Monday, December 8, 2008

How Does it Feel To Shatter Your Ankle? The Proof of Shared Pain

Googling an injury or an illness? Come on, let’s be honest; everyone does it. 

realized the close connection between feeling pain and seeking comfort in online proof that others have experienced the same pain after I broke my ankle.

From what I can tell after conducting some online searches, it seems that many of the people who break an ankle in the way that I recently did (tri-malleolar fracture with plates and pins/screws installed) feel the urge to document the long journey to recovery with digital photos, blogs and web sites. I’ve certainly found dozens of them, along with posted messages written by countless people who’ve experienced the same injury.

If I see a web page about a broken ankle, then I always see hundreds of chiming postings--“Me too! This is how I broke it…this is how many pins and plates I have.” I have to wonder: is this just a bizarre example of one-upmanship? Is it screaming into the void and hoping someone hears you? And does it help to post the story of how and where you broke your ankle? I think it must.

I originally didn't list my injury or tell my story on any official ankle fracture website, but my first urge, once the worst pain eased (in response, perhaps, to all the people who asked me, “What does it look like?” “How bad is it?” ) was to post some particularly gory photos of my grotesquely swollen ankle--with its dual rows of bloody staples--on Facebook. (And, of course, I now posted this essay and the same photos on my blog. Why not?)

I didn’t do it for sympathy, though I certainly got a lot of notes from friends inquiring as to how I hurt myself, and offering well wishes for my recovery. I posted the photos, as I told one friend, to help myself laugh about this trauma now. It was bad—it’s still bad—although I am certainly not the only person in the world to deal with something like this.

I wonder just what it is about a leg fracture requiring surgery (sometimes multiple operations) that throws us for such a loop? Obviously, the not-being-able-to-walk issue is huge. Everything is harder now. Curbs and steps can be nightmares. Crutches stink and won’t stop falling over. Walkers and wheelchairs are embarrassing and tiring to deal with. But maybe it is the profound pain that is the worst, and that is the part that sears us long-term.

When you break a bone—for example, your ankle—you might not even know it at first. The body goes into shock, almost instantaneously. I got my foot caught in a storm grate while I was stepping off a curb, and my first reaction—beyond a brief yelp, and I’m quite sure I heard a crack—was to think, "Just stay conscious for your kids."  I knew I had twisted my ankle, but as for brutally breaking it, I was wearing a mid-calf-length boot (relatively flat); I really had no idea.

I looked down to see my ankle and foot piteously curved inward, like the end of a hockey stick. I knew I was in some sort of trouble. “Help!’ I cried meekly as I tried to pull myself up on the hood of a parked car. “Please help me.”

My children were waiting for me inside a grocery store. I had just dashed out to get the reusable “green” shopping bags I had left in the car. I had forgotten the bags for the past couple of weeks and my environmental guilt compelled me to go back and get them. What a mistake, that—and leaving my cell phone in my car.

A stranger found and helped me. I was so dazed that I don’t even know what he looked like. He helped me drag myself up onto the curb. I asked him to get my kids for me. I struggled to stay conscious when what I really wanted to do was faint. A woman let me rest my head on her pile of reusable shopping bags (the moral of this: we do need these things in our lives!). Police came. The ambulance pulled up. All of it seemed to happen so fast, and I thought at the time: I don’t need this.

And yet I did. In the hospital, after the X-rays, which were so painful I just about screamed, doctors asked me, “Car crash, huh?”

It turns out that my particular injury is most often seen after collisions. On a scale of 1-4 in terms of severity of ankle fractures, mine is a four, the worst. I had still been hoping it was just an awful sprain; now I knew the truth.

The pain kicks in fully a few hours after the fracture, and when it begins, it kills. Out of necessity, nurses administer serious narcotics by IV. Ankle fracture patients typically spend 2-3 days completely doped up. Being released from the hospital is almost like waking up into a new life, a strange reality, a nightmare.

You lose time when you break an ankle. You are confused and bewildered. You need to reclaim your sense of self. Perhaps writing about the injury, your accident and how many pins you have (and let me just take a minute to say that I have more than anybody, I think. I have at least a dozen) helps you to reconnect with what happened and with this very useful part of your body that you may, for months yet, have lost.

