We’re all just one small step from disaster.
Four years ago I attended Astronomy Night at my grandchildren’s elementary school. The outside lights were left off so the Orange County Astronomers who graciously set up their scopes in a field could count on enough darkness to view the constellated sky.
And see we did – our cratered moon, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades, and constellations even I could name. Through telescopes big as sewer pipes (but clean and shiny) and hooked up to computers, we peered at the glitter of the night, wondering which of the stars still beamed and which had already burned out. What a thrill to see the Milky Way in such radiance.
I decided to return to the activity room where most of the kids had gone to make planet mobiles and glitter paintings of Saturn’s rings. Across the campus, the lit room directed where I wanted to go but not how to get there. So I trod in the dark and stepped onto the lunch quad. But the elevation of the quad was two inches lower than the sidewalk, a change I couldn’t see. I moved out, the expected tarmac wasn’t there, my body continued forward, my foot resisted. I heard a snap. A crack. I knew – I’d sprained my ankle.
Someone helped me hobble into the activity room, someone else got an ice pack. I sat in a chair as my leg swelled and hurt. The next day, Kaiser told me the good news – my ankle wasn’t sprained. It was broken, both bones in fact – tibia and fibula. A hairline fracture in one, a fingernail sized chip in the other, and the reason that my ankle now looked as big as a fish bowl, and I hurt.
The orthopedic physician offered me a choice: a cast (ugh!) or a clunky brace from toes to knees (OK) Three weeks of galumphing around with my brace and taking Advil on a regular schedule, then another six months or so of aches, and I was ready to go back to the gymnastics team. (Oh sure.) Note of comfort: a big brace with internal metal reinforcement gets you through a special airport security entrance and early boarding on the plane. (Yay!)
Two years later I walked out of the building where my mom lived. Late afternoon the parking lot was shady – until I stepped off a shallow curb and the sun, hiding behind a hill only milliseconds before, now played peek a boo and shined right in my eyes – as I was mid-step.
I will never forget pitching forward, knowing exactly how awkwardly my body leaned, knowing there was nothing to hold on to, nothing to catch my fall but the street. Which it finally did. I landed on my right elbow. I realized I could wait splayed on the ground in that long driveway, that someone would eventually come along and help. I could also tell I was going into shock, and I’d better help myself. It’s possible to lift yourself from supine to standing with only one good arm, the other one screaming in distress. I know because I did it, then struggled to stay upright to get to the door.
As soon as I entered I knew – I was in big trouble. I was soaked with sweat, trembling, near to fainting, and in pain, the kind that sends tsunami crests of agony surging through your body. I knew it wasn’t serious – not like a heart attack or a stroke. It wasn’t enough of an injury to let me go to the head of the emergency line at the hospital once I got there. But I scared everyone at the facility – I could tell by the anxiety on their faces that I looked like I’d been dragged off the pavement after an accident. Well, yes.
They called an ambulance – no, I couldn’t drive myself. Lucky for me (I’m such a lucky girl even if I am a klutz,) Kaiser has a first rate hospital only twenty minutes from where I was. The ambulance ride, however, took me over unpaved outback to get there, and every bump and jiggle, every damned bump and jiggle, reminded me that I hurt. Even though we drove on the newly paved freeway. Poor ambulance attendant kept apologizing. (BTW, is it a rule that paramedics must be adorably handsome?)
Once in emergency, my arm swelled to the size of a football. No, this part I’m not exaggerating. A slew of X-rays, me just about landing on the floor – good grief, how could I stand and hold my arm in so many positions when it was broken and the only position I could hold it in was OWIE? – proved what everyone suspected. I’d dislocated my elbow. It was supposed to hang by my side but it was poking out to Nevada in a million little pieces and one giant hump. A camel’s back on my arm.
My sweet nurse told me she didn’t believe anyone should suffer with pain no matter how much of a klutz she’d been. Along with a flu shot (how handy!) and enough pain meds to make me mumble word fluff, everything began to get woozy. Suddenly my little emergency bay was full of smiling folks who gathered around and grabbed me from every limb and held me down. They popped the elbow back into place. Sorta close, anyway. Remember the smiling faces? And the sweet nurse with her pain meds? I didn’t feel them pop it back so I smiled too. Loose-mouthed goofily, I’m sure.
They wrapped me in gauze from fingers to shoulder and sent me home with my son (my husband was out of town.) They gave me lots of narcotics, (took fewer than I should have) antibiotics, and pain meds. I struggled to bathe, wash my hair (went every three days to a salon) to do all the things we should do – but I mostly didn’t. For months I couldn’t sleep lying down, so my husband thrust two enormous sofa pillows under the bed and I slept half sitting up.
Exactly one week later, a hand surgeon (Dr. Lee is an amazing orthopedic surgeon) spent four hours, first slicing my arm open seven inches to reach the damage: humerus, radius, ulna, all of them crushed, some bits floating, as well as two torn ligaments, don’t know how many tendons, and a torn nerve. (Good grief!) Dr. Lee put this Humpty egg back together –and popped in a three-inch-long stainless steel plate butting up to my elbow and a titanium plug to hold me altogether. Still there. You can see them poking under my skin. Dr. Lee told me I would regain about 90% of my arm use.
He didn’t know me.
I was diligent about the physical therapy, started two weeks after my surgery. Every single day for the next three months I did three rounds of specific exercises followed by ice packs and then warm wraps. One round took one and a half or two hours. Physical therapy is all I did – and watched The Golden Girls as I worked out. (Lost fourteen pounds – yay!)
After six weeks when Dr. Lee saw me again, he exclaimed about where my cast was because I hadn’t brought it. I still couldn’t drive but I’d ditched the cast for a thick removable brace to support my arm. And then I showed him what a truly outstanding surgeon he is – I had about 97% use of my arm and only a dull ache. Today, I have 99% arm use.
It was more than a year before I could sleep without being cradled by five pillows or function without any pain. I’ve regained nearly all of my flexibility, can paint and type again. At neither slip off the curbs did I hit my head, suffer a back or neck injury, lose consciousness (came close, though) or knock out my teeth. I don’t have a chronic debilitating condition or a terminal illness. I don’t walk with a limp or write left handed anymore (had to do that for about eight weeks) even though I’m a righty.
I succumbed to the dark, then was blinded by the light. The moment of blackness that should have explained the mysteries of the universe, the instance of illumination that should have let me see everything in my path, caused two injuries. I have been just one small step from disaster but now I am fine – and very, very lucky.
Today I watch very carefully where I walk.
Detail of The Starry Night, 1889, by Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Creative Commons