A tibial plateau fracture is a break of the upper part of the tibia (shinbone) that involves the knee joint. Most tibial plateau fractures are a result of trauma to the leg, such as a fall from height, a motor vehicle accident, or, as in my case, a sports injury. On February 2, 2020, at Park City Resort, heading toward Dreamscape Lift, I skied down a slick run, miscalculated a turn, veered off the groomed terrain, impaled my skis in a mogul, flipped out of them, and slid twenty feet down the hill. My fracture was compounded by a fibula break, a meniscus tear, and extensive soft tissue damage.
I've skied for thirty-three years. I'm good, although far from expert. I'm cautious, so I rarely fall. But now I'm a skier who's wiped out. Big time.
Shock can cause uncontrollable shaking. After I heard a muffled bone crack, after I landed on my stomach, after I rolled onto my back, I shook and shook and shook. I shook until an EMT injected me with pain medication or a sedative or both. My body's primitive response independent of my brain and outside my control intensified my trauma.
3. Ski Patrol
What it's like to be rescued by the Ski Patrol. I've watched this emergency response team gather around fallen skiers, wrap them in red blankets, secure them in toboggans, and ferry them down mountains at resorts in California, Colorado, and Montana, as well as Utah. This time, the cargo was me. I don't know what route the Ski Patrol took. I don't know how many runs they covered. I don't know how many feet they towed me down. I don't know whether people stopped to watch, silently thankful it wasn't them. I kept my eyes closed during the entire ride to the bottom of the mountain where an ambulance awaited me.
4. Trauma Center I
If you break your leg on a ski trip, it's optimal you break it within a half-hour ambulance ride from Salt Lake City, home to the University of Utah Hospital, a Level 1 Trauma Center. There, critical-care specialists tend to patients, orthopedic surgeons repair complicated leg fractures, and nurses and aids are compassionate, caring, efficient, and don't leave your room until they ask "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
An exfix is an external fixation device used to repair fractures. Mine was a Frankenstein-like grid of carbon-fiber rods, titanium pins, and stainless-steel clamps and screws attached to the outside of my leg through four holes drilled into the middle of my femur and bottom of my tibia. Surgery number one. The exfix stabilized my leg for ten days while swelling receded, time I spent in the hospital, on a plane, and at home. Before my second surgeon removed the exfix (see no.7), my partner Arnie, an engineer, insisted on salvaging the components to repurpose them. Ick.
6. My Beloved
Arnie is a strategic thinker and a problem solver, but I didn't know how he would respond to a crisis until the crisis was mine. While I languished in a hospital bed lacking the bandwidth to make sound decisions, he packed our clothes and ski equipment, checked out of our hotel room, called the airline to arrange for a wheelchair, booked a full row of seats so I could rest my unbendable leg on his lap, bought a walker to fit my five-foot-two frame, ordered a shower chair, crutches, and toilet bars on Amazon which arrived at our home before we did, obtained a letter from my doctor so I qualified for handicapped parking, and arranged a lift ticket credit for our soon-to-be cancelled Mt. Bachelor ski trip. He also notified and updated my family about the accident and my surgeries complete with a photo of the Frankenstein leg.
7. Trauma Center II
If you break a leg on a ski trip in Utah and require a second surgery back home, it's optimal you live in Seattle where Harborview Medical Center is also a Level 1 Trauma Center and your rock-star surgeon, who has performed hundreds of tibial fracture surgeries, removes your exfix and reconstructs your leg. She slices two incisions, inserts three stainless-steel plates and over twenty screws, repairs your meniscus, assesses your fibula, and sews your leg back together using thirty-one stitches. A five-hour procedure.
I didn't know how to give myself twice-a-day subcutaneous stomach injections of enoxaparin to prevent blood clots.
At sixty-nine, when emotionally frayed, physically compromised, bereft of energy, and aching, aching, aching, I want my mother. Even though I'm sixty-nine. Even though my mother has been dead for ten years.
10. Naked Need
I didn't know how needy I can be. How I'd hate how needy I can be.
How my vulnerability and pain would be compounded by anxiety, by fear of mortality. As I grow older—and I'm hardly alone—I fear I'll become frail and dependent and experience constant pain. I thought I wanted to live forever, but now I fear I will give in to death, not fight to live.
12. COVID 19
I didn't know—how could I?—that my anxiety would be magnified, cross-pollinated, and exacerbated by anxiety about the coronavirus, the pandemic that erupted in the United States in Seattle.
I didn't know I would turn so fragile, so ragged, so volatile that I'd say to Arnie, who cares for and supports me, "Do whatever the fuck you want!" yelling the F-word for the first time in our relationship. That he would say, "Your leg will heal, but I'm not sure our relationship will." That after fifteen years of devotion I'd wonder if he still loved me. I'd ask, "Do you still love me?" I'd need to be reassured over and over he still did.
I am not brave or tough or heroic. I'm a baby. Maybe because I haven't been through a great deal of pain and suffering in my life, I'm ill-equipped to handle it. But I did not have cancer or open-heart surgery or a stroke or a life-threatening car accident. I broke my leg—a serious fracture, but fixable.
I didn't know that my butt would go numb from sitting so much.
16. Weight Bearing
I didn't know I would not be allowed to put any weight on my right leg for ten weeks.
How much energy it takes to wield a walker and hop hop hop on one foot. What it's like when you can't walk. Or climb up and down stairs. Or take a shower on your own. I have new respect and empathy for people who spend years using walkers and crutches, who live their lives in wheelchairs, who can't leave their beds without help.
It's impossible to put on socks or take them off when you can't bend your knee. Try it.
How quickly my weight-trained, elliptically-exercised body can lose its strength, muscle tone, and endurance.
Even though I sustained a serious injury, I will be able to ski again. So say my surgeons. Was I delirious when I asked soon after arriving in the Emergency Room? But is it worth the risk? Will the sound of a cracking bone, the continuous shaking, the pain, the swelling, the hideous exfix, the ugly incisions, the months of recovery echo less in my memory over time? I hope so. I hope I'll cruise down a mountain again. I hope I'll feel the wind licking my face and hear the snow swishing a white wake behind me. I hope I'll feel that giddy adrenaline rush. I hope I'll head back to Park City. And I hope I'll make it all the way to Dreamscape Lift. Intact.
Images provided courtesy of Sharon Goldberg.