“I hope you know how lucky you are.”
The woman on the phone was referring to my physical condition. I was calling to enroll in a therapeutic riding program. Five months ago I took a nosedive from my horse and broke my neck. I had the good fortune to be with others who called an ambulance. I was fortunate to be taken to a nearby hospital that had a superb orthopedic surgeon on staff. I was lucky to have had such skilled and dedicated therapists during my stay at a rehabilitation hospital. And beyond lucky to have an immense army of friends and colleagues, and a tirelessly dedicated husband. So here I am, still a little clumsy and lacking in dexterity; but not quadriplegic. I’ve been able to take advantage of our snowy New England winter by cross-country skiing most days, and I’ve started back to my work as a veterinarian part time.
So there’s that question of the toss of the dice. I’ve ridden horses for years and never been seriously injured in a fall. But on this occasion Donnelly stumbled so suddenly and violently that I never even had time to put my arms out to cushion the fall. I’ve had close encounters with cars over the years while running or cycling, but had never been seriously injured. And I seldom dwelled on the other possible outcome of those situations. Things happen.
The last five months have seemed like an eternity, and like no time at all. While taking my first tottering steps leaning heavily on a mobile platform I remember thinking, “I’m perhaps 3 percent back to myself.” A month or two later I realized how artificial that idea was. Even as I gained strength and coordination, the ultimate goal stretched farther away. I felt a little like Alice in Through the Looking Glass.
I’ve never been one who believes that there’s a reason for everything. But I do believe that good things can come come from bad situations. As I emerged from a dark and isolated cave of pain and paralysis, I saw people around me in far worse predicaments. My heart went out to patients who had suffered strokes, now trapped in bodies that refused to cooperate and unable to communicate. There were people who had experienced life-changing injuries who had no safety net at home to return to. They faced their hurdles without self pity or defeat. It wasn’t that I had lacked empathy before, but my awareness of others had suddenly been honed to an entirely new level.
I have always been self-sufficient, and patience has never been my strong suit. Waiting for someone to help me eat, dress, or perform any of the other myriad activities of daily living gave me a whole new perspective. With the door to my room open, it was impossible not to be aware that there were patients whose needs were just as urgent as mine, if not more. So I practiced the art of gracious waiting. Sometimes a nursing assistant would arrive flushed and perspiring, trying to respond to multiple call buttons pressed simultaneously. My vision expanded and softened at the edges. I was thrilled the first time I was able to take a few uncoordinated swipes at my face with a washcloth; not only for my own accomplishment, but because it lightened the load of the attendants who were so patient and supportive.
Years ago, while struggling up a grade on our tandem bicycle, my husband and I coined a phrase: Every hill that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s helped us surmount many problems since, large and small. The grade of this particular hill is steep and I haven’t yet reached the summit. But I will value these lessons in patience, empathy, and perseverance as I reach my goal.
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