Back home in time for tea

Cody gave me a huge welcome home. The last he’d heard of me was when I was lying in the paddock, calling for help.

‘To have to depend on the goodwill – and awakedness – of others for tea seemed unbearable.’


There was only one thing on my mind when I got home from hospital with a broken leg: tea.

And pain, of course, made worse by having to negotiate a hundred metres of gravel driveway and an uneven concrete path, two gates, three steps and a squirming Cocker Spaniel, who thought I must have been still lying in the paddock calling for help as I was when he last saw me, five days ago.

Once inside, I collapsed on the couch and demanded tea. Proper, home-made tea made in my own kitchen and served in my own cup.

macdougall mug
What I wanted, more than anything, was proper tea served in my own cup.

Sandy, who had unloaded my bathroom equipment from the boot of the car while Tom carried my hospital bag and the
mountain of pillows I’d been ferried home on, put the kettle on. We drank tea
together, I took some drugs, and then I fell asleep. And that, basically, describes my
life for a while.

I had had an operation before, so was prepared to feel lousy for a bit after getting
home. I understood that that was part of the contract for fixing me up. We were living
in Auckland when I had my gallbladder removed in 2004. I had the operation, spent a
couple of days in hospital, came home, had meals in bed and afternoon naps on the
couch, and by the weekend I was ready to be bundled into the car and taken to the
world’s best fish-and-chip shop at Miranda (south of Auckland, on the Seabird Coast)
for a celebratory lunch; people with gallstones cannot eat fish and chips, and it had
been a while.

So I was prepared to be patient. A patient patient, if you like. As my first day at home
wore on, Sandy and Tom cooked dinner and fed animals and did the usual end-of- the-
day things. We caught up on news. Watched some television. I did a bit more sleeping
and took more pills.


couch bed
Bed on the couch; I was about to spend a lot of time here.

When it came time for bed, I issued instructions for making up a bed on the couch. This was partly out of consideration for Sandy (I knew I would be restless and there was no sense in both of us not sleeping), but mainly out of consideration for me; the thought of my leg getting accidentally knocked in the night made me turn white.

Sandy helped me to the bathroom and back, arranged a lamp and a torch within easy reach, along with the pills I would need to take in the middle of the night and a glass of water, and left me reading my book.

What I remember about that night is that it was hot. It was the 29th of November –
practically full-blown summer. Which in the north of New Zealand, where we live,
means hot sticky nights. Sandy left a window open behind me, and at some point in
the night I used a crutch to lever open another one above me.

The pain got bad and I took pills. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. They were behind my head, on the coffee table beside the couch. Between me and them was the couch arm. Too high, from my prone position, to reach over and pick them up. The options for an able-bodied person would be to prop herself up to reach them, or to hop out of bed and get them. It took me about 10 minutes and a lot of bumps to manoeuvre myself into the position where I could reach them. After that I kept them on the window sill.

The worst thing was going to the toilet alone. Eventually, I had to. Usually if I get up
in the night, I walk to the bathroom without turning on any lights, confident that I can
negotiate our house in the dark.

Image result for crutchesObviously that wasn’t going to happen for a while. I turned the lamp on (more squirming to reach the switch) and sat up on the edge of the couch. My crutches were on the floor below me. I pulled them to me with my good leg, took a deep breath, and heaved myself upwards.

It’s harder to get up on to crutches off something soft like a couch than from, say, a chair and table. Couches and easy chairs seem to be lower, which means you have to push yourself further to get upright, and their soft coverings don’t offer much of a firm foundation to push off from.

But I did it, and crutched my way through the lounge and the kitchen, my torch bobbing awkwardly along with me (where DO you put a torch when both hands are fully occupied with crutches?)

So far so good, but at the stairs I faltered. When I say stairs, I mean steps. Two of them, from the kitchen down to the laundry. Fortunately, they were only about two feet wide, with solid walls on either side, but to me, teetering at the top, they could have been the Grand Canyon.

I was sick with fear. All my hospital-steps- confidence was gone. I wished Sandy or Tom would wake up and help me, but drew the line at deliberately waking them. Somehow, I wobbled my way down and into the bathroom, but it was pretty hairy. By the time my pounding heart and I got back to the couch I was sweating and exhausted, and resolving not to drink any more water so I didn’t have to do it again that night.

The upside of wearing myself out was that I fell asleep. Besides, the drugs were kicking in again, pushing the pain back out of the overwhelming zone and into liveable.

