How to Cope With a Broken Leg
Ouch, My Leg!
On April 1, 2010, my life suddenly changed in a way I'd never expected. It was a typical day at work and a non-eventful bus ride home. I'd been thrilled that I'd caught the earlier bus home and had my whole evening planned ahead -- I'd had some pasta for dinner, make a few phone calls and read the new book which I'd purchased that day. It was the end of the week and I was just looking forward to relaxing.
This came to a halt, however, as I exited the bus, about a block away from my apartment. The bus driver didn't pull up to the curb because of the traffic and had parked right over a pothole instead. Having taken city busses for years, I didn't really think about this. But as I stepped down, my left foot caught in the pothole and twisted around. I fell forward toward the ground and a passerby happened to catch me and helped me sit down on the curb. Moments later, a crowd formed around me and my leg throbbed. I held onto it protectively and cried out.
In all of my 36 years, I'd never broken a bone and was sure that I'd only sprained my ankle. But as I attempted to stand up, I felt something move in my leg and screamed out in pain. Despite my protests, one of the women who was helping me insisted on calling an ambulance. Luckily, my husband happened to be just up the block and was able to go with me. This was my very first ambulance ride, but it was anything but exciting -- it was scary, confusing and I just wanted to go home. The EMTs examined my leg and didn't see any surface damage other than swelling, so they, too, believed that this was just a sprain. But as it would turn out, we were all wrong.
I was taken to the emergency room of North Shore Forest Hills Hospital in Queens, NY. Though it was chaotic, the doctors took me into a semi-private room in the back. They placed ice on my leg and let my husband stay with me until they were ready to take my X-rays. Now that it was quiet, I could better assess my situation and realized that while I could move my toes, I couldn't lift my leg at all. My husband was still certain that this was just a sprain, but I began to believe that this was something a lot more serious. I was frightened. What would happen with my job? How would I move? How would I even go to the bathroom?
We had to wait about three hours until I got my X-rays and they confirmed my fears: I'd broken my fibula and sprained my ankle. Unfortunately, because it was Passover and Easter was approaching, there were no orthopedic surgeons on staff to determine whether I'd need surgery. That said, the doctor wrapped my leg in an ace bandage and sent me home with instructions to call a surgeon the next day.
Tips For Dealing With A Broken Leg
1. If you suspect that your leg is broken, don't move it because you can cause even more damage.
2. If your leg is hurt in any way that seems serious, get to the hospital. Don't try to ride it out or walk it off.
3. Ask the hospital what your options are with a broken leg; they might have an orthopedic surgeon on staff, but you might want to see someone more reputable.
4. Research orthopedic surgeons, if you can, and get recommendations. You're going to be seeing A LOT of this person!
5. Be prepared to have several different casts put on your leg over the course of your recovery. In the old days, you just had a hard plaster cast, but these days, there are soft casts and air casts, etc. Don't be afraid to ask your surgeon about each of them.
6. Don't use crutches if you can't. Use a wheelchair or a walker instead. But first, discuss your options with your ortho.
7. Keep your leg propped so that it's above your heart and put ice on it. This will reduce swelling.
8. Don't put weight on the leg and try to keep it as still as possible.
9. Put a cast protector over it to prevent it from getting wet while taking a sponge bath, shower, etc.
10. Don't play with the cast or stick things down it. Your leg may itch or chafe, but scratching at it or getting an object stuck in the cast could compromise your recovery.
(Don't) Walk This Way
At the hospital, I tried to use crutches, but found it impossible because of the location of the injury and because I have back problems. Hopping with one leg hurt my back and I kept instinctively putting my bad leg down, causing me even more pain. Unfortunately, the hospital would not let me take a wheelchair home, even with the promise that we'd return it the next day. So when we got home, my husband and I had no idea how we'd get upstairs to our apartment. The kindly cab driver attempted to help support me, but I just could not walk with the crutches. My husband called the hospital asking for help and they refused. Finally, I suggested that we use our computer chair that has wheels on the bottom. This proved to be a great idea and my husband managed to wheel me upstairs to bed.
The next morning, we rented a wheelchair first thing. We were surprised to learn how inexpensive it is to rent one at less than $200 a month. Many stores that rent wheelchairs and walkers also accept certain insurance. Though I couldn't get in and out of the wheelchair without my husband's help, I could at least get around and go outside.
Meanwhile, we tried to find an orthopedic surgeon who could see me right away ... only pretty much all of the surgeons in Queens were on vacation that weekend. We finally found a repuable surgeon on Long Island. He explained that there's generally a two-week window with a broken leg, if surgery is needed. I feared that my leg would be compromised if I didn't get it fixed immediately, but as it turns out, the surgeon needs about a week for the swelling to go down. This made me feel a lot calmer.
Tips For Dealing With Surgery
1. Make sure the hospital accepts your insurance. Get all of this out of the way before your procedure.
2. See if you can visit the hospital ahead of time so you can get an idea of what it's like and where you'll be. This helps ease anxiety.
3. Talk with the doctor and the anaesthesiologist ahead of time to find out if there are options in your surgery. I was given several options, which was a surprise to me, but turned out to be a good thing.
4. Make sure someone is with you to take you home and help with your recovery over the next 24 hours because you'll be groggy.
5. Don't hesitate to discuss pain management with your medic.
6. Wear loose, comfy clothes and no jewelry. Make sure to bring your insurance card and photo ID.
7. Follow your doctor's instructions about eating/drinking the day before your procedure. In most cases, you will have to go for several hours without having food or drink.
