Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

Breaking Bad

Just Back from the Hospital -- But Still on Vacation!

In an instant, everything changes.

Ben and I are in Northern Minnesota, at a resort on Lake Vermillion, the place I vacationed with my family growing up.  It is my “happy place,” and I have been dreaming about our week there for months.  The joy I felt when we booked a cabin for a week back in January has been undiminished; the place is as wonderful as in my memories and each day seems more beautiful than the one before.  So much to do, and such a good place to do nothing at all.

Ben and I sampled some of water sports whose equipment is laid out before us on the beach and at the docks.  There are water bikes, which we pedal earnestly around the island resort, learning how the wind and current can both help and hinder.  I take out a kayak with its double-sided paddle, and, again, set my goal to make a trip around the island.  While I pause on the far side, I can see our cabin, and others, nestled in the trees.  Some have small docks, while others slope into the water with slippery rocks.  I can hear Ben on the mandolin and fiddle, working to make music worthy of the Bach he plays. And on Tuesday, with Ben at the camera, I try a “Boogie board,” standing on its smooth top and attempting to row myself into the lake.  I wear a lifejacket, which is helpful as I fall into the water and splutter to the surface, laughing the whole time.  I will do this again tomorrow, I think to myself, and I will get better at it.

Tuesday afternoon, I take out the ski boat to explore the lake on my own.  The lake is vast, with inlets and bays, islands and wide, welcoming shores.  The bouncing makes me smile; I remember summer boat rides with my family and that happiness adds to my present enjoyment.  But finally, it is time to go home.  And that’s when it all happens.

Docking this boat is hard; the place I am aiming for is surrounded by other boats that I do not wish to hit.  It involves a sharp turn, around the dock and in.  This time, I come close to the dock, where the dock boy stands, reaching for the ropes that will secure the boat.  But I turn too much, heading for the dock itself, rather than the open water waiting for me, and so I briefly reverse to straighten out my approach.

Then it gets fuzzy.  I put the boat in neutral, but the momentum of its movement combines with a stiff wind and insistent current:  I am, I fear, going to hit another boat before I can change my boat’s direction.  I reach out with my right hand to push away the other boat. But my boat is moving faster than expected; my arm slips between the two boats, where it is crushed.

“I need help,” I cry. “Help me!!” And they do, these young, strong resort workers.  They capture the boat and lead me to shore. I am too weak, too dizzy and nauseous to make it to the lodge, so they seat me on a beach chair. And there is the magic of the place: one woman sees me and brings me a bottle of water. Someone gets a sling, and another person finds ice. A dock worker gets Ben.

And it quickly becomes clear that I do need help, more help than these kind people can provide.  Ben and I head off to the emergency room in nearby Cook, Minnesota, a small town 10 minutes away.

It’s a funny thing, pain. Time loops around, some things last forever while others pass in an instant. We wait for an ER bed. They take X-Rays. And here is the doctor, looking as young as a teen, explaining I will need surgery. “Now?” We ask. No, when we return to Colorado, so the swelling can go down. Oh.  I am in pain. I am not processing what is being said. I just want some painkillers. It hurts. Oh, it hurts.

My arm now in a huge splint, Ben and I head back to the island with instructions to contact an orthopedist as soon as we return to Denver.  I call my primary care doctor for a referral and head to bed.  I spend the next day in bed, reading and trying to think of something besides my arm.  By Thursday, I have had enough.  These are my last few days on the island that I love, on the lake with loon calls and laughter.  With Ben’s help, I head to the beach.  I have a book, my phone (of course), water, snacks, and a pillow to elevate my arm higher than my head (to reduce swelling – I’m not sure it works!).

And so, I reclaim my vacation.  It is not the same as before, when I could paddle around the island and risk falling into the water.  I can’t even take the boat out.  But I sit on the beach with my book and smell Minnesota all around me.  There are trees and sand and sunscreen.  Kids yell across the water to one another.  Other folks at the resort give me smiles and sympathy as I nurse my injury.  And the books I brought are entertaining.  This is not so bad after all, I think.

My mood remains stable.  Even with the narcotics for pain, I have not sunk into a depression.  I want to note this, to remember this, to lean on this time of joy and contentment.  I so often struggle with my moods. But now I am, really, fine inside.  I wish I knew how to preserve this state of being.  This contentment inside.

Ben and I return home, where our house is full of family:  my mom, my daughter Shira, my sister Lynn, and my niece, Sharin, all the way from Israel.  It has been years since I have seen Sharin in person, and I was eager spend time with her, with everyone, and not waste time with a painful break in my arm.  And we were together, a lot – but I also needed downtime, naps. Early bedtimes.  But everyone was so kind to me, so solicitous, so understanding.  I still don’t know how to express my deep appreciation, my thankfulness for their love.

