THE BROKEN LEG STORY
real life horror by Brian A. Hopkins




-- PROLOGUE --

Though I hide it really well, a lot of people have observed that I have a slight limp -- a bit of list to port, if you will (sorry, I've recently become very interested in sailing). Some have seen me in shorts and have been notably impressed by the scars on my left leg. Also, In the summer of 1998, I had surgery done on my ankle joint. A lot of fans and friends knew about the surgery and wanted to know more. If you've read the bio on my web page, you can guess that my injured limb is the result of a rather scary motorcycle wreck that occurred in May of 1981. At various times, people have asked me to tell the story surrounding the wreck and, more importantly, my recovery from the same. I've sent out the story in email so many times, that it makes more sense to just put it on my web page. This version was written several years ago when my 15-year-old niece, Jamye, asked me to tell her about the accident. I did so, in a three part email which follows. Enjoy. And, don't worry, even I can laugh about it now. "That which does not kill us..."

 

-- BROKEN LEG STORY: PART ONE --

This is probably the first time I ever documented this story in this kind of detail. Just for you, Jamye-kins. But be patient; it'll take a while. You won't want to ride a motorcycle when it's done, which is the saddest part of the whole tale.

Okay, so it's May the 15th, 1981 (I think that's right), just a wee bit before nine o'clock in the morning. Uncle Brian (he's the handsome fellow entering stage left, see him?) exits the tiny apartment where he and Aunt Betty lived then and climbs on the bright, shiny Kawasaki motorcycle which he bought, brand new, just a month or so before. It's a beautiful spring morning. The sun is shining. The birds are chirping. There are squirrels chasing each other around the trees out back of the apartment complex. This is Memphis State University's married student housing on what they call South Campus, and it's like a little piece of hidden suburbia in the middle of Memphis.

Varrrrrum! The bike cranks up like a good Kawasaki always will. Ain't Uncle Brian looking sharp in his bright, shiny helmet? (Helmet laws in Tennessee.) He's wearing white painter paints, but hey, don't laugh!, those were in style in 1981.

He runs the bike out across the yard and onto the street. Man, it's a beautiful day.

The official speed limit on campus is 15 mph, but no one does that (especially not on South Campus, which doesn't even seem like part of the university). Brian, of course, is doing about 45. He can't help it. It's the motorcycle's fault. See the way he lays into those curves? Sweet.

There's a red Mustang approaching from the other direction. The woman has her left turn signal on, but Brian thinks nothing of it. Who's to know she plans to make that left turn right over top of him?

Crash. Boom. Bang. Brian and the Kawasaki more or less ricochet off the front bumper of the Mustang. Unfortunately (for Brian, not the Mustang's bumper), Brian's left leg is between the bike and the car and it takes most of the impact. Bike and Brian hit the curb on the right hand side of the road. Brian tucks and rolls (he was a good athlete in those days) and winds up in the grass. The Kawasaki likes the sidewalk and it does a really cool five or six flip tumble end over end down the length of the sidewalk, pieces of chrome and glass and things that used to look really cool just a second ago tinkling all over the place. The bike ends up on its side, leaking gas, moaning softly cause it probably feels partly to blame. Somebody needs to put a bullet in its head and put it out of its misery. Brian tries to sit up (actually, the whole tumble and roll deal worked so well that his initial plans were to just roll on up to his feet).

There's something wrong.

When Uncle Brian tries to sit up, his hip isn't working. He raises his head and looks down the length of his body. His left leg is turned ninety degrees to the side. The leg of his white painter paints is blossoming bright red. His first thought is, "Betty's going to be really pissed about this."

There's no pain . . . yet.

Someone comes and holds his hand. "Did you hit me?" he asks. "No," the woman replies, "it was that lady over there, standing by her car." [Postscript: If by some chance, the woman who came and held my hand that day happens to stumble upon this, please drop me an email. I never did get to thank you. --bah] Brian can't see back in that direction. He undoes the strap on his helmet and pulls it off. Holds it up and laughs, "Not a scratch." (This was a $175 helmet and he certainly didn't want it scratched up!) Then he tosses it aside in the grass.

Over on the sidewalk, the bike is crying. Whether for itself or for its rider, who can say?

