Feeling lonely and bored after the holidays, I jumped at the chance to play volleyball with some work colleagues during lunch. I hadn’t played in years, but it was fun to be out on the court, laughing and trying to get Wilson the Volleyball over the net. I served, the ball was received on the other side and bumped back deep into our court. Running backwards to get under the ball, I lost my footing and fell, putting my arms behind me to break my fall. Piercing pain engulfed both wrists as my head and butt secondarily smacked the ground. It was then I noticed we were playing on a concrete floor.
I curled up on my side and looked at my right wrist. It looked thick, like I’d dislocated something, and I closed my eyes. My colleagues jogged over, laughing and asking if I was okay, even offering me a hand up. Through the nausea and excruciating pain, I said, “No, I’m not okay,” and asked for some ice. My friend Stefanie went up front and got me a sheet of ice in plastic pouches and when I looked at her in confusion, she said it was all they had. Using my elbows and scooting across the floor, I managed to push myself over to sit against the wall, cradling my right wrist in my lap with the sheet of ice as best I could.
It was at this moment I realized I was the only person in the building with any kind of first aid training, and I was going to have to self-advocate for my needs. My colleagues went back to volleyball, standing in a small ring on the opposite side of the court and bumping the ball from one person to another. It felt imperative that I not be sick all over the floor and that I avoid going into shock, or things would get much worse. I asked Stefanie to get me a sling, thinking we could get a ride from campus security over to the health center. She went looking and eventually came back with a piece of fabric, a safety pin, and a gym towel from the lost and found basket. She helped me tie the fabric around my neck, and I used the towel to absorb the dripping ice water, not wanting to create another slip hazard.
The kids at the front desk called campus security, and three men arrived. The most senior among them asked what had happened, and I explained. He suggested I walk to the health center, but I said I couldn’t. Stefanie laughed and said, “This is the first person I’ve seen who has actually turned green. I don’t think she should even be sitting up.” A staff member from the rec center entered and said the health center was closed, as the academic year hadn’t started yet, and I blanched as a wave of pain radiated through my arms.
Self-Advocating in Times of Need
“I will need an ambulance,” I said. The security guard asked if I had hit my head, and I said yes, at which point he agreed that we needed to call an ambulance. It was out of his jurisdiction if there was a potential head injury, even though I knew I didn’t have a concussion. He deployed one of his men to the road to wait for the ambulance, and he waited at the front entrance, while the third man stayed with Stefanie and me. He was young and began to tell a story about the time he’d been injured, but I stopped him. “I can’t handle that right now.” He shrugged and turned around to pick up the basketball that rolled our way, shooting it at the hoop with the two students who had replaced my colleagues on the court.
An hour later, after calling many times to check on their progress, the ambulance service said they weren’t coming. They were overwhelmed with calls, and mine wasn’t a life threatening emergency. I was beginning to shake uncontrollably from the stress hormones raging through my bloodstream and knew I would soon go into shock if I didn’t take action. I asked the head security guard for something sweet to drink, and he refused, saying only a paramedic could give me anything. When the woman from the gym came in to check on me, I quietly demanded some sugar. “If I don’t get some right away, things are going to get a lot worse.” She nodded and stood, asking the security guard to come with her to fill out some paperwork. When she returned alone, she slipped me a couple of Santa chocolates, which I greedily swallowed, and I instantly felt more stable.
The security guard returned and offered to drive me to the urgent care clinic where I could get an x-ray, and once again he asked if I could walk. I said no and requested a wheelchair. They didn’t have one, he explained and I stared at him. Maybe it was my green face, maybe it was the tears in my eyes, but soon after, they’d located a wheelchair for me. I leaned forward onto my knees, and with hands under each arm, I was able to get my feet under me and sit down in the chair.
Finding Humor Where You Can
They wheeled me out the door and to a campus security vehicle, helping me in and buckling my seatbelt across my ice-saturated shorts. Stefanie climbed in the back, and as we drove off, the security guard asked, “Are you comfortable?” I began to laugh hysterically and Stefanie joined in, both of us saying, “No!”
The Road to Recovery
My x-rays showed my right radius had broken into three pieces. The saddle end of the bone had fractured off and split into two parts, then under the tension of my wrist tendons and muscles had slipped out of position behind my wrist, creating the thickened, dislocated look I’d seen prior to the swelling. I had surgery to implant a titanium plate with seven screws the next day. Never one to go halfway, I also managed to fracture my left radius, but it was not dislocated and received an ordinary cast.
