BY STACY BANNERMAN
I don’t think I’m paralyzed, but something’s not right, and a voice in my head says, “Be still.” So I am.
Three seconds ago, I was riding Buddy, a four-year-old horse just getting started under saddle when he spooked at a bird and jumped sideways, bucking wildly. Sailing through the air, I tucked into a ball, hoping to avoid brain injury or a telescoping compound fracture of the arm or leg. I slammed into the frozen ground, landing on my right butt cheek. Cowboy Tim, (he of the dually pickup with the Are you going to cowboy up, or just lay there and bleed? bumper sticker) is debating with two of the other riders about whether or not to call 911.
I ask them to call my husband, Lorin, instead, and please get a blanket, because I think I’m going into shock. Laura, a horse trainer, kneels on the ground, placing my feet in her lap, tethering me here with her soft, steady voice as my teeth clatter and I shake uncontrollably.
It seems like a long time later that Lorin is striding towards me, calmly asking where I hurt, and if I can walk.
“I don’t know,” I reply.
“All right, let’s get her up,” he says, grinning. He’s been in charge from the second he arrived, and I can see why the men he went to war with trusted him.
Lorin takes one arm and Tim the other and they pull me up, but my right side fails me, and they catch me before I fall. The pain is distant and vague, and once I’m loaded into the reclined front passenger seat of Lorin’s SUV, I tell him we should just go home. I’m worried about the cost of the emergency room, but that’s where he goes.
He half-carries me inside, and by the time I’m wheeled into a room, the natural anesthetic of shock has worn off. When they move me onto the bed, I scream. I’m crying, muttering The Lord’s Prayer, and swearing at the two nurses wrestling off my jeans.
My underwear is next, unless, one asks, “You just want us to cut it?”
“Yes. Jesus. Cut.”
I return my head to the pillow as the morphine drip drops the pain level to a ten on a scale of one to ten. I’ve had broken bones before, various surgeries, and organs removed, but I’ve never hurt like this.
My husband hovers while we wait for the x-rays. The doctor arrives with the diagnosis of multiple pelvic breaks. Since there’s no displacement of the bones, there’s no surgery, and a cast or splint isn’t possible. After two days in the hospital, I’m discharged with Dilaudid, a walker, and instructions not to fall, which could dislocate the bones and cause major internal damage. Three hours after I get home, I black out while my husband is helping me use the walker to get to the bathroom. He catches me on the way down, and drags me back to bed, where I stay for the next month.
I read trashy celebrity magazines and murder mysteries, and doze periodically, soaking the sheets with the runoff of the metabolic acidosis that is equal parts pain and healing. Weeks later, when I’m finally able to sit in a chair long enough for my husband to flip the mattress, he finds sweat stains on the box spring.
Now that I am disabled, I envy people who are not. I covet movement, am starved for the simple physicality of being able to walk. Strapped into a wheelchair in the back of the van, stopped at the light, I glare at the fully-abled as they stride across the street. I wonder how I ever took that for granted, and when—or if—I’ll be able to do it myself.
The doctor says I will, but he won’t give me a timeline. I try to wheedle it out of him at each x-ray, but he just keeps telling me that “everyone’s different.”
The other thing he says is “Well, you’re not sixteen. If you were sixteen, it’d be easier.” (Yes, Doctor, I’m sure it would. Thank you for pointing that out.) I got more information about what to expect when I had a root canal.
When I finally search the Internet to find out what the physicians haven’t told me, I learn that pelvic fractures are relatively rare, usually resulting from a car crash or some other high-energy collision. In most cases, there are multisystem injuries to the spine, head, other bones, internal organs, veins and arteries. Massive internal hemorrhaging causes over one-third of fatalities from pelvic ring fractures, one of the few life-threatening injuries that are invisible.
I start sobbing, which brings my husband rushing to my bedside.
“What happened?” he asks.
“I could have died that day, did you know that? And it says that I might never walk the same way again.”
“I know, the ER docs told me, but that’s not going to be you.”
He reminds me of the soldier he served with in Iraq who got hit by an IED and was sent home with a broken pelvis and other injuries. Seven months later, he returned to Iraq. Stunned to see him, Lorin asked him what he was doing there. The soldier replied that he wasn’t going to let the Iraqis beat him.
“Okay?” Lorin says, “You can beat this, too.”
I want to believe him, but after eight weeks, and a handful of physical therapy sessions, I can barely stand on my own two feet, which have shed shims of callous. I want my old body back. I ache for the exquisite simplicity of motion that I assumed would always be there, the days when stairs weren’t out of reach.
I re-visit the websites, but this time, for the first time, I realize how lucky I am. Because I am still alive. Because the way the bones broke was the best possible case for one of the worst possible injuries. Because I have no other injuries to contend with, and the x-rays show that my bones are perfectly aligned and have begun to knit together seamlessly. Because my gorgeous, hopeful body isn’t giving up, and I’m not going to either.
So even though I’m not a water person, I sign up for aquatic physical therapy at a nearby nursing home, where 46 is the new 16. I park my walker poolside, white knuckling my way in with the help of the handrails. Fifteen minutes later, Lorin helps me out. After three weeks of near-daily workouts in the pool, I’m in the kitchen with the walker when my husband gently pulls it away.
“Come here,” he says, and smiles. “You can do it.”
“I can’t,” I whisper.
“Yes, you can,” he commands.
Anxious and unsteady, I glance down to see how much floor I have to cover as I try to figure out which foot should go first.
“No, no, don’t look down; look at me. Come here. You’ve done this a million times before. You can do it.”
I take a few faltering steps, hitching my right leg along, and then collapse into his arms.
“I want a cane. I’m going to walk.”
The drug store stick is frighteningly flimsy, so Lorin gets four feet of sturdy wooden dowel. He fastens black rubber chair tips on either end, wrapping one end with Army green parachute cord for a grip. At my next doctor’s appointment, I ask how I can get better faster.
“You have to start really pushing yourself. You’ll probably hurt every day, but if you don’t work through the pain, it’ll take forever.”
I’m not giving this one more day than I have to.
I adjust my diet to build muscle and bone, eating lean protein, dairy, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and very little else. I increase my time in the pool and do hundreds of isometric exercises at home: squats, leg lifts, and planks. I log miles in the house, wearing a path in the carpet, breathing through the relentless pain. I take half a Percocet nearly every night, and then get up and do it all again.
Exactly five months after the accident, I meet Laura at the round pen, where she’s waiting with a beautiful black Appaloosa senior mare, tacked up and ready to ride. I stroke the horse’s withers, and say, “Let’s do this.”
Laura mounts, takes a few spins around the pen, and then asks if I’m ready.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
Laura hops off, and I climb on, feeling my hip flexors stretch in the saddle. I inhale deeply and give Laura the signal to start walking. She’s got the lead rope in her hand, and takes it slow, checking in to make sure I’m okay. I’d nearly thrown up on the drive over, but now that I’m back in the saddle, I’ve forgotten my fear.
I say, “Let go, I’ve got this.”
She does, and I do.
Stacy Bannerman is the author of Homefront 911: How Families of Veterans Are Wounded by Our Wars(2015), and When the War Came Home (2006). She works with feral horses and rescues in Southwest Virginia, and provides trauma-informed, spiritually infused equine experientials. Her website is www.stacybannerman.com.