You know how a certain bit of information gets stuck in your memory and now no amount of research can prove or disprove it? In the 1970s, my personal hero, Ed Roberts, who’s referred to as the “father of disability rights,” said the Swedish government had done a 25-year study that concluded that 70 per cent of the population would be temporarily disabled during some time in their lives. Currently, the US census says one in five Americans are disabled, whether temporarily or permanently I couldn’t tell.
What I can tell now is that I’ve literally fallen into the 70 percent category.
I’ve been pretty smug about my health and fitness, but no more. People routinely believe I’m ten years younger than I am, including my cousin Helena in Finland, who was startled to learn that I was 70 when we visited two years ago. I am the spitting image of my dad’s mother, Hilja, and attribute my youthful appearance to her genes and my relative fitness to Finns’ customary moderate, but consistent levels of physical activity.
On October 23, I slipped and fell on our sauna deck—that’s what you get for not power-washing your decks routinely before the onset of “slime season.” My left leg went totally out from under me in a movement that a base-runner might use attempting to score. I fell, not like a ton of bricks, but like a single big fir. K-wham! The pain was excruciating, but strangely as long as I kept my legs parallel, it subsided. Two very strong young women were able first to maneuver me into the sauna to warm up and eventually into the house. My feet never touched the ground.
X-rays showed I’d fractured both ischial tuberosities, better known as the “sits bones,” at the base of the pelvis, which are the connection points for numerous ligaments that allow your pelvis, hips, and legs to move when you walk. The pain isn’t so much from the broken bones as from all the ligaments that were stretched when the fractures occurred. Prognosis: four weeks minimum with no weight-bearing, meaning using a wheel chair to get around and a walker to make careful transfers from sitting, to standing, to lying down, all painless as long as I kept my legs parallel.
During those sedentary weeks, I was showered with amusing visitors, who had to listen to me reminiscence about Ed. He’d had polio when a teenager, was totally paralyzed from the neck down, and studying for a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley when I met him. Smart, funny, charismatic, sleeping in an iron lung every night and getting around in a wheelchair powered by an attendant…before there were curb cuts or disabled accessible restrooms in public places. Ed also received a McArthur “genius” fellowship and was the first disabled person to run the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation for the State of California. Getting around in a wheelchair gave me first hand experience with restrooms that may or may not be designed to accommodate a wheelchair. Luckily, curb-cuts are almost everywhere, literally thanks to Ed.
Things you can do to make a recovery process easier:
• Have routine places for routine items, e.g., glasses, keys, socks, medications, so your helpers can find them easily and you can direct them clearly.
• Follow the prescribed regimen and keep a log; it’s easy to forget when you took pain meds.
• Take yoga. I’m no pretzel but I found that habits reinforced by yoga were a great help: Keep feet pointed straight ahead, legs parallel and don’t forget to breathe deep and focus. I found myself pulling together all my resources, physical, mental and emotional, when anticipating pain.
Longer term efforts that could help:
• Lose weight; it’s easier on your caregivers and you.
• Ask for and accept help, not easy when you’re used to being self-reliant.
• Get over your modesty. Many aspects of able-bodied living become “public” activities. I decided to use a five-gallon bucket to urinate during the night; perching on the edge of the bed was so much easier than waking up my husband to get me safely to the bathroom.
• Try to learn patience. No one can respond to your needs as quickly as you would. I had a few dust-ups with my husband because he was doing something else when I wanted him to respond to my requests, which began sounding like demands.
Now, after five weeks of physical therapy, I’m walking unaided, if a bit stiffly.
Victoria Stoppiello is a northwest coast freelance writer; you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.