I’ve started to write this a million times. Every time I reach an important milestone in this journey I’m on, I think, “okay, NOW I can sit down and write it all out.” But then I decide I’m just not there yet. I like to reach the end of a journey before I reflect on it. The catastrophe has to be over before I can look back and say, “Wow, that was really messed up. But I made it. It’s over now.” I realized today, though, as I reached yet another major goal in my new life, that this particular road I’m on- it has no end. All I can hope is that it becomes easier to travel. And it is, little by little.
It all started on a cold winter morning one Sunday nearly six months ago. I was meeting a couple of friends at a local coffee house to discuss some not-so-pleasant things. We were in the midst of the winter from hell, and the entire world was frozen, it seemed.
So it was with caution that I parked my minivan in a parking lot that had not been properly plowed, in a spot as free of snow banks and slush puddles as I could find, and navigated my way inside the café. I was early for my meeting that day, which is very much unlike me, so I grabbed myself a hot chocolate and a lemon poppy seed muffin and took a seat by the door, watching traffic out the front window.
As I waited for my friends to arrive, I thought about the million things I had to do that day before another hectic week began. Grocery shopping. House cleaning. Errand running. You know, the usual. My friends arrived. We talked, we cried, we laughed, we hugged. We spent a good hour in the café. And then when all was said and done, we headed out the door.
The café was a little busier and the parking lot a little fuller when we left, so finding our way back to our cars proved even trickier. There was a line of cars parked right in front of the coffee shop, with snow banks in between them all. The sidewalk was patchy with ice and snow and slush. While one of my friends decided to be brave and take the shortest route to her car, climbing over a waist-high snow pile in the process, I was not feeling quite as adventurous.
So I walked a few parking spaces down to find the path of least resistance, a snow mound that looked at least passable. I said, and I quote, “I’m going to go a little further down so I don’t bust my ass.” And then it happened. In one second, my entire world changed. Forever? Maybe not. But at least for a very long time.
I was stepping down off the curb, and I slipped. I didn’t fall. My body never hit the ground. But the jarring movement was enough to quite literally tear my leg in half. The pain was beyond excruciating. I could hardly find the breath to call out to my friends and tell them that I needed help. I leaned into the closest car to me and reached my hand down, knowing what I would find. Protruding, twisted bones. My kneecap clear on the back of my leg, 180 degrees from where it should have been.
“I’m hurt,” I managed to choke out, clutching for my friend that was just a few feet in front of me.
“Did you slip?” she asked. She was smiling, not at all aware of how badly I was injured. I was still standing, after all.
“I dislocated me knee,” I told her. “Like, really bad.” My voice began to tremble.
“Can you walk?” she asked, reaching a steadying hand out to me. I grabbed onto her and squeezed, maybe subconsciously wanting to pass some of my pain onto her? I don’t know. I’m just glad (and surprised) that I didn’t break any of her fingers.
“I can’t move,” I whispered, tears stinging my eyes. I tried to blink them away, afraid they would freeze on my face, it was that cold. I leaned a little more onto the vehicle beside me. My friend called out to our other friend, who had just conquered Mount Snowbank.
By this point, people inside the coffee house, many of whom had seen me slip, came outside to help. I was trying so hard not to panic. There was a huge lump in my throat, and my stomach was twisting and turning, threatening to return my hot chocolate and muffin to the parking lot of café they’d come from. And my leg- well…I’ve known physical pain in my life, many times, in many different ways. I’ve pushed two humans out of my body, for God’s sake. So believe me when I say that it takes a lot for me to make this statement- IT WAS THE WORST PAIN I’VE EVER EXPERIENCED IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. It was a sickening, irrevocable pain. The kind that I knew, I absolutely knew, would change everything.
“Let’s get her inside,” I heard them saying. “It’s too cold out here, we need to get her inside. I think she’s in shock.” Their voices sounded far away. And my voice was non-existent as I tried to protest while strangers wrapped their arms around mine and began to pull. The feeling of bone grinding on bone snapped me back to the present pretty quickly.
