‘The rod would strengthen my leg while the bone healed. My leg was now wrapped in a white plaster cast that went all the way around. I looked at it, and tentatively wriggled my toes. They worked. I settled in to my recovery, which, obviously, I would ace’
ADELIA HALLETT”S STORY ABOUT LIFE IN THE PAIN LANE WITH A SMASHED LEG FROM A HORSE-RIDING ACCIDENT (SEE PART 1 , PART 2 AND PART 3).
I was right, I did vomit. Coming out of anaesthetic is the strangest feeling; there is no sense of time having passed. It’s as if a split second after you were being put under you’re awake, but in a different place, and feeling dizzy and sick. Voices are calling your name, and for a bit you don’t know what’s happened, and then it comes back, and you realise that you’ve had the operation and you’re now in the recovery department.
Which, to me, was important, because that’s how I thought of it. There was the accident, the rescue, the repair job, and the recovery. I had got through phases one, two and three, and now I was on the home straight. My leg had been fixed. The surgeons had opened it up and shoved a titanium rod down the inside of my bone. Titanium. I had a mental picture of it blue-black and shiny. The rod would strengthen my leg while the bone healed. My leg was now wrapped in a white plaster cast that went all the way around. I looked at it, and tentatively wriggled my toes. They worked. I settled in to my recovery, which, obviously, I would ace.
There was just one cloud on the horizon. Before I went into the theatre, I had asked someone – an orthopaedic surgeon – about recovery time. I put the six-week, three-month formula I’d heard in accident and emergency to him. He laughed, and told me it would be three months to four months before I was walking, and much longer until I was back to normal. I wanted to think he was wrong, but I had to allow for the possibility that he might be right. Nevertheless, I thought I could still make the annual Maungaturoto Primary School trek in February. Okay, I mightn’t be able to walk properly, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t ride. Life was still good.
Back up the ward, I enjoyed my post-operative status. I was allowed to eat, and enthusiastically filled in the menu card for the next day’s meals. I chatted with my neighbours, comparing details of what had been done to me with what had been done to them, and optimistically told Sandy that I was still hoping to be allowed home on Wednesday (it was Tuesday). I even got a bit of sleep that night, although did spend quite of lot of it listening to long documentaries on the All Night Programme.
Hopes of going home the next day faded with the morning. I was helpless. Before my operation, all my personal needs had been met in my bed. Post-operatively, I was to get up to go to the toilet and to wash. I was happy about this, but fell at the first hurdle, so to speak, which was getting out of bed. Whole people lift their legs off the bed, swing them to the side and stand up. I realised that the standing bit might be hard, but surely I could get myself out of bed. It turned out I couldn’t. The co-ordination required, not to mention the flexing of leg muscles, wasn’t there. Getting out involved having a nurse lifting my legs off the bed and lowering them to the floor, after she’d helped me to roll on to my side and shuffle to the edge of the bed. Once I was upright and leaning against her and the bed, she rolled a walking frame into my grasp.
One of my roommates had been using one of these, and I had watched the technique. Push it forward and walk behind it. Not unlike pushing a child in a pram. The catch was that while I could do the pushing bit, my legs were having trouble with moving in a walking-like fashion. Balance was also a problem. I just couldn’t find it, and realised that without the nurse and the walking frame, I would be in a heap on the floor.
The bathroom was about 20 metres from my bed, across the hall and down a bit. The nurse helped me to the toilet, which had a metal frame over it, and a hand-basin beside it, and left me with a clean towel, gown and underwear. Which was all very well, until I realised that I couldn’t put my knickers on by myself. Think about it. Sit in a chair, and try to do it yourself. Unless you have super-long arms, or are unnaturally flexible, you have to bend your legs in order to able to bring your foot and your underwear into the same space. Add to that the fact that with your lower leg fat with plaster, you have to be able to stretch the leg hole in your undies at the same time that you put your foot through, and you’ve got a problem. I rang the bell and the nurse came and helped me.
Later, a nurse aide took me for my first shower. This time, I managed the walking frame a bit better, and was really looking forward to getting properly clean. The shower was a sitting-down affair, with a metal frame similar to the one over the toilet, and a removable nozzle. There was no question, as far as the nurse aide was concerned, of me being able to do it myself yet. She sat me in the chair and helped me to undress. My plaster cast wasn’t allowed to get wet, so she covered it in a huge plastic bag that was taped tightly at the top, turned the water on, and handed me the nozzle. By now I had been “up” for about 10 minutes and was feeling awful. I vomited, and it ran over my body and down the drain.