On Wednesday, I saw my primary care doctor.  He took one look at the medical records from Cook and immediately apologized for not sending me directly to the orthopedist.  So many people, he tells me, want an orthopedist for a hairline fracture, which only requires an ace bandage.  But not me.  I have a compound fracture.  “Would you like me to call the orthopedist for you?”  my doctor asks.  “Oh, yes!”  I reply, hoping for a quick response.

But not this quick!  5 minutes later, the orthopedist responded:  send her over right away.  Thankful for the referral and the help, off we go.

This orthopedist takes the CD I have of my X-Rays and disappears for a few moments.  Then he comes back, and shows us the images:  even Ben and I can see the break, it is so obvious.  Dr Heyman then unwraps my splint, and I see the injured part for the first time in over a week.  It is gross: scabby, with some blood and pus.  The doctor says, while he is concerned about infection, he also wants to operate right away.  I am so relieved; if my arm is going to hurt, it may at least be healing.

My primary care doctor had already called in a prescription for Percocet.  Don’t worry about taking it, he told me.  Stay ahead of the pain for the next week to 10 days.  Take two if need be.  And I took it, faithfully.  When I ran out, he refilled the Rx, no questions asked.  Currently, I am on Advil and acetaminophen.   Stay ahead of the pain.

Next came surgery.  It was long, and the aftermath was both odd and painful.  During surgery, I was both in a twilight sleep and had a nerve block on my arm.  When I awoke and went home, I discovered the oddness of the nerve block:  I could neither feel nor move my arm independently.   I felt like Harry Potter, during the scene where a professor accidentally removed all the bones in his right arm.  It flopped around, and so I kept it in the sling.

And when the block wore off?  I was at a pain level of 11 out of 10.  That first night was the worst.

But it is healing, if slowly.  I went back the week after surgery and got my removable cast, in purple.  Since then, my OT has given me exercise to do (5x a day!), and has encouraged me to take the cast off at home and see what I can do.  Watch your pain level, she told me,  If your base level of pain is a 4, don’t do anything that makes it hurt beyond a 6.

I am doing all of this.  By evening, my arm is tired and heavy, aching with new bone growth healing.  We change my bandages once a day, and it is a process.  First, we gather our supplies and grab a towel for my arm to rest upon.  We find the “Wound Wash” and spray the opening salvo.  Then, Ben or Shira (depending on who is home!  Ben was gone for a week at Fiddle Camp and Shira came down from the mountains to work remotely and care for me.  She was wonderful) . .  so we spray and wash the arm, careful to do so with my arm being vertical, so that the water runs down my arm.  We pat dry the arm with sterile wipes.  I massage the places where my 14 (!) stitches were, so that they remain flexible and do not attach to the titanium rod and screws now in my arm.  Then comes the medicated mesh that sits atop the various scabs and open wounds.  After that, come the bandaging:  round and round the soft, white bandages hold the mesh in place.  And finally, comes the sleeve, which covers me wrist to elbow, and is meant to be protected.  At the end of the process, I need help getting back into the cast without disturbing any of this.

When Ben and I returned from Minnesota, our shul’s chesed committee found out about my injury and sprang into action.  What meals can we bring, they asked.  What rides do you need?  And so, every few days, food appears.  People take me to and from appointments.  Ben was initially unsure about accepting such kindness, but I insisted.  And he, too, was moved.  “Let’s make a donation back to Rodef to thank the chesed folks.”  What a great idea.  And gratifying to me on several levels:  people help. I have friends who want to help.  And I founded the chesed committee many, many years ago.  It has grown into a hammock beneath all of us at Rodef; the folks with catch you when you are falling.

It will be a long haul they tell me.  Months, not weeks, before I am fully healed.  In the short term, my goal is to start driving soon – but only if I can really grasp the steering wheel and react quickly without pain.  In the further distance, I would like to be weight-bearing on that arm, for yoga, if nothing else.  But right now, I am content to try turning a doorknob with my right hand, to knit for a while.  And also admit all of the things I cannot do.

And I want our experience with the chesed committee (and other, amazingly helpful friends!) to stay with me.  In my darkest hours, it feels as though no one cares.  No one would miss me.  But apparently, this is just not so.  Our chesed coordinator told me that they had never had all helping spots fill so quickly.  I want to feel that love, that kindness.  I need to remember that I am not alone.

And if took a broken arm to reveal the love around me, so be it.  Blessed is the Holy One.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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