Back home in time for tea

Cody gave me a huge welcome home. The last he’d heard of me was when I was lying in the paddock, calling for help.

‘To have to depend on the goodwill – and awakedness – of others for tea seemed unbearable.’


There was only one thing on my mind when I got home from hospital with a broken leg: tea.

And pain, of course, made worse by having to negotiate a hundred metres of gravel driveway and an uneven concrete path, two gates, three steps and a squirming Cocker Spaniel, who thought I must have been still lying in the paddock calling for help as I was when he last saw me, five days ago.

Once inside, I collapsed on the couch and demanded tea. Proper, home-made tea made in my own kitchen and served in my own cup.

macdougall mug
What I wanted, more than anything, was proper tea served in my own cup.

Sandy, who had unloaded my bathroom equipment from the boot of the car while Tom carried my hospital bag and the
mountain of pillows I’d been ferried home on, put the kettle on. We drank tea
together, I took some drugs, and then I fell asleep. And that, basically, describes my
life for a while.

I had had an operation before, so was prepared to feel lousy for a bit after getting
home. I understood that that was part of the contract for fixing me up. We were living
in Auckland when I had my gallbladder removed in 2004. I had the operation, spent a
couple of days in hospital, came home, had meals in bed and afternoon naps on the
couch, and by the weekend I was ready to be bundled into the car and taken to the
world’s best fish-and-chip shop at Miranda (south of Auckland, on the Seabird Coast)
for a celebratory lunch; people with gallstones cannot eat fish and chips, and it had
been a while.

So I was prepared to be patient. A patient patient, if you like. As my first day at home
wore on, Sandy and Tom cooked dinner and fed animals and did the usual end-of- the-
day things. We caught up on news. Watched some television. I did a bit more sleeping
and took more pills.


couch bed
Bed on the couch; I was about to spend a lot of time here.

When it came time for bed, I issued instructions for making up a bed on the couch. This was partly out of consideration for Sandy (I knew I would be restless and there was no sense in both of us not sleeping), but mainly out of consideration for me; the thought of my leg getting accidentally knocked in the night made me turn white.

Sandy helped me to the bathroom and back, arranged a lamp and a torch within easy reach, along with the pills I would need to take in the middle of the night and a glass of water, and left me reading my book.

What I remember about that night is that it was hot. It was the 29th of November –
practically full-blown summer. Which in the north of New Zealand, where we live,
means hot sticky nights. Sandy left a window open behind me, and at some point in
the night I used a crutch to lever open another one above me.

The pain got bad and I took pills. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. They were behind my head, on the coffee table beside the couch. Between me and them was the couch arm. Too high, from my prone position, to reach over and pick them up. The options for an able-bodied person would be to prop herself up to reach them, or to hop out of bed and get them. It took me about 10 minutes and a lot of bumps to manoeuvre myself into the position where I could reach them. After that I kept them on the window sill.

The worst thing was going to the toilet alone. Eventually, I had to. Usually if I get up
in the night, I walk to the bathroom without turning on any lights, confident that I can
negotiate our house in the dark.

Image result for crutchesObviously that wasn’t going to happen for a while. I turned the lamp on (more squirming to reach the switch) and sat up on the edge of the couch. My crutches were on the floor below me. I pulled them to me with my good leg, took a deep breath, and heaved myself upwards.

It’s harder to get up on to crutches off something soft like a couch than from, say, a chair and table. Couches and easy chairs seem to be lower, which means you have to push yourself further to get upright, and their soft coverings don’t offer much of a firm foundation to push off from.

But I did it, and crutched my way through the lounge and the kitchen, my torch bobbing awkwardly along with me (where DO you put a torch when both hands are fully occupied with crutches?)

So far so good, but at the stairs I faltered. When I say stairs, I mean steps. Two of them, from the kitchen down to the laundry. Fortunately, they were only about two feet wide, with solid walls on either side, but to me, teetering at the top, they could have been the Grand Canyon.

I was sick with fear. All my hospital-steps- confidence was gone. I wished Sandy or Tom would wake up and help me, but drew the line at deliberately waking them. Somehow, I wobbled my way down and into the bathroom, but it was pretty hairy. By the time my pounding heart and I got back to the couch I was sweating and exhausted, and resolving not to drink any more water so I didn’t have to do it again that night.

