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Walking Without Armor

A routine ride home doesn't go as planned. Join me in the initial moments of shock, learning, and healing.

Photo by Giulia Bertelli
Photo by Giulia Bertelli

I’m chatting with my backseat car mate Savannah in a rideshare home… “Maybe Los Angeles, Santa Monica area… or Encinitas near San Diego. This would be a bit out…”

We’re going through a green light and suddenly everything is white. I feel myself jerk forward and it’s as though my chest is in the front seat but the rest of me is in the backseat, all of my ribs lined up,  pressed against my skin ready to exit my body. All 4 airbags have deployed and the car has spun out and I wonder if there will be another impact. Once everything is still, there’s an ominous silence as the dust from the airbags settles. Glancing around the car I instinctively grab my chest. It feels like it’s in the front seat, yet I see it right here below my chin. It never physically moved past my seat belt. I look around and make eye contact with everyone, the driver and two fellow passengers. I’ve only just met them and we could have all died together. Will any of us die because of this? “We should get out,” I utter as I bust open the door, grab my bag and rush to the sidewalk.

“Sweetie, you need to sit down,” a homeless man says as I grasp my chest, take a gasp and get out my phone. Breathe. Dial 9-1-1. “I was just in a car that’s been totaled. It’s in an intersection.”

“What’s the address?”

“I can’t see anything. My vision is blurred.”

“Without a location, I can’t help you.”

Then I see my car mate next to me now- she reads the cross-streets and I mirror her words. An ambulance is on its way. We look at each other, still confused about what happened. “Did you see anything?”

“Not a thing… how did that happen?”

We see the guy from the front passenger seat, and it’s a startling sight- red liquid lines his pants and shirt. “Are you okay?” I whisper.

“Yeah,” he says, “it was my casserole.” He had been planning to attend a potluck.

Within 5 minutes the ambulance arrives and I still cannot see. It takes me a few minutes to remember that I had been wearing my glasses. They must be in the car somewhere. Before I enter the ambulance that’s just arrived, a police officer finds my glasses inside the car and they return to my face. I’m surprised to see they’re in one piece, and how we all appear to be in one piece from the outside.

We travel to the ER, me and Savannah; they assumed we were friends riding together so they’ve put us in the same ambulance. I choose the upright seat and she gets the stretcher until my tailbone hurt so much that we swap.

When we arrive it’s time to be banded, disrobed, pricked, x-rayed, CAT scanned, moved, left alone, questioned. I spend 17 hours there.

“How’s your pain on a scale from 1-10.”

“7?”

“Where does it hurt?”

“In the middle of my chest. It feels like I could crack open and that internally, I’m frontloaded. There’s pressure in my chest.”

“Sounds like there’s something going on with your sternum. Do you feel like it’s a bruise, fracture or break?”

“I have no idea. I’ve never bruised, fractured or broken anything. It’s a very unique pain. It was sharper, and now it’s getting duller.”

Within a couple of hours I get a cat scan.

Terry (another nurse) comes into the room, puts a protective pad on my lower half and asks me to put my hands above my head. In doing so my chest tightens against my ribs, the middle part feels like fire, my throat feels too full and I choke out more tears, yelping. I squint my eyes because I don’t want him or anyone to see me like this. Maybe if I don’t see him it’s as close as we’ll get to that.

“You’re brave,” he says softly.

Maybe another day I would have disagreed, thinking, ‘Brave? Do you see the golf-ball sized tears and toddler squeals happening right now? Really?’ But instead, I collect myself and silently agree. Bravery isn’t about stifling our feelings like they don’t exist. Bravery is being aware of how we feel and authentic in how we express it.

A couple of hours after the scan, a doctor enters the hallway.

“You have a fractured sternum. It’s an incomplete break of the bone protecting your heart and other vital organs. It’s a tough one to break. You’ll need to stay overnight for observation.”

“Is there a possibility it could get worse?”

“Not really, but it’s in a sensitive place. We need to monitor you to see if you remain stable.”

“Do I need to change my daily habits? Exercise-”

“No, you can continue what you normally do and it won’t get any worse.”

“But will it get better?”

“Probably.”

“What?”

