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Jun 15

Bones

If you’ve never fractured a bone, you’re either lucky or should work on a more interesting life. Fracturing a bone is more than painful; it’s a frightful experience. My first occurred when I was 17 years-old, delivering a box of frozen deer-carcass chunks from my father to a friend in the neighborhood. Don’t ask. As I turned to leave the porch, I slipped on the icy steps, landing on my left elbow. I cradled my non-functioning, seriously hurting arm to my chest, thankful I hadn’t split my head open instead. Mind and body immediately knew the difference between a really bad sprain and a fracture, and neither the head nor heart was happy about it. 

“Dislocation fracture of left ulna,” read the report from Henry Ford Hospital in downtown Detroit. For those bereft a medical background, that’s a break in the long, elbow-to-wrist forearm bone closest to the body when, in this case, a bloody end doesn’t actually protrude from the body for all to see. A compound fracture would have broken bone fragments lacerate soft tissue and protrude through an open skin wound. Although, in my case, even with no bone sticking out, horrible thought, animal instinct told me I had been badly damaged. 

Yes, it hurt like hell. My arm was instantly numb and out of action, saying, “Don’t even think about touching me or I’ll make you pass out right where you are.” Worse, this fracture had occurred while delivering a box of frozen deer-carcass pieces, not heroically tripping while proceeding down a church aisle carrying a crucifix. The ignominy of it all. Thankfully, hospital reports don’t go into more detail. Think of it, “Dislocation fracture of left ulna while delivering frozen deer-carcass chunks.” 

A broken bone forces an owner to give up all personal preferences and responsibilities to any attending physician willing to see him or her as soon as possible. There’s no arguing with your damaged body. Whatever the doctor wants you to do, you do it; anything for relief. The first trick is to not pass out from shock and pain on the way to the hospital. Once they inhale a lungful of disinfectant aroma, some people, like me, feel queasy and pass out just entering an emergency room to visit the sick. So, in this case, I was in trouble. 

When it’s time to immobilize the limb, you’re usually doped up with so much magic juice you no longer care if the doctor walked down the hall carrying your broken part to show his associates. Various techniques are used. Long ago, a white building-material called plaster of Paris was used to coat the broken limb. The material was named after a gypsum deposit in Montmartre near Paris, France. Medical plaster of Paris is the same plaster used for coating walls and ceilings, but costs thousands more than redoing your kitchen. Mixing dry powder with water creates a gooey paste, and the hardening reaction liberates heat through crystallization. A cheese-cloth bandage impregnated with this stuff is wrapped around the damaged limb and quickly dries into a close-fitting orthopedic cast. The problem is, plaster casts become so hot while solidifying they feel like the doctor has poured lighter fluid in and thrown a match on top. 

Fortunately, Fiberglas epoxy casts have replaced plaster to immobilize broken parts, unless you find yourself in Burkina Faso’s backcountry. Epoxy casts are wrapped around the offending limb just like plaster casts, after the magic juice has taken full effect, hopefully. Just before the process of applying an epoxy cast begins, and you’re doped enough so you don’t know if you’re right-side up or not, someone playfully asks what color you want to live with for several weeks; pink, blue, orange, or green. Such colors are supposed to be cute but, really, who gives a damn except the youngest of children? 

A second fracture occurred in my mid-twenties while finishing off a well-made martini at my parent’s house over the holidays. I reentered a living room filled with relatives and attempted a Charlie Chaplin-ish pirouette, for some reason long forgotten. But Charlie did it better. I tripped, landing in a heap on the floor, fracturing a bone in my right foot. It somehow took the bloom off the occasion. A quick x-ray revealed a mild, non-dislocating fracture that didn’t require a cast but lots of explanations for several weeks. Should I have explained I simply tripped and broke my foot, or admitted to a martini-influenced attempt at a fool-hardy pirouette for which I had no training? The former, by all means. 

A third fracture, this time a right wrist, occurred in my mid-thirties, towing our two small children on a sled across a frozen pond. Is there a pattern here? I was wearing snowmobile boots and couldn’t feel how slippery the pond’s surface was as I tried to spin the sled to give them a thrill ride. An out-of-control flop to the ice broke the wrist, requiring two different casts; the first positioning the wrist upward for two weeks to semi-knit together, and the second bending the wrist down for three more, altogether an even-less-than-fun experience. It seemed I would never be shed of casts. Of course, it was necessary to hand-write a dozen work-related reports the following week, a surprising and unexpected opportunity learning to write left-handed for a while. 

My fourth and hopefully last fracture happened years later in my mid-fifties, slipping on an ice-covered wooden deck leaving for work on a dark and wintery morning. This one occurred too fast to exclaim, “Oh no, not again!” Another inelegant pratfall (are any unexpected falls elegant) broke my left forearm, leaving the arm hanging at a painfully unnatural angle. Ulna or radial bone made no difference, it still hurt. Fortunately, this one was attended to by a doctor who had never seen me before, so he couldn’t exclaim, “Oh no, not you again!” With the new Fiberglass-epoxy casts, nobody could write stupid sayings on it, including myself. 

But my timing wasn’t great. Our daughter had broken her knee in a Canadian skiing accident a week before and couldn’t drive because of her leg cast. I was elected to drive her back and forth to work for several weeks, until she knitted herself together. I suppose we would have made quite a sight if we had been stopped by the police for an infraction; a driver piloting a car with a left arm in a cast accompanied by a passenger-daughter hitched to one side with her right leg in a cast. On the other hand, if we’d been in an accident, at least our limbs were already in casts and protected.

4 comments

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  1. Kelly Bixby

    Thoroughly enjoyable post, John. Good news: our summer forecast shows temps in the 80s all week. You are safe for the time being.

  2. Claire Murray

    Wonderful story Jon!

  3. Kook-Wha Koh

    As usual, I enjoyed to read it.

  4. Barbara Pattee

    Ouch! Hopefully you can escape without another fractured bone. How was your recovery each time?

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