May 16th, 2019 started off as a day full of promise… and yard work. It ended up being the day I went from being independent and strong to (temporarily) losing every and any ounce of independence I had. We (my fiancé and I) planned on getting some landscaping stuff done, and to keep the dogs occupied and out of the yard, we put their little pool up on the deck. Which, hindsight is always 20/20, and this was just a pretty dumb idea but made sense at the time.
Broken Ankle: The Injury and the Aftermath
Long story short, the deck ended up getting all wet and became slippery. I was wearing shoes with zero traction (thank you Birkenstocks) and in a split second pretty much shattered my ankle. As I fell, I heard the break and when I looked at my foot, it was facing a different direction than it should have been. I knew instantly it was bad, and life was going to change drastically for a while.
What happened is called a trimalleolar facture, a fracture of 3 different bones in the ankle/leg joint. Essentially, what that means is that every bone that anchors your foot to your leg is broken and the foot is disconnected from the leg. It’s the worst fracture you can get, and in addition to that, I had an additional fracture on the back of the ankle/foot that was “crunched up” in a bunch of pieces as well.
The pain was so horrific that they had to start an IV to get me fentanyl right there on the deck as they did a reduction (the first of two that needed to be done that day) to put my foot back the right way. That pain didn’t stop or get better for about a week and half, even though it felt like years, and even though they were rotating IV morphine and fentanyl at the hospital and loaded me up with a pain pill regime to take down a horse.
I got home from the hospital with a plan to see the surgeon the following morning, and at that appointment surgery was scheduled for May 22nd. The pain was so severe during this time and my ankle was so unstable that every time I moved, got up, with each hop on the crutches, any bump we drove over in the car… I was screaming and sobbing in pain.
I felt bad for me, but I felt worse for Justin who had to watch me be in anguishing pain without being able to do anything to make it better. I also couldn’t sleep, except for maybe an hour after I took each round of pain meds, so adding the exhaustion that set in after about two days from being up and crying constantly didn’t help my cause much.
We (ok, Justin) picked up a used knee scooter during this time but I had to wait a few weeks to be able to use it, because prior to surgery my ankle was just so unstable that it hurt worse to have it hang off the knee scooter than it did to use the crutches. Everything during this time was difficult, especially not being able to carry anything, go up the stairs, or take care of myself. Not only was the pain all consuming, but losing my independence was an even worse kind of pain for me and would continue to be over the next few months.
Using crutches meant I couldn’t carry anything, and when Justin wasn’t home, I had to learn how to really plan out and think through every single trip off the couch I was going to take. I started using my backpack to bring back my water bottle, or any food I needed had to be put in a container that could then go in my backpack, meaning plates and cups couldn’t be used. I felt so guilty that in those first weeks I couldn’t help with any of the cooking, cleaning, caring for the dogs, or pulling my weight around the house. I couldn’t even get into the shower myself.
Justin’s immediate future changed just as quickly as mine did when my injury happened, and he had to take on all of those responsibilities on top of working full-time and now caring for me and our two dogs. He even slept downstairs on a chair for weeks to make sure he was close to me in case I needed to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night or needed pain meds. And in that first week and a half when I couldn’t sleep, he stayed up with me. While I felt awful that he was doing this, he was simultaneously my light and biggest blessing during all of this.
Trimalleolar Fracture Ankle Surgery
The morning of surgery I was so, so nervous and scared. It was partially the surgery and being intubated I was worried about, but it was also about what my life would be like after. The only thing I wanted was to be “normal” again and have my life back. At one of my appointments, my (wonderful) PA asked how I was doing and I burst into tears, which happened more than once a day anyway, and through my sobs said “I *sob* was just *sob* in *sob* Poland *sob* by myself *sob* 2 weeks ago *sob*”. I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me.
The instant loss of one of my favorite qualities about myself was devastating but going into surgery I just was thinking about all of the simple everyday things I so easily took for granted prior and was wondering if I’ll ever get back to just being me. Going to the store, driving, daily walks with my dogs, running up the stairs to grab something or flip laundry… all of it things I wanted so badly to be able to do again.
After surgery when the pain block wore off, I felt like someone had taken a chainsaw to my foot. Painful is not a powerful enough word for what I experienced. There were periods where I thought I was going to pass out because it was just so horrific and intense. Every time my surgeon or PA called to see how I was doing that first week, I would always burst into tears because I didn’t have the words to explain just how much pain I was in.
I was in a huge padded splint/cast and told underneath all that padding was 3 long incisions, one on each side of my ankle and one going along the back from my heel halfway up my calf. Inside of those incisions my surgeon placed 3 plates and 12 screws. I couldn’t feel ice packs through the huge cast, so they had to be placed under my knee instead.
