Lessons from Three Months in a Wheelchair

chair-89156_1280Today I got my doctor’s blessing to do what I haven’t been able to do for three months: walk.

Being sidelined because of a cracked tibia – the result of a freakish accident in late July – has taught me a few things. One is a new appreciation and respect for what permanently disabled people go through every day, and a determination to never again take the gift of mobility for granted. The other is profound gratitude for my family and friends because I could not have survived this without them.

I’d gone 60 years without breaking anything, so I guess my turn had come. My husband Bob and I were doing nothing more daring than wading in the Pacific Ocean, on a rare jungle-humid day in California, where we were visiting family. The sea was a delightful 76 degrees, so delightful that we never noticed how rough it was. A rogue wave broke just where we were standing, knocking us both over. A white-hot blade of pain shot through my knee, and after Bob and our son John helped me out of the water I realized that I could not walk.

Paramedics carried my off the beach on a stretcher, and the emergency room diagnosed a plateau fracture on the top of the left tibia. As I lay in the curtained-off exam room, uncomfortable in my pain and in a clammy, sand-packed bathing suit, I had no idea what was ahead. The next 24 hours were spent in an oxycodone-induced fog, then nausea that guaranteed I’d never touch oxycodone again.

Flew home to Boston two days later in a splint and met with an orthopedist soon afterwards. A surgery date was set. But then, I lost my balance while standing on crutches and also fractured my left wrist. So my entire left side was knocked out, my useless arm was in a cast for six weeks.

Recovery from my August 6 tibial surgery required 12 non-weight-bearing weeks, nearly all of it spent in a very uncomfortable “Bledsoe” brace that I cursed every day. On those hot days in August and September, my left arm itched and my bandaged leg swelled angrily against its unyielding cage.

It was pretty miserable.

So was canceling a planned once-in-a-lifetime trip (a cooking class in Italy), giving away the Moody Blues concert tickets, postponing the trip to see Bob’s cousins in New York. Even visits to friends’ homes were ruled out because they were not accessible. I couldn’t take my daily walks, or go to Mass or to Wegman’s with my mom, drive my teenaged son John around. On hot days I could only watch while family members enjoyed the backyard pool. While I tried hard not to complain or take it out on anyone, at times I really felt sorry for myself.

Yet believe it or not there were unexpected blessings from being sidelined, and new insights that I won’t forget. So here are the things I’m grateful for:

Family. This injury was hard on my husband, children, mother and siblings, too. They had to be personal care assistants, cooks, housekeepers, drivers, psychologists. I probably made it worse by feeling angry that I had to lean on them so much and reluctant to ask for things. I always tended to be the one “in charge” of the house, but I had to learn to let go and let them help. My mom holding my hand as I lay in pain the day after the injury; the attention and care from my in-laws as we awaited our plane ride home; the surprise visit from my West Coast daughter Rachel on Labor Day; my sisters, brother, sister-in-law and stepchildren cheerfully preparing meals in the kitchen; my husband tenderly helping me hobble to the bathroom; my son pushing the wheelchair outside so I could get fresh air…I am in awe of what they did for me.

New friends. Donna, a woman who lives in my town, heard of my predicament and lent us a wheelchair and ramp. Despite being in pain from rheumatoid arthritis and other problems, my roommate Bev in the rehab center always cheered me up. I’ll always remember watching the Sox and passing candy and other goodies back and forth to each other from our hospital beds. My daughter’s friend Ramy, a gifted hairstylist, cut and colored my hair over the kitchen sink.

Old friends. I never realized how uplifting a simple visit or phone call could be. My friends brought meals, comfortable clothes, candy, books, gossip. They took me out to lunch, brought coffee, drove to doctor’s appointments, drove John home from school activities. When they couldn’t visit, they called, Facetimed, sent cards. They have inspired me to be a better friend.

Great Doctors and Nurses. The best ones made me laugh and feel hopeful, including my anesthesiologist, who sang me to sleep before surgery with the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song. In rehab, cheerful Liberian nurses and assistants brought me my morning coffee at 6:30 a.m., washed my hair, sang songs and doled out smiles.

A new ability to laugh at myself. Word traveled fast around social media about my troubles, and amusingly, so did the misconceptions. A few people commented, emailed or called to talk about my “surfing accident.” I had to laugh ruefully and set them straight: my injuries were not the result of any daredevil activities or extreme sports. In characteristic klutz fashion, I hurt my leg while wading and my wrist while standing. But being able to laugh at this absurdity was very freeing.

Thoughtful gestures. A business colleague and friend sent an “igloo” machine that coddled my bum knee with a flow of ice water. My sister-in-law Erica brought clothes to the ER to replace my ruined bathing suit;  sister-in-law Linda sent photos and souvenirs from  the trip to Italy that I never got to take. My friend Susan brought a long skirt to me in rehab, telling me from experience that it will be easier to wear than pants. She was right.

Small victories. Moving from the bedpan to the bathroom; weaning off the painkillers; being able to open a jar with my left hand again; showering by myself. All felt exhilarating.

Things look different now that I’m up from the wheelchair and hobbling around.  It will be a while before I’m back to where I was. Some people say it takes at least a year — but I was lucky that it was not worse.  Now, as I push a walker, my injured leg balking mightily at being pushed back into service, I know that I’ll never see things the same way. A freak accident handed me a three-month vacation from most of life’s demands, and being on the sidelines was painful and frustrating at times. Yet it provided breathing room to marvel at the capacity for human caring, to reflect on my blessings, to think about ways I can care more and help others heal. That’s not totally a bad thing.