‘Twas the day before Christmas 2022 and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
But at 3 a.m. there arose such a clatter. Four strong creatures arrived - paramedics - to see what was the matter.
I had fallen getting out of bed to use the restroom, slamming my hip against my nightstand, knocking my shoes off, overturning my walker and splaying my legs beneath me. My husband, daughter and I spent an hour trying to get me up, then we decided to call for help. It took just a few seconds for three paramedics to get me upright and put me on the bed.
The “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” refrain from the old TV commercial has been an unspoken tagline of mine since I became disabled. While it was the subject of parodies and jokes back in the day, I no longer find the phrase amusing.
My disability knows no season or place. I can fall in the kitchen or on the street or in my bedroom no matter what the date or circumstances. I’ve taken at 16 spills since my non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis nearly 18 years ago. They have resulted in trips to the ER, visits to urgent care, CT-scans and X-rays and several follow-up doctors’ appointments. Fortunately, since I finished my chemotherapy treatment and bone marrow transplant nearly 15 years ago, I’ve had no broken bones. Although I’ve had plenty of aches and pains and nasty bruises. The Christmas Eve tumble produced a bruise about the size and shape of Delaware,
From the outside, I appear to be doing well after a near-miraculous recovery from cancer and a bone marrow transplant and for that I am forever grateful. But the truth is I struggle daily just to stay upright. I can lose my balance just standing around or when I go to take a step. I have neuropathy (tingling, numbness and pain) in both lower legs and it has gotten worse the past few years. Also the strength in said legs has been diminishing. I have given up driving, I often need help getting up from a chair, and steps I could manage before are too high for me to ascend unassisted.
It’s not like I haven’t done my best to improve or maintain my strength, stamina and balance. Over the last decade-and-a-half I have sought help through medicine, regular exercise, aqua-therapy, acupuncture and multiple rounds of gait-and-balance physical therapy.
I can imagine the shape I’d be in if I didn’t work so hard to improve my muscles and balance. My latest physical therapy sessions were ordered in 2021 after I had taken three falls in five months.
The first spill was in at a darkened hotel room in Tucson, where I missed sitting on the bed and instead fell to the ground, managing to slam my head against the door and collapsed on a metal part of my tri-wheeled walker, gouging a bloody chunk out of my lower leg.
The second was at a truck stop bathroom along Interstate 5 in central California as I was turning from the sink to the paper towel dispenser. It was a nice, clean restroom (a good place to fall, as public bathrooms go). A woman asked if I needed help and she corralled a man from the hallway to assist her in raising me up. I cut my elbow but didn’t hit my head.
The third was a doozy. I was standing on the asphalt at the LA Farmers Market, waiting while my husband bought something a short distance away. I had locked the brakes on what I called my all-terrain walker and shifted my stance to get more stable. It had the opposite effect and I dropped backward, falling like a tree, hitting my head hard on the pavement. I declined an offer of an ambulance and went directly to urgent care, where I learned I hadn’t caused any major injuries.
And so I went to six months of twice-a-week physical therapy sessions, trying to build my muscles and improve my balance. On the last day, the therapist assessed my progress, measuring my strength, timing my walk and making calculations.
I asked what the results showed.
“Well, you didn’t get any worse,” she said.
Quite the endorsement for all that effort.
A few days before my Christmas Eve fall, I had mentioned proudly to a friend that it had been eight or nine months since I had taken a tumble. I joked about putting up a sign like those in businesses that say “X number of days without an accident.” Way to jinx myself, some would say.
Ever the optimist, I seek the silver lining in each of these cloudy stumbles. I try to look at each fall as a learning opportunity, something I won’t do again. I have realized my disabled self cannot just walk like a normal person. My legs and feet don’t work like they should.