It was dawn when I woke again, which at that time of the year, in this part of the world, is about 6am. Lying on my back, watching warmth seep into the grey light, I realised just how dependent I now was.

Often when I wake up early, especially in summer, I get up quietly, make a cup of tea, and enjoy the special early-day magic. At that time, I was part-way through a degree in geography, and would often curl up on the couch with a pile of textbooks for some undistracted reading.

Sometimes though, I would go out on to the deck and sit on the steps with my tea, and, with Cody the dog beside me, let myself wake up with the world.

Image result for kettle picture
I could make tea, I thought, as long as there was water in the kettle.

In theory, both were still options; you don’t use your leg to read, and the deck was just a few feet from where I was lying. But even if I could reach my textbooks (I couldn’t carry them and crutch), my brain was too foggy for that sort of reading, and after the night-time bathroom performance, going outside on my own (change of levels from the house to the deck, wooden slats slippery with dew) wasn’t an option.

So I concentrated on that most basic of morning rituals, a cup of tea. I had proven I could get to the kitchen, albeit in dodgy fashion. The kettle is on the bench by the stove. The sink – and therefore the water supply – is on another bench that isn’t connected to the bench with the kettle, so being able to boil the jug would depend on whether Sandy had left any water in it. The cups are in the cupboard above the kettle, and the tea is in a caddy beside the kettle. So far so good.

Getting milk from the fridge could be a bit of a problem, but I should be able to reach it with one arm, and if not, I could drink it black if I had to.

But then I ran, metaphorically speaking, smack into a brick wall. How was I going to carry my tea back to the couch with both hands fully involved in the task of driving my crutches? Briefly, I contemplated leaning against the bench to drink it, but really I knew that standing upright for that long wasn’t feasible. My leg would swell and throb, and my head would get dizzy –conditions beyond the miraculous healing powers of tea.

And so I waited. And as I did I was filled with despair more overwhelming than
anything I had so far gone through. I had thought that lying in the paddock unable to
get help was bad. Then I thought that needing help for the most basic functions in life,
like going to the toilet and putting on my own knickers, was bad. But this was a new low.

You might have already guessed – especially if you have read my Tea On The Road blog – that tea plays a big part in my life. I come from a long

Tea at Mum’s.

line of tea drinkers.  Some of my earliest memories are of listening to my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins talking and laughing while they drank tea in the farmhouse kitchen. Whenever something happens, we reach for the teapot. Sandy and I will go out for coffee, and then as soon as we get home will make a cup

Tea lubricates our lives, making any obstacles surmountable. To have to depend on the goodwill – and awakedness – of others for tea seemed unbearable. Tears slid down my cheeks and I slid into self-pity. How on Earth would I get through this? I would be in a cast for at least six weeks. The ramifications of not being able to function even on a basic level were, I now realised, overwhelming.

*To find out how I got in this position, see my earlier posts, starting with this one.

The taming of the screw (and other drama)


‘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’


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.

walking frameOne 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 frameshower 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 white man and crutchestherapists. 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.

*I would love to hear from you – please send me a message  or leave a comment below with your thoughts, comments or experiences. And if you think it anyone else will find this useful or interesting, please share using the buttons below.


Wasted days and wasted nights

threatre doors

‘Now I was a pile of wreckage in a place I didn’t want to be, and I was going to have to admit what had happened’

Adelia Hallett continues her story about life in the pain lane with a smashed leg (see part 1 and part 2)

Monday, November 25, 2013: It was a long night, despite being more than half over by the time I got to bed.  Nurses woke me to check my pulse, ask me about my pain levels (eight, on a scale of one to 10, bearing in mind that I’ve given birth and had gallstones), and to administer drugs. The cotton wool given to me to put in my ears when I came

A hospital bed is not the place I planned on being that day

up from Accident and Emergency helped to block out some of the noise, but was no use against the bright lights and throbbing engines of the emergency helicopter landing on and taking off from the helipad on the roof below the ward windows.  At some point, another patient was moved into the bed opposite me. It took a lot of staff, and, from what I could hear, equipment, to lift her on to the bed, and, judging by her cries, she was in even worse pain than I was.

