Twelve very long weeks ago, I was walking my dog Annie around town, taking advantage of a warmer winter day. About two blocks from home, after three miles of treading very carefully to avoid any icy hazards, I slipped on a patch of invisible ice in the grass while I was walking around an icy sidewalk. I heard my bones snap, saw my foot twisted way too far to the side, and experienced the worst pain of my life. I laid on the sidewalk hoping someone would stop to help me. Almost immediately, a variety of strangers stopped their cars and ran out of houses to help. An ambulance was called, my neighbor was able to rush over to take Annie, and I was whisked away to the hospital. The x-ray confirmed multiple broken bones and the doctor put me to sleep for a few minutes to reset the dislocation before sending me home in a splint with instructions to see a surgeon as soon as possible.
The next day I saw an orthopedic surgeon and the following day I was scheduled for surgery to put in a large plate and multiple screws. Those first few days and the weeks that followed were some of the hardest days of my life. Physically, the pain was nearly unbearable. Mentally, I was challenged beyond belief. Today, after 12 long weeks, I was able to switch back to shoes. I never thought I’d see this day come. But after a lot of hard work and way too many emotional breakdowns to count, I’ve made it this far. (And have much farther to go!) But I wanted to share the most important lessons I’ve learned through this journey in hopes that it might help someone else in the future.
1. A support system is crucial. (i.e. My husband is the best guy in the world!)
I don’t know how I ever would have gotten through any of this without Greg at my side. I texted him immediately after I fell and he rushed the 50 minutes home from work to meet me in the ER about the same time I managed to get there. (I had a big hold up in the ambulance because they couldn’t find a vein to shoot me some pain meds.) He stayed home with me for the next three weeks taking over everything. He stayed home many days after that so he could drive me to physical therapy and keep helping out with the boys. He took over all of my household and parenting duties with zero complaint. He handled all of my emotional meltdowns with patience and understanding. He never made me feel guilty for all of the things I suddenly could not do. Or for how expensive this all turned out to be. He’d help me with every embarrassing personal issue that comes when you suddenly can’t move or barely do anything for yourself. He’d run out for medications or food immediately upon realizing I needed something. He started taking Annie for potty breaks, walks, and dog park visits – something he’s never done in the past, but also never complained about once it became his responsibility, even though he’s not a dog person. He massages my ankle and foot and rubs oil into my scars every single night. He has never made me feel bad or less than for anything I have struggled with in the last three months. Basically, he’s been incredible. I realize not everyone is so lucky to have that when faced with a sudden injury or illness. But it’s definitely made me appreciate him so much more. I think it’s also given each of us a better understanding of how much the other person does for our family as a whole. We respect each other more and have come out of this as more of a team than ever.
2. Food is a lifesaver.
When you are the sole grocery shopper, meal planner, and food maker of the family and suddenly can’t do any of that – getting meals from people is the most helpful thing in the entire world. I can’t stress enough how thankful I am for the friends and family that stepped up on those first few days and weeks, dropping off already made meals and snacks. Medical crisis or not, all four of us need to eat multiple times a day. Having food that was already or almost ready to eat every night was essential to our survival! On the day that I had surgery, we came home to a meal and a big pan of banana bread from one of my friends. I have never been so thankful to eat a piece of banana bread in my life. It was the perfect comfort food for someone who needed to eat something after a day in the hospital, but didn’t have enough of an appetite for a meal. The boys felt the same. We had meals given to us every day that first week and it was such a lifesaver. One of my friends dropped off a few boxes of Girl Scout cookies about the exact time I was starting to be hungry for something beyond what would just nourish my body. On one of my first days home alone, my mom went to get me chicken tenders from Culver’s which felt like the most indulgent treat of all time. Our neighbor brought over a whole slew of food, right around the time we were out of everything other people gave us. Her marinated chicken fajitas that Greg was able to cook on the stove was one of the best things I’d ever tasted. Anyway, all four of us are really SO appreciative of the people who gave us food. It really gave me a new perspective on how helpful I want to be in the future when my own friends or family are faced with similar situations. It’s really the greatest gift we were given in those first couple of weeks.
