‘Must feel good to be going home?’ The ambulance driver chatted cheerfully as he wheeled me out through the sliding doors of the hospital. ‘Yeah sure is’, my mumbled reply. I was too preoccupied to engage with him. I’d fantasised about leaving for so long. Actually doing it was surreal.
Tinted, high windows prevented me from seeing anything other than the ambulance interior. Not dissimilar to riding in a paddy wagon I supposed. I leant forward, looking over the driver’s shoulder through the windscreen. Glimpses of cars, shops, trees, terraced streets, roundabouts, then ploughed fields stretching out into the distance. Three months earlier I’d been lying in a field just like this, with multiple injuries.
We pulled up outside my mother’s house. ‘Here we are’ the driver said, opening the door to get out. I straightened my leg, locking the hinge of the leg brace. Ambulance steps are daunting. Steep and narrow. Not well designed for the infirm, ironically. My first real test of mobility. Gripping the handrail I hauled myself down. The driver handed me the crutch and picked up my belongings. My mother watched from the drive as we moved slowly toward the house.
I was ready to receive my trophy – homemade beef curry. The dining table was set for one. My brother Mark, home from university, and my mother watched as I tucked in. The horrors of Chicken Fricassee left behind at the hospital. None of us spoke as I ate. Recovery would be a long frustrating process. But I was home.
My mother insisted Mark walk behind me when I used the stairs. In case I toppled backwards. I protested but she was having none of it. To build stamina, I took regular walks around the village. I got tired easily. Life would be very slow for all of us for a while. One step at a time. Literally and figuratively.
The condition of my arm hadn’t improved. Still no sensation or movement from the shoulder down (paralysed, but that word was never used). If recovery were to happen, it would be during the next 5 years. I’d have to wait and see. Although soon I would have a Myelogram which would provide definitive information about the nature of the damage. Dye is injected into the spinal canal. Radiologists take pictures as the dye moves from the spine into the network of nerves in the shoulder, the brachial plexus. Leaking out where there is damage. Results in hand, my consultant would estimate the likelihood, or not, of recovery.
Long surgery scars along my forearm, bicep, collarbone and thigh had healed but would be cut open again in 6 months. My body would begin to reject the metal plates and screws, so they’d need to be removed. Mercifully only a two-night stay at the hospital.
We soon fell into a routine. Each morning an ambulance took me to the hospital for physio. At 3.00pm every day my mother and I indulged our new guilty pleasure – watching an Australian soap opera called Sons and Daughters. ‘It’s starting!’ I’d shout from the sofa as the distinctive theme tune started. My mother rushed in from the kitchen. We knew all of the characters, the interconnected back stories, and the preposterous, convoluted plots. We hated wealthy, scheming Patricia. We felt sorry for poor, put-upon Beryl.
While non-weight bearing, I received Hydrotherapy. Lowered into a pool of very warm water using a hoist. Like a witch’s ducking stool. I walked slowly, back and forth across the pool to build strength in my atrophied leg. Buoyancy aids were used to manipulate my arm to keep it loose.
To help with tasks that usually require two hands, the Occupational Therapists (OTs) fitted me with a kind of metal arm brace. Let’s call it The Contraption. A moulded plastic mount fitted onto my right shoulder. Meccano-like, strips of metal ran the length of my arm, hinged at the elbow, but lockable at pre-set angles. Velcro strips held my arm in place. Different gadgets were attached at the wrist. Clicking into place like the attachments for a hand blender. There were boring static gadgets, like the one with rubber stoppers to hold a piece of paper steady. Or there were fancier gadgets. Like The Claw. Pincers operated via a cable, taut up my arm, across my back, and attached to a harness around the opposite shoulder. Hunching my left shoulder forward, I tugged the cable. The pincers opened. Releasing the cable closing them again.
I was given tasks to get used to The Contraption. Using The Claw I had to pick up individual grains of rice, to put them in a cup. When I’d finished the OT tipped them out. I had to start over again. The tasks were all repetitive and futile. I was like a chimp in a laboratory. I just wanted to get home to watch Sons and Daughters.
With absolute certainty, I knew I wouldn’t use The Contraption outside of these OT sessions. It was uncomfortable, cumbersome and brought little value. My goal was to live without any medical aids. Instinctively I believed that was achievable.
My family were vigilant for anything that could make life easier for me. My Nana bought a meat carving plate with spikes, to hold toast steady while I spread butter. Fred bought me an electric tin opener. My mother bought me a set of ‘sporks’ – a fork and spoon combined. Over time these were mostly discarded. I found single-handed ways of doing most two-handed tasks.
Still non-weight bearing, I couldn’t get out of bed without the leg brace. My mother borrowed a small ornamental bell from my Nana (grandma). Made of brass, shaped like a windmill with sails that turned. It usually resided on Nana’s mantelpiece. I kept it on my bedside table. To ring it if I needed anything.
I had a nightmare that my whole body was encased in metal. I was trapped, suffocating. I woke with palpitations, terrified. I didn’t know where I was, or what was happening. The experience was similar to the night I ripped off my dressings in hospital. Half asleep, half awake. Not able to distinguish between reality and the dream. I rang the ornamental windmill bell. My mother and Fred, fast asleep in the next room, didn’t hear it. I kept ringing for 10 minutes then gave up. An ornamental bell wasn’t going to cut it. I’d need a foghorn to wake these two.
Footnote: 15 years later, on a visit to Sydney, I saw the actress that played one of the main characters in Sons and Daughters. She was going into a Centrelink (social security) office. Tough times.