The upside of wearing myself out was that I fell asleep. Besides, the drugs were kicking in again, pushing the pain back out of the overwhelming zone and into liveable.

It was dawn when I woke again, which at that time of the year, in this part of the world, is about 6am. Lying on my back, watching warmth seep into the grey light, I realised just how dependent I now was.

Often when I wake up early, especially in summer, I get up quietly, make a cup of tea, and enjoy the special early-day magic. At that time, I was part-way through a degree in geography, and would often curl up on the couch with a pile of textbooks for some undistracted reading.

Sometimes though, I would go out on to the deck and sit on the steps with my tea, and, with Cody the dog beside me, let myself wake up with the world.

Image result for kettle picture
I could make tea, I thought, as long as there was water in the kettle.

In theory, both were still options; you don’t use your leg to read, and the deck was just a few feet from where I was lying. But even if I could reach my textbooks (I couldn’t carry them and crutch), my brain was too foggy for that sort of reading, and after the night-time bathroom performance, going outside on my own (change of levels from the house to the deck, wooden slats slippery with dew) wasn’t an option.

So I concentrated on that most basic of morning rituals, a cup of tea. I had proven I could get to the kitchen, albeit in dodgy fashion. The kettle is on the bench by the stove. The sink – and therefore the water supply – is on another bench that isn’t connected to the bench with the kettle, so being able to boil the jug would depend on whether Sandy had left any water in it. The cups are in the cupboard above the kettle, and the tea is in a caddy beside the kettle. So far so good.

Getting milk from the fridge could be a bit of a problem, but I should be able to reach it with one arm, and if not, I could drink it black if I had to.

But then I ran, metaphorically speaking, smack into a brick wall. How was I going to carry my tea back to the couch with both hands fully involved in the task of driving my crutches? Briefly, I contemplated leaning against the bench to drink it, but really I knew that standing upright for that long wasn’t feasible. My leg would swell and throb, and my head would get dizzy –conditions beyond the miraculous healing powers of tea.

And so I waited. And as I did I was filled with despair more overwhelming than
anything I had so far gone through. I had thought that lying in the paddock unable to
get help was bad. Then I thought that needing help for the most basic functions in life,
like going to the toilet and putting on my own knickers, was bad. But this was a new low.

You might have already guessed – especially if you have read my Tea On The Road blog – that tea plays a big part in my life. I come from a long

Tea at Mum’s.

line of tea drinkers.  Some of my earliest memories are of listening to my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins talking and laughing while they drank tea in the farmhouse kitchen. Whenever something happens, we reach for the teapot. Sandy and I will go out for coffee, and then as soon as we get home will make a cup

Tea lubricates our lives, making any obstacles surmountable. To have to depend on the goodwill – and awakedness – of others for tea seemed unbearable. Tears slid down my cheeks and I slid into self-pity. How on Earth would I get through this? I would be in a cast for at least six weeks. The ramifications of not being able to function even on a basic level were, I now realised, overwhelming.

*To find out how I got in this position, see my earlier posts, starting with this one.

The taming of the screw (and other drama)


‘The rod would strengthen my leg while the bone healed. My leg was now wrapped in a white plaster cast that went all the way around. I looked at it, and tentatively wriggled my toes. They worked. I settled in to my recovery, which, obviously, I would ace’


I was right, I did vomit. Coming out of anaesthetic is the strangest feeling; there is no sense of time having passed. It’s as if a split second after you were being put under you’re awake, but in a different place, and feeling dizzy and sick. Voices are calling your name, and for a bit you don’t know what’s happened, and then it comes back, and you realise that you’ve had the operation and you’re now in the recovery department.

Which, to me, was important, because that’s how I thought of it. There was the accident, the rescue, the repair job, and the recovery. I had got through phases one, two and three, and now I was on the home straight. My leg had been fixed. The surgeons had opened it up and shoved a titanium rod down the inside of my bone. Titanium. I had a mental picture of it blue-black and shiny. The rod would strengthen my leg while the bone healed. My leg was now wrapped in a white plaster cast that went all the way around. I looked at it, and tentatively wriggled my toes. They worked. I settled in to my recovery, which, obviously, I would ace.