8. See if you can talk to another patient who's been through your surgery so you can get an idea of what it'll be like.
9. Don't ignore the doctor's instructions on recovery. If you need to stay in bed for three days after, do it - don't push yourself.
10, Make sure you see your doctor for a follow-up visit to make sure that everything is working as it's supposed to.
Popping The Bone
That Saturday, I went to see the orthopedic surgeon. He informed me that I'd sprained my ankle, fractured in fibula in a couple of places and had torn ligaments. He also told me that I'd need siurgery and would have to have a rod and plates put in to set the leg. He promised that I'd be out for the procedure and wouldn't feel a thing.
He then took some more X-rays and learned that the hospital hadn't set my bone correctly ... and so he did it right there in his office, while I was awake. It only took about 30 seconds, but it hurt like hell, much worse than when I'd broken the bone in the first place! Thankfully, I had my husband, best friend and a kindly nurse on hand to help me get through it with some breathing exercises.
But when he showed me the before and after X-rays, I was shocked; when I'd left the hospital, my bone was completely askew. I had to admit that with the bone in the correct position, my leg did feel a lot more secure and I was able to get in and out of the car more easily.
Meanwhile, I had to contend with work stuff. My boss understood that I'd be out for at least a month and had me call human resources so that I could be put on disability. Turns out, though, that I had to go through several organizations, including New York State, to get the insurance. There was a lot of red tape involved, but the woman at HR was very helpful in keeping everything straight for me. My head was beginning to spin with all of the things I was required to do just to get surgery and heal. Who knew that breaking a leg would require so many different forms?!
Useful Links On Broken Legs
- How To Cope With A Broken Leg: Broken Leg Recovery And Physical Therapy
When I broke my leg, it was painful and scary, but I recovered. Here's my story of recovering from a broken leg and going for physical therapy for my broken leg.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons - AAOS
- MyBrokenLeg.com - Broken leg stories and advice
MyBrokenLeg.com - the site for people with a broken leg.
- WebMD - Better information. Better health.
For the next week, I was in a half soft cast that ran from my calf to my foot. My leg didn't hurt too much, but the splints dug into my ankle and were quite annoying. I had bigger things to worry about, though -- my upcoming surgery. Meanwhile, I felt as if I were getting more mobile. I still needed my husband's help with many things, but felt well enough to go out to dinner for our wedding anniversary.
The Thursday before my scheduled surgery (April 15), I went to South Nassau Community Hospital on Long Island, NY for pre-op testing. They took my blood pressure, heart rate, and blood and urine samples. The hospital was clean and well-run, so I was feeling better about the upcoming procedure.
But then two days before I was to have my surgery, I got a call from the hospital saying thay my white blood cell count and liver values were high. I now needed to see yet ANOTHER doctor to get clearance for the surgery. My friend, who is an oncologist, assured me that WBC counts and liver values can go up from mental or physical stress and that this happens all the time, but I was still freaked out. What if I now had cancer in addition to my broken leg?
On Pins And Needles
The day before my surgery, I got the good news: my WBC count and liver values were down and they could procede with fixing my leg as scheduled. I was relieved to be getting this out of the way, but also very nervous about going under the knife.
My family and I arrived at the hospital in plenty of time (they requested that I be there two hours early, but it was closer to three for us) and I was taken to a pre-op room. During the wait, I was hooked up to an IV and my blood pressure was taken. I was also visited by the doctor and anaesthesiologist, who both went over my chart. Everyone kept asking me these seemingly-ridiculous questions over and over again: "What's your full name?" "Which leg did you break?" "When is your birthday?" A nurse explained that this was basically to cover their butts and we made a joke out of it.
I've gone under anaesthesia before, but the last time was in 1988, so things have changed. In the past, you were given a sedative a few hours before and then in the operating room, you were put right out. This time, I was given OPTIONS, which surprised me and freaked me out a bit. I was offered the choice of a spinal (where I'd be paralyzed from the waist down), a nerve blocker (to kill the pain in my leg) or no nerve blocker. I ultimately decided to go with general anaesthesia and a nerve blocker from my knee down. This way, I'd still have my good leg and the top portion of my hurt leg in use after the procedure. I definitely made the right choice.
In the operating room, I was helped onto the table, where I was told to lie face down. The very kind nurse put a heated blanket over me and we joked about me pretending that I was getting a massage. My orthopedist then removed my cast and put something on my leg to freeze it so that it felt numb.
After, I was given a sedative, which made my head feel huge. I then had a strange trip where I imagined myself floating through all of my organs and tissues. I was still awake for this, but so out of it, I didn't even know my name. But it was apparently during this period that the doctor injected the nerve block below my knee.
I was then put out and I guess my doc put in the rod and plates. Next thing I knew, I was awake and in the recovery room! My leg felt a bit sore, but a nurse gave me some morphine. The nerve block then began to take effect and my leg became all tingly as if it were falling asleep. I couldn't wiggle my toes, which felt odd, but it no longer hurt. I was given a choice to go home or stay overnight, but I chose to go home. My doctor warned that my leg would be sore when I got the feeling back in it and gave me a prescription for pain meds.
Three days later, my leg doesn't feel so bad. It's a bit stiff and sore, but I haven't had to take too many pills. Instead, I'm looking forward to my recovery and to finally getting back on the road to walking again.
No question, breaking my leg was a big pain (literally and figuratively), but in some ways, I feel as if it's made me stronger. I've learned that I'm tougher than I thought and that things can always be worse. I'm excited and nervous for what I know is going to be a long journey ahead. Stay tuned as I continue to document my recovery...