Lesson 1. Concentrate on deliberately walking (heel, pad, toe) and lifting your feet. Any distraction, such as pointing out a lovely flower or bird while outside can make me lose my balance. That happened on a Santa Barbara sidewalk when I crashed to the ground a couple of years ago. My husband and a young man who happened to be walking in the crosswalk toward us helped me up.
|Shortly after my porch fall
|A few days later
Lesson 3: Keep your phone with you at all times. I figured this out when I fell in our small half bath turning from the sink to the towel rack. Fortunately I had put the house phone in my walker pouch because my sons were due from an out-of-town trip that night and carried it in case they called. The towel rack and I crashed to the ground. I maneuvered around a tight space to reach my phone, and summoned my husband to help me up. I later learned to pack my walker with more in case I fall again.
Lesson 4: Injuries may not be immediately apparent, so be vigilant. What I’ve come to call the Spanx Incident occurred during my first (and last) attempt to put on Spanx shapewear. With the torturously-tight stockings almost on, I walked gingerly to my dresser to fetch another article of clothing. I tumbled, brought down a computer desk and a stereo system. After a friend helped me up and gathered the debris, I didn’t see or feel any physical damage and finished getting ready. Off we went to a festive book club holiday luncheon. That night when I took off my shoes, I discovered a very bloody and very swollen left big toe. When I went to the doctor the next day to see if it was broken, he said it was not, just smashed. And he told me, “The good news is you can’t feel your toe. The bad news is you can’t feel your toe.” A year after that spill, I managed to break another fall in the kitchen with my right hand. I did a jungle crawl to reach my phone and called my husband for assistance. I had no visible injuries so we proceeded with our neighbors to what I thought was a dinner for the four of us. It turned out to be a surprise party planned by my husband to celebrate my fifth birthday, post stem-cell transplant. I spent much of the rest of the day in tears and in a kind of shock, seeing a room full of family and friends who had traveled from all over to celebrate with me. It wasn’t until the next day that I woke up to find my right hand swollen to baseball glove size and unusable.
|Hugging a friend at my surprise party
oblivious that I had injured my right
Lesson 5: A smart watch is a necessity. It provides a nice alternative to the device the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercial was trying to sell. I can send messages or make calls on my Apple Watch just using my voice. And because it is waterproof, I can (and must) wear it in the shower. I learned that rule after a ceiling-to-floor caddy collapsed on me mid-shower, opening the door, spraying water all over the bathroom. I was trapped on my shower bench, unable to reach the faucet. Fortunately, my husband was home and I was able to holler loud enough for help. Now, I don’t take a shower unless someone is home with me and I am wearing my charged Apple Watch.
Lesson 6: Always wear non-slip socks to bed in case you have to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Add a grabber by your bedside so you can move too-far shoes closer. On Christmas Eve at 2 a.m., I sat up in bed and tried to slip into my shoes. It wasn’t dark. I made sure I had a nightlight on, particularly after the Tucson fall. But one shoe moved further away the more I tried to get it on. When I stood up to try to reach it, my sock slipped on the bedside rubber mat (which I use to help me get in my bed and to prevent slipping on the floors). I crashed hard against the nightstand. My body was in such a position that my two helpers couldn’t raise me up and we couldn’t get a foot underneath me on the mat to help me stand. What I needed was a couple more strong people. (My husband had recently hurt his back so I didn’t want to make it worse by wrenching me up.) We could have called friends or neighbors but I didn’t want to wake them up at 2 a.m. Christmas Eve. Thus, the 911 call.
I didn’t break anything, as a later visit to urgent care proved. I have had osteoporosis since I was 49 - caused by massive amounts of prednisone beginning early in my treatment - and my oncologist says I could easily break a hip with a minor fall. Multiple falls later, I have not broken a bone. Perpetual knocks on wood. And some credit should go to Prolia, the high-dollar bone-buildingmedicine injected into my arm every six months. The drug is currently causing me other problems, but that’s a topic for another day.
Back on Christmas Eve, when the firemen had taken my vitals, filled out the paperwork, and finished their job, we thanked them profusely.
“Merry Christmas,” one of them said, cheerfully.
And to all a good night, I thought. I am hoping for a more stable new year. It’s been 44 days without a fall.