Nick Charney, on how looking down at your crutches constantly for fear of falling easily becomes a metaphor for living life with your head down.
Four months ago I had surgery to repair a broken bone in my foot; a bone I broke a full two years prior but never sought appropriate medical attention for. When I first broke it I thought it was a hefty sprain. I was training for a half marathon at the time and literally tripped twenty yards from my front door after finishing a particularly difficult sprint sequence. I had to quit running, I kept playing hockey (as any good Canadian boy would do) but the pain eventually overtook me. I eventually saw my family physician who, after a preliminary examination started me on a regimen anti-inflammatories and intense physiotherapy. By about the third or fourth session it was clear that physiotherapy wasn’t working; that’s when the physiotherapist pulled out the anatomy book and started to explain the intricate relationship between our muscular and skeletal systems. She told me that I likely suffered a Lisfranc fracture; a break with deep historic roots to horseback riding but now more commonly associated with snowboarding, skiing and other sports where one’s foot is locked into a binding.
On the advice of the physiotherapist, I went back to my family doctor and we started a battery of diagnostic testing: x-rays, bone scans and MRIs. After months of testing I was finally referred to an orthopedic surgeon. It took him roughly ninety seconds to confirm the diagnosis and chart a course of action: a steroid injection today, surgery scheduled for some time in the near future. While I was relieved to finally have a long term solution in sight, I was far less enthusiastic about the short term solution. The needle that he used to deliver the steroids was at least six inches long if not a foot and he looked up at me oddly as he said, “You are going to feel this”. I had never seen a doctor bend a hypodermic needle—in fact I didn’t even know it was possible—but there he was, working it like it was a joystick. The look on his face as he went about maneuvering around the bones of my foot and deep into the soft tissues was eerily familiar, it is precisely the same look my five-year-old son gets while he’s playing Xbox. Luckily the pain of the needle was short lived, unfortunately so was the relief it delivered. I was placed on the wait list for surgery and went home to my family.
I got a call from the hospital a few weeks later, my surgery was now only three months away. Those three months were painful but passed quickly. I was walked into the the hospital on the allotted day to find the prep room filled with older patients all of them with long and complicated medical histories. Their preoperative discussions with the anesthesiologist were long and complicated whereas I’m only thirty one, fairly active and decently healthy. My discussion with the anesthesiologist was straightforward, she drew a squiggly bracket on the questionnaire, wrote “healthy” on the other end and asked me how I wanted to approach the issue of anesthetic. I told her I was easy going and would prefer to simply wake up on the other side of the procedure. She nodded her head, made a note and I was wheeled up to the operating room. A nurse was waiting to receive me outside the operating room, waiver in hand. She re-explained the procedure, asked me if I had questions, had me sign the waiver and wheeled me inside. I lied down on the table, was given an oxygen mask and instructed to spread my arms out so my arms and legs could be strapped down to the table as if I was being crucified. The surgeon and the anesthesiologist were hard to recognize behind their masks, but once she spoke I realized exactly who she was, “The oxygen will make your throat itchy, that’s normal. Once you are strapped down I’m going to give you a dose of pain medication, it will make you dizzy but it won’t put you out. Then I will give you sixty seconds notice before we knock you out. That is also normal. Any questions?”
“No. Break on through to the other side,” I responded; it is the last thing I remember doing prior to waking up in the recovery room a few hours later under a heavy fog of medication. Tears started to stream down my face as my body fought its way back to consciousness; a completely normal reaction to the anesthetic I was told. My right foot was set in a plaster cast and I couldn’t feel a thing below my right thigh. I was told that my leg was frozen in addition to being put under and that by all accounts the surgery had been successful though more complicated than originally anticipated. The surgeon was forced to remove a thumb-sized chunk of bone from my foot and reattached the major weight bearing tendons attached to my foot with a steel suture. After forty-five minutes of semi-consciousness in the recovery room I was transferred to a holding area that the nurses affectionately called the “daycare”. After another forty-five minutes of waiting I was discharged. I left the hospital with a prescription for narcotics, a pair of crutches and a follow up appointment scheduled for two weeks time.
I barely remember the time between my appointments. The pain medication was so intense that the days completely blurred into one another. In fact, being medicated was nothing like I expected; the opiates didn’t make me feel happy, but rather feel nothing at all. The conversations I had, the people who came to see me, were all lost somewhere in the ether. It was a completely surreal experience. I had to keep a journal tracking my medication intake because I’d often forget when I took my last pill. I quickly established a plan wean myself off of the medication slowly and carefully after reading about how powerful the withdrawal can be. I managed to get off the medication in less than a week but I’d be lying if I said it was easy. Just prior to surgery I learned that I have a family history of drug and alcohol abuse. That kind of knowledge at that particular moment carries a certain amount of weight. I leaned heavily on my wife for support and as soon as I had gone a full day without the medication I returned the remainder of it to the pharmacy. Out of sight, out of mind—and body. Dealing with the narcotics was a major issue but one that was short-lived by comparison to the others I faced at the same time. I spent eight weeks on crutches unable to bear weight on my foot. Twelve weeks in a cast. I have a young family (a loving and patient wife and two very active children under the age of ten) and a career (a full time job, an active blog on public policy and a brand new business); looking back this was likely one of the most high stress times in my life, and while it wasn’t easy, it was likely one of the most important learning opportunities of my life.
I learned a little bit of what it’s like to live life with a disability and how important a strong support network can be; how easy it is to get down on yourself when you can’t even bring a cup of coffee from the kitchen to the living room or when you are stuck eating over the sink because you can’t walk a plate over to the table. Helplessness snowballs, the small things become larger than life, being forced to look down and your crutches constantly for fear of falling easily becomes a metaphor for living life with your head down. As someone whose identity is firmly rooted in a “head up on a swivel while swinging elbows mentality” looking down constantly was simultaneously detrimental my mental health but integral to my physical well-being. That kind of forced dichotomy pushes one to his (or her) limits. It sounds cliché, but I take less for granted now, I always appreciated the love and support of my wife and children but they really stepped up when they needed to. My wife did more for me in those three months than I could hope to repay in three lifetimes. My children, whom I am too perhaps hard on from time to time, were helpful, courteous and understanding; their love unconditional and their bright-eyed propensity to help limitless. It pains me to think that others would have to go through what I went through alone, without the love and support of others, reliant only on their fragile psyche and their prescription for pain killers. The body and mind are incredibly resilient and marvelous things, but in trying times nothing is more resilient than the love of your family, your partner and your children.
photo by johnnieb / flickr