“No!” I shouted. “No. Please. Don’t touch me. I can’t move. I can’t walk. Just leave me here. You have to leave me here.” Dramatic, right? To this day, I find it deeply concerning how quickly I was willing to completely give up on life. I would definitely be the first to die in a zombie apocalypse.
Someone brought out a chair, and I screamed bloody murder as a group of do-gooders lowered me into a sitting position. But at least I wouldn’t have to move again. Ever. That chair and me- we were bound together for life.
“I’m calling your husband,” my one friend said, taking my phone out of my jacket pocket. “I’m calling an ambulance,” my other friend insisted, dialing 911 as she stepped away from me in hopes that I wouldn’t hear her telling the operator how gruesome my injury was. I did. “I’m taking pictures of this sidewalk,” a cute girl wearing bright red lipstick and a concerned scowl said. “The condition of the ground is just awful, it’s no wonder you slipped.” Thanks, love, but could you get out of here with your cute face and your working legs? That’d be great.
At some point, while I was sitting there, an employee of the store came out with a grande sized coffee cup and began sprinkling salt ON THE GROUND AROUND ME. That poor boy still has no idea how very lucky he was that I was physically unable to move. I would have snapped him like a twig. And if I ever see him again, I still might. He quite literally poured salt on my wound.
The Looking Glass Fire Department arrived from the next town over- before my husband, who was less than half a mile to the west, and before the Delta Township Fire Department, which was less than half a mile to the east. I still don’t know how that happened. “You see what I’m seeing?” one EMT said to the other. Yes, genius, he sees it. It’s bone protruding through my jeans, a leg that looks like it was beaten by the Hammer of Thor. He sees it. WE ALL SEE IT.
I was worried about my husband being there, for some reason. We’d only been to war and back (in a very literal sense) since getting married three years prior. Maybe I was worried that seeing him would push me over the edge that I was so loosely clinging to, and I would start panicking. Or maybe I was worried about the way he would react- I’d never seen him in a crisis before. I imagined him doing one of two things- completely freaking out, or trying to act like everything was normal and converse about things like the weather and his plans for the day, making small talk with the crowd around us. He did the latter, in case you’re curious. I almost killed him that day, too. But he was also comforting, holding my hand and avoiding eye contact with me as I whined and panted like a coyote stuck in a trap.
Another ambulance arrived. More EMTs. More oohs and ahhs over my injury. And then, disaster. “We have to move her onto the stretcher,” they said. I AM NEVER MOVING AGAIN! I pleaded, I cried…but in the end, it was no use. Four men dressed in blue lifted me from the chair onto a stretcher, then lifted the stretcher into an ambulance. My husband stood in the treacherous parking lot, talking to me through the open doors of the ambulance about where he was taking his kids and when, who he was going to call, when he would be at the hospital. I DON’T EFFING CARE! And then, while the EMTs were starting my IV and trying to figure out how to strap my mangled leg to the table, my husband THREW MY PHONE TO ME…like I had the ability to jump up and catch it. It hit me square in the leg. Yes, that leg. I reached for the scalpel on the shelf beside me so that I could chuck it at his eyeball, but it was just beyond my grasp. Lucky him.
Every bump we hit on the ride to the hospital, I thought I was going to die. I wanted to die. The EMTs were surprised that my blood pressure was through the roof. They were perplexed by the fact that I was burning right through every kind of narcotic they put in my IV. MY LEG IS TWISTED IN HALF, DUMMIES! MOTRIN ISN’T THE ANSWER!
As they lowered me down out of the ambulance and wheeled me into the hospital, I actually began praying for death. I tried to remember if I told my kids I loved them the last time I saw them, so that I could go peacefully into the light. (Again, dramatic. But these were dire times.)
Finally, we reached my trauma room. And then the worst thing in the world happened. They told me they had to move me from the stretcher into a hospital bed. I begged, I threatened, I maybe even screamed- but apparently, nobody in the ER listens to reason. I was already in a bed with wheels. Why did I have to be moved to another one?!