Inevitably, the tea I’d drunk in accident and emergency caught up with me, and my bladder sent me a message to do something about it. Lesson one in life without the use of one of my legs; even the most rudimentary aspects of looking after myself were now a hurdle. It was getting on for dawn, and the nurses were black shadows buzzing through the grey light. I called one over, told her my problem, and she got me a bedpan. I had never used one before, but needs-must, and I gave it a go. I mightn’t have positioned it properly, or my bladder might have been so full that it exceeded the bedpan’s capacity, but urine seeped up the back of the hospital gown I was wearing and soaked the bed. 

It’s hard to explain how helpless and humiliated I felt. It was worse than lying in the paddock calling for help. There was, at least, a certain nobility to that; I was a fallen warrior. Now, I was a pile of wreckage on a bed in a place I didn’t want to be, and I was going to have to admit what had happened and ask for help. The nurse who answered my bell was kind. Perhaps she could see how close to tears I was. Perhaps she had seen it before. She got me into a clean gown, changed the sheet, and gave me a cloth to wash my face with. I felt better. The ward had gone quiet, there was a lull in helicopter traffic, and I slept.

Life looked brighter when I woke the next time. It was morning proper, and sun was coming in through the windows. The ward was bustling with activity. Jayne, who had been stranded at the hospital with no way to get home and had been given a bed somewhere, sneaked in with her teddy bear hot water bottle under her arm to see how I was and to tell me she was going home. I rang Sandy to say I was still alive, and at 7.28am fired a text off to close family and friends, letting them know what had happened: “In hospital, horse stood on my leg, might operate today”.  I hadn’t realised before how cheering get-well platitudes could be. A gratifying number of texts fired back at me, and my sister and my stepmother (a nurse) rang immediately.

By now breakfast was being served, but I was nil-by-mouth. I took it stoically; I naturally have low blood-sugar levels, and missing morning or afternoon tea, let alone a major meal, is usually a major drama for me. But there was good news to come. Into the morning chaos came the doctors on their rounds. I was prodded and poked and asked about my pain level (down to 7.5), and then the consultant – the big guy – arrived. He told me a lot of things which I didn’t really take in, about my injury and how he planned to treat it, but what I did understand was that he said I could have breakfast, as my operation wouldn’t be performed until late in the afternoon. Yes! The gluey porridge and soggy toast the nurses managed to rustle up for me (when the breakfast orders were done I had still been gloriously injury-free, with no intention of needing a hospital breakfast) were surprisingly palatable, and the tea had the power to right the world’s wrongs. Or at least mine.

The healing powers of tea should not be underestimated – especially in hospital

Sandy and Tom arrived shortly after breakfast, with a bag of things from home. Sandy was smiling but Tom looked anxious. He patted me a few times, then launched into an explanation about how the radio and headphones he’d brought me worked.  I filled them in as best I could on what the doctor had said, and said I thought I might be home on Wednesday.

After they left I drifted. I didn’t feel like reading, and while I said hello and exchanged brief medical information with my roommates, I didn’t feel like talking either. At some point I heard one of the women telling a visitor that they missed the previous occupant of my bed, who had apparently been quite chatty. “I think this one must be in a lot of pain,” she said.

Shortly after three, a nurse came and told me that I was “going down next” to theatre, and started to prep me. Then she left. Fifteen minutes later she was back with the news that I had been bumped off the surgery list for the day. Something more urgent had come up. I am a great supporter of our creaking public health system, but at that moment I cursed it. Inwardly, of course, but with venom. My head understood the concept of treating the most urgent cases first, but the rest of my body didn’t. It was broken and sore, and crying out for attention. On the up side, I could eat again, and it was only a short wait until dinner at 5pm. Then I settled in for what would turn out to be one of the longest nights of my life. Longer than the previous night, with all its drama, and longer even than the night my son was born. Both of those nights had been filled with events. Things were happening, and I was heading towards resolutions.

This night was just long and lonely. I tried to sleep, but it was elusive. I read for a bit, but my brain wouldn’t concentrate on the story. I listened to the radio. But most of the time I just lay there. A couple of my roommates were also having bad nights, and there were repeated flurries of nurses in and out of the room. I felt sorry for all of them – patients and nurses. The patients needed help, and there weren’t enough nurses to give it to them. My brain wasn’t sharp enough to grasp the details of what was happening, but I did pick up the sense of desperation coming from the patients, and harried compassion from the nurses. They called colleagues from other parts of the ward to help them give my room-mates the attention they needed (nursing is a surprisingly physical job, sometimes requiring three or so to do what needs to be done for a patient). That left a shortage in other parts of the ward. Bells rang. Nurses ran back and forth. I tried to lie quietly, knowing that my needs weren’t as urgent, as compelling, as overwhelming.

