Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Shattered Leg, Shattered Dreams

May 2002 is a month I will never forget. The scars on my right leg, the numb patch down the inside, the fact that it is half an inch shorter than my left - these are permanent reminders of what happened to me one afternoon in early May.

It was a Sunday; I was training for the SMH half-marathon that was 3 weeks away. That morning I had done a long run and in the afternoon - bored, with little to do until work began the next morning - I hopped on my Trek road bike with its computer, aiming to measure out the run from that morning. These were the days before Garmin GPS running watches, so I had only a vague idea how far I had run, but of course I wanted to know more precisely. So off I set.

Towards the end of the ride, the sun was setting as I went speeding down a long hill on my way back to the resident accommodation where I was living. I had no idea that the sunset behind me made me invisible to the driver who was stopped waiting to turn right across my path. At the last second he suddenly turned and all I could do was squeeze the brakes and close my eyes: a collision was unavoidable.

I never lost consciousness but with closed eyes I don't know exactly what happened - the next thing I knew I was on the bitumen on the other side of the car, a new joint in the middle of my right tibia, blood streaming down my leg. My first thought? "This CANNOT happen to me, I'm a RUNNER."

But it had happened: a compound, comminuted mid-shaft fracture of my right tibia. My fibula was in 3 pieces and there were wounds on the inside and front of my leg. I was in deep, deep trouble. My running career was most likely over.

The paramedics were kind enough to give me enough IV morphine to kill a small horse (40mg, almost 1mg per kg at that point) in order to scrape me off the road and transport me to the hospital, where my boss was called and told "Your resident is on a stretcher in here, please come." He arranged to have me sent to my parent hospital - St Vincent's - in Sydney and kindly gave me even more drugs before my leg was put into a temporary plaster, such that I have no recollection of the event and in fact slept for about 8 hours afterwards.

At St Vincent's I was delivered into the care of an excellent orthopaedic surgeon, who spent most of the night putting my leg back together with extreme attention to detail and alignment - I am forever grateful to him for that - and left it looking something like this. He also put me into another plaster, pumped me full of intravenous antibiotics and made me stay in hospital for a week.

The bruise that came up on the back of my leg had to be seen to be believed:

After a week I was free to go home - not to my previous life, but to the care of my mother, since I was still fairly immobile. Also, you can't carry a plate when you have to walk with crutches. It's the little things that are so annoying.....

I look fairly happy/optimistic in this photo outside Mum's place, probably because I still think it's all going to heal up in 6 weeks (the textbook time frame that doctors quote whenever patients ask how long something is going to take to heal) and that I'll be out there running again in no time at all. How wrong I was.

Over 6 months later, I started to come to grips with the fact that my leg was not healing at anything like the pace I expected - and wanted - it to. I was still limping like a wounded soldier. I still could not run and my exercise options were the stepper at the gym or an exercise bike I had rented to use at home in order to preserve my hard-won fitness. At least I got the driver's insurance company to pay for that, but I hated every minute I spent on it. Minutes I wanted to spend RUNNING.

30 months post-accident, this was my x-ray. The fracture line is still clearly visible all the way around the tibia. I was still in pain all day, every day, and had also developed a painful neuroma from the cutaneous nerve that had been severed by the bone on its way out through the skin.

Some time about a year before this x-ray was taken, my original treating surgeon and I had an explosive difference of opinion about what should be done about the incredibly slow pace of healing - he was technically an excellent surgeon but had the people skills of an autistic badger - and we parted company. I went to see one of my bosses at the time (I was doing orthopaedics) for a second opinion, and he was reassuring that it would eventually heal, but as I was leaving said in an off-the-cuff manner, "You know, most athletes with this sort of injury would never be able to compete again."

I remember thinking, if not saying, "Well, I will prove you wrong then" - but it would take a long, long time for me to finally keep my word.

1 comment:

  1. "...the people skills of an autistic badger"

    Well, I'm thankful you managed to add one thing I could laugh at. Everything else is just horrifying. What a cruel twist that in the midst of a vexingly protracted recovery, you were completing, of all things, an ortho rotation. That's like someone just getting out of the woods from a heroin addiction being forced to take a job pasting fentanyl patches on nursing-home patients.

    This all makes my humble little fibula fracture look like a hangnail in comparison. Fortunately I know how this story here is all turning out and I don't have to suffer so much in the reading!