There was just one cloud on the horizon. Before I went into the theatre, I had asked someone – an orthopaedic surgeon – about recovery time. I put the six-week, three-month formula I’d heard in accident and emergency to him. He laughed, and told me it would be three months to four months before I was walking, and much longer until I was back to normal. I wanted to think he was wrong, but I had to allow for the possibility that he might be right. Nevertheless, I thought I could still make the annual Maungaturoto Primary School trek in February. Okay, I mightn’t be able to walk properly, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t ride. Life was still good.

Back up the ward, I enjoyed my post-operative status. I was allowed to eat, and enthusiastically filled in the menu card for the next day’s meals. I chatted with my neighbours, comparing details of what had been done to me with what had been done to them, and optimistically told Sandy that I was still hoping to be allowed home on Wednesday (it was Tuesday).  I even got a bit of sleep that night, although did spend quite of lot of it listening to long documentaries on the All Night Programme.

Hopes of going home the next day faded with the morning. I was helpless. Before my operation, all my personal needs had been met in my bed. Post-operatively, I was to get up to go to the toilet and to wash. I was happy about this, but fell at the first hurdle, so to speak, which was getting out of bed. Whole people lift their legs off the bed, swing them to the side and stand up. I realised that the standing bit might be hard, but surely I could get myself out of bed. It turned out I couldn’t. The co-ordination required, not to mention the flexing of leg muscles, wasn’t there. Getting out involved having a nurse lifting my legs off the bed and lowering them to the floor, after she’d helped me to roll on to my side and shuffle to the edge of the bed. Once I was upright and leaning against her and the bed, she rolled a walking frame into my grasp.

walking frameOne of my roommates had been using one of these, and I had watched the technique. Push it forward and walk behind it. Not unlike pushing a child in a pram. The catch was that while I could do the pushing bit, my legs were having trouble with moving in a walking-like fashion. Balance was also a problem. I just couldn’t find it, and realised that without the nurse and the walking frame, I would be in a heap on the floor.

The bathroom was about 20 metres from my bed, across the hall and down a bit. The nurse helped me to the toilet, which had a metal frame over it, and a hand-basin beside it, and left me with a clean towel, gown and underwear. Which was all very well, until I realised that I couldn’t put my knickers on by myself. Think about it. Sit in a chair, and try to do it yourself. Unless you have super-long arms, or are unnaturally flexible, you have to bend your legs in order to able to bring your foot and your underwear into the same space. Add to that the fact that with your lower leg fat with plaster, you have to be able to stretch the leg hole in your undies at the same time that you put your foot through, and you’ve got a problem. I rang the bell and the nurse came and helped me.

Later, a nurse aide took me for my first shower. This time, I managed the walking frameshower a bit better, and was really looking forward to getting properly clean. The shower was a sitting-down affair, with a metal frame similar to the one over the toilet, and a removable nozzle. There was no question, as far as the nurse aide was concerned, of me being able to do it myself yet. She sat me in the chair and helped me to undress. My plaster cast wasn’t allowed to get wet, so she covered it in a huge plastic bag that was taped tightly at the top, turned the water on, and handed me the nozzle. By now I had been “up” for about 10 minutes and was feeling awful. I vomited, and it ran over my body and down the drain.

My companion was gentle and patient. She made clucking sounds and took over washing me, a process which I could have found invasive but instead found empowering. That’s a word I usually hate, but I can’t think of any other. Telling me that my dignity was the most important thing, this lovely, lowly-paid immigrant from Fiji said she had started training as a nurse, but preferred hands-on caring for people to the technical stuff. So, for not much more than the minimum wage, she and her husband work in our region’s largest hospital, helping people like me to get back to normal. As she brushed and plaited my wet hair, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed of the shabby way in which our society treats the people who care for us, while exhalting and rewarding those who cause the most damage. Bankers came to mind. I have nothing against them per se, but even when they’re not causing global financial melt-downs, is making profits from moving commodities and hot-air around the world really as important as looking after us when we are at our most vulnerable? Right then, I thought not, and it’s an opinion I haven’t changed.