For over a month now, I’ve been reliant on other people to help me do every little thing. At first, I couldn’t even feed myself, so they kept me in the hospital for ten days. Whenever my friends came to visit, they’d bring me snacks, cut my food, and even hand feed me my lime Jello with vanilla ice cream (a thing here in New Zealand). The nurses helped me bathe and washed my hair, brushing it out and putting it up into a bun at night for sleeping. They helped me dress for the day and put on my nightgown at night, and they gave me painkillers to keep me stable. One nurse even dressed Wilson the Volleyball on my whiteboard, which made me laugh. At night before bed, I’d walk around the hospital in my hotel slippers, my arms in the air to keep them from throbbing, making laps past the bored front desk receptionist as I circled the silent building.
What I’ve Learned
1. I’ve learned people are really wonderful and that I’m not alone in this world. They visited, brought me clothes, kept me up to date on things at work, delivered flowers, cards, and snacks, provided me audio books, and scratched that annoying itch in the middle of my back. Others, like my daughters, called and texted to keep me from utter boredom. Once I was released, I moved in with my colleague Susan, who took to my house first to gather some clothes and cleaned out the refrigerator, washed the dishes, dumped the trash, and helped me open the door to get out of the bathroom when I couldn’t turn the knob. For another ten days, she cooked for me, prepared my breakfast and lunch before she left for work, brushed my hair and then braided it, and assisted with anything I needed, anytime. Her husband, Colin, gave me ice to sooth my wrist swelling, and a grad student from France living at their home came home with me over the weekend one time so I could have some quiet time in my own space. Now, I’m home full time, and I’ve been able to get back to work, type, take notes (my casts are now lightweight plastic splints I can get wet and remove as needed for physiotherapy, etc.).
2. The other thing I have learned is I love socialized medicine and how the ACC works here in New Zealand. They are a national agency with the motto, “Prevent, Care, Recover,” and they’ve done exactly that for me. If you’re injured in NZ, there is no cost to you—nothing. Not the x-ray, not the ambulance, not the surgery, and not even the follow up care. Everyone gets treated, and their salary and rehabilitation are covered until they’re able to return to work. I have a home care provider that comes in three times a week to help me clean house, grocery shop, and prep meals. I also have a taxi service I can call whenever I need to get to the hospital for my physiotherapy, or to work to try and stay on top of things (but I’m not required to work if I can’t manage it). This has been a huge relief to me and has definitely aided in my recovery, because I’m not stressed. Is it expensive for New Zealand-style healthcare? No, the cost is about the same as what’s provided in other countries because there is no disability insurance, no middleman insurance company, no need to go to the emergency room for routine medical care if you don’t have insurance, and most importantly, no ability to sue. If you want an elective surgery, like a knee replacement, you have to wait, but you have the option to buy private insurance at low cost to skip the queue and get the procedure immediately. It’s up to you.
3. Finally, I’ve learned I’m more loved and less important than I think. The outpouring of love and support I’ve received through social media, especially my Twitter tribe, has been so heartwarming. Literally hundreds of people I’ve never met have wished me well, sent me virtual hugs, and checked back in to see how I’m doing. I was feeling alone and isolated after the joy of the holidays and having my daughters with me, but the truth is I’m surrounded by people who genuinely care about me and want me to be a part of their lives, even if that can only be online. On the flip side, life can and will go on without me. I had a major event I was meant to lead the day after my surgery. Sixty high school girls were coming to my university to learn about engineering, and we had prepared an entire day of design activities for them to do. I couldn’t be present, so Stefanie stepped up and gave the opening address, the graduate students prepared and ran all the activities, yet others welcomed the girls to campus, gave them tours, and participated in the meals, trivia night, and information sessions. It was a huge success and would not have been any better if I had run it myself. When the graduate students came to the hospital and showed me videos and pictures of the event, I was so proud. By letting go, albeit unintentionally, I provided them a rewarding growth opportunity and a chance to really shine.
Back to Normal, Hopefully Wiser
In a few weeks, this will all be behind me. I’ll be driving, traveling, and using my arms to do things again, but I’ve learned a lot from breaking both my wrists, and what I feel right now is gratitude. I wish I could have skipped the painful part of the lesson, but maybe by sharing it forward with you, you can benefit without the downside. Remember that people are good, many people love you, and if you’re ever in need, there are those who will help you.