A shoulder is to break

23 February 2022

On Monday 23 April 2018 I was in the Sydney seaside suburb of Cronulla on a spectacular autumn day. I had accompanied my husband Jim who had work commitments in Sydney. I was unemployed, having just returned from Malaysia to New Zealand, and took the opportunity to visit our daughter Claire. On this particular Monday, Claire and her partner Tim, in whose flat I was staying, were both at work and Jim was working for a few days on Sydney’s north shore.

After lunch, I decided to take a walk along the pathway that runs along the coast. I packed a bag with a towel, my book and a water bottle, intending to find a shady place on the beach to sit for a while and read. Jim called my mobile and I described for him the beauty of where I was standing – a large flat rock close to the footpath with a view of deep blue ocean and the green of the national park in the distance. He told me to enjoy my afternoon, which I had every intention of doing, and said goodbye. I walked on till I came to some steps going down to the beach. Going down the steps, I looked around to locate a suitable reading spot and completely missed the last step. I fell heavily on my right side, my shoulder hitting a rock.

My life changed in that instant. Stunned, I sat up and immediately realised there was something wrong with my right arm. It hung uselessly at my side and getting to my feet was difficult. Although there were quite a few people on the beach, no-one came to help me. When I thought about it afterwards, I decided they’d probably assumed I was drunk and resolved to ignore me. I approached a woman who was sitting close by and asked if she could phone for an ambulance, which she did. She and several others helped me to sit down again and even built up a backrest of sand so that I was more comfortable. I realised even then that I was now reliant on others.

The ambulance arrived and the paramedic, after a few basic questions, gave me the green whistle for pain relief. It was very effective – I felt almost euphoric and had the impression that I was floating above the beach watching what was happening to me. He asked if he could cut off my T-shirt and I agreed, though it was my favourite. He then attempted to manipulate my shoulder back into position but quickly realised it was broken, not dislocated. He helped me into the ambulance, strapped me in and ensured that my green whistle was available if I needed it. At the hospital, he helped me into a wheelchair and took me to the emergency department, where I spent the next few hours, waiting to be seen by the registrar, then after some x-rays had been taken, for the diagnosis. Still under the influence of the analgesic, the hours went by almost imperceptibly.

The paramedic passed through and exclaimed when he saw me still sitting there. He offered to get my phone from my bag, which had been tucked into the bottom of the wheelchair, so that I could call my daughter.

Claire reacted with admirable speed. She was in her office half-way across the city and had to get the train home, where she picked up some supplies. Then she called a taxi and was with me before I’d had the chance to wonder when she would arrive. She brought me something to eat and drink and shirt of Tim’s to replace my wrecked T-shirt. She also brought my passport – very seldom have I felt more grateful to be a Kiwi. New Zealanders are treated in Australian hospitals as if they are Australians, meaning my treatment was free.

Eventually we were called into a consulting room and spoke to the orthopod who had had a chance to look at my x-rays. My humerus was cracked right across just below the shoulder joint. It was a clean break, which did not require surgery. The treatment was to fit a sling to keep the arm immobilised for six weeks. Before they fitted the sling, they gave me a dose of morphine injected into my stomach. They then discharged me, armed with a script for some very powerful painkillers, and said I could fly back to New Zealand.

That night in Claire’s spare-room was blissful – she propped me up with many pillows and the morphine ensured I had a good night’s sleep, despite being in a sitting position. Before going to sleep though I had a phone conversation with Jim, who knew that I’d had an accident but not the details. He cut his work short and came to fetch me the next day. We flew back to Auckland and for the only time in my life, I was taken off the plane in a wheelchair.

We did not have a home in New Zealand at the time. We’d returned from several years in Malaysia and the property we owned was let, so we were living in a motel. I got into bed the first night back and promptly slipped into a prone position from which I couldn’t move without severe pain. It was an impossible situation which only ended when we called an ambulance. They got me up and took me to the emergency room, where the staff were frantically busy. I was taken to a quiet, dark room and deposited into a reclining chair with a footstool, after swallowing a handful of painkillers. The chair was a revelation. I was very comfortable and could get some sleep.

When Jim fetched me the following morning, the first thing we did was buy a similar chair, which he manhandled into his SUV and then into our motel room. I slept in the chair for the next seven months, in the course of which we moved into a house on a farm. I unpacked all the boxes containing pots and pans, plates and glasses, sheets and towels with my left hand. It was slow progress but I wasn’t going anywhere – I couldn’t drive and there was nowhere nearby for me to walk to. I relied on Jim for everything – dressing, washing my hair, preparing and cutting up my food. He would leave prepared food in plastic containers with their lids not firmly closed when he went to work so that I could get my own lunch. What I was dressed in when he left, I stayed in all day, even if I got too hot or cold because there was no way I could change. I spent large parts of the day in my comfy chair, which I could recline by pushing back into it, reading. I often feel grateful to be a committed reader but in those weeks and months, getting lost in a book was a miraculous escape from pain, disability and boredom.

The recovery was slow. After the first six weeks, I dispensed with the sling but had very little movement in my right arm. With the help of two gifted physiotherapists, I improved and the kinesiology tape they expertly strapped around my shoulder was a huge boon. One day, seven or eight months after my accident, Jim came home to find that I had managed to wash my own hair. He remarked that I was ‘becoming so independent’ – a strange thing to say about a mature woman!

The first time I drove he sat in the passenger seat. It took me a long time to feel confident enough to drive by myself. Confidence is one of the things I lost along with the use of my right arm. I saw my GP several months into my recovery and when she asked about my progress, I suddenly felt tearful. Now I understood why, when such an accident happens to an older person, they find it impossible to go back to a fully autonomous life. But I was not yet in that position and gradually I got back the use of my arm and with it, my confidence. I even began applying for jobs. When I got an interview, I was still unable to drive so went in a taxi, but managed to shake hands with my interviewers. I was offered the job and with it, came normalcy.

When catastrophic things happen, people often advise looking for the silver lining. The accident happened in Australia, not Malaysia where we’d been living only a few months previously, or any of the other Asian destinations we’d visited while living there. I had a caring partner and access to a fully functioning (and free) public health service. When Jim had to go away for work, Claire took leave and came over from Sydney to look after me for a few days. This coincided with my birthday and she took me to a movie and lunch, which was such a treat after weeks of confinement in our rural accommodation. I was grateful too for my day-to-day situation: a comfortable home, with expansive views, sufficient reading material and of course, no worries about affording it all. The silver lining was not hard for me to find.