27: One Step at a Time

27: One Step at a Time

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

  
One Step at a Time

The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.
~John Pierpont Morgan

Imagine a Type B person trying to be a Type A. That was me a year ago. There were assignments to finish, new computer programs to learn, invitations to accept, obligations to fulfill, problems to fix. No matter how many items I checked off my To Do list, it always seemed to get longer. I was feeling tired and stressed but was reluctant to let anything go, to say “no.” Truthfully, I enjoyed most of these tasks but found myself using them as excuses to avoid dealing with some health issues and taking an honest look at my priorities.

My only nod in the health direction was an evening walk. I always feel better after a brisk constitutional. It’s the exercise and endorphins, I know, but it’s more than that. To me, walking means freedom—the comforting expectation that my legs will always be available to move me from place to place, one step at a time.

One morning in March, my husband Jerry and I decided to go on a four-mile hike. The coastal area had experienced heavy rains a month earlier and during the muddy days, off-road vehicles had torn up the landscape, turning the normally flat terrain into a labyrinth of dirt dunes. Now the mud had dried. As we navigated down one of the dunes on our way to the trail, my right foot slipped on a surface layer of loose, crumbly soil. I tried to regain my balance, but my foot had slipped too far. As I fell, I remember looking at my left leg, which hadn’t moved and was bent at an odd angle. Then I heard the crack, felt the searing pain, and knew immediately that my leg was broken.

The days after my ambulance ride were a blur of hospitals, X-rays, tests, pain medications and surgery to install a titanium plate and ten screws that would hold together my shattered fibula and broken ankle bones. “It’s the worst break I’ve ever seen,” my doctor said. I was devastated and scared. “When can I walk again?” I wanted to know. “Four to six weeks,” he replied. It sounded like a lifetime.

At first I was so weak from surgery I had a hard time adjusting to the crutches. The thought of falling terrified me. One evening, while Jerry was at work, our electricity went out. I sat in the dark, afraid to move, and obsessed about how helpless I would be if a burglar broke in. When our building elevator stopped working for several days, I agonized over how I would get down the stairs if a fire broke out.

Simple things I had taken for granted were now arduous tasks while balancing on crutches: washing, brushing my teeth and hair, fixing meals, even lowering myself to sit on the throne, then getting up again with a single leg that wasn’t up to the challenge of lifting all my weight. Instead of a full cast, the doctor had immobilized my leg with a splint. “Be careful you don’t bump or twist it,” he told me, so I covered the bed with pillows and readjusted my position with every twinge, worried that I would misalign my bones during sleep.

Most of my time was spent either propped up in bed or in a living room recliner chair following doctor’s orders to keep my swollen foot elevated. To reduce the need to move, I surrounded both spots with bottles of water, snacks, vitamins, books and other essentials.

Little by little, I adjusted to my new circumstances. Tall stools positioned at the bathroom sink and in the kitchen allowed me to sit whenever I needed to ease pressure on the remaining leg. A sturdy laundry hamper next to the commode enabled me to push myself into a standing position. Working the crutches built up my arm strength and I was able to maneuver more easily. I even started to enjoy discovering alternate ways to get things done. While my hands were occupied with the crutch handles, I could carry items from room to room in a fanny pack, or push larger, heavier objects along the carpet, between hops, using one rubber crutch tip. And I found the crutches to be handy arm extenders for plucking objects that were just beyond my reach. “You’ll learn some new tricks on those crutches,” a wise friend told me. She was right.

My husband immediately adapted to his new job as caregiver. Before leaving for work each morning, he fixed me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast and refilled my water bottles. Evenings and weekends, he made simple meals and tended to all my needs. In the beginning, when I felt especially vulnerable, he lovingly bathed me, scrubbing my back and washing my hair. The bond between us deepened.

Friends also came to the rescue, fixing meals and offering support. Ironically, a friend living in another state had broken her leg and ankle just two months before my accident. She phoned every week, my guide on this unfamiliar journey, and we compared our common recuperation, sharing experiences, coping techniques and laughter about the predicament in which we found ourselves. The companionship lifted my spirits.

Weeks turned into months. The doctor had ordered physical therapy to increase the mobility of what he jokingly called my “bionic” leg, but I was still not permitted to walk. That made me reluctant to venture outside my apartment. There were times I feared that I would never be able to walk normally or without pain. To alleviate the worry and depression that set in, I knew I needed more exercise. But how? Then it dawned on me: bed exercises. Leg lifts, stomach crunches, hamstring stretches, muscling homemade weights. I must have looked like an overturned turtle, lying on my back amid the pillows, arms and legs flailing in the air.

After five months, I was allowed to take my first full-weight-bearing, tentative steps in hospital-prescribed footwear. The bulky, knee-length black boot made me look like a Star Wars storm trooper, but it reduced the pressure on healing bones and soft tissue. A month later, I slipped eagerly into my athletic shoes. My gait was awkward at first and I leaned on one crutch for balance. But with practice, the blood vessels, muscles, tendons and ligaments, damaged during surgery and withered from lack of use, gradually adjusted to the job demanded of them.

Now I’m walking comfortably. And there have been other improvements. I’ve had plenty of downtime to think about what’s important to me. Allocating more time for healthy eating and exercise is at the top of my list, as is paying attention to my inner Type B voice. That means no longer accepting every invitation or taking on every task. I feel less harried, more at peace with myself. My body is healing and so is my spirit. I can honestly say I’m grateful for the physical and emotional challenges I was given to overcome. The experience made me stronger, more resilient and, I hope, wiser. My bionic leg and I look forward to striding confidently into the future, one step at a time.

~Jennifer Crites

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