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The Road Back

By Karen Time, Leader - CONNECT

Back in mid-June, as Calgary was disappearing under water, I was driving the Connector to Langley. About 60kms east of Merritt I drove into heavy rain which suddenly turned into heavy hail. In an instant the road was covered in ice marbles and I lost control of my steering. I wasn't speeding or in cruise control but I was going fast enough to face plant my car in a ditch with some force. As a result I crushed my L1 vertebra. I was on my own but was soon joined by two roadside 'angels' who called for assistance and kept me company through the worst weather ever until help arrived about an hour later.

Really, it's all good news. No spinal cord or brain injury and no other broken bones. In fact, apart from bruises up the inside of my forearms from the air bags there wasn't a mark on me. The fracture was serious enough though that I spent a week in hospital and, since coming home, have been wearing a brace to keep my spine erect and prevent me from bending. I've had a lot of fun learning to get dressed and put my shoes on while lying down and some of my new 'best' friends include a raised toilet seat, a tub transfer bench so that I can sit to shower, and a long-handled reacher I refer to as 'Jack'. For a while I looked a little like a bag lady loading up my walker with things that I might need for the day, carrying things hurt and I needed both hands for balance. Apparently I was "a high falls risk" when I left hospital!

Nowadays I am far less wobbly though I still have a tendency to "walk" the walls and furniture in more open or unfamiliar spaces. Wearing progressive lenses doesn't help either. I'd never appreciated just how much of a factor vision plays in mobility along with fear of falling (actually it's the landing that worries me!) I've learned many other lessons along the way, including how terrifying it can be to be in a large crowd of people when you are in a wheelchair (not just the person controlling one) and how invisible you can become to some.

Perhaps the biggest thing though was deciding how to deal with a large part of my life suddenly coming to a halt. Being told I had broken my back came as a shock (I was convinced that after all the fuss of getting me out of the car and off the mountain that I would be diagnosed with a whiplash injury of my lower back and sent home that night). Being told I would be off work for a few months was a huge shock - and scary too. What the heck was I going to do with myself?

Once I was home I spent a week mostly lying down either sleeping or watching TV. I tried reading but holding a book hurt so I switched to audible.com. Unfortunately, I found being read to sent me to sleep.  By the following week I decided I'd better have some projects to work on to keep my mind and hands busy and to practice sitting - which hurt like heck, because I needed to be able to sit to get back to work. I got a drawing pad and some water colours (I've never painted before but had always wanted to try), started writing (I have a novel inside my head if I can just get it out!), planted some tomatoes and flowers in raised pots on my deck (dead heading and checking on their progress became part of my daily routine), and I tried my hand at sculpture using recycled fabric. Of course I was trying to do too much way too soon but I learned. I also learned to listen to others, to do what I was told (some of the time) and to become more like the turtle than the hare. I had to figure out how much was enough and when to ask for help. I chose to 'keep pushing – slow and steady'. Eventually the mountain does start moving and you gather momentum.

I've just started going into work for a few hours a couple of days a week and it has been so lovely to be back. Going in after almost three months away has given me the opportunity to experience something which when you are there every day you can lose sight of. I don't know if I have the words without making it sound kitschy but it's pretty special. It lifts you.

It may sound a little weird to say this but I am very grateful for what happened. Not that I would wish to do it again, but out of it came the gift of time. Time for me to slow down, to try out some new things, and to reflect on what is truly important to me. I have experienced how amazing and generous people can be and I have many memories that I will cherish.

Right now I am looking forward to the end of September when I can begin to take the brace off and start some physio to strengthen my core and lower back muscles. I'm looking forward to driving again but know I will have a couple of ghosts to deal with when the winter weather comes. I plan to get back to work full time but am not sure when that will happen. I will never bend to touch my toes again and pain may be something I have to learn to live with more permanently. If that's the case I consider it a small price to pay for being here. I am so very lucky.

I would like to say a couple of thankyou's.

To my family - Ray and the kids - for always being there for me no matter what, for the loan of an Ipod, for washing my back and shaving my legs, and for all the cooking and cleaning, fetching and carrying you have done, and for teaching me how to use a bus with a walker! You guys are the best!

And to the CONNECT team and the residents of Lake Country and Langley for the letters, cards, phone calls, texts, emails and visits, for the meals brought into hospital and sent home, for the cookies and muffins, baskets of goodies, the blizzards and lattes, the magazines and books, the dry shampoo, the painting, and the freshly picked strawberries. To Patti for the juicer and for caring so deeply, and to John and his family for sharing their home for a few days and for being brave enough to take me on a slow boat ride around a lake.

Without all of your support this would have been a very different experience.

I will end this with a promise to a stranger – to always carry a blanket in my car so that one day I can repay the kindness that two total strangers showed me.