Hang on, help is on its way

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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.

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 thing anyone else will find this useful or interesting, please share using the buttons below.

Twelve things I would tell my broken self

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Here are 12 things I wish someone had told me when I first started on the long and rocky road to recovering from a broken leg.

  1. This is going to take longer than you think. Don’t make plans.
  2. Accept all the help you’re offered, including home-help, and don’t be afraid to ask for more.
  3. Those tables they have in hospital, the sort with wheels that go under the bed and a tray that goes over it, are a must. Don’t wait months to ask for one.
  4. Fancy ergonomic crutches are so much more comfortable to use than the straight ones.
  5. Don’t get left alone without a phone, water, drugs, something to eat and a Thermos all within easy reach. And the remote control for the TV.
  6. Having a shower and getting dressed is enough to do in one day.
  7. Practical, comfortable clothes with lots of pockets (so you can carry things while using crutches) are going to be the go for a while. And don’t even think about wearing heels; they are years down the track.
  8. Healing takes a lot of energy. Sleep is the best medicine.
  9. Determination will not get you through this. In fact, it will be counter-productive. You need to go with what’s happening, however frustrating and unpalatable it might be.
  10. When the surgeon offers you the chance to have the rod taken out of your leg, say yes. Everything will get so much better after that.
  11. You are not in control of your life just now. Accept it.
  12. Remember what’s really important (family). Everything else you might have to let go.

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 thing anyone else will find this useful or interesting, please share using the buttons below.

 

 

 

Life in the pain lane

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Whangarei Base Hospital accident and emergency department, sometime before midnight, Sunday, November 24, 2014.

Life pivots around events that take place in seconds. Split seconds. A chance meeting, a lottery win, an accident. Events that take us and hang us upside down and shake us until the change falls from our pockets and our brains turn dizzy, and our sense of who we are and what we are is so thoroughly turned out and dusted that we can never be the same again.

In New Zealand, a quarter of us are disabled. According to official figures, in 2013 (the year in which I had an accident), more than one million New Zealanders were coping (or not coping) with some form of long-term disability. That’s a lot, when you consider there are barely 4.5 million of us in this country.

As you’d expect, impairment is most common in the elderly (59 per cent of those aged 65 or more). But don’t think that we middle-aged folk get off lightly; 38 per cent of those of us aged between 45 and 64 have some form of long-term impairment (lasting more than six months and affecting our ability to function). And disabilities affect 16 per cent of young adults (15 to 45) and 11 per cent of children.

The numbers are scary. One in every four people you meet is dealing with something. If you go into a school, every 10th child – that’s three out of a classroom of 30 – has to overcome some sort of hurdle (in the young, hearing, learning and psychological issues are the most common form of impairment) before they even start the day’s lessons.

Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. Hearing loss, blindness, developmental delays, psychological impairment, memory loss and intellectual impairment are all common disabilities. But among adults, at least, it’s physical impairment, caused by accidents or illnesses, that is the biggest problem.

Less money in the bank

What surprises me is that I’m one of those statistics. If you’ve been fit and healthy most of your life, you don’t expect to suddenly not be. You know you’ll slow down as you get older, your eyesight will fail and your muscles will wither, and you’ll probably need people to help you with some things, but you don’t expect to lose your fitness – your physicalness – in an instant.

The event that changed my life was a horse-riding accident, an occurrence so small in detail that sometimes it’s hard to trace the line that runs directly from there to here.

Admittedly, the accident came at the end of a tough year, and just a few weeks after I’d been made redundant from a job I loved, so I’d already drawn pretty heavily on the emotional, physical and financial capital I had in the bank.

Nevertheless, I expected to get through an accident in much the same way as I got through everything else, by hanging in and working hard. I didn’t imagine that a seemingly inconsequential decision, followed by a split-second occurrence, would spark a chain reaction that would turn the world upside down.

Unplanned and unwelcome

Neither did I realise that I was about to become a person I would despise – dependent, whiney, incapable and weak, who would make dreadfully bad decisions and fail at some critical moments.

Moving from the world of the “able” to the “dis-abled” (interesting that the “dis” form of the word always takes the past tense) was unplanned, unwelcome and unnerving. Part of me sought to divorce itself from the process and watch it objectively, so that I could write about it, because writing about issues, but also experiences, is what people of my ilk (journalists) do. But to my surprise, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t up to it. The ball of energy I had rolled through life on had been kicked into touch by my beloved horse’s stumbling legs, and I no longer had what it took to do what for me is the simplest thing on Earth – write.

Obviously, this had implications for my working life, and therefore my family’s income. For nearly two years I tried to push myself into working, because the ramifications of not working were too awful. And besides, it’s what people – including insurers – expected me to do. But it wasn’t until I stopped trying and gave myself the time and space I needed to get better that I started to make progress.

New Zealand is blessed to have a publicly funded health system (albeit a creaking one) providing free care for its citizens. We also have a full-cover, no-faults, national accident insurance scheme, called ACC. But the fact that, as a society, we show enlightenment about healthcare and insurance doesn’t mean that we don’t also have an attitude about “bludgers”. That is, in fact, what has finally made me set fingertips to keyboard; a few days ago I saw a bitter little post in a Facebook group about a person who was on “disability” (the poster probably meant getting ACC payments because he was unable to work because of a disability) but that didn’t stop him painting the house or going out.

We’re put here to work

It was heartening to see some people gently rebuke the poster for jumping to conclusions, or for taking the attitude that if you are unable to work, you shouldn’t do anything at all, but the majority of the comments took a hard line. Rehabilitation is not an instant process but a continuum; you aren’t disabled one day and at full strength the next. Our bodies take time to repair and then to build up strength again, and getting active around the house and going out is an essential part of that.

I know this from hard experience, and yet curiously, as I wrote these words I began to feel anxious about what people would think, because the work ethic is such a part of our culture that to be seen to lack it or doubt it is to put yourself outside the culture.

What I needed when I was injured was to be told that everyone is different and that the road to recovery is long and full of pitfalls. I also needed to know what practical issues I would face.

When I left the hospital, I asked for a brochure on what to expect. The staff told me there wasn’t one. This, then, is my attempt at a brochure, a user’s guide to having a broken leg, as it were. As I have time (I am now back at work full-time, so there was a happy ending), I will write posts about what I experienced and what I learned in case it’s of help to anyone else.

Please also feel free to ask questions or share your experiences.