They say that life can change in an instant, and at 37, I thought I already knew what that meant. I had been through a crap-load of life-changing events – love, loss, birth and death – so I was positive I was ready for anything. In the instant it took to slip on my office floor and feel the agonizing pain of a shattered leg, I realized that life’s lessons had just begun.
I’ve always been the leader, the strong one, the one that took charge and definitely the one to fix everything. Taking on the multiple responsibilities of wife, mother and administrative assistant was invigorating most days, and I was good at it. Of course, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my weaknesses. The day started out like any other, with me rushing to get to work before my boss arrived. My tardiness had been his favorite reprimand of late, and no matter how much I wanted to conform, I just couldn’t get my ass in gear to get there by 8:30.
The managers had their annual strategic planning session that morning. I had been preparing for that meeting for weeks, assembling volumes of statistical data and documentation for the critical goal-setting process. “Burning the midnight oil” would have been a welcome relief, as most nights I had worked into the wee hours of the morning to get everything done. I was obsessed with getting every detail perfect. I really suck at math, and I wasn’t any better at it back then. Of course, my boss was a genius with numbers, so making sure every report was 100% accurate seemed critical at the time. While a typo or incorrect percentage may seem insignificant to some, I was also the stenographer and had already taken flak during past meetings for mistakes I’d made. The man intimidated me, and the only way I knew to avoid confrontation was to not piss him off.
I had to set up the conference room before the managers arrived, so that day I had a plan. I actually got up early, but a stop at Tim Hortons for a pack of Timbits and coffee put me behind anyway. Luckily, when I arrived at the office on that clear September day, the parking lot was empty. My heart was racing, but a quick calculation of the setup time I had left assured me that I had dodged a bullet and would avoid another scolding that day. I hurriedly walked into the building, through my boss’ office toward mine, juggling all the supplies for the day. As the heel of my pretty little black pump met the over-waxed ceramic tile floor in my office, I slipped. I threw my body forward to try to catch myself, but my leg was overextended, and the bone cracked in half.
To say that it was the most excruciating pain I ever experienced in my life is a colossal understatement. Even a difficult childbirth with no pain meds was walk in the park in comparison. My bloodcurdling screams resonated through the hallway, and one by one my coworkers came running to see what had happened. As I fought the shock that was quickly setting in, I actually apologized for not being able to attend the meeting. When I think of it now, I realize how ludicrous that must have sounded. Part of me really thought the doctor would throw a cast on my leg, and I’d be back at work the next day. Instead, I had come to one of those crossroads in life where no matter which path I took, my life would be changed forever.
As I lay on the floor writhing in pain, I felt an unbearable vulnerability, and I was terrified that I would have to surrender control. Focusing all my energy on managing my emotions, I didn’t cry. Instead, I gave orders. I’ve always been pretty good in a crisis, and this definitely qualified. As long as I was taking care of everyone else, I didn’t have to delve too deeply into how I felt, and I could still hide my weaknesses. (I couldn’t hide this broken leg though.)
The sick feeling in the pit of my stomach wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t help but cry out in pain as the ambulance found each bump in the road. And even though I tried hard to concentrate on what the paramedic was asking me, confusion began to set in, and a thick haze enveloped me. The next few hours went by in a blur of anxious faces, reassuring voices and pain in my leg so unbearable and relentless I would have done anything to make it stop.
I desperately wanted to erase the terror I saw in my husband’s eyes when he looked at the damage I had done. He urged me not to look at my leg, and that telepathic connection between husband and wife told me it was best to obey. Still, I clung to the last remaining morsels of hope that once the surgery was over I would be able to get back to normal. Reality hit me like ice water in the face when I had to sign the hospital waiver stating that I could die during surgery. Of course, the doctor’s prognosis wasn’t much better – that an open fracture such as mine would require immediate surgery or risk severe infection and possible amputation of my leg. It was then that the light at the end of the tunnel went out. I knew normal was out of my reach.
The surgery – to repair an open, compound fracture of the tibia (the bone was sticking through the skin), a fractured fibula, a spiral fracture of the tibia that extended into my ankle and nerve damage into my toes – was successful. A titanium rod and four screws were inserted to stabilize the bones and start the healing process. After four days in the hospital, I met with the doctor and an occupational therapist, who said I was ready to go home. I was sure they were joking, because I had the strength of a flea, and even the slightest movement felt as if I was breaking the leg all over again.
My homecoming was filled with equal parts of relief and anxiety. The six-inch porch step loomed before me like a concrete mountain. Navigating the obstacle course I’d easily managed just 96 hours before was now agonizingly slow and painful. Feeling anything but settled in my new home on the first floor, my husband and six-year-old daughter did what they could to make me comfortable. Day and night blended together over the next few weeks, separated only by four-hour reminders to take pain meds. From my vantage point behind invisible bars, I watched my family manage without me.
