On Broken Bones and Alternate Lives

On Friday two weeks ago I was supposed to be on a plane to Australia, beginning my master’s degree and my new life 10,000 miles away. Instead, I was lying in an operating room in my hometown, having a necrotic bone removed from the ball of my right foot.

It’s not even a good story, me breaking my foot. It happened four months ago while I was running on the padded track at my gym. I finished my last lap, spent a few minutes stretching, and went home. It wasn’t until the next morning when I got out of bed that I realized something was wrong. I stepped onto the floor and gasped – every step was like walking directly on exposed bone. I thought I must’ve broken something in my sleep.

The first podiatrist I saw diagnosed me with a fracture and sesamoiditis – a near-invisible break in a bone in the ball of my foot and an inflamed tendon in my great toe. He cut a hole out of a shoe lift that I put in my sneakers to prevent myself from putting any weight on the injury. It would heal itself in a few weeks.

When it didn’t heal itself in a few weeks, I transitioned to a walking boot. This was the “aggressive approach” for keeping weight off the bone. I would keep wearing the boot when I moved to Australia if I was still in pain. And still, it wasn’t healing.

I got a new doctor. He cut a hole in my foot to remove the bone, bruised so badly it had lost its blood supply and begun dying. He tightened the tendons in my toe like he was tuning violin strings. The incisions would heal according to a schedule: four weeks with a walker, never touching my right foot to the ground; four more weeks in a walking boot.

I was in pretty good spirits when I woke up in the recovery room. There’s a particular joy in extracting something foul from your body, like sucking venom from a wound or popping a pustule. A fresh three-inch scar was forming along my big toe and the side of my foot, but I felt somehow cleaner and purer than before. The bone they removed had been developing sharp edges as it necrosed, slicing tendons and ligaments with each step I took. I was in pain, but I was better now.

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Post-surgery X-ray. The large white oval on the right side the leftmost toe is a sesamoid bone. Normally, there is also a bone on the left side.

Ultimately, I was relieved, and that relief eclipsed the other emotions rumbling deeper inside me. Disappointment. Fear. Anger that lit a fire in my belly, capable of boiling those quieter emotions until they came bubbling out as tears.

When my surgeon removed the dying sesamoid bone from my foot, the sesamoidectomy wasn’t the only -ectomy he performed on me. He cleaved my present from a parallel future – one where 24 hours later I was landing bleary-eyed in the Melbourne Airport instead of wincing in my parents’ bed, the only bedroom on the first floor of their house.

It was done for a good reason, but I can’t help but mourn the other possible life that was taken from me. I see myself starting my graduate program on schedule, meeting interesting new people and making new friends, moving into my cute new flat, and settling into my exciting new life. I feel the warm breeze on my sticky skin (it’s still summer in Australia) and watch the gummy leaves of gargantuan trees as they sway.

I’m romanticizing, of course. I’ve even glamorized the walking boot I’d still be wearing in this alternate universe, imagining up a handsome guy to help me carry my books, to hold the door for me as I’m stumping along the quad lawn.

But how can I not imagine a better possibility when I’m stuck in bed, barely able to muster the strength required to hoist myself up and scoot my walker to the bathroom? There’s nothing else for my mind to do, except grapple with the frightening alternative: reality.

In real life, I’ve been forced to postpone my graduate studies by a semester. I set about unraveling all the intricate plans I’d spent the last six months stitching together. I cancel the shuttle that was meant to take me from the airport to the college. I scroll through fine print to ensure the funds I wired to the university will be carried over instead of refunded and whittled down by exchange rates. I send emails. So many emails. To the head of housing, to my professors, to my program directors, and the student helpline. I make phone calls at odd hours and ungodly international prices asking to speak to someone, anyone, who can tell me there’s any way I can make everything work.

And I’m scared.

Moving halfway around the globe was always a daunting adventure filled with surprises and unknowns. What made all the uncertainty both tolerable and, actually, desirable, was having a few baseline certainties: I knew where I was living, I had a committee position that guaranteed I would meet people and have non-academic things to do, and I was starting at the beginning of the first semester when everyone else was new and overwhelmed too.

Now it feels like everything is an unknown.

So I’m angry. Not just because I’m forced to dismantle my plans and start over, but because in a third parallel life I don’t have to deal with any of this at all. In the third scenario, I’m not hobbling around my parents’ house on my left foot or living in Melbourne with a ticking time bomb in my right foot. No, I’m living in Melbourne as planned, albeit walking at a slower pace, because I had my surgery a month earlier.

Within this story about delayed departure, there’s also one about medical negligence. There’s a fight I just don’t have in me, over the way my first doctor said the healing would take six to ten weeks, but he didn’t order further testing at week ten. I should count my lucky stars that my mother is a doctor, that she ordered an MRI of my foot at week 13, even though everyone (me included) thought her meddling was overbearing. I should ball my fists at the fact that my doctor didn’t take my pain or my non-improvement seriously. Or that, after learning from the MRI his first diagnosis was wrong, he suggested I keep walking in that boot a few more weeks, despite the research proving healing without surgical intervention was unlikely.

But that’s a story and a fight I don’t have the energy for now. Now, I just want to look ahead. I have two weeks remaining to keep the weight off my right foot completely. Then it’s four more weeks of walking in the boot. After that, who knows – I’ll be free to walk in regular shoes, rebuilding the muscle I’ve lost in my right leg.

All of this is an exercise in regaining lost strength. Foot surgery is hardly the end of the world, even if it’s landed me in the wrong hemisphere for the time being. So I practice patience. I practice moving my big toe by millimeters. I practice picking myself back up and moving forward.

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Midwest writer hailing from the Mitten State. Not nearly as clever as I pretend to be.

7 thoughts on “On Broken Bones and Alternate Lives

  1. What a heartbreaking, unexpected post. I am so sorry to hear that this has happened to you. Is there any chance you can commence your studies at a later date? Hopefully, the stars will align and you will be in Melbourne sooner than you know it :). Wishing you a speedy recovery xx

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  2. Ahhh noooo! In the grand scheme of things, this is just a minor setback. You’ll be in Australia soon enough, and if anything, this will make you appreciate your time over there even more, even if it’ll be harder than starting the school year from the start. All the best with your recovery!

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