My companion was gentle and patient. She made clucking sounds and took over washing me, a process which I could have found invasive but instead found empowering. That’s a word I usually hate, but I can’t think of any other. Telling me that my dignity was the most important thing, this lovely, lowly-paid immigrant from Fiji said she had started training as a nurse, but preferred hands-on caring for people to the technical stuff. So, for not much more than the minimum wage, she and her husband work in our region’s largest hospital, helping people like me to get back to normal. As she brushed and plaited my wet hair, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed of the shabby way in which our society treats the people who care for us, while exhalting and rewarding those who cause the most damage. Bankers came to mind. I have nothing against them per se, but even when they’re not causing global financial melt-downs, is making profits from moving commodities and hot-air around the world really as important as looking after us when we are at our most vulnerable? Right then, I thought not, and it’s an opinion I haven’t changed.
My rehab-proper started in the afternoon, with visits from physio and occupational therapists. The physio measured me for a pair of crutches and demonstrated the correct way in which to use them (you can crutch incorrectly?), while the OT asked me questions about who I lived with (yes, there were two able-bodied people at home to look after me), whether we had stairs (two, down to the bathroom), and about the type of work I did. Being up would be good for me, she said, and arranged for a comfortable chair to be put by my bed. Unfortunately, this back-fired; as the day wore on, my cast started to get tighter, and during one of the frequent nurse-checks of the state of my foot, I revealed that it was a bit numb. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but the complaint got escalated. A more senior nurse appeared and went away, followed by a doctor. Eventually, the consultant came. He was cross to see me sitting up and told me to get back into bed. “Cut the cast,” he told the nurse. To me, he said that my leg was swelling because it wasn’t able to pump blood properly, and that it was really important that I keep it elevated. So back to bed it was. The cast was cut down its length to ease the pressure, and what seemed like half a dozen pillows were propped underneath me, holding my leg in the air. Later, they were replaced by a mean-looking metal contraption.
My personalised crutches (the physio had put layers of soft tape over the hard plastic handles) arrived the next day. Thursday. My fourth day in hospital. I was champing at the bit to get out, so I launched into crutching with enthusiasm. Too much enthusiasm. It’s harder than it looks, especially if you have no sense of balance any more, and are travelling over highly polished hospital floors. My wild swaying scared the bejesus out of the nurses on my first foray, to the bathroom and back. I was put back to bed and told that on no account was I to go crutching on my own just yet.
Overall, though, things were getting better. I could now shower and dress myself (except for the knickers – that remained a problem for months), and was feeling altogether more civilised. I chatted to visitors (mine and other people’s), sent texts near and far, and snoozed like a cat in the afternoon sun. That night our entire room got an almost-decent night’s sleep, possibly because we had all been there for a few days now and were starting to settle into the hospital’s beat. I had started to feel quite fond of my roommates and realised I would miss them. But that didn’t mean that I wasn’t determined to leave, the next day if possible.
Friday morning saw me on the phone dictating instructions to Sandy, who was putting out my weekly sustainable business magazine in my absence. He had offered to bring my laptop in so I could work, but I demurred. Instead, I begged some paper and a pen from a doctor, sketched out a story in the old way, and fired it down the phone to Sandy, who was taking copy (as we used to call it) at the other end. To be filing a story from my hospital bed didn’t seem in the least bit strange to me; I did, after all, file for the New Zealand Herald four days after my baby was born. It’s what I do. But what was strange was how much writing a short story tired me. I’ve been writing for more than 30 years, and can do it in my sleep, so to speak. Once I have identified the guts of a story, the words flow out of my brain and on to my computer almost without me being aware of them. But this story – about how the company Foodstuffs was using natural refrigeration in some of its supermarkets – made me work.
Later, the physiotherapist returned for my next crutching lesson – stairs. The hospital has a mobile wooden unit with two steps on each side, which it uses for training crutch novices. The technique is quite specific and counter-intuitive; going up – balance on your crutches, move your bad leg up, your good leg up and then the crutches. Going down – crutches, bad leg, good leg. The physio watched me closely as I practised, and eventually ruled that I was fit to be let lose into the world.
I had another session with the occupational therapist as well, planning and practising how I would get in and out of the shower. Our shower is over a bath, so she arranged for Sandy to pick up a long stool that I could slide along until I was under the water. She also provided plastic bags for my cast, and a frame for the toilet.
That just left the medical clearance. Sandy and Tom arrived while I was showering and changing into my going-home clothes, and we sat around together waiting for the final ok. The consultant had told me during his morning rounds that I would be allowed to go, but the Is still needed dotting and the Ts crossing. Eventually, we got the paperwork and I got my crutches ready, only to find myself bundled into a wheelchair. The orthopaedic ward is on the fourth floor of the hospital, and the nurses said that “walking” to the lift and taking it to the ground floor would be too much for me just yet. So I left the hospital in a wheelchair, my crutches slung across my lap. Sandy brought the car to the front door and I slid into the back, where I leaned against the door and draped my legs along the seat. “Take me home,” I said, and they did.
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