Saturday, March 5, 2011

It's OK to receive!

Her face is bright, yet tensed as she places one foot gingerly in front of the other. The calloused pads on the palms of her hands pushing against the grips of her supports while she forces herself to stand upright, refusing to favor her good side. Electric shots of pain are a continuous reminder of the trauma inflicted on her that night. No one who knows her would ever doubt she would persevere; the tragedy is that she had to experience it at all.


The snow began falling in Raleigh that Christmas day in 2010. It was absolutely beautiful. No mere pebbles of sleet, giant fluffy flakes drifted down minute after minute, hour upon hour. At dawn, the blanket measured seven inches according to my daughter’s pink wooden ruler. There is only one activity deserving of a present like this delivered by God and graced with blue skies and sunshine – sledding.

Unlike my adventures in Troy, Michigan, in which I endured snow for months on end; snow and ice which accumulated into “termite” mounds on parking lots and grayish sludge along the roadside, most winter weather in North Carolina is a blessing – beautiful, but very short lived. It was with this urgency in mind that we all headed out for a day of outdoor fun on the slopes of the Dorothea Dix Hospital grounds. Dix has acres of hills and wooded paths just perfect for a trashcan lid, sheet of plastic, or for the northern transplants, an honest to goodness Radio Flyer sled. There were even a few inner tubes and snow boards.

Our children, their cousins, their friends, their aunt and uncle, and a whole slew of others joined us on the slopes. And for over half a day, we careened and slid and raced and jumped avoiding trees and each other while we enjoyed playing in the snow. And though we had some close calls with a low set fence and a couple of determined tree trunks, no one got hurt or injured that afternoon.

As the light of the day began to wane and hunger forced us in search of food, we thanked God for our gift and headed to my brother’s for pizza and hot chocolate. There is nothing that makes a group of kids hungrier than a day of physical activity, and so we found ourselves gathered around the kitchen enjoying Italian pies; recounting each more dangerous feat and swapping tales of survival in the Raleigh “alps.” The evening came to a close, and we bid all goodnight. It was then that the singular omen of what was to come was overlooked in our continued enthusiasm – while backing out of the drive, my oldest daughter’s friend Nathan’s truck got stuck on the ice and with some effort by all of the adults present, we managed to get it free. It was a sign; not recognized as a portent of what was to come.

I have heard it said that accidents happen closest to home. Whether this is because we let our defenses down under the comforts of a familiar environment or we are merely distracted by its normalcy, the home front is repeatedly fraught with peril. And so it was that snowy night, for as the rays of the sun had warmed us on the slopes, they had also heated the topmost layer of snow on our front yard. And as the sun’s rays retreated, the cold of the night air coated the bed surrounding our willow tree with a thin frozen sheet, its white camouflage masking the exposed roots, creating the trap which would soon accost my wife.

Trudie and I arrived home first. After running inside, we ditched our outer shell of sledding garments and donned some warm winter PJs and sweatshirts. Then the kids pulled up in Nathan’s truck. Nathan is one of Trudie’s favorites, so when they got out, she went running down to see him before he headed home. As she raced across the frozen ground, she fell prey to Mother Nature’s snare; the roots of the willow tree catching her right foot as she slipped, preventing it from following her left and instead pinning it beneath her. Every home in the neighborhood echoed the sound of bones grinding against each other in unnatural formations. And then I heard her scream.

Did I mention we have three children? I have seen my wife in excruciating pain as each child came into this world. Trudie has a threshold beyond most people I know. So when I tell you she screamed, I mean she was in agony. Now, if there is a humorous point in this whole story it can be found here, at this moment. As we are carrying her into the house, my wife says to me, “I think Scott [my brother in-law] has some vicoden [he had just had some dental work]; I’ll just take a couple of those. It’s just a bad sprain.” All the while she is saying this, I am looking at what appears to be a large baseball protruding from the front of her ankle. As I touch it gently, she winces, and I realize it is not swelling, it is the bone of her leg which has become dislocated as a result of the fall.

Thank goodness for responsible, college age children! Alex and Nathan took the younger two to Nathan’s mom’s house to spend the night relieving me of the responsibility of watching over them while tending to my wife. Their sleepover also minimized any stress they might have worrying over the safety of their mother.

Trudie and I spent the next five hours in the emergency room, joining other late night visitors including a Chinese family waiting for the birth of their grandchild and various other individuals suffering from a range of ailments. I must say, for the day after Christmas, it was relatively calm; exactly what my wife needed as her leg throbbed excruciatingly.

The nurses ushered us into the triage wing where we prepared for the worst. Although I suspected that it was going to be bad, Trudie clung to the possibility that she would walk out with just a really, really bad sprain after all was said and done.  The doctor assigned to her came in, did a few spot checks, confirmed that the ankle was indeed dislocated (like there was any doubt in my mind) and then ordered a set of X-Rays. Twenty minutes later reality hit my best friend and she faced the hard facts that her ankle was not only dislocated, but also fractured and would require surgery and a pin to repair the damage. Unfortunately, due to the swelling they had to set the whole thing in a temporary cast; the surgery would be delayed for at least a week.

Before the cast could be set we had to deal with the problem of the bone bulging against the front of her leg. My only experience with dislocations up until her fall was what I had seen in the movies. If you have never experienced it first hand, let me explain it to you; it is nothing like the movies. In the movies, when a character has a dislocation, one of the other characters simply grabs the persons limb firmly, gives it a twist and “pop” the bone goes back in place. Then they all go back to whatever they were doing. This is NOT the way it is in real life. Picture this. Trudie lying there, a morphine drip supposedly deadening the pain, the doctor holding her right leg firmly in his left hand and the heal of her foot in his right. At the first pull and twist, her face imploded and her eyes about popped out of her skull. This continued for several minutes until at last the bone snapped back into place. Now if this was on the big screen, everything would have been better. In her case, it required more morphine.

