At the end of January 2013, I fell and fractured my patella, more commonly known as the kneecap. It was a day during the January thaw here in Western New York, so there was no snow or ice. I just simply misjudged the height of the curb, my foot slipped, and the result was a direct hit to my right knee. It hurt like mad, but I (mistakenly) believed that all I had really damaged was my dignity. I tried to straighten my leg out to get up, and I heard my kneecap rip apart. This is a sound you don’t really want to hear coming out of your own body.
Fortunately, someone inside the building saw me go down, and didn’t see me get up, so he went to find a couple of other people to help me up off the wet pavement and out of the rain, into a chair in the warm building. They called an ambulance, and were very helpful. One of them told me I probably didn’t want to look at it. (Once you’ve heard your own body break, you don’t need to look at it to know something is very wrong.)
After some time in the emergency room, x-rays, pre-operative blood work, and a lot of pain medication, I was sent home. The procedure to repair my knee was scheduled for two days later. I returned to the hospital, and had my fracture “reduced” with pins and wires. When I saw the x-rays six weeks later, it looked like what had been done was pretty much this. Two pins on each side of the fracture, and an hourglass configuration of wire pulling it all together.
That structure was what held the broken bone together long enough that it could form a callus, and become strong enough to bear weight. Without those bits of metal, I would not have been able to walk again. I’m grateful to and for the skilled and compassionate health care professionals–from the ambulance guys to the doctors and nurses to the physical therapists–who put me back together and helped me regain my mobility.
As my recovery progressed, and some of the inflammation went down, I could actually see the pins making little bumps on my knee. They hurt if I touched them. As my physical therapy progressed, I could feel the pins and wire digging into the tissues over the kneecap every time I bent my knee. It felt like I had one of those old-fashioned cheese slicers (the kind with the wire) inside my leg. Every time I bent it, I was getting sliced. And I had to bend my knee, or it would stiffen up and become weaker and more limited. Keeping moving hurt. But keeping moving was the only way forward.
On top of that, everything that touched my knee–even lightly–irritated it. If I stood at the kitchen counter and my knee touched the door of the lower cupboard, I got a shooting pain. If a loose skirt brushed over the skin, it felt like it was burning. I had to wear tights or leggings that would bend with the knee–even in the heat of summer–to keep my clothes from causing me pain. I couldn’t roll over in my sleep, because if my knee contacted the mattress, I would wake up in pain.
I spoke to my doctor. He said that only about 30% of ortho patients overall needed to have their repair hardware removed, but for this particular repair, it was closer to 75%. It’s too close to the surface, there’s nothing to cushion it, and the majority of people with this injury do eventually decide they want the hardware out. But it has to wait at least six months after the repair, to make sure the bone is stable enough to be without the support that those pins and wires provide.
We scheduled the surgery to retrieve the metals for October. It’s better, but there is still discomfort and stiffness. It still feels like a flame passing over my skin when clothing brushes against it. It still gives a shooting, electric-shock sensation if I tap my knee against a piece of furniture. More than two years post-trauma, this is as good as it gets.
And it is good. It’s not always easy, but I can do most of what I did before the injury. I can walk, drive, stand at the kitchen counter to prepare meals. I’m thankful for the operation that put in the hardware that made it possible to heal enough to stand up again. I’m equally thankful for the operation that took out that hardware once it was no longer needed, and became more harmful than helpful. My hope was that I would be able to progress on my own, but I was secure in the knowlege that, should I ever need them again, there was an institutional structure of health care providers who would be ready to guide me along a path of wellbeing once again.
I didn’t expect to need them two years later, but I did. When the ortho trauma surgeon met me in the emergency room for my broken wrist, it was the same doctor who fixed my knee. His words were, “I was hoping it was a different person with the same name.” On my last appointment with him after the wrist fracture, he said, “You’re nice; I like you. Now stop breaking yourself.”
Sometimes I miss the people who helped me–especially the physical therapists (and second time through, the occupational therapists) who spent so much time working with me on exercises and adaptations to daily living. But there is not much more they can do for me, and it is now time for me to go it alone. On the day I had my last therapy session I brought handmade presents for the therapists and aides who had helped me, and cookies for everyone I had gotten to know in the clinic. It was a celebration of my progress toward wellness.
And both cause me to meditate on my relationship with the structural supports provided by the institutional church.
In 1989, after years of not attending, I came to the church broken: career setbacks, romantic disappointments, untimely death of a parent. And the church helped me heal. I threw myself enthusiastically into that healing process. I attempted to encourage others who were also in their own healing processes along the way. I developed strengths, skills, gifts, and offered them back to the church.
And in the process of healing, damage was done. My gifts and talents were abused and rejected; my personhood silenced and stifled and denied.
I was well enough, though, to know I could excise the structural supports of the institutional church. I had enough of what I needed to be able to go it alone spiritually. Sometimes, I miss some of the people whose work is within the institutional church. I don’t know if they understand (in the way that the physical and occupational therapists did) that there comes a time when there is no more they can do for me. And I’m not sure they applaud, as did my rehab therapists, my “graduation”.
And I’m not sure they’re there for me should I need them again. I’m pretty sure they aren’t there for the different person, with different needs and aspirations, I’ve become since I last encountered them. Would they be equipped to deal with new hurts, new aspirations? Can they help when they are part of what caused the hurt?
And will church ever be good at people “graduating”? Will the churches ever be able to send someone on the next stage of their spiritual journey well–even if the journey isn’t in the company, or under the auspices, of the institutional church?
Will the churches ever be able to celebrate with someone who can go on their own–or even wants to try for a while?
These all seem like reasonable questions to me. I’d love to hear some serious answers.