For the first three days after my accident, I was so heavily drugged that it was hard to keep my eyes open. My elderly roommate in the hospital kept trying to talk to me, but I was barely able to respond. “Honey! Hey, honey!” she’d bark, with a few claps added for emphasis.

It always felt like I was swimming up to the surface through some thick, barely penetrable gravy before I could manage to respond, “I’m sorry. Are you talking to me?” That was about all I was good for; conversations petered out quickly as I drifted back into sleep. I’m pretty sure I muttered, more than once, “For the love of God, Florence, please close your…pie hole.”

My hospital stay was a narcotically-tinged blur; it was the next 10 days at home that were the truly difficult experience. I am quite sure I didn’t leave my room (or adjoining bathroom) for several days, and when I did learn how to traverse the three stairs to my house’s lower level, I never stayed there long. The pain and pressure in my ankle were so great that I could hardly bear to be out of bed.

I cried a bit, feeling sorry for myself. I dreamed nightly—and still do—of running. I wondered why my parents didn’t come to visit me. I questioned what I’d done wrong in my life to make my husband so overwhelmed by the very idea of household responsibility and childcare that he actually left me bedridden with only a diet coke and an apple to eat—at least on the first day I was back at home.

After a couple of hours each of grading papers, writing assignments and hanging out online (I did not watch TV), my days ended, quite quickly. My children returned home from school. I loved talking to them, and yet it hurt me that I couldn’t play much with them, that I really just wanted to sleep.

Boggle and homework checks, and a couple of books read, seemed to satisfy them. Still, while I was home from work, I always felt like I was wasting time. I felt that my nightly showers on a lawn chair weren’t getting me clean. I felt like a burden, or just a living reminder of how much better things used to be.

“I feel like I’m constantly cleaning things up, lately!’ my husband burst out one day. “I can’t get anything done. I have no time to myself!” Yeah, welcome to my world, I thought—dropping the kids off at school, picking them up. Grocery shopping, making dinner, making lunches. Walking the dogs.

It took a couple of weeks to get used to not using my right leg, to hopping around the kitchen and carving out a solid hour for bathing and dressing. Everyone in my family is now learning how to get along in a new way, and perhaps that is ultimately what this is about.

It takes an accident, sometimes, to force us to slow down and consider, or re-consider, how we live. What do we do for others? How can we be of help? How do we snap out of our own self-obsessive funk and just be with our loved ones?

There is an old spiritual saying, when a door closes, a window opens. I keep hoping this is true. The bad times now are so bad; the days turn dark too quickly. But then I need to remind myself to make the effort to sit outside in the light. Work on my writing. Get out of my sickroom.

Today, we ran errands, and for the first time in weeks, I came along. I hobbled through Whole Foods on crutches. I didn’t slip, as I had been doing at home.

My leg felt swollen after shopping, but I was ok. The worst part was listening to my husband demanding to know how two bags of groceries could possibly cost $100. I tried not to take it personally—and why should I? Some things are expensive, and he has no idea. I took care of everything before. Everything. Now I can manage the bare minimum of household duties.

We went to the craft store next, because we had to. The elevator was unexpectedly broken, and I was stuck in the lobby, leaning on my crutches, for at least half an hour. Many people who entered the store said things to me like, “What a day for it to be out of order!” I chuckled in response. There was a narrow escalator I wasn’t even going to try, and a steep, formidable, three-level staircase that made me shake, even though I stayed far away from it. I would wait it out and pray that my left leg didn’t buckle. I would trust that my husband and children could find the floral supplies I needed.

Finally, they came back. I was so wiped out, I didn’t honestly know how I’d get all the way back to our car. But I did it. We shopped, we got home. I arranged flowers for a colleague’s bridal shower. They weren’t perfect, but I was pleased to have exercised my creativity just a bit.

Doug made dinner. It was excellent—very garlicky chicken over greens. The clutter and chaos of my floral work caused me to spill red wine all over myself, but I didn’t really care. It was a pretty good day, and I am thinking now: perhaps this is the first one I’ve had since breaking my ankle. Perhaps from now on, it can only get better.

I actually like looking at the gruesome post-surgery photos my husband took (for practical reasons). They remind me not of the terrible pain I’ve endured, but of how far I’ve come.

