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‘The messages from my brain to my leg muscles just weren’t getting through; it was as if the leg had gone, leaving no forwarding address’

Adelia Hallett continues her story of life in the pain lane with a smashed leg

I didn’t feel or hear the bone crack when my 500kg horse stood on it. For some reason, I’d always assumed that I would, should I ever break a bone. Actually, I felt nothing. For a short time I didn’t even realise I was in trouble. I lay on my back for a minute, catching my breath, then went to roll over so I could get up. Except I couldn’t. My left leg just wouldn’t do what it was told. It wouldn’t do anything. It dawned on me then that it might be broken, but I had no concept of the implications.

brokenpic2For a while I lay on my back, figuring out what to do. Sandy, my husband, has always been worried about me having an accident when I’m on my own, so I had promised him I would always carry my cellphone. And most of the time I did, in the breast pocket of my oilskin riding vest. But that evening was hot, and I’d ridden out in just cotton jodhpurs (close-fitting riding pants) and a tank top. No pocket, no cellphone. The phone was sitting in the car back at the yards, along with my dog.

What I should do, I thought, was crawl to the yards so I could get help. Turning my upper body on to its side, I calculated the distance. No more than 400 metres, over a gentle incline. In my mind I could see myself crawling on my right leg, dragging my left. Our district had been in drought for some weeks, and the ground was hard and dry. The mud that the cattle had pugged up over winter was now baked into little concrete potholes. Progress would be slow, I thought, but I’d seen it done plenty of times in the movies.

Address unknown

But crawling for help wasn’t a runner, if you’ll pardon the pun. Moving my damaged leg even a centimetre was as impossible as lifting a two-tonne horse float with a tonne of horses inside. It wasn’t a matter of being daunted by pain, or of having a lack of will; it was a physical impossibility. The messages from my brain to my leg muscles just weren’t getting through; it was as if the leg had gone, leaving no forwarding address.

“Okay,” I thought, “help is going to have to come to me,” giving myself a tick in the luck stakes that the accident hadn’t happened further out on the farm. The house my riding buddy Jayne lived in was just beyond the yards. I could almost see it from where I was. A picture of her lying on the couch watching television flashed through my mind; it was possible she wouldn’t hear me over the TV. I started shouting her name. Nothing happened.

It was hard for me even then to get a handle on how much time passed. I wasn’t wearing my watch. The light, which had been low when Kaycee had spooked, disappeared altogether. It got cold. I could no longer see the yards or the fences, and the macrocarpa trees to my right, spooky even in the daytime, became menacing patches of black.

There was no sign of Kaycee. I knew he wouldn’t be able to get into the yards because I had closed the gate when we left. I had just had his reins (my favourite pair) fixed, and hoped that in his blind panic he hadn’t charged to the far side of the paddock, breaking them again on their first outing. That’s when I thought about the trek. I’d told the saddler that I needed the reins back in a hurry because I wanted to use them next weekend.

The glory that is Purerua

The Purerua trek is legendry among my riding friends. Organised by Riding for the Disabled (a charity that uses horse-riding as therapy), it’s held every year on the glorious Purerua Peninsula in the Bay of Islands. At least I’ve heard it’s glorious; I’ve never actually seen it. In previous years when I’d been invited on the trek it had clashed with the exams for the university papers I was doing. But this year it didn’t, and I was looking forward to experiencing for myself what the brochure called: “stunning Northland riding and hospitality” on the “spectacular Pererua Peninsula (numbers strictly limited)”. Only realistically, it looked like I would be missing it this year too.

“Damn,” I thought. “Damn, damn, damn.” Curiously, I didn’t think much beyond that. My only close-up experience of a broken bone to that point had been when my son, Thomas, fell off the skateboard he got for Christmas 2010 and broke his left arm. It was in plaster for a while, but it didn’t really stop him doing anything he wanted to do. When school started he went and sure, he was a bit limited in PE, but he still took part. “If my leg is broken,” I thought, “I must remember to ask for a fibreglass cast like Tom had, so that I can still shower and swim.”

But that was the extent of my plans. Aside from getting out of the paddock, obviously.

There was no chance that I would be there all night. I knew that. Eventually, Sandy would raise the alarm. He’d ring Jayne and she’d go outside and see my car and my horse. Then people with torches would set out to look for me, and would be relieved when they found me so quickly. But for a while at least, Sandy would assume I was having a post-ride natter with Jayne. He’d ring my cellphone or text me to ask when I was coming home, and would be cross when I didn’t reply. It wouldn’t be until it got really late that he’d start to worry. So I kept shouting for help. Not continuously; I didn’t have the breath for that.

Won’t you please, please help me

At some point my leg started to hurt. My riding crop was on the ground beside me, so I put it in my mouth and bit down hard. It helped. Then I called for help again. I knew that my voice was starting to sound desperate. I’d gone from shouting, “Jayne! I need help!” to, “Someone please help me”.

For some reason I think this went on for half an hour, but I don’t really know. Then a voice from a neighbouring house. behind the macrocarpas, shouted, “Help is coming”. It was the lady of the house. I had talked to her over the fence a number of times, and her daughters were at school with my son. “Thank goodness,” I thought, “at last someone knows I’m here.” Some more time passed, and then a male voice – her husband’s – asked who was out there. “It’s me, Adelia,” I said. “I’m in the paddock by your driveway. I think I’ve broken my leg.”

My memory becomes a bit of a blur after that. I now know that it was the younger daughter who first heard me. She went into her sister’s room and asked if she could hear someone shouting for help, and they went to their parents, who wanted to make sure that they were not about to go charging out into a confrontational situation. Once they knew it was me, they came out on to the driveway and said they were calling an ambulance. I remember thinking that that seemed over-the-top. I knew I needed medical attention, but assumed Sandy would drive me in the car.

