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Germ Bag

Funny Bone

By Suz Redfearn | Posted 4/11/2001

The compound fracture visited upon my arm by a monkey-bar mishap in the eighth grade--that, for the last 21 years, had reigned as by far the worst pain I'd ever experienced. On that godawful day, broken bones pushed against my skin at odd angles. The hospital wouldn't treat me for four hours because the staff couldn't find any family members. They didn't wait long enough for the painkillers to kick in before resetting the bones, so I felt every fragment being shattered and re-shattered by the burly physician's grip.

But that was chump change compared to what I went through a few weeks ago.

No, I wasn't skiing amid the trees a la Sonny Bono. I didn't skydive into a forest of sharpened knives or rush a bunch of rhinos in the dead of night. All I was doing was walking through my little home office at the beginning of a workday, getting ready to balance a checkbook. But in one unfortunate step, I tapped my right knee on the back of my new office chair, and next thing I knew I was in the land of outrageous, screaming pain. My kneecap had dislocated, slipping violently out of its socket and lodging itself on the side of my leg.

My entire body crashed with a thud. A familiar thud, this being the ninth or 10th time this had happened since I was 12, thanks to my dad and the structurally unsound knees he passed on. At 12, though, the kneecap would jump out of place then pop right back in. As I got older, I had to grab the unruly bone and wrench it back in; the pain was unreal, but the knee always went back where it belonged. That I could count on.

Lying there on the linoleum floor, balancing carefully on my left side and stifling shrieks, I grabbed at what felt like a can of chewing tobacco sticking out erect on the side of my leg. I pulled at it. I yanked and yanked and yanked. But it didn't budge. Oh that's right--you have to straighten the leg while you jerk at it, I suddenly remembered. It had been years since I'd dealt with this. I straightened and yanked simultaneously. No result. I stopped stifling the shrieks.

I laid my head down, let my arms relax. I had to accept it: The wayward bone was jammed. I wouldn't be able to fix it myself this time. Somehow, I'd have to get help. I turned my head toward the locked front door and started yelping, but my ruckus just disappeared, as if into a vacuum. Of course--I live on the top floor of a building inhabited almost entirely by people who leave home to work. At 9:45 a.m., they are scattered all over Washington.

Immobilized, I looked around. Luckily I hadn't landed far from the shelf where we keep the cordless. I grabbed at the wires and pulled the phone down onto me. I hit talk. It was dead; my ripping at the cords must have unplugged it. I tried to focus on a creative way to get help. But the pain was getting worse, along with the feeling of powerlessness. I looked down and saw the unnatural lump straining at my jeans. What the hell was I going to do? Keep screaming in the hopes that some maintenance people might eventually hear?

Then I remembered that there was a crappy little back-up phone lower down on the shelf. I reached up and clawed around and it fell onto me. Fortunately, the phone jack was in reach. I plugged in the phone and dialed 911. A woman answered, and I heard myself gasp-scream my story.

"Calm down, I'll send an ambulance," she said. "How old are you?"

"Thirty-four," I grunted, wondering why that mattered. If I were older, would they just let me lay there until I disintegrated?

The 911 woman tried to engage me in deep conversation about my medical history. Couldn't she hear that I could barely speak? Or was she trying to distract me until the paramedics came? The fire station was only four blocks away--it couldn't take them more than two or three minutes, right? They'd be there any second to shoot me up with powerful painkillers and deftly manipulate my kneecap back into position, and then maybe take me to the nearest hospital for X-rays, right? The worst was already over, right? Right?

Again, the operator asked how old I was. My confidence plummeted. If she didn't get my age the first time she asked, what are the chances she got my address? By the time the thought unfurled in my head, she'd hung up.

I dialed my man Marty at work. I knew I'd upset him with my impassioned grunting and yelping, but I didn't know what else to do. He sounded rattled but in control, said he'd be right there. His office is about 20 minutes away, more if there's traffic. "By the time you get here I'll be in the ER," I gasped. He didn't sound so sure.

And then I laid there, alone, muscles tensed and teeth clenching while the rest of the world went on about its business. I clung to fantasies that it was all just a dream. I imagined that the kneecap had magically slipped back in, and when the paramedics arrived I'd just apologize for disturbing them. When that continued to not happen, I focused on calming down, seeing if I could exert any control over the pain. Miraculously, I could. I could reduce it by maybe 40 percent if I lay absolutely still, relaxed as much as possible, and thought about something else--the pounding surf, knees that are normal. That lasted for about 15 seconds, then I felt like I was going to throw up.

I heard an ambulance. It was the sweetest goddamned melody. I listened as it got closer, pulled up to my building, then went quiet. Surely they were rushing into my building now, procuring keys at the front desk as I'd instructed the 911 lady. Then paramedics would be running down the hall. They were two, three minutes away, tops.