After My Broken Ankle Surgery
Around a week/week and a half after the surgery, I was in less pain than I had been since my injury first happened, and was starting to wean off the pain meds. The cast came off around this time (5/30) to let the incisions have some breathing room and I got a boot to wear when I was moving around. I didn’t need to wear it as long as I was laying around with it propped up, which is about all I did for 2 weeks straight. I was able to put ice on it once the cast was off and that helped quite a bit.
Because of this, my swelling started going down quicker than anticipated, which I think helped with my healing. However, with each follow up appointment (which were very frequent), I was continually crushed by being reminded of how long it would be before I was cleared to bear weight again, and eventually walk again. Especially with my wedding coming up in just two months.
It was going to be at least another 6 weeks before I would be cleared to walk. During this time, life honestly just got really hard and pretty dark for me. I missed being able to just get in the car and drive to where I wanted to go by myself. My outings consisted of Justin going through the painstakingly cumbersome process of getting me out and into the car so I could at least take a drive to Starbucks to get out of the house and then repeating the process of getting me back into the house. I either sat on the porch, or laid on the couch.
I got to know my mailman and FedEx driver better than I thought you could know a mailman. Even once I started using the scooter, the physical exertion of doing anything made me extremely tired and completely worn out. This was so emotionally challenging for me and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cry over something at least once a day. My body had just gone through a pretty intense trauma, and my mind was really unhappy about it.
Getting in the shower one night caused me a total emotional breakdown because everything had to be so planned and thought out. My every move, Justin’s every move as he tried to help me, where everything needed to be, and then my fear of slipping and the logistics of where my one good foot needed to go to prevent that, and THEN how badly I felt that Justin had to do and get absolutely everything for me that I needed. I was so frustrated, overwhelmed, upset and just tired of everything having to be this hard and being this much of a burden.
I was not the person I was just a few weeks ago, and even though I tried to be positive about it, it got harder and harder to do so and I hated that everything was such a challenge when I was so used to just doing everything for myself, and doing it so easily.
Post Surgical Depression
During this time period, we also had a ton of crappy life stuff pile up on top of us too. I was trying to plan our wedding that was happening in July but couldn’t actually do or go anywhere and thought about just cancelling it almost once a day because I was so sad about my injury was going to impact our wedding day, and knew I wouldn’t be walking by then. I had to cancel our pre-wedding trip to NYC that was supposed to happen the first week of June, and cancel a trip to California to see my best friend a few weeks later because my surgeon said I wasn’t able to fly for at least 10 weeks. Justin’s best friend died, and while we were back in Justin’s hometown (a 6 hour drive that I couldn’t help with at all) at his funeral, I got a phone call that my uncle died. Then two weeks later, my Nana had a stroke the week before our wedding.
This all just 6 months after Justin’s younger and only brother passed away. I truly had just spiraled into a place that didn’t look anything like me or my life and I was angry and sad. Every week it seemed as if something new and awful happened like clockwork. I was angry all of this was happening to us at the same time, but more than anything, I was angry at my stupid broken ankle because I wasn’t able to help or do the things I would have had I been able to walk, or be the support to Justin or my family I would have been if I wasn’t so consumed with trying to recover or so limited by that recovery. It felt like I was drowning in waves that just kept crashing into me, not able to get a breath before the next one hit.
Post-surgical depression is a real thing, especially prevalent in orthopedic surgeries that inhibit movement and activity. I was/am already dealing with some PTSD stuff from Tyler’s passing, and was really not mentally ready to gracefully handle something like this type of injury and surgery with zero notice that it was going to happen to me. Being laid up is SO unlike me, and like I mentioned, two weeks before this happened I was in Europe for a month by myself, as an example of just how much I value my independence.
Not being able to be active isn’t something I know well, and I got really depressed that it all changed in one split second. I found myself just so irrationally angry with people I’d watch walk down the street as I sat there, thinking about how they just don’t even know how great they have it to be walking on their legs like it’s NO BIG DEAL! I can laugh about it now, but I was so miserable and just… down. So much so that I couldn’t bring myself to work or even open my laptop. I didn’t want to talk to anyone or see anyone either. It was rough and I was physically and emotionally exhausted and beat down.
I knew it was temporary, but it didn’t make it much easier in the moment. It was so hard to feel stuck in my house with no motivation or ability to do anything but stare at the four walls for days on end. It also made me incredibly aware of how difficult this world can be for someone who is differently abled, too. Everything we did had to be planned out to a T. Do I need the scooter? Crutches? Or both? How far is the parking from the door, what car do we need to take depending on what I need to bring? How long will we be gone and what medications need to come with? What clothing options do I have for where we’re going or the weather that Justin has to get from upstairs being I can’t get pants on over the cast? Is the elevator close by, or is there a ramp near the main door? He’ll have to drop me off at the door to get me out and then go park because there’s no parking space without another car next to it?