But overwhelm me they did. Some time in the night I pressed the bell. The activity around the bed opposite me was slowing. A nurse peeled off and came over to me. I told her that my leg was really sore, and to my surprise I found tears running down my face.

morphine pump
The morphine pump – my new best friend

She was kind. Motherly, even though she was younger than I was, and (I later found out), didn’t have children. She soothed me. She made the night seem less endless. And most importantly she gave me strong painkillers and told me that I should be using the morphine pump attached to my arm every 10 minutes or so. “You can’t overdose on it,” she said, “it won’t let you. But you need to keep on top of the pain.”

And so another night passed. Once again the morning seemed more cheerful than the night had, and I knew the drill. The doctors appeared again and assured me that I would be operated on that morning. I was changed into a surgical gown, my jewellery was removed (for some reason, the ring I was wearing was taped to my finger), and I was loaded on to a gurney. “Good luck,” my roommates said, and I gave them a thumbs-up.

Down in the theatre suite, the orderly who was pushing me told me that he also worked as an ambulance officer, and had heard my accident called in. People introduced themselves and explained again what they were about to do to me. I told the anaesthetist that I tended to vomit when coming around (he made a note), and I admired the theatre lights, which, from my prone position, looked sculptural and space-age. “We get them at Lighting Direct,” one of the surgeons quipped. And that’s the last thing I remember.

Next post – The Recovery  – posted soon

*If my belief in the curative powers of tea seems naive, think on this: researchers are investigating whether the humble cup of tea could combat killer infections like anthrax and hospital superbugs.

I would love to hear from you – please send me a message  or leave a comment below with your thoughts, comments or experiences. And if you think it anyone else will find this useful or interesting, please share using the buttons below.


Hang on, help is on its way


‘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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This is what happened…


‘This time he bolted, stomping on my leg with his right hind hoof in the process’

Adelia Hallett’s story of life in the pain lane with a smashed leg

Sunday, November 24, 2013.  It was one of those weekends where you don’t seem to get through all the things you’d planned to do. I really wanted to ride my horse; A: because I love riding him, and B: because I was going away on a trek the following weekend and didn’t want him – or me – to be too unfit.

But by late on Sunday afternoon I still hadn’t done it. So I made a choice: rather than a hurried ride now, I would go after dinner so that I could relax and enjoy it without feeling I had to hurry home. It’s possible that that decision contributed to me winding up in a hospital bed – horses are spookier in the evening when the shadows are long and when instinct is telling them that predators are out to feed.

But that was still ahead of me. My horses graze in a paddock about 10 minutes from our house. A friend lived in a house next to the paddock. I popped in to see if she was coming, but she was watching a movie. Kaycee, my 16-hand Standardbred gelding, was my horse of choice that day, and my friend had left him in the yards for me. He bob-bobbed at me when he saw me, assuming he was getting food, but instead I tacked him up and we set off.

It was a great ride, one of those truly memorable days that sticks in your mind because of the way you felt. I came to riding late – in my early forties – after quietly hankering after a horse since childhood, and I still marvel at the fact that I’m really doing it. I am also eternally grateful that I live in a place where it is possible for someone without money to indulge in an occupation which in most parts of the world belongs to a privileged few.

A painting in pink and blue

For years, I’d ridden on the farm neighboring my horse paddock. It’s a couple of hundred acres of rolling country, some of it steep, and Kaycee and I knew it well. That evening it was more beautiful than usual. It was late spring/early summer, and the light was fat and golden. There’s a spot on the farm, after you’ve come round the house, down the hill, through the boggy bit, up the other side, through the wooden gate that’s always hard to open, where you crest a hill and you’re looking out over the harbour. This part of the Kaipara is full of mangroves and salt-marshes, and on that evening they were painted pink and blue in the late sunlight.

Kaycee and I stopped as we always did and looked over the world, then I nudged him left and we headed into the farm. Something I have come to realise is that you can’t ride a horse without connecting with him or her. Riding a living creature is not like riding an inanimate piece of machinery like a bike or a motorbike.

Horses allow us to sit on their backs. They choose whether to do as we ask. I have a long way to go in developing finesse in my riding skills, but I’ve got as far as realising you don’t turn them left or right by pulling on the reins like a steering wheel, or make them go forward by kicking their sides like an accelerator. You ask. Nicely, and occasionally, firmly if you need to. The more you and a horse work together, the better you get at it knowing what the other wants or needs.