Five minutes passed. Then 10. No one arrived at my door. There was just roaring, awful silence. I tried to be patient, but I had already worked myself into a frenzy, huffing and puffing and clutching at things. I called the front desk, yelping about what had happened--and where were the paramedics? "Oh! They're here for you?" the desk lady said. "I don't know where they went! I'd better go find them!" I started to feel hysterical, like I was hyperventilating. The hysterics made the pain worse. I begged the universe to let just me pass out. Wasn't that an option?

Five more minutes passed, and finally I heard people at my door. At that point, the jammed bone was starting to toy with my brain--the paramedics sounded very distant though they were only about 20 feet away, and their voices sounded vaguely familiar, though I couldn't have known them. Was I actually fainting?

Then came a knock at my door--not the sound of keys in the lock. "Let us in, Miss Redfearn," a guy intoned, not sounding properly concerned. A huge wave of defeat went through me.

"I can't get the door!" I bellowed. "I'm on the ground! My knee is dislocated!"

"Well, how are we supposed to help you, Miss Redfearn?"

"You have to go downstairs and get a key! I told the operator that!" I realized I sounded sputtery, like I was drowning.

"OK, we'll be right back!"

Christ in a sidecar, is Monday trainee day for D.C. rescue? Could they be any more bumbling? While a few EMTs went downstairs after the keys, others stayed near my door, asking me over and over how old I was, making me howl and squeal answers to other inane questions. Only one of them even tried to be comforting--it was the one woman I could hear among them. She kept insisting that everything was going to be all right. All I could think about was a big, beautiful black cloud of unconsciousness washing over me. It had to be coming any minute now. It had to.

Suddenly there was a huge whoosh behind me, and people in dark clothes rushed in. And Marty was there. He'd unlocked the door. The woman paramedic stepped briskly over me, kneeling by my leg. The rest stayed back. She took my pulse. I think she took my blood pressure. Seemed like everything was all right with the vitals. "May I cut your pants, Suz?" she asked in a soothing but adrenaline-filled voice. Strangely, I had split the butt out of them just an hour before the awful mishap. A portent of what was to come? Sure, she could cut them--they were ruined anyway.

I was filled with fear about them touching my leg, but I knew that's what they'd be doing. Marty was kneeling close to me, in full caretaker mode and begging them to give me painkillers. They said they couldn't. Suddenly he was up getting Advil, but I knew I'd just throw up whatever he gave me. He leaned in close: "Think of the beach. Think of horses . . ."

I felt them cutting my pants. Part of me was tempted to look at the ghastliness that would soon be displayed. But then and there I made a pact with myself that I wouldn't. Looking at the protruding bone could do no good. A paramedic, catching a glimpse of it as the jeans fell away, proved me right. "Oh my god," he said. Truly, the rookies were on call today.

"I've never seen anything like this," the woman chimed in. "I've seen dislocated knees--but never one sticking out so far, and never one that won't go in when the leg is straightened. I'd better not touch this."

It downloaded: There would be no fixing me, at least not anytime soon, and not by these folks. And once they started handling me, I also realized that the worst was far from over.

They had to move me, off the floor and onto a stretcher. Was there any alternative? But when they jostled my leg even the slightest bit--taking off my boot, cutting off my sock--the pain ratcheted up about 162 notches. It felt like amputation at the knee by rusty saw. Though I would rather not have, I screamed from my deepest depths. I cursed like a person possessed. I reacted like a disemboweled dog backing into a corner and gnashing its teeth at the vet.

Each time they moved me, my leg seized up. Muscles I'd spent more than a half hour trying to calm came viciously alive and saw it as their mission to pull the kneecap back into the socket themselves. But the kneecap was jammed, so each seizure felt like a freshly devastating injury. From a sort of surreal distance, I saw myself grabbing at the paramedics' legs, at the nearby shelf. Finally the shelf gave way and started coming down. A bowl filled with change crashed to the ground. Paramedics shouted.

"Be Zenlike," Marty was saying, just inches from my face. "Try to be Zenlike." I realized he'd gotten these words from me.

One of the paramedics left the apartment, said he couldn't take it. Oh my god, these were paramedics--hadn't they seen things like heads lopped off? Why were they reacting to my knee like this? Then I heard another announce that he'd scrutinized the elevators and there was no way they could fit a stretcher in. They'd have to lug me down seven flights of stairs. Suddenly both my legs started quaking, like a seizure. The paramedics didn't know what to do, and I didn't know how to tell them to help me. I started to feel cold. It seemed like my legs, tensed up for going on 40 minutes, were just giving way, which ushered in more killer muscle spasms. The paramedics gingerly wedged two throw pillows between my legs. That helped.

