“Are you hurt, or are you injured?”
A family friend who is also a fireman asked one of my sons this question after my son had whacked his nose at a birthday party a few years ago. Kneeling down in front of my boy, my friend inspected the bloody nose and said, “If you’re hurt, I can help you. If you’re injured, I can still help you, but we’ve got to get you to the doctor. Let’s see which it is.”
Fortunately, my son was only hurt. One ice pack and 10 minutes later, he was back in the fray of pizza, cupcakes, and bowling. But my friend’s words stuck with me. So when the skate guard glided up to me in Lake Placid last January and asked if I needed to see an EMT, I had to think about it.
“Hold on,” I said, sitting in the snow. “”Give me a sec.”
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if we are hurt or if we are injured. We can be dismissive of serious problems or too concerned with benign issues. When it comes to the body, we can be deceived. Moreso, too, when it comes to the heart.
In this case, it was my arm, not my heart, that took the blow. It was such a stupid fall. There I was, sailing around the Olympic oval on my skates under a starry winter sky. The ice was the smoothest I’d ever experienced, and I happily joined in skating with my younger son, his hockey teammates, and several parents as we enjoyed our last night of a hockey tournament in Lake Placid.
At the center of the oval there was a bonfire. A narrow, snowy path led from the rink to the fire, and I spontaneously decided to hop off the ice and walk down the path toward some toasty flames. In doing so, I underestimated how fast I had been going, and therefore I overestimated my stopping ability on the snow. There was nothing to grab in order to steady to myself, and there was no rubber mat to keep my skates from slipping. There was just ice and a hard, packed, snowy path. I slid off the ice, took one step onto the snow, lost my balance, tried to steady myself with another step, and then seemed to slip up into the air before landing--entirely on my left elbow.
It hurt, but it was also kind of numb. I sat in the snow, trying to steady my shaken nerves and assess the situation, when the skate guard showed up.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I fell on my elbow,” I said. I tried to move my arm. Something was wrong, though. My forearm wasn’t moving. It was just kind of hanging there.
The sweet, pimply-faced kid said, “We have EMTs. You should probably get that looked at. Can you move it?”
I instinctively held my arm close to my body. Although I was wearing layers of clothing and a puffy down jacket, I could tell something was definitely not right. My mind immediately flashed to visions of sitting in an ER in Lake Placid, effectively ruining the last night of an otherwise amazing tournament weekend.
Hurts can inconvenience us; injuries can change the game completely.
I tried to move my arm and felt pain around the bicep while having no control of anything below the elbow. “Shit,” I said out loud, realizing that my elbow might have actually dislocated. Then, to the guard, “Sorry.” I straightened my arm as best as I could and then pulled hard on my elbow. Something popped. Eureka! I could move my arm again! “There!” I said before being overtaken by pain and nausea. “Oh,” I gasped. “It’s better, but it’s worse.”
I conceded defeat. “Maybe I should see the EMT,” I said.
“I think that’s a good idea,” the skate guard said, reaching out his hand and helping me onto the ice and into the arms of my husband, who could only shake his head at my awesomeness as he guided me toward the EMT. He rolls his eyes. A lot.
The EMT determined that my arm didn’t seem broken, but it was severely bruised. She gave me a bag full of Lake Placid snow to ice it. “Sorry,” she said. ‘It’s all we have here.” Then she told me to take some ibuprofen and get checked out when I got home. I followed her orders, and 36 hours later I was at the doctor with a black and blue arm that was frozen at a 90 degree angle and an elbow that had swelled to the size of a tennis ball. Two doctors and several x-rays later, the results were in: I was injured.
I had not only dislocated my elbow--and somehow managed to relocate it by myself--but I had chipped it in the process. Worse, though, was that the tendons and ligaments of my left arm were in rough shape after being rocked by the dislocation. Prognosis: I would heal, but the healing process required time, rest, physical therapy, and absolutely no weight bearing activity whatsoever until the orthopedist said otherwise. “You’re lucky,” said the orthopedist. “Injuries as severe as yours to the ligaments and tendons often require surgery. I’m hopeful we can avoid that, but we will see.” She added that my 18 years of yoga practice had likely kept my bones nice and strong, which is why I hadn’t suffered a compound fracture.
I didn’t feel all that lucky. I was actually annoyed. I couldn’t believe I had been stupid enough to get hurt--wait, injured--like that. I should have known better than try to skate off the ice too fast. Now I was stuck in a cuff and collar, perhaps one of the ugliest slings ever made, and I couldn’t hook or unhook my bra every day without excruciating pain. But of course, I never asked for help. I’m too stubborn. My body was injured, and my pride was hurt. And I damn sure didn’t want surgery.
I wasn’t feeling particularly good in my own skin, and the injury had left me feeling vulnerable and weak. Most arm-oriented yoga poses were ruled out for several weeks, which was a serious bummer for this downdog girl. It was winter, dark, and cold, and I couldn’t even ice skate. Faced with limited options, I made a decision: I was going to get back into my running routine. My orthopedist gave it the green light after two weeks in the sling, and I was off. I began new, more mindful eating habits, too. By April, I had dropped several pounds, gained a ton of strength, and felt better than I had in months. Even better, my arm had mostly healed, thanks to my persistence with at-home physical therapy and the guidance of my PT at Yale.
I kept running, reminding myself to keep my body loose and my breath steady, and on a very hot day in June this 43-year-old ran her first-ever five-miler in under 56 minutes. My goal is to do a 10k next spring, and a half by next fall. But, as with everything, we will see how it plays out. I’m not married to that schedule of progression. As long as I keep running and challenging myself, I think I’ll be in a good, healthy place, regardless of when I make it to that half.
My injury may have healed, but I can still feel its ghost. When I move my arm a certain way or slightly overextend it, my bicep winces. My elbow no longer feels wonky and wobbly, but the arm is still recovering. It’s not as strong as my right arm, although one day it will be. And I will skate again this winter, but with some hockey padding on my left elbow from now on.
That’s how it goes with injuries, I guess. Healing is a long process, and sometimes we have to adapt and modify our ways if we want the payoff to last. If we don’t learn how to heal and how to stay healed, we will open ourselves up to injury again and again. But sometimes, if we are really good to ourselves, we can turn our injuries into new beginnings.
Tomorrow I will teach my regular Wednesday night beach yoga class, one of my two summer jobs that I have come to love. I will guide my students into downdog and show them how to care for themselves and their joints in the pose in order to avoid injury--especially on the sand, which can seem deceptively safe. As usual, I will also remind them of the importance of caring for small hurts and pains on and off the mat, in the body, and in the heart. It is just as important to care for the little hurts lest they turn into injuries. Healing takes work, and not everyone is up to that task.