After that my new nurse friend Amanda (I really think we could be friends in real life) offers me a PB&J which I only decline since I just finished one of the almond butter protein bars I always have on hand.

She offers to help wipe my eyes, and I can only assume I look like a cross between a raccoon and the girl from The Ring. I let her, thank her, and feel validated in my choice of glasses over contacts today.

I’m wheeled into a room where Collin the nurse is seated. This feels borderline VIP, getting my own room and person to talk with after several hours of solitude with intermittent moments of nurse and doctor interaction in the hallway.

“What happened?”

“I was in a car accident. 24-inch contusion, when apparently a 12-inch contusion is enough to bring everyone from the car into the hospital. Maybe you knew that. Want to see a picture?”

I show him the car pic on my phone, “Ah yeah, that’s bad, but I’ve seen worse. I used to be a paramedic, so I’ve seen a lot.”

“Fair enough. It’s all relative.”

“Well, I guess this isn’t how you thought you’d spend your night.”

“I certainly didn’t anticipate my Monday night being this eventful, no. But some people here fighting for their lives, dying. I have a 2-3 month recovery time so it could be a lot worse.”

“Yeah, but even if there’s another person here doing worse, another 10,000 woke up today and nothing happened. For them it was just another day. It’s okay to acknowledge you’re having a hard time.”

He leaves after placing a few stiff, warm blankets over me so I can attempt to nap before my next blood draw in 2 hours. A new nurse types away on the computer in the hallway. I tell her about the doctor who had said I should still exercise as usual. “I don’t like a lot of the interactions I see with him. He’s a resident. You should definitely change your habits if you want to recover quickly. It would be difficult to make it worse, but it was difficult to fracture in the first place, so no, I wouldn’t do push-ups or planks. Don’t lift more than your coffee cup the first week. Listen to your body and don’t do anything that doesn’t feel good.”

“Your advice sounds much more sound. Thank you.”

My pulse spikes to 65 before steadying at 53 which I’d expect, sometimes dipping into the 40s, which is less usual for me. It must be because I’m not breathing deeply enough. A doctor tells me, “It’s important for you to take 10 deep breaths per waking hour with this machine. It will hurt, but if you don’t you’re at risk of pneumonia, and then you can get sepsis, and you’re back here. This is the sort of complication people die from more than the fracture itself.”

Well, let the deep breathing begin… and thinking.

In middle and high school I remember playing never have I ever. “Never have I ever… gotten a cavity… broken a bone.” These were a couple of my go-tos which I felt a sense of pride claiming. I’m “responsible,” as evidenced by how I always brush my teeth, floss, exercise caution when crossing the street, and always wear a seatbelt. I’m realizing more and more how little control we have over our bodies. How we can do our best to protect ourselves, but get into a routine rideshare and have our reality shift before the ride is meant to be over.

Your sternum is what protects your heart. When it fractures, you know it’s done it’s job- protecting your heart and other vital organs nestled just behind it from major impact, but now you’re left more vulnerable. Now that it’s fractured, that protection isn’t there anymore until it heals. You’re walking without armor, treading the line between caution and bravery. Between fear and gratitude. Between protection and vulnerability.

As I write this single-digit-days post-crash, I am finding I’m more sensitive to acts of kindness. Someone opening a door for me means more today than it ever did, especially when the person doesn’t even know they’re limiting my pain by doing so. I look over at someone seated in the handicapped section of the bus and understand their hesitation as they’re getting up, recognizing the feeling of lift-off as the least comfortable part between sitting and standing when you’re injured.

I’ve become as competitive with my deep breaths as I would have a plank challenge, going for millimeters of pressure rather than minutes. I’m striving to meet my body where it’s at, focusing on ramping back up to those full, deep, invigorating breaths that remind you you’re alive. But perhaps these ones are a solid reminder as well.

In the weeks to come, I intend to embrace vulnerability by asking for help more often, devoting energy to what feels kind and nourishing, acknowledging the moments that feel less-than-great, allowing myself to be led by a compassionate view of bravery. And, oh yes, a light at the end of the tunnel: all of the post-recovery too-tight-but-just-right bear hugs to come.

*All names have been changed.

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