The electric fence between their driveway and the paddock I was in was bull-strength, so my rescuers had to go down the driveway to the road, in Jayne’s driveway and through the yards to get to me. I asked them to stop and tell Jayne what had happened, and to ask her to ring Sandy. Eventually they clustered around me, asking what had happened and assuring me I’d be alright. Someone – the mother, I think – was on the phone to the ambulance dispatcher, describing how to find me.

A decisive career move

The oldest daughter, a year ahead of Tom at school and a St John’s Ambulance cadet, was the first to get to me. She put her training in practice, laying a blanket over me and taking my hand. I had never really understood before the importance of emotional comfort, but when I think of that night I think of that girl holding my hand. Her mother told me later that the event had quite a big impact on her daughter, demonstrating the difference between training and real-life, and – at that stage, anyway – prompting her to decide to become a professional ambulance officer.

What happened in that hour or so is like scenes flashing past on a magic lantern. And in no particular order. Even at the time, it was hard to keep a timeline straight in my head. The lights of the ambulance had me pinned centre-stage. Voices I knew – Sandy, Tom, Jayne – came out of the darkness. Jayne slipped a hot-water bottle under the blanket. I remember asking if Jayne’s husband was there, and would he mind going and catching Kaycee and putting him away.

And then there were the ambulance officers. Two women, kind, efficient. Drugs were administered. There was a moment of confusion when everyone but me assumed that it was my right leg that was broken. My poor left leg was pushed aside. At least that’s how it seems to me. All I can really remember is searing pain and desperately trying to tell them they had the wrong leg. I must have got through, because a splint was applied to my left leg. That meant getting my riding boot off. Someone assured me that they wouldn’t have to cut it off. I wished that they would.

Fortunately, I’d chosen short jodhpur boots that evening, and not the zipless long boots that require a boot jack and a good hard yank to get off. I was also wearing half-chaps – suede coverings that go over your boot and zip tightly around your calves. The one on my left leg must have been giving it some support, because it hurt when it came off. At some point someone must have taken my riding helmet off. Perhaps I had done it, while I was waiting for help. I can’t remember, but it wasn’t on my head by the time I was in the ambulance.

A Spaniel in the works

I was fretting about Tom. Seeing his mother broken would distress him. I asked Jayne to come with me so that Sandy could stay with Tom. As I was loaded into the ambulance Tom loomed out of the darkness and gave me my cellphone. It’s the kind of thing a teenager thinks of. He’d been to my car to get it, and later he told me that Cody, our cocker spaniel, who I’d left in the car when I went riding, was beside himself. The poor dog must have been able to hear me calling for help and been unable to come.

The ambulance trip was long and painful. We lived about 50 minutes from the nearest hospital with an accident and emergency department. I lost all sense of direction and time. At some point we stopped and someone else got in the ambulance. A paramedic with the authority to administer morphine. Hallelujuh. Needles were put in my arm. There were road-works, bouncy, jolting road-works that went on for ever. I hugged Jayne’s teddy-shaped hot-water bottle.

And then I was in A and E at Whangarei Base Hospital. I knew where I was because I had been there when Tom broke his arm and when Sandy had a heart attack. But I don’t remember arriving at the hospital or being transferred from the ambulance; I just found myself on a bed in a curtained cubicle. Jayne was still there, and new people were examining me. I was x-rayed. My left tibia (the heavy-duty bone in the lower leg, which we non-medical people call the shin bone) was broken. I was x-rayed again, because the duty doctor wanted to make sure there were no other injuries, and a temporary cast was put on. It looked like the boxing you put up when you’re going to pour concrete, cradling my leg but still allowing the medicos to get at it.

It’s official … I fell off

There were questions. How did it happen? (Despite me telling them that I was on the ground and got knocked over, it went into the admission forms that I fell off my horse, and that’s become the official story). On a scale of one to ten, how much does it hurt? (Eight-point-five, maybe nine. I said that as someone who had given birth and had gall stones, and knew what real pain was). Was I hungry? (Yes. Starving. But what I really wanted was a cup of tea).

The doctor said lots of things but what I took in was that I would have an operation the next day. That meant that I couldn’t eat anything after midnight. A nurse said she would try and find me something to eat. At five to 12 she reappeared with two cheese sandwiches and a cup of tea. I was absurdly grateful.

The other thing I remember is that I asked someone how long I would be laid up for. Six weeks to get back on my feet, and three months until I was back to normal. It seems ridiculous now, knowing what I now know, but I believed it. I started calculating. Six weeks would take us to mid-January, and three months to the end of February. Even with a margin of error, I would be riding again by the time the hunt season began in mid-March. I could live with that.

In the early hours of the morning I was taken upstairs to the orthopaedics ward and put into a bed, where, with the help of some cotton wool to block out the snoring coming from another bed, I drifted into a drug-hazed sleep.

Next post – They can rebuild me 

*According to the ambulance report, the accident happened at 8.30pm, but that would have been based on my guess about how long I had been lying in the paddock. The report does, however, contain some facts; the ambulance was dispatched at 8.57pm and arrived at 9.13pm. The officers found me lying on my side in a paddock. My airways were clear, I was conscious and alert, and my eyes were “pert”. I had good colour, and feeling in my left leg and foot (my right leg was fine, they noted). At 9.20 I was given Methoxyflucane, which, according to Wikipedia, is a “halogenated ether used to relieve pain, and is inhaled”. Five minutes later I was given paracetamol. The ambulance left at 9.45. At 9.55 I was given more Methoxyflucane, and at 10.14 I got my first dose of morphine. Three more were administered, at 10.20, 10.50 and 10.58, and at 10.59 we arrived at the hospital.

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