The thin layer of skin over the spot on my shin where the taxi crashed into my leg has just formed. Only two days ago it stopped bleeding and draining — the first time in seven months that I haven’t had an open wound. Though for much of this time it was small, it loomed large in the symbolism of this injury and my attempts at recovery. In the face of good news and bad, this small spot persisted. When I first came home it was a hole that went clean to the bone. Before my first surgery, what was visible was a small circle of gleaming metal, the plate that later came loose from my shattered tibia. After my surgeon removed the plate, the spot disappeared for a week before splitting wide again, a jeering smile with teeth of white bone. For months we tried everything we could: silver impregnated bandages, sterile gauze, vaseline dressings, even pure Manuka honey from New Zealand that was promoted on various alternative and traditional medicine websites. At one point, a wound “vacuum” was attached to my leg — a small machine that applied negative pressure to the wound and literally sucked out drainage, blood, and damaged flesh. It made a sound like a coffee percolator. Even that cutting edge treatment failed. The surgeon finally decided the only solution was surgery — to transplant a section of my calf muscle by rotating it over on top of the wound, providing the poorly-vascularized area with increased blood flow. Just as a thick scab covered the wound, I went in for my fifth and final surgery. Once again, the skin was cut open, and for the month following that surgery I continued to bleed from a small hole in that same area. So this thin layer, this translucent, tender area, is a small and tremendous victory in my recovery. I keep it covered and wrapped, just in case. I couldn’t bear for it to split open again.
Today in the waiting room of the doctor’s office I meet a man with bright eyes, graying hair, and a think mustache. A black bandana patterned with skulls and crossbones is wrapped around his head. A pale girl with white-blonde hair sits next to him with a toddler running around in front of her. The child laughs and laughs, trying to run out the door. Her grandfather points his finger at her, furrows his brow, and commands, “Don’t you do it. Don’t you go out that door.” She stands poised at the threshold looking at him. With a squeal of laughter, she runs through. He laughs and shrugs. Eying my crutches he says, “I know how it feels.” We talk and I learn he also had a motorcycle accident. An avid cyclist, he owns five bikes of various sizes and types — four now that he crashed one into a tree. In the accident four months ago, he broke his back in four places, his collarbone, all of the ribs on his right side, and he shattered his tibia and fibula. A couple months after the initial surgery, the rods in his tibia broke, and the entire leg had to be redone. It sounds so familiar. At a hospital in Atlanta that is somewhat notorious for bad care, they botched the emergency operation, then sent him home without antibiotics. He developed a lung infection soon after. During surgery on his lungs, his kidneys failed and he ended up in intensive care for 21 days. He tells me these things with no particular bravado, but no despair either.
“I’m already looking for another road bike online,” he tells me. “Oh yeah, you can bet I’m going to ride again,” he says when my eyebrows rise. “You know, if you’re not living on the edge then you’re taking up too much space.” My mother tenses beside me and tries to keep this disdain and worry out of her voice. She’s not really joking when she looks at him and says, “now don’t you give her any ideas.” He tells us about the cross-country trips he’s taken — the longest one was 7,000 miles in a straight shot. Once he passed right under the nose of a bison in Yellowstone National Park, and I believe him when he says he’s never experienced anything like it. When the nurse calls him back he springs up and crutches quickly by. If he’s ever been depressed about his accident, you wouldn’t guess it. “Good luck,” he tells me, “and get another bike.” For all he’s been through, he moves like a young man, smiles like one, inspires like one. A part of me thinks he’s being unfair to the thin young woman who follows behind him, and the small, laughing child she holds by the hand. Another part, just as real, yearns to be back on my bike with the wind wrapping around me and living like he does: “You just have to do what you love. You can’t stop.”
I’m called back a few minutes later. They take x-rays as usual, then I wait in the examination room. My surgeon comes in, looks at my leg, and casually, as if it has been easy, tells me it’s looking good. He goes over the “options” if there’s still some infection hiding in my bone. More surgeries, more antibiotics, and it wouldn’t be easy or fun, he says, but it would work. Or we could just wait. Wait and see. “This leg could have been amputated,” he says in a low voice, “and it was asking to be, multiple times. But we didn’t do it. You’ve got a perfectly good foot on the end of that leg, and I didn’t want it to go to waste. Now let’s see you walk.” I take a few halting steps in the hall. He’s pleased. I lean against the wall and feel a wave of gratitude for this confident, strong man with the big hands who always has time to answer our questions and quiet all of our fears. “Thank you for helping me keep this old leg,” I say, joking a little but hoping with heart-constricting sincerity that he knows how much I mean it. “It was my pleasure. Anything for you,” he says, and awkwardly hugs me with one arm. After three surgeries he’s cut into my flesh, sawed through my bone, touched every part of my leg, inside and out, seeing more of me than I’ve seen of myself… and yet it’s the first time he’s touched me in this familiar way. It means more to me than I can say and I almost tear up. “Oh, I met your other motorcycle accident guy in the waiting room,” I mention, before I get too emotional. “He’s in the room across the hall,” my surgeon says. “That guy is a nut.”
Before I leave the office, I get two cd’s with all of my x-rays from when I got back to the States from Tanzania. At my big sister’s house I go through them one by one. I see the past six months in black and white and gray, in metal and fracture and changing shapes that are indeed only a skeleton of the pain and healing and despair and triumph I’ve experienced in the last half year. I marvel at the steel frame that now reinforces mine. Considering the past these images illustrate, I’ve experienced a relatively small amount of pain, saved by the wonders of anesthesia and modern medical technology. And those catastrophic breaks, which could have easily stolen a limb from me forever, are held together and will heal. Tomorrow I will start hyperbaric oxygen treatments that will bombard my system with extra oxygen to promote bone healing and fight any infection that may remain. I don’t mean to repeat it so many times, and I’m not looking for pity or sympathy, but I remember over and over how close I was to death or amputation, and every moment that could have gone another way. I wonder how I could ever express my gratitude for all the lucky accidents and intentional acts of kindness that saved me and sustained me.
As I begin to take my first steps in months, the future looms large and unknown ahead of me. There is no “picking up where I left off.” I have been transported to another realm of existence and I can’t go back. Nor am I sure of where I’m headed. Sometimes that scares me, but it is also exciting, full of promise. Joseph Campbell said, “we must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” This is not the year I imagined, but there has been beauty and mystery in it. Whatever comes next, it will happen to the beat of the prayer drum pounding out hope in my chest.