walk.
For a while, I could only make it from the bed to the door. Eventually I was fitted for a plastic brace that went from the base of my neck to my pelvic bone. It was rigid and contained Velcro straps that were fastened by metal rungs. I hated it. I felt like a monster.
My confidence was shattered, and I felt as if there wasn’t anyone I could talk to.
It didn’t help that I was one of a few Korean children born into a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to having to wear an ugly brace, I was called horrible names such as “Ching Chong,” “Cholly Wong” and “Chinky” on my walks to school. I didn’t fit in anywhere.
In my teenage years, I struggled to find acceptance. I looked to boys and pot for attention. I became a teenage delinquent. I was hanging out late. I drank. I smoked. I was disrespectful to my parents. I was spiraling out of control in search of something to give me life meaning. Until I found an escape in playing pool.
At 18, I visited one of New York City’s trendiest pool halls. I saw an older gentleman gracefully playing pool. It was if he made the cue ball dance. He took control on the table and everything about him was confident and calm. After watching his graceful style, I was hooked.
I would practice for up to 30 hours at a time. Despite intense back pain, I felt as if playing pool healed me.
It allowed me to not care who was watching or what people thought about me. And when my back would fail me with endless bouts of pain, I figured out ways to get healthier so I could stay at the table longer. I wanted to be the best. The more I played, the more I loved it.
While others sat in front of the TV watching sports or reality shows or went to movies or parties, I felt like I was gaining on them. If I wanted to be the best, I had to sacrifice more. I was prepared to do that.
I started eating healthier, and strengthening my body. Even after hours of practicing when I was forced to rest in bed, I mentally prepared by visualizing myself playing perfect pool. Still emotionally scarred from my painful childhood, I had a lot of work to do on my confidence. So I faked it and emulated the qualities and fundamentals I saw the in great players around me. I pushed myself until I believed without a doubt that I would be the best. I was willing to do whatever it took to get there.
Although it may sound cliche, pool became my oxygen. Really.
I could no longer go back to my life without it because in pool I finally found my passion and purpose. I started growing my hair long to cover the scar on my back. I earned the name “The Black Widow” because I lured my opponents to the table and ate them alive.
I focused on every perfect swing. My bridge was perfect. My stance was aligned, balanced and had clearance. I had a slow back swing and a smooth follow through. Pool is just as much a head game as it is a physical game.
I turned pro at 21 and became No. 1 in the world 18 months after that. I had prize money, sponsors and fame. But with my success came lots of criticism. I was accused of “not paying my dues” and only getting certain opportunities “because I was pretty.” Of course, pretty doesn’t make the balls go in, and I paid my dues. I just figured it out in less time.
After earning the title of No. 1 in the world, I began to consider ways I could use my platform to make a difference. According my manager at the time, it “was good for publicity.” The only thing I could think of was scoliosis. I began to meet people with bodies shaped like mine or worse. What was considered at first a great PR move became a life-changing experience.
During one of my early talks on my private battle with scoliosis, I met a young woman who helped me realize that my battle with the disease was much bigger than me.
The young woman shared that she, too, was diagnosed with scoliosis and was going to school without her brace. Like me, she hated wearing it. She started to feel like there was no hope. Then she said that after hearing me, she felt like a weight had been lifted and she could genuinely smile. The young woman then burst into tears in my arms, and I cried, too.
That’s when it really hit me. I realized that while people may notice the challenges you are going through, what is most important to them is how you respond. Simply put, I kept getting out of bed, even when I truly believed I couldn’t.
To date, I have had more than 10 neck and back surgeries.
I have developed multiple conditions including deteriorated discs, degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome and severe sciatic pain. I have bursitis in both shoulders and both hips. A few years ago, I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. There’s not a minute that goes by that I’m not in pain.
My symptoms are managed with an extensive treatment plan. Each day I take a large number of anti-inflammatory medications and muscle relaxers. I also take chemotherapy pills and undergo infusion therapy.
Yet in spite of it all, I have to keep going.
Today I am strong. Not because I feel strong, but because I keep going even when I think I can’t. I have learned that being brave is not the absence of fear but the courage to face it. It is pushing through discomfort, weakness, fear, sadness and doubt.
It is in these moments when you find out who you really are and who you were meant to be.