During our entire relationship, I don’t believe I have ever seen Trudie just “take it easy.” Her idea of relaxing is to host an art day for 10 or more children and “heard cats” for the afternoon. A break for her is teaching drama after school to a group of middle school students in the height of their hormonal shifts and personality revelations. So when it was determined that she would for all practical purposes be relegated to the downstairs couch for a week, I thought she would lose her mind. I even took to sleeping on an air mattress with her to make sure she wouldn’t attempt to do anything for herself. If there was an upside to the timing of this whole affair, it was that being a holiday week, I was on vacation and working from home, so I could be there to help manage all of the things that she normally would have. Her job was to rest and keep her foot elevated, and I was going to make sure she did.

I am thankful that in the few times our family has experienced tragedy or medical challenges like this God has truly blessed us with the best doctors and surgeons. This time was no exception. Now, you may think that the best surgeons have the fanciest offices like you see on television. I am convinced this is not the case. As a matter of a fact, if I go into a surgeon’s office and see anything but whitewashed sheets of plywood on reinforced sawhorses, I believe they are spending way too much on the furniture and too little on the equipment and the staff. And so it was with the doctor who would repair her ankle.

She sat on the wooden cot, face still contorted with pain after a week of waiting for the swelling to recede, expectantly hoping for a good prognosis from the doctor. The expression on her surgeon spoke volumes, and as he reviewed her latest X-Rays with us, it became obvious this was not going to be a quick and easy recovery. This was in no small part due to the fact that the initial X-Rays taken in the emergency room had not revealed the true extent of the fracturing that had resulted from the dislocation of her ankle bone. Surgery was scheduled for later that week. Recovery time was now estimated at a minimum of eight weeks before she could even put full weight on it; and since it was her right ankle that meant no driving either.

She was stunned. No walking. No driving. Eight weeks! What was she going to do? First things first, I said “Let’s get through the surgery and then let me worry about the rest.” Three days later, I sat in the lobby of the hospital listening to the surgeon explain that after opening her up it became clear that the damage to the bone structure was much more extensive than the pictures had shown. The x-ray in his hand said it all - ten screws and a three and a half inch metal plate. My wife was officially a walking hardware store.

Medical science is great, and with modern advances extensive hospital stays are no longer required for many operations. A few short hours after having her ankle reconstructed, I was delivering her home to her recovery station, otherwise known as the family room couch. With a rotating schedule of pain killers and sleep, physical healing would now begin. It was at this juncture that reality began to creep into focus and the impact of her accident and how it would affect all of us became clear. It was also at this time that we realized just how many people truly loved her.

When she arrived home, we watched over her diligently. And although relegated to the couch, she was empowered with crutches to move about on her own accord. It was during those moments we found humor for the second time. Any time she moved through the house, you could hear someone making the sound effect from the old TV show, “The Bionic Woman.” Images of Lindsey Wagner running in slow motion with “dunna nunna na…dunna nunna na” in the background kept us all laughing.

The unspoken hope of “paying it forward” is that you will never have to make a withdrawal yourself. Trudie has paid into the accounts of others for as long as I have known her. She freely gives of her time, talent and when possible, her treasure. She gives without measure; never tallying each chit on a mental spreadsheet. And so it was at her hour of need that she learned just how much she had invested in others and how much they desired to return the favor.

I am fortunate that the company I work for encourages work-life balance. They have all been so understanding and flexible in allowing me to work from home during Trudie’s recovery. Combined with her sister and her best friend covering for me every other week so I could put some face time in at the office, and my brother’s wife taking them to school each morning, we have managed to have someone there to help her do all that she normally does for us. And, our extended school family has been absolutely wonderful - preparing meals to send home with the kids and carpooling them to athletic events. She keeps saying she will never be able to thank them enough, and I keep reminding her to accept this as their thanks for all that she has done for each of them and their children.

The third humorous moment of the whole ordeal came when the doctor prescribed that she start exercising the muscles and put partial weight on her ankle. I heard one of the kids comment to a friend that her mom was going to have to go to rehab. We quickly explained that unlike on the news, this type of rehab was to recondition their mom’s ankle, not to break an addiction to pain killers.

69 days and counting – she has passed the first four stages of recovery - denial, acknowledgment, fear, frustration – and now she is headed into stage 5: acceptance.  Acceptance that accidents can happen. Acceptance that sometimes it is good to take a break, even if God has to take extreme measures to make it happen. Acceptance that life’s little detours come in many forms and are not only provided for us, but also for those around us to help them find their destinations. Acceptance of the gifts and support of others. Acceptance that she is loved by so many.

The next few months may be the most challenging. She will be entering stage 6: patience. The doctors say rehab may be quite lengthy to regain full use of her ankle. Knowing my Trudie, she will want to jump right back into her many roles with both feet. She will need to have the patience to understand that in some cases she will have to go a little slower to ensure she doesn’t take a step backward. And she needs to remember that she can rely on others to help her along her way to full recovery.

I have always appreciated my wife. We share a real partnership in life. However, this ordeal has helped me understand that the partnership is not always balanced 50/50. Taking on her roles and responsibilities around the house and with the children while maintaining a full time job of my own has been eye-opening, as this is what she does on a regular basis. I will never take what she does for granted again. And, I will never underestimate the value of “doing for others as you would have them do unto you.”  For many of us, that Biblical reference is a warning, in her case it was a blessing. A blessing I hope to continue to give throughout my life.

- Ken

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