Once I was in the appropriate bed, the real fun started. A woman in cat print scrubs and 1970s glasses came in with a giant pair of scissors and began cutting my jeans off me. “These aren’t your good ones, are they?” she asked with a smile. Yes, bitch, they are. My husband arrived. My mother arrived, then promptly had to leave the room a dozen times because she couldn’t stand seeing me like that. My father-in-law arrived. My husband had called everyone we knew to tell them about what happened. Apparently, it was a party.
But I tolerated it, because peace would soon come. I was in the hospital, where they had the GOOD drugs. They would dope me up, do their thing, wrap my knee with an ace bandage, and send me home. In my heart, I knew it wouldn’t be that simple. I had to hope, though.
They gave me a heavy dose of pain killers so that they could take me down for x-rays. I felt nothing but pain. As soon as they could, they gave me more. Again, nothing. They finally decided I was just going to have to deal, so they sent me down to x-ray writhing in pain, expecting me to wear my big girl panties. You cut my big girl panties off me, a-holes! Remember?!
Because I hadn’t been tortured enough, the chipper young beeotches in x-ray felt the need to contort my leg in a dozen different ways to get the pictures they needed. I feel like the residents of the next county over could probably hear me screaming.
More pain. More drugs. Talk of taking me to surgery. My mom cried. My father-in-law cracked jokes. My husband stood by looking lost and helpless- a look I’ve come to know well from him in the past six months. While I screamed in agony, a doctor tried to manually push my knee cap from the back of my leg to the front. It wouldn’t budge. They decided to sedate me. But every time they tried to put me under, I stopped breathing. They almost had to intubate me.
The ER staff was at a loss. For several hours I just laid there, my leg twisted in half, my will to live fading. (Drama.) And then a beautiful, wonderful man with a name I can’t remember came in wearing turquoise scrubs and a look of determination. “I’m not gonna do anything, I’m just gonna see…” he kept saying in this gentle, calming voice as he lightly caressed my thigh while my husband looked on. In hindsight, it was a weird scene. In the moment, I was too freaked out to care. “Please don’t,” I begged. “Please, please, please don’t.” I’m on to you, Dr. McLiar Pants. I know what you’re trying to do.
He tried the shock and awe thing, and attempted to jam my kneecap back into place unexpectedly, but he ran into a snag- literally. My knee was wedged beneath my femur bone and wouldn’t budge. I finally reached a stage of acceptance. He was going to have to manually work my knee back into place, slowly and painfully, and I was going to have to find a way to live through it if I ever wanted to leave that hospital room.
So I began breathing like pregnant women do in the movies, all “hee hee, hoo hoo” and tried to invoke an out of body experience. I was unsuccessful. After nearly an hour of massaging and kneading and pushing (none of which was as enjoyable as it sounds), my kneecap was finally at a precipice, hovering on the upper corner of my femur bone. In an experience similar to a baby crowning during childbirth, but on a much less beautiful scale, I held my breath and bared down as the doctor gave my kneecap one final push, and it slid back into place with a sickening snap.
“Thank you,” I cried, letting out the breath I’d been holding for nearly seven hours. “Thank you so much.” It was over. Except…it really wasn’t. In my tale of woe, this was merely the prologue.
For the first two months following my accident, I was in a brace that consisted of three metal bars that went from my ankle to the top of my thigh- a torture device called a knee immobilizer. I couldn’t sleep in my own bed, only in the recliner in the living room. And I couldn’t sleep with that damn immobilizer on, so I would have my husband help me take it off before bed, and then I would call him, every hour and a half to two hours, to come out from the bedroom and help me put it back on so I could go to the bathroom, or go get water and pain pills. It was kind of like having an infant for him, I imagine. I was the biggest, most helpless baby in the world.
I couldn’t work, and was placed on disability. I technically lost my job for a time, but it was all a bunch of red-tape malarkey. I didn’t leave my house for weeks at a time, and then only to go to the doctor, terrified to slip on the ice and snow. I couldn’t even shower without assistance. I was a complete invalid.
I fell into a deep depression, which was worsened by the absence of individuals that I previously considered close friends- people I always went out of my way to be there for, who I thought would always be there for me. They weren’t. But I get it. Life is hectic, and having a disabled friend is an inconvenience. I tried very hard to focus only on the wonderful people who were there for me through those very dark days, rather than the ones who weren’t, but I wasn’t always successful. Truth be told, I still struggle with that sometimes.