Things that were no big deal if you had two working legs, like parking on a street next to a curb, for example, were now big productions for me, as well as making sure every place we went was easily accessible to get into (which, surprise, this is not often the case). The pain was pretty much gone 3 weeks after surgery, but that’s when the laying around thing became really the most difficult, but it was usually an easier option than trying to go do anything either.
Because of the combination of not doing anything all day, and just how bad I was feeling emotionally, I started to have a really hard time sleeping. I wasn’t burning off any energy during the day and I ended up just being up all night or sleeping for a few hours, being up for a few hours, sleeping for a few hours, so on and so forth, which made feeling normal even harder because I was so tired but also unable to sleep, pretty much ensuring I couldn’t be productive at all either. Continuing the cycle of just feeling really, really crappy about the whole dang situation. I’m not saying this to make you feel bad for me, I just hope to give an accurate description of what my recovery has been like.
Driving, Rehab and Walking After Breaking My Ankle
Once I got my stitches taken out, I finally felt like we were making some progress. I still couldn’t put any weight on my leg, but it meant that my incisions were healed enough to be a sign to me that we were moving further away from the injury and closer to being healed. It also meant I could take a shower without the shower-cap-for-the-leg plastic contraption I had to wear to prevent the incisions from getting wet. It was the grossest, but also best shower ever! Because my foot hadn’t touched the ground in so long, so much dead skin came off but it was the first time I had felt actually clean in like 6 weeks. Thank the lord!
I also had this idea in my head that once my docs told me I was full weight bearing again, I’d be just… back to walking! Back to being myself! Of course, I knew/thought it would hurt and that I’d need PT, but I guess I just thought that would be for some ROM (range of motion) work and I overestimated what my capabilities would be. Because even when I did get the all clear to put weight on it again, which happened on July 2nd, I still couldn’t walk. My surgeon even told me, “just because I say you can walk, doesn’t mean you can walk.” Welp, didn’t see that one coming.
At that appointment, what I really wanted to know also was about driving. When could I drive?! That is one of the things I missed the most. Driving myself just meant freedom to me, and not being able to meant that I was still dependent on someone else. So the day I was cleared to be FWB, my surgeon also told me that I was cleared to drive based on studies of reaction time vs. length of time post-surgery and that my ROM and strength with my foot flexing forward was good, but that he couldn’t be the one to make that decision for me. I had to be the one to decide that I was comfortable and confident that I could react and control the vehicle. I was super nervous about this and waited a few days after that appointment to get behind the wheel.
At first I just practiced with the pedals and going backwards and forwards, and then around the block, and then for the first week after that I avoided the highway and just took the back roads. My first time on the highway my calf muscle tightened up and spasmed a bit because my right foot was the one this happened to, my leg had atrophied so much and not been used for holding down a pedal for so long, so that was a bit scary, but it went away quickly and never happened again.
But pretty shortly after that, I was back behind the wheel with no limitations and on the road to freedom! What’s interesting about this is that I still couldn’t walk unassisted and was in so much pain when I put weight on my leg, but I could drive just fine and when I was, it was like my ankle wasn’t even broken and I hadn’t just had major reconstructive surgery.
Also, at that appointment, I was cleared to begin swimming laps, water walking and getting back on my Peloton bike (but taking it easy on the bike). That week I began physical therapy, but I also signed up at the YMCA and could not WAIT to start doing some activity again. At first, I was told to only do 15 minutes in the pool, and truly that’s all I could handle.
Because I still couldn’t walk on my own, I was wearing a brace, my boot and using crutches. This meant that the process to get to the pool to only spend 15 minutes it in looked like this:
Put on brace, boot and get crutches and make sure I have everything I need (including swim shoes for the traction being I can’t walk well) in a backpack. Get out to the car. Sit down in the driver’s seat and hurl the crutches into the back seat. Take off the boot, and the brace, and take my other shoe out of the backpack to put on to drive. Drive to the gym. Park and take off the shoe, put the brace back on, the boot back on, put on the backpack and get the crutches. Hobble incredibly slowly into the gym and to the pool. Pull a chair as close as possible to the edge of the pool near the ladder to get in and out. Take off boot and brace and put on the pool shoes. Lower myself down to the ground and half crawl-half scoot over to the side of the pool and get in. Swim or water walk for 15-20 minutes.
