Two things finally convinced me to get my foot looked at, a month after I twisted it. Taking my friend Kathy in to have her wrist X-rayed, finding out that it wasn’t just sprained, but broken – that was the first thing. The way she described it, “like a headache in her wrist,” sounded a lot like my foot. Not the sharp pain she or I would have imagined from a broken bone, but a dull, tolerable ache with occasional twinges that could make you scream or tear up if you turned it just right. And I knew a woman, once, who claimed she was in a wheelchair because her feet “just wore out.” Knowing her, how she was always standing on her feet, doing for others, “just wore out” probably meant she had arthritis, stress fractures, and maybe circulation problems – but the fact that your feet could “just wear out” has always terrified me.
Turns out, I’ve been walking around on a broken foot for a month. It’s an unimpressive little fracture, hardly visible to the untrained eye. The orthopedic surgeon pointed out the tiny lines that, to her, spelled broken. She outlined a little “bulge” that happens as the cuboid bone gets squeezed, with each step, by the bones above and below it. “Your serious? It’s actually broken?” I started to laugh. I don’t think “relief” is what you’re supposed to feel upon learning you have a broken foot, but it meant I wasn’t just being the world’s biggest wienie. “That’s not what I expected a broken bone to feel like.”
“Let me go get you a boot.”
“Oh, hell… really? Just for that little thing?”
She gave me The Look™. “Up to you, but if we don’t treat this now, it’ll probably hurt like this for the rest of your life.”
“Oh. Okay.” I got the $287 contraption I’ve taken to calling the Air Boot. It’s like a ski boot – but quite comfy. It’s even inflatable, so you can make it nice and snug for more support. My foot hardly hurts at all, now. My knee and hips and back are another matter…
Anyway, I came home for lunch before heading to work. As I was putting a sock on under this monstrosity of a boot, fighting valiantly with the Velcro snakes that serve as guardians of the foot, my son got this puzzled look. “How did I not notice this before?”
“The cast–er, boot.”
“I just got it.”
“But you said it was broken. And you broke it a month ago??”
“Yeah.” I watched him put two and two together. Next time I say “owie” I think my son’s going to be a little impressed. Suddenly, Mom’s hardcore. A sixteen year old boy is incapable of understanding how hardcore a woman really is, to birth a nearly-ten-pound baby boy, but broken bones – that is closer to the realm of imagination. Even my daughter, the Derby Girl, sounded a little impressed.
It’s worth noting, though, for the sake of honesty, that neither of them has actually broken a bone. Let’s not tell them that sprains can hurt ten times worse, unless you’ve got bone fragments sticking out and blood dripping down your leg.
I need to learn to trust that little inner voice that says, “You think you’re being a big wuss? You’re a big wuss when you have a cold, or a hangnail. When you’re miserable, not at all likely to die, and know there’s nothing but time that’s going to make it any better. You whine like a spoiled puppy locked in the basement overnight. It’s annoying. But when you think you’re being a wuss? Odds are it’s a little bit more than that.”
I ponder some of the data points.
I woke up before dawn. Every nerve and cell in my body felt bruised. If I moved my eyes to the left, a wave of pain crashed through my head and shoulders, undulating in aching tremors down to my hips and knees and feet. If I moved my index finger, I wanted to scream, but if I opened my mouth to talk, it started all over again. Instead of waking my mom and dad, I sat at the kitchen table, awaiting a decent hour. Don’t breathe. Don’t move. Don’t think. Everything hurt. I was terrified, but the minute my mom walked into the kitchen, I just felt embarrassed. If I could have moved without wincing, I might have changed my mind and decided to tough it out, but my mom was too smart for that. Something in my eyes told her this wasn’t just a little headache. We got an appointment with the doctor, who quickly sent us off to the hospital for a spinal tap. My dad drove; every bump in the road was a kick in the head from a steel-toed boot. I was given a room in “Isolation.” Quarantined like a rabid dog. While the doctor performed a spinal tap on me, I dug fingernails into the nurse’s hand and drew blood. I still feel the guilt; I couldn’t let go and she refused to pry my fingers loose from her hand.
For three days, anyone entering my room had to don a HAZMAT suit. If I hadn’t had a small inkling that I might die, I’d have told them all – nurses included – not to bother. I passed out on the toilet about six hours after the spinal tap because I didn’t want to ask for a bedpan. I managed to grab the nurse call chain as I went down. It was viral meningitis. I still feel bad that three of them had to waste disposable HAZMAT suits to respond to my momentary “lightheadedness” and saw my hiney hanging out.
