Two and a half months ago, I broke my ankle. It was a dark 5:30 AM and the first time in many months that we were taking all three dogs for a walk at the same time. Richard had Titus and Sahara. I was with Koa, who was recovering from major knee surgery where a metal plate was inserted to correct his torn anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, in his left leg.
A runner in dark clothing appeared out of nowhere and triggered Koa’s characteristic reactions. He noisily barked and strained with all his might to join the intruder. I had to forcefully navigate him into the adjacent yard and turn his head away from the runner. He calmed as the runner passed, and we proceeded to join Richard and the other dogs.
I stepped from wet St. Augustine grass onto slick driveway pavement and down I went. When I tried to stand, my foot twisted in a grotesque angle. Although I sprained my ankle a few times, those were relatively minor injuries. Some swelling, no fractures. In fact, I have never broken a bone.
This fall was serious. The ankle bone fractured, and a ligament was involved. The other side of the ankle was swollen and sore. The fracture could have long-term effects if the ligament was not secured. The orthopedist recommended surgery that would stabilize the ankle by screwing in a plate along the broken bone on the left side and tying the ankle together with twine, or fishline, or whatever. A screw on the right side of the ankle would hold it all together.
The doctor ordered no weight-loading activity on my left foot for six to eight weeks. Initially, I wore a heavy therapy boot to stabilize a very swollen and tender ankle. I slowly moved around using a knee scooter that was cumbersome with a limited turning radius. Accessing our sunken living and family rooms were initially impossible; our second floor and bedrooms were off limits. Graduating to a walking stick and foot brace was a big accomplishment.
With physical therapy, I continue to heal. Walking aids and braces are stored. I can walk, albeit slowly, to the park and back. I can do some yoga stands. Happily, I now sleep in our bed.
There were highs and lows throughout this healing time, and before I am fully recovered, I share three important lessons that have changed how I think.
Lesson 1: Dependency breeds humility and affords gratitude
I like to think I am not just self-reliant, but am pretty good at helping others. Being a superhero means controlling situations and outcomes. I confess I am a control freak.
This injury changed everything. I depended on Richard for simple activities, like moving a pot of water to the stove while I am cooking. And setting the table and serving meals. I needed him to stand by while I sat in the shower and slowly bathed. He had to bring me clothes, toiletries and earrings from our upstairs bedroom and do all my laundry because our washer and dryer are upstairs. I could not get in and out of the car without him. He drove everywhere and shopped while I sat in the car.
For the record, Richard anticipated well and took good care of me. Nevertheless, I needed to ask him, not because he didn’t think about what I needed when, but because I did not want to expect him to do things based on hints and exaggerated helplessness. That is passive aggressive. I did not want to play that game.
This dependency was very humbling. Fortunately, I came to learn that every act of kindness, of thoughtfulness, was an act of grace. Richard extended me grace constantly, and just the ability to sit with our dogs became evidence of grace. I became keenly aware of gratitude, and that awareness itself is a gift of grace.
Lesson 2: Motivation is an inside job
I am not prone to doing hard things. Right after the surgery, it was nice to lie around and enjoy my meds. But by day four, I voluntarily got off woozy pain killers and took an anti-inflammatory med for two more days. By the end of the first week, I was restless with the lack of physical activity. It was time to move.
I scoured YouTube for low-activity exercises that never mentioned “seniors.” I found chair yoga, chair Pilates, chair abs, chair weights and, my favorite, chair aerobics. I enjoyed chair aerobics because of the sprite instructor and upbeat music. I repeated her posted two sessions almost daily for five weeks and topped off each session off with abs and weights. I was determined to make the most of this healing time and perhaps even improve my pre-injury health.
I weaned off chair exercises when I started physical therapy five weeks after surgery. In my twice-a-week PT sessions, I was determined to accelerate progress. More reps, longer holding times, and, between sessions, weights, limited yoga and short slow walks. I wanted to get rid of the scooter and walking stick as soon as possible, get myself up and down the stairs, drive and shop alone and get back to walking, the gym and full yoga. I pushed the envelope and there were, and still are, many nights of icing an overworked foot.
While I appreciated encouragement from others, I learned that my motivation to heal is internal. If I wanted to heal and improve, I had to do it for me and not to impress or please others. I learned to use this drive to get off my butt and do the work.
Lesson 3: Intention requires mindfulness
For every action there is a reaction. I was obsessed with avoiding two types of actions that could bring undesired consequences. First, I did not want to cause accidents. Household accidents meant cleaning up and wasting time fixing something that could have been avoided. Second, I did not want physical setbacks. If I hurt my foot again, or any other part of my body, I would spend more time recuperating and reconstructing.
I tried to avoid typical household accidents that would result in broken glass and dishes, spilt coffee, food the floor and fallen fragile objects. I was pretty much one-legged and one-handed much of the time. I needed two hands to maneuver the scooter, and, later, one hand to hold the cane and use counters, walls and railings for stability.
I had to plan ahead and allow enough time to do the simplest of tasks. When I used the scooter, I figured out what I needed from various parts of the house, whether it was a meal, toiletries, a laptop or ipad. I loaded up the scooter with non-liquids during my rounds. I then made several trips to transport the spillable stuff like a cup of coffee or glass of water, a bowl of soup, and other liquids in open containers. When I used a walking stick, my trips doubled because I was one-handed.
Physical activity also required strategy. I was constantly aware that tripping or a fall could potentially worsen the fracture and cause a setback. Getting on and off a toilet was a challenge especially in the middle of the night. Going up and down the two steps to our living and family rooms meant sitting down, hauling the scooter, and bracing myself to get back on the scooter. When the scooter was gone, I held on to walls and railings. Getting in and out of the car added several minutes to each trip.
Thus, I, a proud multi-tasker, learned practical mindfulness. I learned how to focus on just one task a time, while figuring out the role of one activity in a string of tasks. I learned to be mindful of each moment, of my surroundings and abilities, of possible options of single actions. I also learned to adapt to consequences I may not have intended.
- I can use regular footwear, even though my left shoe is a bit tight.
- I watch where I am and where I am going . . . all the time. I make sure I am stable ground. i do not look at my phone when I’m walking and especially when I’m on the stairs. I am wary of wet surfaces. I do not look forward to icy surfaces.
- I am very intentional about how I ask for help. I try to be straightforward and prepare for an array of responses including yes, no, maybe later and no answer.
- I appreciate all help and try to remember to thank the giver.
- I engage in some physical activity every day. PT exercises, weights, walking, yoga. My favorite is yoga. I can do a few one-legged poses on my left foot while keeping a balancing chair next me. I look forward to getting back to the gym.
- I never take healing for granted. I remember to mark my body’s progress even in the simplest of tasks, such as showering and household chores.
- I look forward to walking with our dogs.
- I remember to be happy.