Lessons from a Temporary Disability?


Five more weeks to go. Seven weeks ago, after the orthopedic surgeon repaired the crushed plateau of my tibia, he wrote in giant letters for the nurses, “NWB left leg.” For those of you who don’t get the hospital shorthand, that means NON-WEIGHT BEARING…and not just for the time I was in the hospital. Dr. Golden and his residents reiterated it every time they came to my bedside, as they listened with infinite patience to my questions while I tried to absorb the fact that it would be months before I’d be able to log 10,000 steps a day on my pedometer again.  Somehow they seemed to find a balance between talking to me as if I were an intelligent person and reminding me of the magnitude of the injury, as if I might forget the brace that went from an inch above my ankle to within an inch or so of my crotch. “No weight on this leg for twelve weeks,” they repeated to me again and again.

“Can I rest my foot on the floor?” I asked at my two-week check-up.

“Only very lightly,” Dr. Golden responded, “but when you come in for the six-week exam, you might be able to do away with the brace.”

Somehow I hoped that the unspoken was that, if my leg healed enough to ditch the brace, that might mean that I wouldn’t have to be NWB! for the whole twelve weeks.

Dreamer. At the six-week check, Dr. Golden showed me the x-ray and pronounced it good. “See those cracks?” he asked, pointing to some small dark lines on the original CT scan. “They’re not there any more,” he said, placing it beside the latest x-ray. “That means you’re healing. You don’t need the brace any more.”

“So do I still have to wait six more weeks to put weight on it?”

“Yep.” Pause. “Okay?”

I’d learned to recognize the tone of that okay. It wasn’t really a question, just a pause to give his words a moment to sink in. He went on to test the play in my knee from left to right, to point out the muscles that have atrophied, and to remind me that while his work is nearly done, I’m in this for the long haul—that I’ll likely need at least six months of physical therapy twice a week before I can get back to walking normally.

“So what’s it going to feel like when I can actually put weight on it again?” I asked.

“Well, it won’t hurt nearly as much as when you broke it. Okay?”

I laughed. “Well, that’s comforting.” And in my head I repeated my mantra: This is just temporary. This, too, shall pass. Think of all those people whose injuries aren’t temporary.

On the way home from the appointment, my husband and I stopped for lunch, and I was reminded yet again of lessons I’ve learned about how inaccessible our world is to people whose disabilities are permanent. Here are only a few of the things I’ve learned:

  • Any public building that has doors requiring more than five pounds of pressure to open is out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And there are many such doors.
  • Many able people use the dressing rooms and bathroom stalls that are accessible, even when every other dressing room or stall is available.
  • Distractible people on cell phones are a danger to people with disabilities. More than once I’ve been cut off by a clueless person who has caused me to stumble.

Those of you who have lived with permanent disabilities are probably saying, Yep. Okay? as you read this, in the same tone my surgeon uses, giving me a moment to realize that this is your everyday reality.

Two things were especially surprising to me. First, hand dryers in public restrooms are not friends to a person who needs assistive devices to walk. After using the facilities, I had to put my dirty hands on my crutches and walk to the sink. I washed my hands and tried to figure out a way to use my wet hands on my dirty crutch handles to get across the room to the hand dryer. I contorted myself to get my hands under the dryer, and once my hands were dry, I held my crutches one at a time under the dryer to dry off the handles, hoping the heat would kill any germs from the restroom stall. I’ve since figured out that the only way to have a fighting chance of getting rid of the germs is to carry wipes or hand sanitizers in my pocket. And that means I have to remember to wear garments that have pockets or to carry that little purse I bought on my first post-op shopping trip when I had figured out that I wouldn’t be able to carry a single purse in my closet except the small, glitzy evening clutches with a shoulder strap.

The second surprise actually restored my faith in humanity: Many are the people who stop what they’re doing to hold open doors, offer to move things out of the way, ask how they can help, or wish me a speedy recovery. They remind me, yet again, that this is temporary. Okay?

Memorial Day has given me a plethora of images to reinforce my mantra as I’ve watched the news coverage of all the returning veterans with artificial limbs. These veterans have given us much, and most of them get little in return. I have sometimes offered help to such people and have been a little hurt when they rebuff my offers in an effort to do things for themselves.

That, too, I understand now. It’s hard to be dependent on others. I learned that lesson the first day I was home when I couldn’t even carry my coffee cup from the coffee maker to the kitchen table. In those first few days home, I was determined not to accept help unless I had to.

And I hope that next year, when the memory of these twelve weeks begins to fade, that I won’t forget those who will never have a time when their disability is a fading memory.

Okay? What about you?

One thought on “Lessons from a Temporary Disability?”

  1. Thanks, for another reminder to actually pay attention. We assume that since the ADA, everything is hunky-dory when it is clear there is much still to be done and that we, as human beings, will always have a responsibility to look out for and assist those in need.

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