A lesson in Newtonian Physics

June 24, 2004 proved to be a typical Colorado summer day. The weather was warm, a little windy and threatening to erupt into a storm at any moment. We were taking a young Hannah to a jumping lesson. That would be my last day of walking normally.

We loaded Scooter and the Baby to go her lessons. At the farm we tacked up the horses and prepared for Hannah to take her lesson with Earl aboard. I rode Scoot with English tack and watched the lesson while practicing some moves and jumps with him. We had our horses take a year of jumping lessons at age four for agility, discipline, and to teach us how to ride our young horses. The Baby was four that summer.

Marcie and Franny did well as jumping students long before Earl and I were married. We hauled them down to Loveland for Friday evening lessons returning in time to watch Dallas. It was a date we had enjoyed very much before we were married. During the “Who Shot JR” drama, “the girls” became fine jumpers. Scooter, our gelding, had been a willing student and is a good jumper himself. He is pretty flashy looking in English tack.

Hannah’s Dream, whose great-great grandsire was Shecky Greene, the 1973 Kentucky Derby horse named for the comedian and who ran against Secretariat, is a brilliant red dun registered paint that has a thoroughbred look to her. She is breathtakingly beautiful. It’s fun to tell people that the Baby is a registered paint because she is not painted. She has no chrome other than a star on her forehead. This is called breeding stock.

That Thursday Earl had a sore on his leg and his boot rubbed uncomfortably against it. I volunteered to ride the lesson on Hannah. We traded mounts. Hannah had yet to pick up her right lead when asked to canter. It was difficult urging her to get on the correct lead. We were working on this when the instructor advised me to sit back in the saddle. The natural inclination incorrectly is to lean forward in the saddle to help the horse along. I did as Sue asked while Hannah changed to a fast trot. I sat back at the same time Hannah brought her hips up in the gait. Our butts crashed together, Hannah swerved unexpectedly to the left and I was launched like a rocket.

A true science nerd, Newton’s laws of motion passed through my brain as I flew through the air. There truly is a Universal Law of Gravitation. Newton’s three Laws of Motion do exist. An object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an external force all right. I struggled to hang on, but found myself falling. It’s peculiar that you know you are falling, you know you will hit the ground, and it most definitely takes place in slow motion.

I hit the dirt dead center on my right hip as though a target had been painted on it. Although we always wear helmets, my head never touched the ground. I lay there for a minute a little disoriented and peered up at Hannah, who wondered what the heck I was doing on the ground.

It didn’t hurt at first. I tried to get up, but only made it to my hands and knees when I realized that my right leg wouldn’t move. I told Earl to call 911. Because mountains surrounded the arena, our cell phones wouldn’t work. Sue went into her house to call the paramedics. The fire station was close by so the truck came immediately. By the time the fire truck came, I was sitting up in a farm vehicle. I was calm, thanks to years of yoga breathing techniques, and had only one minor episode of nausea and dizziness.

I barked the firefighter, “Whatever you do, do not cut my boot off!” It had taken me all my life to find a pair of knee boots that fit me. I had used my late sister Natalie’s discarded English boots for 30 years. My beautiful brand new shiny boots were field boots, the kind with shoelaces in them. The firefighter was very patient, and worked with me to get the boot off intact.

I realized I had a fractured bone. I had felt the broken edges grinding when I had tried to put weight on the leg. It felt like wobbling on top of a pond.

I was packaged up to go to the hospital. I chatted with the EMTs in the ambulance.  I observed the position of my injured leg. It was rotated with the foot turned totally to the outside, the classic position of a fractured hip.

The emergency room staff took over my care, put in an IV line, gave me longed for pain medication and then sent me off to radiology. The ER doc never put a hand on me.

Taking the x-rays was the worst part of emergency treatment. The radiology technician was heartless. The room was frigid for a trauma patient, and I was left alone with no safety railing on the table. I worried that I would fall a second time. It was too painful to put my leg into the position the uncaring technician wanted. She had to call others in to hold my leg. I was shaking and crying by that time. I didn’t know that my husband was just outside the door, and they never sent him in between attempts at x-rays.

Returning to the ER from radiology, I heard one of the techs say the word, surgery. I knew I had a fracture and would need surgery, because the ER doctor had also ordered a chest x-ray, a mandatory precursor to surgery. I informed them I was aware of confidentiality rules, but since I couldn’t see their faces, please tell me what was broken. The femoral neck, I was told.

I had to wait all day for the orthopaedic trauma surgeon. I was not critical, and he needed to finish office hours. The injury occurred at eleven o’clock in the morning, and I was taken to surgery at 7 p.m. It was a long, scary wait.

That evening, I underwent surgery to place three screws large enough to hold farm equipment together across the fracture. Physical therapy began the next morning. It was an excruciating. I had to learn to use a walker and crutches for the first time. I had to shower on a special seat.