Kaycee, or Waikaycee, to give him his professional name, is a retired race horse, a Standardbred pacer who was on the track until he was nine. He had some limited success, but his driver told me that he seemed to think it was rude to pass other horses. He enjoyed racing, she said, but didn’t have the killer instinct that makes a great race horse. He came to me by a circular route, as horses do. After he left the track, his owner – a country woman who had bred him and loved him – gave him to a woman “up north” as a hack. She, however, had been daunted by him, and he’d gone to a trekking operation which got caught up in a scandal over malnourishment of the horses. I met him the following year, when he was living with a friend who had adopted him and nursed him back to health. Because he was grazing in the same paddock as our horses (my son was riding in those days), I saw him nearly every day and we became friends. When his owner returned to the United Kingdom, she gave him to me because, she said, she knew he liked me and that he would be loved.

A moment of truth

The horse I’d been riding up until then was a zippy little white Throughbred, also a rescue horse. I loved her, but she was getting old. Kaycee was my succession plan. I’d ridden him once or twice before my friend left, but our first real outing was a group trek. I thought I was used to hills, but these hills were in a different class. Not far into the ride, we came to a steep slope that we had to get down.

Some people – experienced riders – got off and let their horses make their own way down. When it came to our turn I had no idea what would happen, but I loosened off the reins and pushed Kaycee forward. Right at that moment I knew we would be okay together. He stood at the top of the slope, sized it up, and set off. His front end disappeared beneath me. I clamped my legs on to his flanks, put my weight in my heels, and leaned back against his rump, which had reared up behind me like the back of a chair. We slid most of the way down.

Later on that same ride I fell off. I had assumed he would walk through a small ditch, like all the other horses were doing, but at the last minute he decided to jump, lurching me out of the saddle. I toppled sideways in slow motion and hit the ground. Kaycee, somewhat surprised to see me down there, stood motionless while I dusted myself off and found a place where I could mount again.

By the end of that ride we’d made our pact; I decide what direction and at what speed, and he picks the route. It’s a deal we stuck to, by and large, in the years since then.

The old surge of adrenaline

He’s a smart horse. At the top of a hill he stops and looks around, then starts zig-zagging his way down, picking a route that isn’t too steep and that offers sure footing. I sit on top of him, relaxed, holding the reins where they buckle together (so he’s got plenty of room to move his head) in one hand, with the other behind me for balance, either resting on his back or, when the going gets a little hairy, holding on to the back of the saddle. He does this for me. I’ve seen him charge, rider-less, down steep hills at a gallop, but I’ve had to remind him only a few times that he can’t do this with me on board, and then it’s been when horses with better riders are racing past him and he feels a surge of the old racing adrenaline. He might have been a race horse who thought it was rude to pass his friends, but he certainly wasn’t one who wanted to be left behind.

But for all the companionship and rules-of-engagement we’ve developed, we do have our arguments. And like any couple, they’re usually at home. Kaycee doesn’t like being ridden out alone. He can’t see the point in it. Horses are naturally reluctant to leave the herd (watch any nature documentary and you’ll see why; the animals who are picked off by predators are those who stray by themselves), and on top of that, solo rides are often boring. There’s no-one to race. So often when we ride out alone, he’s reluctant heading out, and eager as soon as we turn for home. So eager that we have major disagreements if I ask him to do anything on the way home.

But not that night. We rode out at a walk, following the track that runs along the ridgeline beside the road. On our right, across the road and beyond more farmland, lay the harbour. To our left the land fell away, to ponds and an area that’s swampy in winter, before rising up again to an even higher ridge with an old Maori pa site.

Bulls to all that

Eventually we got to an electric tape that was being used to keep a group of young bulls in one part of the paddock. Going further would mean getting off, unhooking the tape while holding Kaycee, leading him through, turning and hooking up the tape again, all the while being careful not to let it touch either of us. Then we’d have to make our way through the bulls to another tape. I’ve done it many times, but on that night I decided not to. Bulls tend to cluster around in a way that makes me nervous (my wariness of bulls verges on fear).

Instead, we turned left and I pushed Kaycee down into the paddock. Now the conditions were right for a classic head-for-home-type fight. He’d brightened as soon as I turned, assuming we were heading back to the herd and the feed he suspected I had waiting for him, but instead I asked him to go in a direction that was 90 degrees away from home.

