Yes, it began with pizza.
Not just any pizza, but the best-tasting concoction ever: a Hawaiian pizza smothered in cheese, pineapple, ham, and bacon. On that cold January night, I craved it above all else.
I picked the pizza up; I’ve lived in cold climates nearly every winter of my life, so delivery? Nope. When I returned, the parking lot behind my apartment complex was dark, but there was a clear path from my car to the back door of the apartment building. Or so I thought. As soon as I took the fragrant box from the back seat, I hit a patch of ice and everything – me, the pizza, and my dignity – flew into the air.
Landing with a thud, I then heard a crunch that sounded really, really bad. As I looked at my left leg now bent into an impossible angle, my next thought was born out of sheer idiocy: “I really wanted that pizza.” That thought didn’t last long. I looked again at my leg, and the pain began. I started to wail.
Miraculously, a window opened and a man’s voice called, “Do you want me to get him?” I whimpered an assent, relieved that I wouldn’t freeze in the parking lot. The “him” in question was my boyfriend Greg, who rushed out to the parking lot. I told him to drive to the hospital, and fast! I dragged myself over to the passenger’s side of the car and crawled inside. Thankfully, the closest hospital is about a mile from home, and even more miraculous, the ER was practically empty.
Greg rushed into the ER to procure a wheelchair. As he attempted to shove me through the snow in the lot, laughed hysterically, the first line of defense. Inside the ER, I was whisked to x-ray quickly and diagnosed with a broken ankle. Then the fun part: putting me back together.
The staff was amazed at my composure, as I was lucid and not sobbing. The doctor said, “I’ve had people come in here with injuries not nearly as bad as yours, and they freak out all over the place.”
“I guess I’m made of tougher stuff,” I smiled weakly. “Or just in shock.”
After getting the bones into place, slapping on a plaster cast, and getting fabulous painkillers, I was instructed to return on Tuesday to speak with the orthopedic surgeon. Because of the extent of the injuries there was a chance I’d need surgery. I was given a pair of crutches and pushed back through the snow to my car. We were there under two hours; not bad for a trip to the ER.
After crawling up the stairwell to my second-story apartment, I attempted to hobble through the apartment on crutches. Almost immediately, my feet flew out from under me and I landed on my butt. Loudly. Greg lost it. I probably giggled (did I mention the painkillers?).
I called my boss and left him a message that I wouldn’t be in for awhile. Little did I realize that this event – which was already a big deal for someone in her forties who had never broken any bones – would alter the trajectory of my life.
On Tuesday, I met with Dr. Wopperer. A tall, imposing fellow with a serious expression and deep voice, all he needed was a short examination of my x-rays to spot trouble. “You need surgery,” he said without much preamble. “Go to admissions and get a room right away. I want to operate tomorrow.”
The surgery itself was done with no complications. Afterward, Dr. Wopperer came by to tell me it was a bad break that required a titanium plate and five screws to allow the bones to heal correctly. I would have a cast for about eight weeks, and was looking at several months’ worth of physical therapy once it came off.
My first attempt at levity was born: “At least it happened in winter. Who wants to go out in the snow, anyway?”
This didn’t last. I had to follow up with the doctor in a couple of weeks, then about once a month until fully healed. In addition, he put me on the blood thinner Coumadin to prevent blood clots; I had to visit a nearby lab once a week for testing to make sure it wasn’t affecting me adversely.
I rented a wheelchair after the first week of blood tests, when hobbling down icy, treacherous sidewalks on crutches proved to be exhausting and painful. The lab itself was in the middle of a large office complex, so getting there from the parking lot had me in tears. I felt weak and stupid for letting something so seemingly inconsequential completely wreck what little optimism I had.
Then other issues arose. The case worker from work called, and could not fully comprehend why I couldn’t return. I hadn’t even begun PT yet; the cast hadn’t even come off. As a salesperson anchored to a desk all day, I could not elevate my ankle above my heart at the office as my doctor required.
But it was that very act of sitting and elevating my foot that almost unwound me completely. Being forced into inactivity was dreadful. And this deepened into outright claustrophobia on a couple of occasions, when I threatened to saw off the cast with a kitchen knife because I needed, so badly, to feel my toes wiggle again.
My well-meaning sister tried to help. She gave my phone number to a friend of hers who went through a similar situation, and told her to give me a pep talk. Having a stranger feed me platitudes was not what I wanted. When the inevitable call came, I ignored it. The message my sister’s friend left made me surlier than ever, especially when she chirped “It’ll get better!” Ugh. I was stubbornly unable to feel gratitude.
My increasing depression and misery also affected my relationship with Greg. As a law student, he could escape to classes. But he always came right home afterward, and helped me with something he’d never done before: grocery shopping. He did the first round himself but found himself in the throes of a bit of his own anxiety, attempting to navigate the monstrous store aisles. So we started to go together, which turned out to be a boon for me as well; I was no longer trapped endlessly indoors. I zipped to one part of the store while Greg shopped in another – divide and conquer! – and found that people in my neighborhood were very helpful to the lady in the wheelchair. Trips to the store became a social experiment, and the results were pleasing.
As the healing process took longer than anticipated, my job was eliminated “per company policy.” I’d never been unemployed before, so I again I attempted to muster enthusiasm. I rationalized that with my past work history, a new job would come along soon. I even thought that the online paralegal class I’d taken while incapacitated would make me invaluable (I forgot that I had zero practical experience). When employers did not begin actively courting me, I had naiveté enough to be surprised.
Weary of rejection, I turned to something a friend had nagged me to do for years: The National Novel Writing month goal of creating a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. After years of sighing about wanting to be an author, I kind of was one! Writing each day created the first cracks in the wall that had been building up around me for almost a year.
However, I did still deal with fallout from the broken ankle. My original surgeon referred me to another specialist, baffled that there was still so much pain. The second specialist ordered an MRI and CT. After waiting for months to get approvals from the insurance company, he discovered a small piece of bone was missing from my ankle. This caused early arthritis and would continue to plague me as I aged, and necessitate possibly more surgery.
I chose not to pursue disability, no desire to be housebound or immobile. With unemployment benefits about to end, I redoubled my efforts to find work. My perseverance paid off: almost a year after losing my job, I was offered another, closer to home and not glued to a chair for an entire shift.
Despite everything, one of the things I was grateful for was time with my cat Ridley. He developed lymphoma and because I was home, I could spot his illness quickly. He received extra love and comfort in his final days.
The most positive outcome was the eventual strengthening of my relationship with Greg. For other couples, that much “together time” would be poison. Not so with us. We began writing projects together, and have become better friends than I ever thought I could be with a significant other.
And while I regretted it at first, that pizza? I did finally eat it. It was delicious.