I reacted badly to the morphine drip. Narcotics are delivered on demand by pushing a button on a special machine attached to the IV apparatus. Then they are delivered directly into the vein. It was an effective pain medication, but it made me itch all over, talk like a crazy woman, and hallucinate. I had no clue that I was hallucinating. I just thought I was in a different room every day for my six-day stay. One day, my room had a kitchenette. The next day, I wondered where the kitchenette had gone. I saw visions of my childhood home on Indian Tree Drive as fronts for new condominium buildings. Animals morphed into other animals. That was pretty cool and in Technicolor®, too! A couple of teacher friends came by to visit and told me that my visions were hallucinations. I had no idea. It took 51 years to experience a hallucination. My friends laughed so hard they nearly fell off their chairs. I was never a druggie in high school or college. I had been an athlete too busy being a pioneer for Title IX to do drugs. I didn’t know what a hallucination was until the 21st century.

My dear Jean came to visit and did some relaxation exercises with me. She applied some acupuncture seeds taped to important meridian points to help me relax. I will never forget Jean stroking the palm of my hand so gently. My nurse that afternoon was fascinated with what Jean was doing. Since the nurse had a little headache, Jean applied seeds to the nurse’s hands.

Things improved when I was removed from the morphine pump and allowed to swallow a different narcotic. I became a rock star at physical therapy.

Upon returning home, I had eight weeks to sit in a chair using first a walker and later crutches to get around. Summer as I knew it was over. My friends and junior high school family were wonderful about bringing meals, sending cards and flowers, visiting and calling. Family members checked in by phone. One friend, a retired flight surgeon who had an artificial knee, came once a week to take the Wonder Husky for a long walk, one less thing for me to worry about.

My mother-in-law, Beverley, widowed eight months to the day before my accident, arrived to spend the summer with us. Bev helped out a lot, although I didn’t need much help other than to carry things and be driven around. Bev struggled with me to put on the vile uncomfortable compression stockings worn to avoid deep vein thrombosis. It was over one hundred degrees many days that summer. We don’t have air conditioning.

Earl drove me to physical therapy twice a week. In my mind-set I was not in rehabilitation. I was training as for sports. It helped my mental outlook by focusing on training for future physical performance rather than rehabbing a past injury. I saw hip fracture as an adventurous journey.

I learned the value of patience and creativity. I accepted help from others. For example, I had to shower sitting down on a transfer table using a hand-held showerhead. At first, Earl had to pick up my leg and put it into the tub. I created a nest of sorts on the table next to my recliner chair where I kept the TV clicker, pens, paper and medications. I took my mealtime vitamins in a paper cup carried between my teeth as my hands were otherwise occupied. Soon Cowboy Joe and Frank, then kittens, were carrying paper cups around the house.

A few days after I got home from the hospital, I stumped clumsily out to the barn using my brand new youth-sized walker-not an easy feat on our flagstone path. Hannah was relaxing in the barn looking out the window. I managed to go up to her, where I burst into tears, and told her it wasn’t her fault. I hugged her head and stroked her soft muzzle while standing on my good leg. She understood.

Eventually I was able to sweep the barn on crutches. What a wonderful psychological boost for poor old bunged up me! I would place one crutch against the gate, and using the push broom and other crutch for support, I could sweep out the stalls without putting any weight on my injured leg. I left the shoveling to Earl.

Hannah skulked around waiting to take the crutch not in use, and chew the top of it or toss it in the air. I delighted in watching her silly antics during a time when there was precious little fun in my life.

During my sick leave from school, we took Hannah to Steve, our horse trainer, for some remedial ground lessons. He determined that at the time of the accident, the Baby had a sore hip herself. She did well in her lessons. I couldn’t wait to be allowed to ride again.

Shortly after getting off crutches, I requested that Steve bring Hannah close to me. He knew what I was thinking. I tentatively mounted Hannah with Steve holding the lead rope. Rudimentary as it was, I was riding again.

In October before I returned to school, I was able to ride and move around to the point where I could drive our rig alone and take Marcie to Lory State Park to ride. Free at last.

I visited school one day before my return to work, and told some staff members hanging out in the lounge that I was going riding that afternoon. Quizzical heads looked up. My colleagues asked if I was really going to ride horses again. My response was something to the effect of, “Have you ever had a car accident? Do you still drive?”

Riding is vital part of my life, like breathing or thinking. What transpired that June five years ago was a freak accident. Even the surgeon said so. One millimeter’s difference in the way I hit the deck would have avoided disaster. I’ve had more car mishaps than equine incidents. During the year I spent commuting to Northwestern for graduate school, I was rear-ended four times in my VW bug and totaled it when a tree jumped out into the middle of Sheridan Road during a rainstorm.

After returning home once I began teaching in November of that year, there were the horses to take care of, talk to and ride. Although my rehab team included an excellent trauma surgeon, physical therapist, Pilates therapist, massage therapist and a health club, the horses turned out to be the best rehabilitation modality of all.

© 2009 Mary Elson Carlson Trust

2 thoughts on “A lesson in Newtonian Physics”

  1. Wow…an amazing story Mary ! I feel the pain just reading this tale of unexpected flight as if it were I that got ejected from the saddle. I also sense the triumph of getting right back up there. Your spirit is an indominable force, and a source of pure inspiration my dear friend…


  2. Thanks, Bud. This is part of a book I am writing. Will write of poor Scootie going into the hospital. Miserable soul with eye pain. That’s no fun.

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