Autumn Butterfly

Autumn Butterfly

Today, exactly seven months after the injury, almost to the hour, I drive myself to a follow-up appointment with the surgeon. It’s my first solo trip, as I couldn’t walk the distance between parking and the foot and ankle center office until now.  The new school year is just starting to establish a more regular routine, and on this beautiful autumn morning, at the very start of the season, I park my vehicle and walk carefully up the sidewalk of a short, but very steep hill. I’m clearly still injured, visibly limping, though no longer wearing a brace or needing crutches.  I know I look older, aged by the pain still showing in the wincing muscles of my face; I’m trying to be patient with my progress, so differently vulnerable in ways I could never have predicted before the fall.  There’s a weariness etched in my spirit, but also a wisdom earned from the many months of recovery from trauma and a long healing process still ahead.

I watch my steps with focused attention, and I acknowledge that even a month ago this incline would have been impossible. The pain would have been too great, the steep hill too challenging, but today there is a greater strength in my stride. The movement of walking is more fluid, less wobbly, and with significantly less of the rocking side to side motion which I referred to as my  “Ar2D2” walk. Despite the uneven surfaces below my feet, I make decent progress across the short few blocks, passing the medical staff in the shadow of the underpass where they gather to smoke at the outer boundary of the hospital grounds. I walk through the front door of the main lobby, and as I pass this familiar gate, I remember the complicated arrangements it took to get me to my past check-ups and surgeries here; the adjustments my boyfriend and close friends and family made to their own schedules to bring me to appointments. Sometimes, I coordinated shifts of support, one loved one dropping me off at the front door, helping me get on my way with crutches under my arms, and later someone else meeting me after the appointment to bring me home or back to work. For weeks after the accident my car sat in my work parking spot where I parked it the morning of my fall on that icy campus path; there it remained a visible marker of my absence until it could be brought back to finish winter in front of my house. Finally, there was a day, now months ago, when I was able again to drive myself short distances, parking in the handicapped spaces on campus while struggling with the crutches and a series of therapeutic boots. Those previous appointments with the surgeon brought anxiety, cresting in the days just before the return, fearful of being scolded for making slow progress, despite my active efforts in physical therapy, and worrying about the boundaries of the next steps.  On my own with the surgeon, a cheerful but concise man younger than me, I often forgot to ask questions about needed information, or couldn’t remember the answers provided amidst the overwhelming emotional and physical realities of surgeries and pain and recovery. It was a learning process of advocacy and self-care while navigating the tangles of doctors and insurance, workers compensation, medical leave and then a return to work, relationships and personal needs, while trying to prioritize healing.  My body continues to heal…

Today, returning for what might be my last appointment with the surgeon, I feel more agency. Through regular physical therapy and diligently doing my exercises, I’ve regained activities that would have been impossible not too long ago. During my recent physical therapy session, at a fast walk on the treadmill, the very edge before a light jog would be required, I took that push up at the start of jogging, and stepped down into an immediate sharp pain that shot all the way up my leg from the ankle. The pain cried,  “Hell, no! No yet, no way!”  The leg didn’t buckle under me, as it surely would have earlier in the recovery process. After the initial shock, I resumed the fast walk pace with the “usual” pain levels. I described my progress to the physical therapist as, “same pain level but doing more.”

Today, the surgeon is basically finished his work with me. We talk about my ongoing pain levels and the clear progress in flexibility following the second surgery. I ask about the activities I did before the accident: yoga, running, and work-related choreography and stage blocking. I’m to be my own judge of what I can do now, monitoring the pain and working with the physical therapist to regain activity, retrain my body to walk correctly, and resume my “normal” life. He reminds me, again, that pain and swelling is to be expected through a year following the injury and initial surgery. With the permanent addition of the plate and screws in my ankle, he predicts about a 95% return to normal activity, but it’s going to take more time to get there. On my walk back to the car, I feel both relief and hope, but also grief and anger and sadness.