Brian asks someone to call his Mom and Dad in Millington (at least 45 minutes away). He rattles off the phone number and the woman holding his hand (an attractive young black woman) says she'll see that it's done. Not sure why he doesn't ask for Betty who's only 5 minutes away on the main campus where she worked. Either he's worried she'll be mad at him or he doesn't want her to see all this. Brian's mom and dad call Betty though. She actually beats the ambulance there 'cause the ambulance gets lost. Someone had told the ambulance Memphis State University and they assumed that meant main campus. Brian, lying there bleeding all over the grass, can hear the ambulance driving all around but never getting any closer.

When Betty gets there, she breaks into frenzied tears. When the paramedics cut away Brian's pants leg, she screams, "Oh, God, Brian, the bones are sticking out!" Brian thinks then that that's probably not the best thing to be telling him at the moment. Like the bit about the helmet and thinking that Betty will be pissed, this is one of those minute details that'll always stick in his head about the whole incident. Sometime later, in the hospital when Brian asks her about that statement, she'll say that his leg had looked just like a chicken leg someone had snapped in two.

So the paramedics put this inflatable bag thing around his leg to stabilize it. Brian can hear them blowing it up and wonders why they don't have an air pump or something. While this is going on, a cop strolls over. (Everybody's here by this time, police, fire department, lots of onlookers. Blood draws a crowd.) The cop looks down at Brian laying there in the grass. "Son, how fast were you going?" Brian thinks quick, realizes the motorcycle's laying there in 5th or 6th gear and all the cop has to do is check, so he tells the truth. "About 45, I think." The cop flips open his ticket book. "Speeding, eh? Gonna have to write you a ticket."

I don't think the woman in the red mustang gets a ticket for anything.

Finally, they throw me in the ambulance (third person was getting a little old, so here's the POV shift -- writer talk). "Which hospital you want to go to?" asks the paramedic. This sounds like an incredulous sort of question, but will have bearing on the remainder of the story. I don't really know how to answer, so I tell him to take me to whatever is closest. I'd really hate to bleed to death going out of state or anything, you know?

The ambulance screams away and I start thinking that my leg is starting to hurt a bit. In fact, it's starting to hurt a lot.

The poor Kawasaki is left behind on the sidewalk. No one but me can hear its tortured cries.

More later...

 

-- BROKEN LEG STORY: PART TWO --

Having fun yet, Jamye-kins?

The ambulance ride is fuzzy. I remember a couple of things (Whether they really happened or not, I can't really say now).

I remember the paramedic asking me to sit up a little so that he could do something (take off my windbreaker maybe?). It seemed like there was a handhold thingie hanging from the roof of the ambulance, something intended for pulling yourself up on. I asked if it would hold me and the one paramedic looked at the other and said, "I think he's in shock." I think, now, that whatever was hanging down must have been pretty insubstantial, like an IV tube or something.

I remember the back door of the ambulance being stuck and the paramedic kicking it to try and open it. I made the comment, "Good thing I'm not dying in here," and he said not to worry. They wound up taking me out the side door of the ambulance. Whether the door was really stuck, or I made that up as well, I can't really say. I was in a lot of pain by this time.

So they took me into the hospital. The first question the hospital (a private hospital -- remember I said take me to whatever was closest) asked was whether I had any medical insurance. In a car wreck, see, you're covered for medical. Insurance on motorcycles only covers the bike (which, poor baby, was left behind on the side walk -- who was looking after its injuries?). I didn't have any medical insurance. "We need a down payment of at least $1000 before we'll admit you," they replied. "You're stable now --" (Stable? I was in agony!) "-- so we can always transport you to county."

I guess I said okay. Or Aunt Betty said okay. Or someone made the decision. I was wheeled back out to the ambulance and carted all the way across Memphis to the county hospital downtown. I'd asked for something for the pain, but was told they couldn't administer anything because I was going to be going into surgery and whatever they gave me might interfere with my anesthesia.

30 minute drive across town. Despite what everyone thinks, ambulances don't get anywhere that much faster. They just make a lot of noise doing it. We'll skip most of this part. Suffice to say, I wasn't enjoying the scenery.

At the second hospital I'm no longer asking for something for pain. I'm begging. Again, they say they can't give me anything. "You'll be going into surgery soon," they keep telling me. It seems to take hours before that comes true. You'll have to ask Betty or Grandma Nancy how long it really took. I've lost all objectivity about this part.

