Tuesday, 14 October 2014

sickness and health

those who know me, are friends with me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, etc, know that earlier this year I was involved in an accident (no one else involved, I fell over while stepping over a low fence in the street in a town in England) in which I not only broke my left leg rather badly and now set off alarms at airports because the leg has a lot of metal in it, but subsequently experienced scar-tissue adhesions in the left knee which required further surgery to enable me to bend the knee, and meant that I had to learn to walk again. I haven't blogged about it, because while my recovery was interesting to me most of the time, I thought and think that it was and is deeply boring to everyone else. But then I discovered this column by Rebecca Armstrong, who is features editor of the Independent newspaper, and whose husband was hit by a car earlier this year and seriously injured. She doesn't describe his injuries in detail, or not in the columns I've read, but it appears that he is not mobile, or not yet, and that he has had some kind of brain injury. She says that since his injury she has had to deal with his personal paperwork and administration, as well as with the various kinds of health bureaucracy that are inevitable in this situation. She had never done this before, and it is making her miserable. That's what got me thinking.

I have been wondering why, now that I can walk again, though slowly and with a limp (thank you to the Clemenceau rehabilitation hospital in Strasbourg, France, where I live) I have been feeling so much sadder about the situation than I was six months ago. At the hospital I saw people trying to learn to walk on two prosthetic legs; my room-mate couldn't stand up at all; there were people doing wheelchair sport in the hospital gym (yes, this is France, where high-end health care is available to everyone) who would always have to use those wheelchairs; and my only problem was having a gammy leg that ached a bit sometimes. So, I felt quite good about it all really. Once I could get rid of the wheelchair, in May, throw away the crutches, in July (a wonderful moment, that) and use an exercise bike, in August (next goal a real outdoors bike) I felt able-bodied again. So why am I sad now?

Being immobilised as I was and as Rebecca's husband is messes up your life in more than one way. I have salaried employment that comes with health insurance, so the six months it took for me to be ready to go back to work didn't mess me up financially. I was lucky, you could say, and I have said so many times. But Rebecca is dealing with her husband's paperwork (and apparently he was not very organised) and feeling very lonely as she does so. If the boiler leaks or the pipes burst she has to deal with that too. My husband looked after me as best he could, but he is not a nurse. All the non-physical aspects of my life were put on hold while I was bed-bound. If I hadn't been able to do online shopping from my bed I'm not sure how I'd have managed. And the downside of France's magnificent health care system is the vast amount of bureaucracy it brings with it, as do other aspects of life in this country. And it's bureaucracy in a language which is not my first, which adds to the challenge. So I am still tying up loose ends of bill payments, insurance paperwork and so on that no one else could do for me and that I couldn't cope with myself for quite a long time. And it's depressing. French bureaucrats are an unforgiving breed. So that, I believe, is why I am sad.

Never underestimate the psychological after-effects of an accident. The fact that it was an accident, that it could not have been foreseen or planned for, messes with your head. And it always comes back to your brain, and your emotions, and your spirit, no matter which part of you has been physically damaged. A nurse in the UK hospital said to me that men deal with injuries much better than women do. They are more demanding, asking for painkillers and for things to be done for them much more than women do, but they don't agonise about the injury itself; they think of it as they would a car that needed repair. Women, on the other hand, agonise forever about how it happened, could it have been prevented, is it their fault (I did and do all these things) have they got arthritis now (in my case, yes, probably), have they passed on hip problems or brittle bones to their children, and so on. A physiotherapist in the French hospital said to me "Vous marchez avec la tete" ("You walk with your head") and she was right. To learn to walk again I had to believe I could. But no one else can do the paperwork for me. So, forgive me.

When I was using crutches people gave up their seats for me on the bus or tram. Now I'm not, they don't - and standing for any length of time is still difficult, especially on a moving vehicle. So, travelling is harder work than it once was. So, everything takes longer. I can't quicken my pace to catch an approaching bus or tram. I just have to miss it and wait for the next one. I can't yet ride my bike. I can't go to a concert or show unless I have a booked seat. I don't drink a lot of water any more, because if I need to dash to the loo - well, I can't. These are small negatives, but they add up over time.

This year I missed the spring altogether (the accident happened in early February and I was immobile for seven weeks afterwards). I was in hospital for almost the whole of June and July. The late summer I could go outside for wasn't enough. And now the days are shorter and darker, I still have paperwork to do. And it's making me sad.

If someone close to you goes through something like this, remember that it's when they are well recovered, some months later, that they will need support, when the professionals are gone but nothing will ever be the same again. I'm only sorry it took this to teach me that people do have needs which aren't visible - that even once you can walk again the path is stony, and you are afraid of falling.