Get out (carefully and nervously), dry off and fearfully make sure EVERYTHING is dry before trying to walk because I’m so worried about slipping on water being that’s how this happened in the first place and repeat the process to get home. This was a 2+ hour process for just a few minutes in the water, and it was exhausting, but it was so worth it and I was determined. I could do something on my own!! I was focusing on healing my ankle! I increased my time in the water every 3 days by about 5-10 minutes, once I was able to see how my ankle felt the next few days to make sure I wasn’t overdoing it.
I had to do this process of putting on all my “gear”, getting to the car, taking it all off, driving, putting it back on where ever I went, too. I got pretty good at it, especially during the week my Nana was in the ICU and I was up at the hospital 2x a day.
I could feel myself getting stronger each day, even if just a little bit. The pain and swelling returned once I was FBW again, but that was due to not using it in so long, the muscle atrophy that happened to my calf, and increased with activity as the day progressed. The swelling made it feel like how your foot feels if it falls asleep, like pins and needles, but you can’t get rid of it. Even if I lightly tap my shin bone, I can feel the pain from the swelling in my toes.
I wasn’t taking my strong pain meds anymore, but I did have to start taking ibuprofen or Tylenol at night before bed. However, I finally was able to sleep in my own bed again after sleeping downstairs on the couch, so I could be close to a bathroom that was accessible for me and my scooter. I went from using two crutches with the boot and a brace to just using one as a cane with the boot and brace.
Each day kept getting a little easier, with a little less pain. Like I previously mentioned, the swelling increases as the day goes on and as I use it, so the pain I still have is always towards the end of the day and is always correlated with the amount of swelling. Sometimes I can’t even get my shoe on that foot because it blows up to the size of a football.
Road to Recovery
After getting the all clear to be FWB on 7/2, I reduced the number of devices and equipment I needed to walk or do daily activities over the next few weeks. 7/20 (my wedding day) was the first day I was able to stand unassisted long enough without the boot or brace for support to take a shower standing up (goodbye shower chair! I will not miss you!), and then quickly after that was getting rid of boot and brace and crutches.
By the 22nd I wasn’t using a crutch as a cane support, and then by the 25th I was walking without the brace or the boot. By the 31st I could go up and down stairs normally again instead of one step at a time. I still have a pretty significant limp, but like everything else, it’s getting better and a little less noticeable a little every day.
I’m still getting incredibly tired and worn out with activity, and can’t stand for more than a few minutes at a time, which makes a lot of things like cooking, cleaning, and standing in lines difficult still. But my capacity is getting better and better, and I’m feeling better and better. My balance is still a bit shaky and I can’t walk very far, but I’m happy with the progress I’ve made, even if I can only stand on the one foot I had surgery on for a few seconds. I’m still a bit embarrassed when I go anywhere in public because of my limp and how slow I am, but that embarrassment is usually overshadowed by how thankful I am to be out of my house and doing the things I want or need to do. Who knew getting gas at the gas station was such a privilege!
I’ve done a lot of naturopathic things to encourage and support my healing and recovery, and will outline all of those things in a separate post. Overall though, what I needed was time. Which was the hardest thing to give myself when all I wanted was to feel like me again and have my “old” life back. However, this injury has changed a lot of things about me and given me a new perspective and appreciation for both my health and the people in my life.
I’m still a bit angry that this “set me back” so long and at all of the things that happened during this time that I wasn’t able to take part in, or be there for. But overall, I’m incredibly blessed and lucky that I have the support system that I do in my now-husband, the wonderfully talented and amazing surgeon and PA I have and the friends and family that sent food, checked in on me, and made sure we made it to the other side of this. Things are looking up and I’m so grateful for the support (and patience) from my community.. You guys! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!
Timeline of Ankle Surgery Recovery:
5/16 broke ankle, couldn’t walk
5/22 Ankle surgery and put in hard cast
5/30 Hard cast came off, incisions re-bandaged and put in a compression sock and boot
6/24 Stitches came out
7/2 Cleared to be FWB, begin PT and light exercise (stationary bike and swimming)
7/5 Driving practice in the driveway and around the block
7/7 Highway driving on my own
7/14 Walking a few steps with boot and brace, but needing crutch/es to get around the house and in public, still using scooter for long distances
7/20 Able to take shower standing up without use of shower chair with no brace/boot to stabilize ankle
7/22 Using just the boot and brace to walk
7/25 Walking on my own, without brace and boot, but with a limp
7/31 Walking up and down stairs normally, instead of one step at a time
8/13 Walking with a barely noticeable limp
9/30 Walking normally with no pain. Swelling only with a lot of activity
10/20 12 days walking around Europe with little to no issues or pain
11/10 Last follow-up appointment with surgeon
04/15 (upcoming) First post-injury solo international trip to Switzerland to hike