Cocky Little Rabbit
When I was newly married, young, and foolish, I went skiing. To this day, I’m not sure what a “bunny slope” is. I never saw one. I did two runs down a “beginner” slope, assuming it was synonymous. I fell once; on my second try, I made it to the bottom without falling – and did a little half-turn: “Ta-da!” at the end. I got a little cocky, and said, “Hey, let’s try this other run for something different!” My cousins looked at the map. It was rated “intermediate.” Whatever that meant. They voiced their misgivings about my readiness to tackle it, but it didn’t look that much harder than the first. To find a different “beginner” run would take time and travel. These two were right next to each other! By the logic of proximity, the face was right behind us – why not take the shortcut down to Lake Tahoe? But no, I wasn’t that stupid.
Unfortunately, by the time we made up our minds to go for it, the snow had turned crunchy and fast. Trees started to whiz by. About two seconds in, I panicked; I couldn’t see the bottom of the slope. I didn’t know which way I might have to turn, or how fast. I had to stop! But, instead of a nice little snowplow stop, the only kind I knew how to do – sort of – I went into a left turn. Trees!! Knowing that couldn’t end well, I ditched. I tried to fall uphill. Someone said it looked like the “agony of defeat” roll. Next thing I remember, I was taking my skis off (one hadn’t released) and handing them to my cousin. My knee didn’t feel right at all. Rudy carried my skis down to the bottom of the slope and brought them back on a lift while I used my poles to climb the slope through knee-deep snow and collapsed, exhausted, at the foot of the lift. My knee was on fire, and my brain was in deep, deep denial about how bad it might be.
“Don’t mind me,” I muttered, waving off the nice ski patrol folks. They got a little fed up after the second obligatory show of concern and told me if I was planning to die there, I could at least have the courtesy to scootch closer to the base of the lift, and out of real skiiers’ way. I told them I’d get off their mountain if they’d let me ride on the back of their snowmobile and not suffer the ignominy of being hauled off on a stretcher, under a bright orange tarp. They handed me a release form with scary stuff about how I promised to absolve them for killing me as we shushed down the face of Heavenly. I thought about what I’d learned so far in Contracts and handed back their scary form. “I’ll walk.”
Unfortunately, I could hike uphill all day long, but could not walk downhill if my life depended on it. I could climb a mountain, but could not step down the equivalent of a curb. And the lift that would take me off this godforsaken mountain was downhill from where I stood debating what to do next. Damned orange tarps. How humiliating. I ended up signing the stupid release form, anyway, at the clinic at the base of the mountain – they wouldn’t let me take a cab back to the hotel without signing. I figured they couldn’t actually kill me at this point–though I’m pretty sure one or two considered me too stupid and stubborn to live–so I signed. And swore both my young cousins to secrecy. “No one must ever know about this,” I said. “NO ONE.”
My uncle met us in the hotel lobby. “Have fun?” he said. “Dubious” best describes his expression when I said yes, far too emphatically to be believed.
“It was great. Your sons are excellent teachers.” Conversation was out of the question. I was having trouble breathing, let alone making it look effortless. “‘scuse me, I really need to change – talk to you in a bit?” I realized, up in the room, that I had great, huge black streaks of mascara coursing down my cheeks. I don’t know what my uncle thought was wrong, but it was obvious I’d been crying and obvious I didn’t want to talk about it.
I took a bath, shaved my legs, and struggled to work my leg over the edge of the tub. It wasn’t cooperating. My knee was the size of a melon. I’d never seen a knee look like that, but it couldn’t be good. Fueled by an image of EMTs hauling my wet, naked body out of a bathtub, I lifted my leg out of the tub with my hands and sort of flopped out onto the floor. I got dressed – stretchy sweatpants fit nicely over my knee. In my head, the logical plan was to sneak off in a cab, go to the nearest ER, get it looked at, and sneak back. There was just one hitch: I’d forgotten to bring my proof of insurance and my credit limit probably wouldn’t cover the deductible. I had to do something – the knee was still growing, visibly, by the minute. Well, I’d deal with one issue at a time. Maybe I could grit my teeth long enough to get a cab – I had cash enough for that – and if the hospital wouldn’t see me without insurance or bill me later, I’d just call from there and ‘fess up.