Finally, they take me in to save my leg. Later the doctor will tell me how he stood on the table over me and wrestled my hip back into socket (it's hurt ever since -- used to pop out all the time, but that seems to have stopped happening in recent years). They put my leg in this Frankenstein erector set thingie, six twelve inch stainless steel rods screwed through the bones to hold my leg in place with these big clamps hooked to the ends of the rods. The whole thing is suspended in the air (traction) and will remain that way for the seven weeks that I'll wind up spending in this shit hole of a hospital. They can't put a cast on the leg yet cause there's a hole in the side where all the broken bones were forced out through the skin. The X-rays are really cool looking. Lots of pieces of bone, with ragged edges, lying end to end in a crooked line.

The stainless steel rods have heads like drill bits (they were, after all, drilled straight through the bones), but the middle section is threaded like a screw (where they screw into the bone). Got some really gruesome pictures.

I'm in bad shape. They can't do the skin graft that they need to do to close the gaping hole in my leg cause I'm too low on blood. I get 7 units (one of those numbers you never forget). I sleep a lot. A lot of people come and touch me.

A couple days pass. The nights are the worst 'cause the nurses at the hospital really suck (but, then, maybe I'm being unfair) and are always late bringing me my pain medication. I cry at night, hurting. I press that <expletive deleted cause you're only 15> button till my thumb hurts, but no one comes. The first three days you get morphine shots, but after that they won't give you anymore because it's addictive. So you get aspirin or something equally ineffective. Because the skin was ripped off the back of my heel and your foot typically rests, where else?, on the back of your heel, I've got this horrible pain -- like a lit match held to my heel -- that absolutely won't go away. Forget the broken bones, the gaping wound and ravaged muscles, the fact that there's a bruise on my hip the size of a house, that damn heel hurts worse than anything I've ever felt before or since. I complain and someone puts gauze under it, but it still hurts.

Like I said, a couple days pass. The doctor comes in one day, grabs this giant wad of gauze and bandages which they've packed in the hole in the side of my leg, this wad that had become pretty much a part of me, and with no warning, he just rips that sucker out. The whole hospital had to have heard me scream. There's stuff clinging to those bandages that you really don't want me to describe. The doctor does something then that absolutely terrifies me. (Another image I'll never forget.) He sniffs the mess on the bandage. Then he bends over and sniffs the gaping hole in my leg. Pretty standard procedure, I guess, to smell for corruption (gangrene) in the wound. But you can't imagine how frightening it is when it's your leg.

Surgery. They peel skin from my thigh (the same poor leg, can you believe that?) and use it to plug up the wound. They put a cast over the whole affair. Some dummy forgets to wrap the stainless steel rods good and a lot of plaster sticks to the rods -- this will cause problems later. I wake up in a shiny new white plaster cast. I'm still in traction (because of the dislocated and fractured hip). The pain is every bit as bad, but I've grown more accustomed to it by this time. There's a new bandage wrapped around my thigh. Again, they've allowed it to adhere to the wound underneath. Remembering how the doctor had removed the previous bandage, I spend at least a day slowly peeling it back from the skinned flesh underneath. When the doctor finally decides to take a look at it, I laugh at him and pull the bandage aside. Ta-da! He frowns and says, "We generally soak those off." Sure, I think.

I had a lot of different room mates in those seven weeks. One guy who'd been shot in the leg. A couple other guys with broken legs, though not so bad as mine. One poor guy whose thigh was also broken (he had more rods through the bones there). My hip had dislocated, absorbing the impact that had obviously shattered his thigh bone. There was one really miserable guy whose neck was broken. This guy was only in the room for a day (waiting for a private room with one of those special table things). He had rods drilled into his skull and neck and his head was in traction. His story was unusual and worth repeating. Seems he'd been in an auto accident several days before and walked away unhurt. When his neck started aching, he went in to get it checked. "My, God!" they told him, "your neck is broken!" They rushed him in to surgery and did the Frankenstein neck-bolt job on him, told him he was damn lucky, that one wrong bump (like driving over some railroad tracks) and he could have been a quadriplegic or worse. He was miserable. Seeing him, I didn't feel quite as bad, but I was still hurting. I remember after the cast went on thinking that all I needed now was to wear that for awhile and I'd get better. What'd I need to stick around here for? I asked Grandpa to take me home, that we could saw the cast off ourselves or get someone I knew to do it whenever the leg was healed. Don't know what I thought we'd do about those stainless steel rods! This was probably right after the surgery when I still wasn't making much sense.