Usually, he’d keep turning toward the track home as soon as I relaxed, but on that night he didn’t. He seemed to be enjoying the ride as much as I was. We walked along the tapeline to the bottom of the paddock, turned left again and walked across until we got to the fence line on the other side, then I gave him a quick nudge and we surged up the hill at a fast trot.

Standardbreds are born to trot. The breed arose in the United States in the late 19th century specifically for harness racing, in which horses pulling a cart and drivers race against each other. The “standard” part of their name refers to the fact that they had to do a mile in less than two-and-a-half minutes to qualify. Although in his racing days Kaycee was a pacer, meaning he moved the two legs on his left side and then the two legs on his right side in a gait which is fast but can be challenging to ride (your hips swivel like a washing-machine agitator), as a ridden horse he trots.

Trotting uphill is a good thing

And does he trot. I’ve had him open up in a full trot on the beach and it’s like riding a machine. His legs go like pistons, the rhythm is amazing, and he gets faster and faster. The first time we did it we were riding with a friend who was in a canter trying to keep up with us, and verging on a gallop when she asked us to stop.

He didn’t quite do that on that night, but we powered up the hill, our senses tuned into each other and enjoying the thrill of speed. Trotting uphill is good for building fitness, so when we turned into the next paddock we did the same thing again. Once again he didn’t argue, and this time when we got halfway back up the hill again I sat back in the saddle and let him go into a canter.

In the next paddock we had to go to the bottom of the hill and then up the hill and through the narrow bit by the house. Past the house, we usually turn left and head for home, but on this night I pushed him down the hill on the other side. This hill is steep and runs down into a shady, damp area which none of my horses like. I ride them up and down it when I want to do some exercise and haven’t got time to ride out. Kaycee in particular usually needs coaxing to go down, but on that night down we went no questions asked. When I turned him around he didn’t need any encouragement to go; as soon as I squeezed his flanks we were off. This time we didn’t even pretend to start out with a muscle-building trot; we were racing.

This hill is steep, so I stood in the saddle to get my weight off his back and leaned slightly forward. Although he wasn’t particularly fit and we weren’t going as fast as we have at times, I was struck once again by the sheer strength of my horse. I could feel the power driving up from his back legs, while his front legs pulled us up the hill.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing

Towards the top we veered right and had a short canter along the flat before I started pulling him in. There was an electric tape across the paddock which, with hindsight, I could have – should have – left open on the way out, but didn’t because I wasn’t completely sure that there was no stock in a part of the paddock I couldn’t see.

Kaycee came back to Earth, as I think of it, as we neared the tape. I was slightly worried that he wouldn’t see it in the half-light and would go charging to the yards like we used to do, but he listened to me saying that wasn’t going to happen and came back to me. His breathing slowed and he dropped into a trot and then a walk and then stopped. I slid to the ground, slipped the reins over his head and led him to where the tape was hooked up to the fence.

Through we went, but when I went to hook the tape back up again it was difficult. Kaycee was acting a bit strangely, so I decided to leave it on the ground and come back to it. Where we were now was only a short walk from the yards. Such a short walk, in fact, that it was hardly worth getting back on, but I was enjoying the ride so much that I wanted to squeeze the last bit out of it.

Getting on to a tall horse from the ground can be a challenge when you’re not very flexible (I could never touch my toes, not even as a child), so I led him to one of the small mounds of dirt dumped in the paddock by a digger that had graded the driveway. Standing on it, I gathered the reins, my crop and a handful of mane in my left hand and lifted my left leg to put it in the stirrup.

Run first, think later

That’s when it happened. The electric tape which I had left loose flapped in a sudden breeze. It wasn’t very dramatic, but to Kaycee it was. My trusty, dependable, sensible horse jumped sideways into me. From where I was, teetering on one leg with most of my weight against him, I could see the whites of his eyes and the alarm on his face. I slid down his side and hit the dirt.

Then I was on my back and he was over me. His legs were dancing out in all directions as he tried to avoid me (he’s saved me like this before), but by then he was well and truly spooked. Horses have survived for millennia because of their speed. They run first and think later. We humans have harnessed that speed for our own purposes. We’ve desensitised them to things that would panic a wild horse, and we’ve taught them to listen to us even when they are scared.

But there is a limit. From Kaycee’s point of view, the scary snake or whatever it was had just got me and he needed to get out of there. This time, there was no standing still while I got myself together and got back on. This time he bolted, stomping on my leg with his right hind hoof in the process.

Next post – The Rescue

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