I ran into my parents in the hallway just outside the room. Okay – my dad and I worked for the same company, so we had the same insurance. His credit was good. I could pay him back. “Don’t tell mom!!” I said, as if she weren’t standing right there in the hallway with us.
“I have to tell your mother where we’re going.”
“Fine, but she can’t tell anyone!” I hissed. I was so desperate not to make a scene that I was making one. Now, I should note that my husband was downstairs in the casino with my grandmother. By this time, they were probably the only two who were not in the know. I was afraid I’d get The Look™ from my husband, and a flustered flurry of “Oh, you poor, poor baby!” from my grandmother, and either would have burst my bubble of denial. Anyway, by the time my dad and I came back, hours later, I was wearing a brace that went from ankle to mid-thigh, and sporting a lovely pair of aluminum crutches. I’d torn the MCL. The good news? We got the best seats in the house at the Beach Boys concert, and none of us had to wait in line to get in – hotel security obtained a wheel chair, made me sit in it – took away my crutches and called them a fire safety hazard – and wheeled me through the back stage area in up to an accessible seat in a row where I couldn’t block access to the fire exits for everyone else. Yes, yes – of course I understand. Burning alive in this wheelchair would be just what I deserve for my stupidity; God forbid I should keep anyone else from reaching the exits…
I’m sure I was a real pain in the ass once I started to feel better.
Wait, That’s the Size of an… Ostrich Egg!
In 1994, I kept having this twinge-y intermittent pain, just over my right hip. It wasn’t agonizing – just odd. Surprising, whenever my daughter would plop herself down on my lap. Electrifying, if I put my foot down too hard. I was really embarrassed when my doctor sent me to see a general surgeon. “Appendicitis? You’re kidding, right?” The surgeon wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem to be my appendix. He sent me to an OB/Gyn, who sent me for an ultrasound even before meeting me.
“Drink a lot of water, and don’t go to the bathroom before you have the ultrasound.” Oh, boy. By the time the doctor arrived to look at the ultrasound, I was laying there with my belly exposed, and my first words to the man had nothing to do with exchanging names or asking for his credentials. I needed him to hurry up before I disgraced myself there on the exam table. He glanced at the monitor, then peered a little closer. “Oh, yeah – that’s a big cyst. There, on the ovary.”
I whipped my head over towards the monitor. “What? There’s something there? You mean it’s not all in my head?” I had convinced myself I was just being a wuss.
“7 cm. See? I’m surprised you didn’t crawl in here on your hands and knees, moaning in pain.”
Vindicated!! I was not a whiny wuss! I had surgery the next morning (after vehemently protesting that we had plane tickets to visit family the next day – I didn’t relent until my husband assured me that the airline had agreed to let us change the date once we knew when I could travel), and I danced in the hallway with the surgeon when he made his morning rounds the following day. At my first follow-up, a week later, he told his nurses all about that. “I went in for rounds, and never saw this woman in bed!”
“Well, you took all the fun out of it – how could I complain and whine and moan about the pain to a man who had just had open heart surgery five and a half weeks ago?” Oh, yeah – I failed to mention that, didn’t I? Talk about making me feel like the world’s biggest wuss – this man had had his breastbone sawed in half less than six weeks before performing my surgery. His own doctors hadn’t even allowed him to return to a full work schedule, yet. Now, my grandfather had had open-heart surgery when I was 12 or 13. I remember the incision, the colorful bruising, the way it looked like he’d been kicked in the chest by a Clydesdale. The man was in pain. He’d spent fifty-two days in the hospital. And here was my surgeon, operating on me just barely a month after undergoing this, himself. That’s hardcore.
He reminded me that his surgeons had wired him up – nothing moved in there around his chest. Nothing sloshed around like the organs in my abdomen. There was nothing he could do to keep them from jostling each other while they healed. “You’re probably in more pain than I ever was.”
Oh, dude. Took me a full minute to pick my chin up off the floor. I doubted that. I doubt it to this day. But I loved him for saying it.
I had one request, though. It’s not that I wasn’t in a fair bit of pain, still – but that I’d started to grow bored, and was developing an unhealthy addiction to Jerry Springer. “You’ve got to let me go back to work,” I begged. “I’m developing an ugly superiority complex and I’m afraid that brain rot’s going to set in!”
“We can’t have that, now, can we?” I’d had a feeling he would understand. Nothing beats an empathetic doctor.