So, at night I cried. During the day, Betty and everyone else who visited hounded the nurses for me and made sure I was as comfortable as I could be. Betty helped me wash my hair in a plastic basin (Hey!, I still had to try and look good). There was this one cute insurance girl who used to come sit and talk to me in the mornings before visiting hours. Never told Aunt Betty about her, but I guess she'll know now. Can't remember her name, but she was nice to talk to. Since I didn't have any insurance, there wasn't much reason for her to come see me as often as she did...

I read. I watched TV. I should have used the time to write a novel, but wasn't doing much writing then. It probably wouldn't have been any good anyway.

The State Farm people came and paid me what the motorcycle was worth. Someone had put it out of its misery. Shed a tear for it, will ya? Candy-apple red. Brand spanking new with hardly a scratch (there was one or two, cause the first day I bought it I hit a curb right out back of the dealers -- embarrassing!).

(to be continued...) In our next exciting episode, we'll need to get that cast off and see how the skin graft is taking. We'll get promised that we can go home, then be told the x-rays show our bones aren't healing very fast and we'll be here for three more weeks. We'll have a grand old time!

 

-- BROKEN LEG STORY: PART THREE --

Everybody here? Everybody comfy? Good.

Impact plus three weeks (give or take):

My first cast ever (a sporty little job that covers from just below my knee to the tips of my cute little toes) needs to come off so the doctors can ascertain the status of the skin graft. They also want to take some x-rays without all the plaster in the way cause they don't think they see much bone growth. I'm wheeled down to someplace where they generally torture prisoners of war, but today they're practicing on hospital patients. The plaster has successfully bonded around the shafts of the stainless steel rods and the technician must bang, pry, twist, and otherwise jerk those farking rods around in an attempt to get all the plaster free. Remember that these rods are threaded through my bones. I hurt a lot. I hurt some more. Finally, it's over.

I go get some x-rays, wheeled around with this lifeless thing hanging where my leg's supposed to be. I'm terrified someone's going to run into it or something and knock it all askew. I'll always remember that the x-ray technician -- who was the same guy every time I went -- was a major jerk. Hated his job. Hated everyone he had to deal with. He'd cuss at you cause you weren't getting up on the x-ray table fast enough. Needless to say, I wasn't moving real fast at the time. I've always wanted to go back and beat the crap out of him. If I'm ever back in Memphis, maybe I will. I should have complained at the time, but I was more worried about surviving. Sitting there with your leg in a million pieces and no cast to make sure you don't have to feel those bone ends grinding together is scary stuff, you know? Vulnerability to the max. Remembering feeling that way, makes me mad all over again. I think I will go back and beat the crap outta him!

The doctors check out the skin graft and it's okay. In places where it's not taking and the meat inside my leg is showing through, they use some sort of sulfur rod to cauterize it back. Tssszzz! That was interesting.

So we survive all that. There's not much bone growth and they're worried that if I get up moving around, my hip's gonna pop out again. Translation: I ain't going home. On my tray table, the one that swings out over your bed and they serve you all that wonderful hospital food on, there's a ring of pencil marks (you know the mark, four vertical slashes and a fifth, diagonal one through those) ticking off the days. I get a new cast. The days creep by. I get a lot of reading done.

Impact plus seven weeks:

Time for the rods to come out. They come in and give me a shot of morphine. Translation: this is going to hurt like hell. Then they wheel me down to the torture chamber where I sit in the hall and wait. And wait. The morphine's good for about an hour. They take at least that long torturing some other poor soul before they get to me. Finally that guy is wheeled out, a gibbering mess, sobbing that he wants his mother, a priest, or a .357 magnum. And it's my turn.

You think, okay, they're gonna take these stainless steel rods out (there are six of them total). How bad can it be? You hook a power drill up to the suckers, set it to reverse, and zzzzzzzzzzzzzip!, the rod's out, right? Right? Wrong! A power drill would turn the rod too fast, generate a lot of friction and heat, and burn the bone. Burned bone doesn't regenerate -- I'd have six holes in my bones for all eternity. Have you ever seen the old-timey hand-crank drills? You hold it in the middle with one hand, and you crank the knob around with the other end? Eek. Eek. Eek. Hear it cranking in your mind? Real slow. Eek. Eek. Eek. Feel it turning in your leg bone? I remember the technician yelled at me cause I wouldn't lay down on the bed while he was doing it. I was watching. It hurt like hell, but I'd rather watch and hurt than just hurt. Eek. Eek. Eek. Six rods. Took forever.