They moved the couch out of the way and slowly dragged me onto a red canvas thing about the size of a small door. I fought them; the muscle seizures were coming fast and hard. They kept telling me to calm down. How could calm down? All I could feel was bone scraping against bone. All I could do was grab furiously at things and scream like a pig getting stabbed.

Next I felt them hoisting me up, carrying me in this soft canvas swing out my door and into the stairwell, moving like clumsy pallbearers. Going into the dank stairwell, I felt sure I'd be dropped, or jostled so badly that the outrageous muscle spasms would get worse and I would begin praying for the end. But somehow they had me positioned just right in that canvas thing with those plaid pillows. Jostle they did--half the time I felt like I was going to roll out of the apparatus--but the leg never seized up on the stairs. "We're sure glad you're not a big woman!" one of them boomed, waxing jocular as we went around curve after curve.

At the bottom of the stairs, they laid me down and stopped a minute, whooping and panting with triumph. "Am I on the floor?" I asked. "No baby--you're on a stretcher now," someone cooed. Another paramedic got a good gander at my knee, and, as if I wasn't there, said, "Oh man, that's got to hurt!"

They wheeled me out of the building and out into the light. The sky was brilliant blue. The winter-ravaged tree branches floated by. I felt like I could only look up, couldn't take in anything but the sky. Not the street, not the cars, not the onlookers--just the sky.

They pushed me into the back of the ambulance, and told Marty he had to ride up front. Marty, sensing the need to distract me with joyful fun facts, tried to capitalize on my fixation with hospitals and emergencies and the like. "Suz, the ambulance lights are on, and the siren!" "Suz, we just ran a red light! How cool is that?" But his merriment and the female paramedic's efforts to engage me in general chat couldn't compete for my attention with the potholes. I held the paramedics hands hard, arched my back, and bore down. "Curse, scream, get it all out, baby," she said. I liked her.

I envisioned hours of waiting in the ER while people in scrubs ignored me. But they took me right away, wheeling the stretcher into a thin space between pulled curtains. How far away could the powerful painkillers be? Two minutes? Five?

In rushed a stern red-headed physician who looked like Dr. Kerry Weaver on ER. "Jesus!" she said, looking at my knee with a mix of admonishment and disgust. "Why haven't you gotten that thing tied down?"

Tied down? What was she talking about? All doctors had ever recommended before was physical therapy--which I'd undergone, and look at all the good it did me. One doc several years ago mentioned some intensive reconstructive surgery but added, "You really don't want to do that." But "tied down"? I'd love to have my kneecaps tied down. Where do I sign up?

Next they slid a needle into my arm, starting an IV and pumping some clear liquids through there. I got an immediate head rush, which should have felt good but was actually frightening in its intensity. Then, as I started to accept the chemicals into my veins and chill out, I noticed I had hold of Marty's leather jacket like I was going to punch him. How long had I been like that? I also noticed a bad smell. It seemed to be coming from my mouth. I guess screaming bloody murder gives you bad breath.

Dr. Weaver was down there fiddling with my leg. I could still feel pain, head rush or no head rush. I anxiously waged a campaign to get more dope before anybody commenced to forcing the knee back where it belonged. They obliged by giving me several injections under the kneecap. Marty cringed for me, but the needles were a walk in the park. I just wanted the larger pain gone.

"You might want to step out now," Weaver said to Marty. "I don't want you to get queasy or faint." Ever the trooper, he chose to stay.

Soon I wasn't anxious anymore. The more Dr. Weaver fiddled around down there, the less I felt. My perceptions were still strangely rearranged, though--while the doc massaged my numbing knee, I swore my leg was on the edge of the table and about to fall off. Turns out it was nowhere near the edge of anything, except relief.

Suddenly I felt a bizarre sort of pressure and a significant shift down there, and I knew the knee had gone back in. I unarched my back, sat up for the first time in an hour and a half. I looked at it. The culprit was stained with betadyne, had needle holes in it, and was surrounded by cut-up denim, but otherwise it looked normal. It felt normal. No more pain. It was mind-boggling: How could something be so hideously disfigured one second and just peachy the next? How could I be fantasizing so hard about knees in sockets one instant and the next instant have one of my very own?

A couple of quick X-rays revealed that there was no damage, at least not to the bone. Next they strapped me into a brace as big as a side of beef. They wrote me a prescription for Vicodin. They fit me for crutches. Then they leaned down and told me emphatically to go to an orthopedic surgeon right away. And with that, I was sent back out into the world of not knowing when and where and how this might happen again.

As Marty hailed a cab, it hit me: I'd just experienced by far the worst morning of my life. I realized also that my previously monumental fear of the pain of childbirth had vanished in a poof. How could anything possibly measure up to the unbridled agony I'd just been through?

Then practically brandishing my fists at the sky, I made a solemn pledge to the universe: I will have these ungovernable knees tied down if I have to do it myself, with twine and pinking shears.

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