3. Buy all the accessories.
I was really fortunate in the first day or two after breaking my ankle, to have stumbled across a facebook group called Broken Ankle/Foot/Leg Recovery – On a Quest for Normal! I should probably put this as a separate point, but it was essential in getting advice, encouragement, and support through any random or confusing thing that came up in the last few months. But its most helpful purpose to me was finding accessories to make me more comfortable through the healing process. I strongly believe that buying the things that will make you actually feel better and make your life easier, are 100% worth the expense. Here are a few things that I found to be the most useful:
- Elevating leg rest pillow – When your ankle is broken, it needs to be elevated ALL THE TIME. And not just elevated, but elevated above your heart. You will quickly realize just how annoying and difficult that can be with a stack of pillows. Having just one pillow, with such a large surface area, was amazing. I slept with my legs up on this the first month and spent a huge amount of time during the day with my leg up on it the first two months. It’s essential.
- Aircast socks – I was put in a walking boot from the day I left the hospital. At first my ankle was also in a splint which helped cushion things, but once that splint was removed I realized just how painful and irritating the boot was on my raw incisions. These socks were amazing in helping cushion between my skin and the boot. It also just helps the smell not having your skin touching the boot! I wore them consistently the first two months and kept up with them on days I was wearing shorts and still wanted the layer between for comfort.
- Knee Scooter – I would have fallen into a pretty deep depression if I didn’t have a knee scooter. Crutches were incredibly painful and difficult to use in the early days. It was also a constant point of frustration that when you’re using crutches you don’t have any hands free for anything. Meal prep, carrying things from point A to point B, even just bringing your coffee or lunch to the table. All impossible to do when you’re non weight bearing and have to use crutches. We looked into renting a knee scooter through insurance, but it ended up being cheaper just to buy one. After a ton of research, this is the exact one I bought and was very happy with. I could carry things one handed while steering the scooter. I could actually get to the bathroom in a speedy manner. I could go to stores. It wasn’t a pain free option, because it did really make my knee hurt! But it was better than feeling trapped all the time.
- Shower Bag – I’m really lucky that my mom had one of these and brought it over to me the day I broke my ankle. So from that very first night (I hadn’t showered before that treacherous walk and felt SO gross by the end of the day), I was able to take a shower without getting my leg wet. I’m the kind of person that feels like the most disgusting person on earth if I don’t get a shower every day, so this was an absolute lifesaver.
- Shower Chair or Stool – This is another thing my mom lent me that was absolutely essential. Twelve weeks in, I’m still using it in the shower. I think I might feel comfortable enough by now to stand and shower, but it still makes me nervous thinking about shaving and trying to balance on my bad leg for that length of time. I’m guessing I’ll still be using this at least on shaving days for the next couple of months.
- Shower Hose – If you already have a hose in your shower – you will need it! If you don’t, and don’t want to buy an entirely new shower head, this was a pretty great alternative. I just so happened to get it for Christmas to better bathe Annie. It was SO worth the money!! I’ve used it every day. The boys use it during all their showers too because they think it’s fun. I haven’t actually used it to give Annie a bath yet, but I know it’ll work great for its intended purpose. 🙂
- Ice Packs – You’ll need to use an ice pack daily, for a very, very long time. I didn’t have this specific ankle wrap pack, but I’m still thinking of buying one as my ankle swells the more I walk every day. I’ve been using two flexible packs from a chiropractor years ago. They work fine, but I like the idea of one that could move around with your foot, at least once the incisions are healed.
- Vitamin E Oil – This was the facebook group’s oil of choice for rubbing into your scars after the incisions have healed. I guess I don’t have anything to compare it to, but it seemed to work well! And it definitely helps with the nightly ankle massages to have a liquid of some sort, otherwise it feels too irritating.
- EvenUp Shoe Balancer – Once you transition to partial and full weight bearing, you’ll realize how much higher your boot is from your regular shoe. I only went a day or two like this and immediately felt the effects in my hip and back. It felt like too expensive an indulgence for basically a piece of foam with some rubber straps, but it was worth it not to have extreme hip or back or knee pain these last six weeks.
- Help and Hope While You’re Healing – I’m not even sure how I came across this book, but it was so worth the read. It’s short and to the point, but it really helped me to reframe the hardest weeks of recovery. It puts things into perspective and helps you understand that you can make the most out of all the waiting periods.