Two months after my accident, I was able to shed the immobilizer and upgrade to a very uncomfortable (but much more functional) knee brace. I started physical therapy. I began driving again, although just getting out of the house was a huge ordeal. Most importantly, I developed a complicated system that allowed me to shower and get dressed with zero assistance. That was awesome.
Each day blended into the next- all spent on the couch, watching everything Netflix had to offer, writing, taking on random, ridiculous hobbies and then getting bored with them after a few days. My husband and I fought constantly- him struggling to do it all on his own, plus take care of me; me depressed and frustrated that I couldn’t cater to my family and run around playing Super Woman like I’d done for so many years. I don’t think either of us will ever fully understand what the other has gone through over the past six months.
I began having nightmares on a regular basis, ones where I would slip and be about to fall, with the knowledge that if I did, I would reinjure my still-injured knee. I’d wake up in a panic, my heart racing, and be unable to fall back to sleep.
We had to cancel the trip to Disney World we had planned for Spring Break. It was the first time either me or my kids would have ever been. I had to give up concert tickets for this summer that I bought for my husband’s birthday because I won’t be able to navigate the stadium steps to get to our seats. I celebrated my son’s fifteenth birthday, my wedding anniversary, my husband’s birthday, and my own birthday all from the confines of the couch, barely able to move. I missed out on my kids’ sporting events, school activities, field trips- all while just sitting at home on my butt doing nothing.
I got pretty good with my crutches, but I eventually got sick of being cooped up inside all the time, so I got a wheelchair so that I could venture out more often, and to more places. I still struggle with being seen out in public in my wheelchair or on one of those motorized carts they have at department stores. It’s embarrassing, but it’s a necessity.
There have been good moments too, though- like the first time I was able to go a full rotation on the recumbent bike, and the first time I took an unassisted step, over three months after the accident. Both times, the very supportive staff at physical therapy cheered me on like they would a baby learning to walk.
The first time I went for a drive by myself, the wind in my hair and the radio blaring, is something I will always remember. (Of course, I had to have someone help me to and from the car, but still.)
Eventually, I graduated from my crutches to a cane and stopped wearing my brace. I slowly began regaining my independence and venturing out on my own, without assistance. I recently returned to work, but am still struggling to climb out from under the mountain of debt caused by the months I was on disability, only receiving a percentage of my salary.
I still have nightmares about falling again, although not as often, and get very nervous when walking on uneven ground. We’ve rescheduled our Disney World trip for this fall, with the knowledge that I’ll likely have to use my wheelchair for at least part of the time.
At home, when I’m just going from room to room, I hardly ever use my cane now, although my penguin-waddle walk is a sight to behold. I’m still in constant, constant pain.
I haven’t been upstairs, where the kids’ bedrooms are, in almost six months now. I’m terrified of what it looks like up there. My husband has done his best to keep our house and yard in shape, and he’s done a great job, but it’s all in desperate need of a woman’s touch. And I can still only stand/walk for a couple minutes at a time.
I still mourn the loss of relationships I once held dear- ones that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get back, or if I even want to try. I’m not sure if my husband and I will ever completely recover from the trauma of being in a caretaker/patient relationship for so long. I hope so, but it isn’t easy.
I’ve become much more active in recent weeks, but every single thing I do is still a struggle, and it’s maddening. My physical therapist sees me frustrated more than I care to admit, and reminds me regularly how far I’ve come. I know she’s right, but that doesn’t always (or often) make things easier.
Today, I graduated from physical therapy. I’m far from healed, but I’ve become independent enough to rehabilitate myself, apparently. It’s empowering and daunting all at the same time. From here on out, I’m on my own.
If I’m ever going to be “normal” again- live pain free, walk unencumbered, be able to do the things I did before, shed the wheelchair and the handicap parking pass, get over the emotional damage- I have to do it myself. And it was with that knowledge that I walked out of my physical therapist’s office for the last time today- slowly, wobbly, but on my own two feet.