My rehab-proper started in the afternoon, with visits from physio and occupational white man and crutchestherapists. The physio measured me for a pair of crutches and demonstrated the correct way in which to use them (you can crutch incorrectly?), while the OT asked me questions about who I lived with (yes, there were two able-bodied people at home to look after me), whether we had stairs (two, down to the bathroom), and about the type of work I did. Being up would be good for me, she said, and arranged for a comfortable chair to be put by my bed. Unfortunately, this back-fired; as the day wore on, my cast started to get tighter, and during one of the frequent nurse-checks of the state of my foot, I revealed that it was a bit numb. I didn’t think it was a big deal, but the complaint got escalated. A more senior nurse appeared and went away, followed by a doctor. Eventually, the consultant came. He was cross to see me sitting up and told me to get back into bed. “Cut the cast,” he told the nurse. To me, he said that my leg was swelling because it wasn’t able to pump blood properly, and that it was really important that I keep it elevated. So back to bed it was. The cast was cut down its length to ease the pressure, and what seemed like half a dozen pillows were propped underneath me, holding my leg in the air. Later, they were replaced by a mean-looking metal contraption.

My personalised crutches (the physio had put layers of soft tape over the hard plastic handles) arrived the next day. Thursday. My fourth day in hospital. I was champing at the bit to get out, so I launched into crutching with enthusiasm. Too much enthusiasm. It’s harder than it looks, especially if you have no sense of balance any more, and are travelling over highly polished hospital floors. My wild swaying scared the bejesus out of the nurses on my first foray, to the bathroom and back. I was put back to bed and told that on no account was I to go crutching on my own just yet.

Overall, though, things were getting better. I could now shower and dress myself (except for the knickers – that remained a problem for months), and was feeling altogether more civilised. I chatted to visitors (mine and other people’s), sent texts near and far, and snoozed like a cat in the afternoon sun.  That night our entire room got an almost-decent night’s sleep, possibly because we had all been there for a few days now and were starting to settle into the hospital’s beat. I had started to feel quite fond of my roommates and realised I would miss them. But that didn’t mean that I wasn’t determined to leave, the next day if possible.

Friday morning saw me on the phone dictating instructions to Sandy, who was putting out my weekly sustainable business magazine in my absence. He had offered to bring my laptop in so I could work, but I demurred. Instead, I begged some paper and a pen from a doctor, sketched out a story in the old way, and fired it down the phone to Sandy, who was taking copy (as we used to call it) at the other end. To be filing a story from my hospital bed didn’t seem in the least bit strange to me; I did, after all, file for the New Zealand Herald four days after my baby was born. It’s what I do. But what was strange was how much writing a short story tired me. I’ve been writing for more than 30 years, and can do it in my sleep, so to speak. Once I have identified the guts of a story, the words flow out of my brain and on to my computer almost without me being aware of them. But this story – about how the company Foodstuffs was using natural refrigeration in some of its supermarkets – made me work.

Later, the physiotherapist returned for my next crutching lesson – stairs. The hospital has a mobile wooden unit with two steps on each side, which it uses for training crutch novices. The technique is quite specific and counter-intuitive; going up – balance on your crutches, move your bad leg up, your good leg up and then the crutches. Going down – crutches, bad leg, good leg. The physio watched me closely as I practised, and eventually ruled that I was fit to be let lose into the world.

I had another session with the occupational therapist as well, planning and practising how I would get in and out of the shower. Our shower is over a bath, so she arranged for Sandy to pick up a long stool that I could slide along until I was under the water. She also provided plastic bags for my cast, and a frame for the toilet.

That just left the medical clearance. Sandy and Tom arrived while I was showering and changing into my going-home clothes, and we sat around together waiting for the final ok. The consultant had told me during his morning rounds that I would be allowed to go, but the Is still needed dotting and the Ts crossing. Eventually, we got the paperwork and I got my crutches ready, only to find myself bundled into a wheelchair. The orthopaedic ward is on the fourth floor of the hospital, and the nurses said that “walking” to the lift and taking it to the ground floor would be too much for me just yet. So I left the hospital in a wheelchair, my crutches slung across my lap. Sandy brought the car to the front door and I slid into the back, where I leaned against the door and draped my legs along the seat. “Take me home,” I said, and they did.

*I would love to hear from you – please send me a message  or leave a comment below with your thoughts, comments or experiences. And if you think it anyone else will find this useful or interesting, please share using the buttons below.