4. Meltdowns are going to happen often.
I’m a pretty emotional person to begin with. Breaking my ankle really brought out the worst in that personality trait. I felt SO useless. Worthless. I felt like such a burden to Greg who had to take over all of my responsibilities. I was extremely upset about how much money we had to pay, and have to keep paying, for the surgery. I cried at the drop of a hat, multiple times a day. Often it was over food. Not being able to shop for what I wanted, not being able to make meals for my family, not knowing what to quickly and easily be able to make for myself at breakfast and lunch. The physical stuff was hard as heck. The emotional stuff was one of the biggest challenges of my life. I was extremely upset that I couldn’t do anything for Annie who was used to depending on me for everything, and nobody else seemed to understand how important that was. I got angry about how hard it was to stand up and do anything. Basically, the tiniest thing could set me off at any given moment. I was definitely depressed that first month. It was so hard. And that was normal. The important thing is remembering this is temporary. Trust me, it’s VERY hard to remember that in the moment. But it IS temporary. And it’s okay to be upset about things. But don’t wallow in it forever. Try not to take your anger out on anyone else. Just have your cry, give yourself a pep talk, and get back to healing.
5. Get out of the house.
It’s really easy to get depressed and frustrated and sad and angry when you feel completely trapped in your house. It was at least a month until I left the house for anything other than a doctor’s appointment. I was really reaching the point of all out depression by then. You feel so powerless when you can’t drive and your partner is too busy taking care of all parenting and household duties that he doesn’t have time to take you anywhere either. I think our first outing was to a movie. I was pretty uncomfortable, but it was worth it. We celebrated with froyo afterward. Around six or seven weeks, I had a friend take me out for coffee and another time to dinner and a trip around Walmart. I was on my scooter, I was in pain, but it was SO WORTH IT to get out of the house, have a conversation with another adult, and actually feel human again. My mom took me twice on shopping days to my favorite stores. The whole family had a shopping trip at Costco once. A couple of times, Greg brought me to the dog park to just sit on the bench and watch Annie play for an hour. The sunshine, the fresh air – it was so healing for my soul. It’s hard to feel like a burden by asking someone to take you somewhere – anywhere – but it’s vitally important.
6. Ask for help, accept help.
This might be the hardest of things I had to deal with. I HATE asking people for help. I hate feeling like a burden. I sucked it up and asked for food from people in the first few weeks because the whole family was depending on it. But it was really hard to ask things of people beyond that. But eventually, it got easier, and I realized it was important. Like I said above – I greatly appreciated my mom and friend taking me out shopping. And I’m super thankful for the two friends that consistently took Annie to the dog park for me again and again. I also have neighbors I had to call on a few times to run over and take Annie for an emergency potty break. I still don’t like accepting help. But I’m glad I took advantage of it.
7. Grocery pick up is pretty great.
I LOVE to grocery shop, so this was a hard one for me. But it came obvious pretty quickly how desperately we needed to keep food and pet supplies and household items stocked. I became an expert at online shopping (well, I was already an expert at that!), and doing store pick ups. Multiple times I took advantage of Target and Woodman’s – doing all the shopping online and then it was ready at the door for Greg to swing by and pick up on his way home from work. Once I realized I had a bit more freedom to pick out the foods I actually wanted in the house, especially when I started cooking again – I was so much happier. I also realized just how much of a privilege it is to cook for my family. It’s something I complained about often in the past, having all food related things on me, 365 days a year. But I missed it, desperately.
8. Ease back into working.
I’m very fortunate that I work for myself and my family doesn’t count on my income to survive. I work at home, I do as little or as much as I want at any given time. I usually work pretty hard, though, and it was difficult staying away from it for such a long time. But once I felt ready, I started with just an hour or two a day. And maybe took multiple days off in between. I gave myself a lot of grace as I eased back into working my full time. If I were going back to a desk job, I don’t think I would have been ready until at least eight weeks. If I were going back to a job on my feet, I still don’t think I’d be ready. It’s exhausting. And I imagine it’s extremely hard if your family IS counting on your income for survival. But healing has to be the highest priority. You need to let yourself get better so you can have the rest of your life as a whole and able-bodied human being. It also just takes a huge emotional toll on you, getting back in the swing of things.
9. Go to physical therapy.
I hate going to appointments of any kind. But knowing that it would launch me in the right direction, I tried to suck up my anxiety and make the most of it. I started going after three weeks and just did range of motion exercises. Now every week is different with a wide variety of exercises and assignments to build up my strength and mobility. It’s not always fun, but it’s been the tough love push I needed to move forward every time I got too complacent with the knee scooter, the crutches, the single crutch. I’ve really enjoyed seeing how much better I get week after week. I’m still going to be thrilled to be done, but it was really worth going.