The phone calls from concerned co-workers and friends stopped as they returned to their own routines. Over the next few months, doctor appointments became welcome distractions from the monotony that had become my life. As the pain began its unhurried retreat, there was an unforeseen void left behind. Depression and apathy were common expressions in the foreign language I now spoke. Somewhere along the path to healing, I was robbed of my desire to fight. Managing my pain had become so encompassing that I became a willing accomplice in my fall from power.
It was almost easy to let go. Before I broke my leg, I had defined my value as a person by my ability to take care of others. I was the “go-to gal” at home and at work. When I broke my leg, I became totally dependent on others, and I felt useless. My husband was amazing. Thankfully, he took care of everything – me, our daughter, the household chores – and still went to work every day. Unfortunately, he took care of everything, because then I didn’t have to try. I could see how exhausted he was, but he never complained or got upset. Secretly, he feared I’d never walk again, and so did I.
Our daughter, Lanie, was only six, but she understood that things were different. She helped her dad and took on household chores that were once my responsibility. I loved her for the effort, but it pushed me further into the abyss.
Occasionally, my boss would check in to see how I was doing. I know now he was trying to reassure me, but his “we’ve got everything under control” did little to make me feel needed or missed.
While I’d always been an optimist and never one to give up without a fight, my lack of mobility and medicated state were easy excuses to feel sorry for myself. As I sat in my recliner day after day, watching nonsense television, I began to convince myself that karma was finally setting things right. Even though I had the skills necessary to do my job, I always felt I was one mistake away from losing it. Even at home, I never thought I was a good enough wife, mother, friend, lover, cook, housekeeper or anything else, for that matter. The pressure to be perfect was totally on me, and while my inner voice begged me to face those demons, I opted instead to just ignore them..
Three months after that fateful day, my 93-year-old grandmother fell and broke her hip. My sister called with panic in her voice to tell me that Gram needed surgery. My parents were out of the country on vacation, and the doctor needed a family member’s authorization to do the repair. Gram had always been a feisty lady, but her advanced age and worsening senility meant we’d have to decide what to do for her. There was a risk of death with or without the surgery, and my first instinct was to close my eyes and let Sis handle it alone. What could I do, anyway? I couldn’t even get to the hospital in my condition. As I hung up the phone, a little voice inside me begged me to reconsider.
Depression is a powerful foe, but family trumps it every time. I called my sister back, and together we decided to let Gram have the surgery. True to her nature, she was sitting up in bed a couple of days later when I went to visit. She and I compared “war wounds,” and she even challenged me to a walker race. She seemed to have better clarity that day than she had in ages, and I shared my emotional struggles with her. As she had done many times before, she reminded me that “Nothing worth having ever came easily” and that if I didn’t take care of myself first, I’d never be any good to anyone else. Who was I to argue with an old lady?
The next morning I awoke with a new lease on life. It was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and get ready to walk again. I started slowly, by exercising in my chair to rebuild my muscles. When she got home from school each day, Lanie would bring me my dumbbell weights to help strengthen my arms. Soon I was able to navigate the house on crutches, even up and down the stairs to the second floor. I couldn’t put any weight on my leg yet, but I rode a stationary bike anyway, just to reduce the muscle atrophy that had taken hold.
Gram died peacefully in her sleep a month later. She had recovered enough to return to her apartment at the senior home and had spent the night before making cookies with some of the other residents. I kept my doctor’s appointment that morning, as I was scheduled to get the final cast removed. With a heavy heart, I shared my loss with the doctor. While he was sympathetic and suggested we reschedule, he agreed with Gram that I had to take care of myself first. He reassured me that her fall and subsequent surgery were likely not the cause of her decline, but a symptom of an underlying problem. I took great solace in his remarks and felt some satisfaction when he complimented me on my remarkable muscle tone. I attributed it to strong family genetics. Ten months of physical therapy began the next week, and I learned to walk again.
Life at home took on a new normal, where I asked for help on occasion and lightened up on making sure everything was always perfect. I returned to work part-time while I continued my treatments. Before stepping one foot inside my office, I insisted the company install carpeting over the ceramic tile floor. While my boss was anxious for me to return to full-time duty, I held my ground in not returning until I was ready.
My boss still intimidates me a bit, but I’ve learned to trust my skills more and worry less. I’ll soon be celebrating my 29th anniversary with the company, and I’m happy to report that I still have both feet firmly placed on the ground – all thanks to a broken leg.
Have you ever been through a trauma that changed your outlook so drastically? Were you able to recover or do you still struggle today? Exposing my vulnerability is hard to do, but I’m hoping that sharing my story will help others feel less alone.
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