New cast. This one goes from my toes to mid thigh. They send someone to teach me how to walk on crutches. That person is shocked cause when she comes to get me I'm sitting across the room in a chair by the window looking outside. I'd hopped from the bed to the window. Give me my crutches and let me go home! They have to take me downstairs to be trained. I climb a few fake stairs with my crutches. I navigate an obstacle or two (it's kinda like getting your driver's license). They decide I'm capable of getting around, and declare me fit for duty.

I get to go home! Yippee! Horrah! Somebody bring me a keg! After this it gets kinda boring. You don't want to hear how hard it was to take a bath or climb the stairs in our apartment (the only bathroom was, of course, upstairs). I bought a Camaro so I'd have something I didn't have to shift gears on. I only went back to that hospital once or twice, then found a private sawbones where people were nice and cared whether I lived or died. I stayed in casts (got new ones every couple months) for about ten months. On the day they took the last one off, my leg was a shriveled little nothing about as big around as the bones inside it. It was covered in skin that a lizard would have been ashamed of. In fact, some lepers might have wanted to hide from their fellow colonists if their leg had looked that bad. The doctor said it would be about three weeks before I'd be able to put any weight on the leg, but that night, the very night I got the cast off, Betty and I went out to celebrate with dinner at Red Lobster and I walked into the restaurant on my own. I can do this, I said to Betty. She was worried, told me to use the crutches. I can do this, I said to myself. I moved at a snail's pace, but I walked into the restaurant, followed the waitress to the table (she probably wondered what was wrong with me), sat, ate, and walked back out on my own two legs. (Then I used the crutches for a few weeks like they'd told me.)

There's not much more. Some physical therapy, but I only went once or twice before I decided that all that was really necessary was to use the leg -- and I didn't need them to force me to do that. I lost my Air Force scholarship. I sued the lady who ran over me and got a little bit of money after the doctors and lawyers got theirs. I'd lost 20 pounds while in the hospital -- and at the time I only weighed about 140. It took me two years to regain those 20 pounds. Course, now I weigh closer to 170, but you don't have to tell anybody about that. It's . . . uh . . . all muscle. Yeah, that's it!

So today I got some really neat scars, a limp, some awesome looking x-rays, a grisly story to tell, a pretty high threshold for pain, and a tough knot inside me that says people can survive most anything if they just want to.

And that, dear Jamye-kins, is your story.

Now go to bed!

(Oh, I've had three or four motorcycles since. The secret's not to get run over by stupid female drivers.)

 

-- EPILOGUE --

The body is actually a rather precise engineering marvel. Joints and so forth are designed to work a certain way. Alignment's critical. My left leg is so misaligned that something was bound to wear out. For years it was my hip that bothered me. I probably babied it, learned to walk so there was minimal stress on the hip (the fact that it used to pop in and out of socket on occasion, throwing me to the ground in pain, probably had something to do with this). Anyway, the stress was transferred to my ankle joint. Where bones come together you have cartilage to protect them, stop them from rubbing together. Rub them together long enough and you wear out the cartilage. When the cartilage is gone, the bones grind and build what for them is scar tissue, but it's really just more bone. So I built up all this excess bone in my ankle joint which eventually began to hurt like hell. If I was on my feet all day, working out in my wood shop or something, by seven or eight that evening I could hardly walk on it. In June of 1998, they went in arthroscopically from both sides of my ankle and cleaned out the joint. Then they sliced open the interior side of the ankle, a two inch incision, peeled back the skin, and did some chisel work there to remove some bone. The ankle's still not good as new, but it's better than it was.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it. The moral . . . Hell, did I say this story was going to have a moral? Most people I know hear/read this story and say, "See, them damn motorcycles just aren't safe." Hospital workers and highway patrolmen are real good about saying that. They'll happily tell you about all the motorcyclist brains they've scraped off the highway and/or the floor of the ER. Seems to me, it's careless drivers (of the four wheel kind) who are the problem. So the moral, if you really must have one, is pay attention when you're out on the road, people. You're handling a pretty serious weapon there, several tons of unforgiving steel. Motorcyclists, pedestrians, squirrels trying to get to their favorite acorns on the other side of the road, none of us like it when you run us over.

Brian A. Hopkins
Oklahoma City, OK
December 1998

 


Copyright 2011 Brian A. Hopkins, 2011-07-30 20:21, www.bahwolf.com