When I was six, I fell out of the big maple tree in our front yard. Anyone who has known me for a millisecond knows this story, my apologies to those who are sick of it!
I had been hanging from my knees on a branch, only a few feet off the ground, but upside down. On our monkey bars, I could swing, and then do a move where I landed with my arms touching the ground first, with a handspring to my feet. My six year old self hadn’t really thought it through- the distance was further, and rough tree limbs aren’t exactly great for those moves! I was looking for a perfect flip dismount, I ended up head first, my arm out in front to protect me, and landed with my full weight on my arm, over an exposed root. Rather predictably, it broke.
I cried for a few minutes, and we went inside. My Mom put ice on it, tested its strength, put a tensor bandage on it, and off I went. As any parent knows, if the tensor bandage is more annoying than whatever pain they have, the pain probably isn’t that bad. The wrap bandage lasted all of 15 minutes. The next morning I was favouring it a bit, so my Mom wrote a note to my teacher saying I had injured my arm, to keep a bit of an eye on me. She wrote back “She’s fine, she was doing handstands in gym class.” Four days later, it was getting more sore, and was every shade from red to blue to green and back. It was cold, so my Mom didn’t see just how special a colour it was. It was still producing fresh bruising; which five days after an injury is never a good sign. Concerned, they took me to our local ER to get it checked. They started with an x-ray; it was broken. Badly.
As soon as they did the x-ray, my parents were removed from my bedside. A woman came to join me, she was weirdly attentive and nice, but wouldn’t get me a glass of water (and it bothered me that she wouldn’t tell me why). I was precocious, and I have never reacted well to being talked down to. Even today as I think back, my face is doing a “watchu takin’ bout, Willis?”. I was so confused. It wasn’t that big a deal, my 6 year-old self thought, what is everyone fussing about? And who the hell is this woman?
To add a bit of context, a few months earlier, I had come into the same ER with two concussions in one day. I got the first concussion by crashing into a coat rack while my sisters and I were trying to see how many steps we could jump down. The coat rack was on the opposite wall, usually well cushioned from layers of coats and hats and scarves, etc. The last thing I recall was a wooden peg rushing at my head, just like in the cartoons. Down I went. My older sisters had thought it was very cool to see my eyes roll back into my head as I passed out. When I got home, they put me on the toilet to see if I would do it again. It did. I hit my head on the terracotta tiles… With that in my file, and the arm, there was immediate concern for my welfare. And well there should have been, of course.
My parents were taken to a meeting room, where the doctor peppered them with questions. They’d done an x-ray before he had seen me, he hadn’t actually examined me yet. Of course, he dismissed their claims that it didn’t hurt. I’d broken both bones in my forearm, they were displaced, and had started healing in the wrong position. Their story was dismissed as ridiculous. There was no way that they could have missed it. That break had to hurt. A LOT. Why had they not brought me in right away? Was it neglect, or was there a different story about that arm, because they clearly weren’t telling the truth. The doctor was very clear that he would be calling the police, that I would NOT be going home with them, and that one or both of them could be arrested and charged with child abuse. My parents managed to keep a lid on their shock and temper, and got through to him; convinced him to just go and see me first, before doing anything else.
So the doctor came to my bedside. I remember it so vividly. I can still see the ER room. There was an isolation unit next to me, and I was very curious about it. They didn’t have a pediatric ER, but they had a kid’s corner. It was painted a different colour, with fantastic bright 70’s swirls (beautiful and attractive to a child, but not exactly restful, and it irritated me that the pattern didnt match in the corner..Man, was I cheeky.). The room was very quiet, only a few beds were taken. There was a little boy next to me who didn’t speak English; but with the universal language of children, we shared our crayons. I was sitting on the bed, leaning forward and coloring. I’d been told not to use my right arm (the injured and dominant one). So, I was colouring with my left hand. I was leaning on my right arm with full weight. I wasn’t happy that my parents weren’t there, but I wasn’t terribly upset, either. The Doctor came in and said “Hi sweetie, can I have a look at your arm?” Without missing a stroke, I stuck out my arm towards him and kept colouring. “No, honey, the sore one.”
I stopped colouring, and looked at him. “This is the sore one!” I pulled up my sleeve and showed him my arm. “See? It’s a funny colour.”
He stared at me, and stammered, “Um, that’s the one that hurts?”
“It doesn’t really hurt that much. Check out the colour though! Isn’t it neat?”, as I twist my arm to see the underside near the elbow where it was the most fantastic colours.
“But, but.. that’s not possible!” It’s a look I’ve seen many, many times since. It starts with confusion, then fear, then concern and then full on deer in the headlights, tinged with ‘im gonna faint or hurl, maybe both’. Recognition slowly dawns on them that yes, the impossible is happening in front of their face. The eyes get wider, the colour drains from their face, and there is usually a breathy, indistinct exclamation, anything from “No f***ing way!’ to ‘Oh. Oh! Ooooohhhh.’ and everything in between, depending on their eloquence. In this case, he took his time examining me- head to toe, and putting my arm through its paces. He stopped. Turned to the nurse and the other woman (the revoltingly syrupy one; my best guess is that she was a child welfare worker of some sort). All three looked at me and each other, mouthes agape. I began to cry; clearly something was very wrong, then became more frightened when the nurse began to cry (stress relief, the poor woman). I said “Is my arm going to be okay?”
The doctor turned to me. “Sweetie, your arm will be just fine! I will tell you more in a minute, I’ll be right back.” He went to my parents, opened the door and apologized. I am sure it was horrible at the time, but both of my parents understood what it looked like. They knew that if child was being abused, the hospital had a responsibility to follow through. The chance that my arm didn’t hurt, with that kind of break was very, very unlikely. (I gotta get ‘I’m impossible’ printed on a t-shirt…).
It was five days after the injury, and I was a healthy kid, it had already started to heal. This was no greenstick fracture, both forearm bones were broken clean through and displaced (Even as I write I wonder how I could have possibly done a handstand on it. Beyond pain, there a some fundamental physics issues. Maybe I was better at one-armed handstands than i recall…?). It had to be rebroken to be set straight. My Mother remembers being in the treatment room with me. If they couldn’t do it externally, they’d have to take me to surgery, put in pins, etc. They gave me a sedative, and the doc picked up my arm in his hands and got to work. My Mom hadn’t thought through how they were going to achieve re-breaking it.. She was expecting something more sophisticated than snapping it like a twig. My Mother later told me that the doctor was breaking a sweat, he was using every ounce of strength, hed pulled back, taking a rest, and deciding what to do. He gathered his thoughts and his strength, and gave it one more try. She heard the ‘pop pop’ of each of the bones as they broke. She later told me that it was in her top ten most traumatic moments, and this is a woman who lived through WWII. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I understood what it must have felt like.
The docs didn’t really know what to make of it. I could clearly feel pain in other ways, everything from a sliver to bumps and scratches. I could feel everything, there was no numbness or dislocation, either. We never really pursued it, and ultimately put down to a ‘Karen’s just weird’. The doctor did say “If Karen says that something hurts, she should probably already be in the ER.”
To put this story into context, and to hear what it has taught me about my very weird pain, go to part two!