What I learned after a month on crutches

When Diana Ballon suffered a leg injury, even more challenging than the pain was trying to be still.

Diana Ballon 6 minute read October 13, 2021
man lifting crutches

Immobility can take a toll on emotional and mental health. GETTY

“Isn’t it so great I’m off crutches? I said to my teenage son, while jumping onto his bed.

“I know. You handled it so well, mum.”

I laughed. “Thanks, but I actually really didn’t.”

I had cracked my tibial plateau, which connects the thighbone (femur) to the shinbone of my right leg. I was playing tennis and torqued to get a side shot — a move I had been warned about after tearing my ACL five years ago. Back then, I opted out of reconstructive surgery after spending months recuperating — to have had surgery would have meant more time recovering, more time being still. I didn’t want to be immobile for any longer, and the depression from not being able to get around was a lot. The only way to heal from this fracture was to not put any weight on that leg. Initially, that meant being completely non weight-bearing, but gradually I was able to transition to putting a bit of weight on that leg, which was a huge relief.

The only way to heal from this fracture — at least at first — was to not put any weight on my leg.

And while I felt relief that the fracture wasn’t worse — that I didn’t break other body parts, that there was nothing wrong internally with me, that I hadn’t hit my head — I wasn’t particularly grateful. I just felt really bad about having to be so sedentary.

For inspiration, my sister Daphne sent me articles about others who had injured themselves, like a beautifully written piece by Ann Patchett, in which she reflects about her time being still after a bad foot fracture. And while Patchett claims that “as is true with most writers” she has a talent for stillness, I, however, do not. I like moving — a lot. I walk, hike, cycle, do yoga, take part in bootcamps or other aerobics classes — even better if I can do these things outdoors, near water. I exercise because I enjoy it, but also, as someone predisposed to depression and anxiety, movement is a mood enhancer I rely on.

Knowing this about myself, I spent the whole time I was on crutches finding ways to move, rather than be still. I fought immobility. In fact, my mind was so agitated that I had butterflies in my stomach from anxiety. I could barely eat, I would see food and know objectively that it was something I liked, but would have no interest in eating it — I dropped one clothing size (which needless to say I have regained). I would wake several times in the night, often for hours at a time. I was cranky, complained a lot about not being able to get out more, and was doing far less around the house to help out (even emptying the dishwasher is difficult when you can’t reach the top shelves while you’re on crutches). Yes, I was hard to live with.

But it wasn’t that I didn’t try to help myself.

Having studied the practice of mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), I was not unfamiliar with strategies to calm my body and mind, still, I didn’t seem able to access what I had learnt this time around. My yoga instructor recommended chair yoga, so I tried an online chair yoga for people in wheelchairs, but the class seemed to involve a lot of arm and hand flapping which was not helping to calm me down.

What did work was to incorporate some upper body stretches and sit-ups to the daily exercises prescribed by my physiotherapist. I also rode on my stationary bike for 15 minutes a day — the maximum that was recommended. Once or twice a day I walked the dog, which involved hopping around the block on my crutches while my son held the leash that so any sudden pulling after a squirrel would not derail me.

I sought out nature to calm me down. My husband and I drove down to Lake Ontario so that we could “walk” along the water. We met also friends for cocktails.

Besides me trying to find ways to move a body that shouldn’t, I also learned to navigate the logistical issues of immobility. Suddenly, the things I took for granted, like carrying a purse or groceries, became almost impossible.

Get a knapsack. Over-the-shoulder bags are helpful for carrying laptops, freezer packs, water bottles, a thermos of coffee and other paraphernalia. (When I was heading up to bed one night, my daughter said that it looked like I was heading out on a backpacking trip.)

Put wheels on it. A desk chair with wheels can make it easier to move between rooms. Note: If you have throw rugs, roll them up to make moving around smoother.

Ask for help. Kids, partners and friends make excellent sherpas, but it’s best to minimize compassion fatigue by following the tips above before asking for help. When you do, make a list of what you need — a glass of water, a cocktail, a book, your phone — to avoid unnecessary trips and the deterioration of goodwill.

Connect with friends and family. Simply having companionship — whether to play a game of Scrabble, drink tea, have a glass of wine on the porch, or get picked up and taken to a friend’s house does wonders for your morale. (For those reading this who recognize themselves in this role, thank you!) It’s a reminder how important it is to nurture the important relationships in our lives — these will help get us through difficult times.

Trust in the kindness of strangers. One of the greatest barometers of humanity are the small acts of generosity and goodwill from those who expect nothing in return. There are some mean, thoughtless people in the world, but there are far more really wonderful people who will open a door, help you reach something from a top shelf, or let you go ahead of them in line. Accept their help — and then be that person to someone else as soon as you are able.

Find other ways to move. Other ways to get moving could mean lifting weights, cycling on a stationary bike, walking to the corner and back, or simply doing the exercises recommended to you by a physiotherapist.

Know your limits. As we get older, we will all be forced to slow down and exercise less intensively. Find your way toward stillness, whether through meditation or yoga or other forms of mindfulness.

I know that my mobility challenges are not unique. In fact, they were quite minor compared to the experiences of many others. And although I am now off crutches, and at a point where the orthopedic surgeon thought I would pretty much be back “at baseline,” I still feel unstable walking and have had a couple of incidents of short-lived but searing pain while doing almost nothing — like simply getting into bed at night.

The results of a recent MRI showed that I also damaged my meniscus and have significant bone bruising, which — secondary to the ACL tear from many years ago — means I will need more time to heal. In the meantime, I am trying to stay positive, taking deep breaths outside in nature and keeping my body moving as much as I can. Once the doctor gives me the all clear, and COVID permitting, I will be planning another bike trip — maybe to the Amalfi Coast or the Apulia region? Until then, I will rely on my imagination to transport me.

Diana Ballon is a health and lifestyle writer based in Toronto.