10. Celebrate achievements, big and small.
I’ve always liked celebrating the small things, and I think it was important for me to continue doing that on my healing journey. We picked up lunch from a restaurant on the day I had my first physical therapy and today, when I got my boot off. On my first trip to Target with my mom, I got myself a traveling coffee mug that was much easier for me to carry around the house without spilling and I think about how far I’ve come every time I use it. The first day I went to a grocery store by myself, I bought these flowers. The first time, just the other day, I did a full errand run on my own, I took myself to Chipotle. Obviously I like to reward myself with food and tangible things. But I’ve also rewarded myself with candlelit baths to soak my legs, a night off from everything to read a great book, and most importantly – long afternoons off to read, rest, and nap, after a long morning of working hard. Life is short. Recovery is hard. Celebrate everything.
11. Your relationships will change.
Some for the good, and some for the bad. I think my marriage has gotten stronger. But there were also moments, especially about a month in when I desperately wanted to be more useful and still couldn’t, that I wasn’t sure we’d ever survive this. My relationships with my kids have changed because they suddenly had to be more self sufficient. Shepard finally had to learn how to wipe himself. They had to start walking to and from school by themselves. They’ve become bigger helps around the house. And they don’t need me as much, which is bittersweet. My relationship with Annie has changed because she realized pretty quickly I can’t take her outside or to the dog park anymore. Her loyalties have switched, even though I’m still the one that spends all of my time with her. The biggest relationship changes have been with friends. Maybe because their involvement with my life is completely voluntary. And I think with most of them, it’s been an out of sight, out of mind kind of thing. I definitely understand that everyone has very busy lives, and I’ve failed on many occasions to help out my own friends when they probably could have used me. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the people that have stuck around, though. The ones that have helped me with Annie, and given me rides, and come to the craft nights I’ve started organizing. And while I try not to take it personally, I’ve been hurt by the friends I thought I was close to, yet couldn’t be bothered to remember I even exist. I’m choosing to think about the good, though, and be happy I came out of this stronger with the ones that stayed by my side.
12. Everyone’s recovery is different.
This has been one of the harder parts of being in that facebook recovery support group. You realize pretty quickly that everyone has a very different recovery timetable. Until this, my only limited experience with broken ankles is when my sister-in-law broke hers late last year. She was in a boot and after five weeks she was almost good as new. When I first saw the physician’s assistant at the surgeon’s office, he told me that I would be healed in 4-6 weeks with the surgery, vs. 6-8 if I opted out. Well, it’s been 12 weeks and I think I still have a very long ways to go. I’ve tried not to focus too strongly on how long everything takes, but it’s hard not to internalize all the “where you should be” goals. When I saw the surgeon at 6 weeks, he told me I should be full weight bearing with no issues at 8-10 weeks max. I had this stuck in my mind and was extremely hard on myself as they days flew by and I wasn’t getting where I “needed” to be. I didn’t start walking around the house without a crutch until 11 weeks. I didn’t start walking out of the house without a crutch until today. And now that I’m in shoes, I feel like I went back two or three weeks in my walking abilities. I don’t have it yet, but I also had to order an ankle brace that I have to wear almost all of the time, for the REST OF THE YEAR. I went into my appointment today thinking this was it. I had no idea I’d be facing seven more months of having something extra on my ankle. The point is just that everyone is different and you can’t get hung up on the actual dates. You can’t compare yourself to the fast recovery of others because you’ll be miserable. You also can’t listen to the horror stories of others and let it get you down. When I had my first post op x-rays, the technician told me she had a very similar break and it took her five years to walk without a limp. That really bothered me for a long time. I need to keep reminding myself that my progress is my own and that’s all I have to worry about.
13. Just keep going.
There have been many, many times during the last 12 weeks that I just wanted to give in to my misery and give up on getting better. I was SO sure I’d never reach the next step, even though I kept progressing. I’d have two really great days and then one day with so much pain I could barely move. The first few weeks were actually surprising in how much the rest of my body ached compared to my actual broken limb. I’ve been disappointed in myself, angry at my circumstances, and felt hopeless so many times. But every day, I just kept going. When my physical therapist said I absolutely needed to ditch the scooter, I stopped using it. When I knew that time was up on getting to full weight bearing, I stopped letting myself use both crutches. When I was a week away from today’s appointment, I stopped letting myself use crutches in the house at all. Every time I did something hard, it hurt. But it was the right thing to do. It pushed me. It made me stronger. And the important thing is that you start to SEE that strength. You feel the improvements. It will probably take a lot longer than you expect it to. But it WILL come. You just need to keep on going.