When I can walk again, I’ll take new ankle pictures. I don’t want to bother now. The staples are gone, but my ankle is still swollen. When I take my boot cast off, I see that it’s red, sometimes purple. It’s just wholly repulsive to look at, and probably not very interesting for others to see in the middle stages of healing.

I have seen the “after” photos others have posted, though. Scars run up pale ankles like roads. People beam, showing off their permanently damaged legs and feet. I can well imagine how they feel, despite the brutality of their injuries: proud to have gotten through this. Changed forever. Maybe even, somehow, stronger.

I am glad they’ve shared their stories. I realize that I also had to share mine—just to let someone else, someone like me, know: you are not alone.


  1. how are you doing now? how are you healing? i am 18 days out of a trimalleolar fracture to my right ankle. i will spare you my story, but it's pretty similar to yours. online tonight looking around for info. what else do i have to do while my ankle is elevated?!

  2. Hey, fellow ankle-fracture sufferer!

    I am two months post-second-op, and I *was* starting to do a lot better (no more ice packs, much less ibuprofen), but today I am gimping it quite a bit. I think there's rain in the forecast. It's causing me pain.

    But it does get better! Someday, I hope to run again.

    Be well. Hang in there,


  3. I really enjoy reading your posts. They are very descriptive and I can actually picture everything as I am reading it. Thank you for sharing everything with us, and also for allowing us to share with you and each other.

    11/11/11/ girl

  4. Hi! You're so right - about sharing one's experiences making one feel so much better! I also had a trimalleolar fracture march 26th, 2012 and am almost done with my 5th week now! The good news is that Ive begun partially weight bearing (25%) and in a week more will be upto 50%!! I'm also blogging about it to helo me track the recovery and anytime I feel somewhat low or depressed about all the restrictions I have at present I just go back to reading the journal from the beginning and it tells me what a long way I've come in just 4.5 weeks! Guess, it can only get better!

  5. I fell and sustained my trimalleolar ankle fracture about 13 weeks ago... Healing well and regaining normal function (though walking and standing for more than half an hour results in a lot of soreness at this point). Still relying on a cane if I leave the house, mostly for the sense of security it gives me; otherwise, walking "unaided" and feeling pretty great about that!

    So, in other words, it DOES get better, and--for me at least--it got better dramatically and suddenly. Hang in there, Anonymous, and other fellow sufferers!

    Thanks, Elizabeth, for your sharing! Wish I'd found your blog when my accident firs happened!


  6. I fractured my fibula almost 7 weeks ago had surgery 4 days after the fall, with plate and pins put in as well as some fiberwire to repair some membrane that was damage. I am feeling like I have been traumatized by all of this and wonder if I will ever have the ability to walk or feel safe walking again. I am very concerned what physical therapy will be like and worried that that too will be extremely painful.

  7. Well, it will be another few weeks before you can weight bear, I would think. And then you may have to re-learn walking, but the walking shouldn't hurt. It's just being on the foot/leg too long or walking too much (and shoes hurt because your foot and ankle will be swollen for a while). Ice the leg a lot. PT doesn't hurt, but it's not fun. It's just tedious and a little hard at first, but not excruciating.

    Best to you,


  8. Almost a month now since my trimalleolar fracture...
    It was nice to read about the light at the end of the tunnel!
    Thanks for posting...
    Blessings to you.

  9. I just found your blog from a link about broken ankles. I had a similar injury, pain, surgery, recovery but I shattered my talus and dislocated the calcaneus. This was in 1998 and I still have a big ol screw through my heel bone into my talus which still has a couple of pins in it... almost 20 years later! So it's a sub-talar fusion. It still aches often but I get around fine... which is good because also like you, I have MS. Diagnosed in 2013. Tecfidera scared me to death and I lasted less than a week on it. Never even got to the full dose. It took me 2 hours to work up the nerve to take the first pill - it may as well have been a cyanide pill, I was so scared. Now I'm on Tysabri, and have been for 26 months. I've had no relapses or flares since I was diagnosed but the fatigue can be crippling sometimes. But then... there's the Hashimoto's disease! What's really causing the fatigue? I still work full time and walk fine so I wont complain. I plan to read more of your blog. Hope you're feeling well!