Dear Reader, this section contains descriptions of the above, as well as a couple of creepy doctors.
In January 1993, I had my first close encounter with bodily ills which, in bringing me uncomfortably close to mortality, provided a new lens through which I saw the world.
I was working in a ski lodge in Dinner Plains in the high country of Victoria. During one of my free days, I had been placed on an ex-racehorse to take up the rear of a trail ride. I had blusteringly said to the owner of the trail ride company that oh yes, I had ridden horses before, not revealing that the horses involved were tough-mouthed nags on trail rides in the sandy plains of Perth, horses which would no more rise to a trot than they would begin discussing world affairs over the feedlot.
The ex-racehorse, realising it had an inexperienced rider lacking the moral force required for control of a large animal, took advantage by racing up the inside of the plodding trail horses the minute he was able, before bolting across an open plain and heading for the trees, most of which featured branches the exact height required for scraping off unwanted passengers.
‘Sit back!’ yelled the trail leader.
‘I can’t!’ I wailed back.
I tried to un-wedge my Doc Martens from the stirrups without success.
‘Agh!’ I responded.
In order to get to the scraping-off branches, the horse first had to navigate a series of fallen logs. I’d always wanted to try horse jumping, preferably in a sandy ring with nicely painted Koppers logs, rather than involuntarily, in the middle of the Victorian highlands, three hours away from the nearest hospital.
The horse jumped. I did a backward somersault, which might have been okay if a) it hadn’t been over the top of fallen logs, and b) my foot hadn’t been jammed in the stirrup. Going by the resulting bruising and injuries, I landed first on my lumbar spine on one log, then pivoted onto a second with my thoracic, my ankle sustaining a clean break as it wrenched from the stirrup.
When I realised I was on the ground, rather than being decapitated by a branch or dragged along the ground like a papist during the reign of Henry the Eighth, I was, for a moment, relieved. Then the combination of being unable to breathe and pain of a magnitude I had never experienced combined to make me wonder if I was dying, or, if I wasn’t, whether death would be preferable.
The trail riders caught up with me. As soon as I was able to breathe, I began to moan.
‘Stand by,’ said one of the trail riders. ‘I’m a doctor.’
The doctor proceeded to prod and poke various bodily parts, including my back and my legs, prompting me to moan more loudly.
‘Be quiet,’ he said. ‘I’ve been in Vietnam, and I’ve seen men in real pain.’
I used all of my Kelmscott words to describe exactly what I thought of him and his opinion.
‘Her back’s not broken, but her leg is,’ he pronounced to the assembled.
‘The ambulance can’t get in this far,’ the trail leader said. ‘We’ll have to get the ute to get to the road.’
Being lifted into the back of the ute, and being transported on a bumpy bush track to the ambulance, took the pain to yet a new, piercing level. The ambulance then took some hours to wend down the mountain to what was less a hospital than a nursing outpost, which was not equipped with Xray equipment equal to the task, so I was bundled back into the ambulance and transported a further hour to the mainland hospital, by which time I was retching with pain unrelieved by a Panadol lozenge. The pain radiated around my ribs as if I were encased with barbed wire, and my foot and ankle bloated and throbbed.
The pain around my ribs was caused by compressed thoracic fractures, apparently to the surprise of Dr I’ve-Been-In-Vietnam, and the ankle was a Potts fracture which was pushed back into place by the orthopaedic surgeon after filling me full of pethidine.
Gwen flew over to Victoria, with a mixture of concern and annoyance, to return me home, an echo of the trip she had made in 1964, except this time returning with an injured adult child. It was the first time she’d set foot in Melbourne since relinquishing her son nearly thirty years before, and she hated it no less on this occasion. She wheeled me around the city, which was not especially wheelchair-friendly in 1993, all the while complaining about the cost of everything and how stressful it was and how she missed her husband. We arrived back in Perth, to my dismay and her delight: my wheelchair didn’t fit in the house, and neither did I.
I was admitted to hospital for a couple of weeks, in the hopes that my pain levels would subside long enough for me to use crutches. As I had been hospitalised interstate, I had a single room until they were sure I wasn’t harbouring golden staph. The room was abutted by a shower cubicle which had a partition under which one could see. Although it was supposed to be for disabled folk, it was not quite big enough to accommodate a wheelchair, nor did it have a working lock. Gwen got her GP in attendance, an ever-smiling man whose eyes kept dipping below my neckline as he spoke to me. One day I was showering, my casted foot wrapped in plastic while I sat on a plastic chair, having hopped over to it, when the doctor came and said he wanted to see me.
‘I’m in the shower,’ I told him, redundantly, as I could see his shoes under the door.
‘I just want to see how you’re moving,’ he said.
I turned the shower off and hopped toward the towel. ‘Just wait,’ I said.
He pushed the door open; I leaned back on it, hoping my wet, good foot wouldn’t slip.
‘I’ll be out in a minute,’ I said.
‘I don’t have time,’ he said angrily, and started shoving against the door while I, with my newly fractured back, held the door as fast as I could.
Eventually he gave up, and I shakily retreated to my bed. When they moved me to the women’s ward later that day, I was relieved, even though I was kept awake by my fellow residents, old women with dementia wailing, or snoring, or else trying to get into bed with each other. It was better than having my mother’s GP get into bed with me.
Sometimes I do not feel I have been well served by the books that I read as a child. They did not correctly inform me of the effects of the tragedies, or mere misfortunes, borne of bodily ills. You might find yourself getting wisdom through being forced to re-examine your life from the unusual prism provided by pain, illness, and life-limiting diseases in your close kin. However, you are much more likely, in my experience, to find your family fracturing in imitation of a crushed bone, or to find yourself preyed upon by those attracted by your vulnerability.