By Dave Hood
It’s a sunny, chilly, early March morning in 1975. Winter is drawing to a close. Snow still cloaks the city. I am 16 years old teenager who has signed up for school trip. It’s an adventure of sorts, a day of skiing at Blue Mountain, which is a two-hour drive north of Toronto.
I walk to school with my wooden skis and ski boots and poles. When I arrive at George Vanier, the bus is waiting in the parking lot. There’s a busload of kids going on the ski trip. We load our equipment into the storage compartment at the side of the bus, then climb up the steps, find empty seats to relax in.
The Grey Coach drives north to Blue Mountain, filled like a sardine tin with eager kids. We are all anticipating a day of laughter and enjoyment. As the bus treks toward the ski slopes, we’re excited about having a day off of school–a day to play. There’s yelling, and laughing, and kibitzing. Some of the kids are bragging about how great they can ski, how they’ll race past me, down to the bottom of the slope. I say nothing. I feel somewhat anxious about skiing down the slopes, the first time in about three years. I’m a beginner who knows how to snow plough. I have no idea how well the braggers can ski.
We arrive at Blue Mountain. I remove my ski equipment from the bus and haul it to the Chalet. A few of my buddies laugh at my old wooden skis. Someone asks, “How well can you ski?” I say nothing. I know that I’m a rookie, just a novice who has borrowed an old pair of wooden skis, which haven’t been used in a few years, from my younger brother. I’m here for a break from school, not to show off, not to compete on the ski slopes. Just to relax and enjoy.
At the Chalet, the teacher gives us our ski passes, then we put on our ski boots and skis, walk to the ski tow that leads to the Apple Bowl ski slope, one of the easy hills. The ski tow hauls us up the hill like a tow truck. We get off the tow, slide over on our skis to the slope, as though cross-country skiing. One of my buddies, Robert, checks his bindings. I’m not sure why. The snow is sticky from the sunshine.
We arrive at the Apple Bowl, a ski slope for beginners. It will be our first trip down the hill. Pushing off with his ski poles, Robert begins to slalom first, and I follow. He is an experienced skier who moves down the hill quickly, zigging and zagging like a winter Olympic champion. I snow plough. I’m thinking: It’s going to be a full day of skiing. By the end of the day, I’ll be a better skier, able to slalom down the hill.
About a third of the way down the slope, my right ski catches in the snow, as though it’s caught on something. The snow’s sticky. I cannot move my ski in the direction I want to turn. Both skis come together, become tangled. I begin to fall forward–the right binding won’t release. I’m stuck in the ski, falling forward, face first. Somehow, I tumble sideways, land on my side. My right tibia bone snaps like a branch of a tree breaking in two. I’m lying on my side, both legs stretched out. I cannot move my right leg. I’m in pain, excruciating pain, as though someone has sawed my leg in half. I start to yell and swear. I scream, “Oh Fuck!” “Oh Fuck!” Oh Fuck!”
After about a minute goes past, I start to feel faint, chilled, lying on the slope, unable to move my right leg, unable to stand up and ski down the slope. My mind tells my leg to move–but it won’t. My right leg feels as though it’s paralyzed. It also feels numb and heavy like it’s tied down with a heavy weight.
I search for someone to help me. I see Robert some ways down the ski hill, perhaps halfway down. I yell, “I cannot move my leg. Come here!”
Robert climbs back up the hill on his ski’s. When he’s near, he asks, “Why can’t you stand up?”
Lying in the snow, I begin to laugh at my predicament. The pain has morphed into laughter. I’m laughing and laughing and laughing like someone has shared a joke. I say, “I am unable to move my right leg.”
He says, “But your laughing!” “Are you joking?” He then standing over me, bends down, pulls up my pant leg with his hands. We can both see that the bone has pierced though the skin.
He says, “Your right leg might be broken.” He pauses for a few moments, then says, “I am going for help.” He skis down the hill, out of sight.
A few minutes later, a man from the ski patrol arrives from among the trees. I am not sure how he learned of my accident. He checks my leg and says nothing. He attempts to comfort me by saying, ” Everything is going to be okay.”
My leg is stuck in the ski boot, which is attached to the wooden ski. I am in excruciating pain, and I’m unable to move my right leg. I need relief, so I begin to remove the boot from my foot.
He says, “Leave your foot alone. Don’t move it. You might cause more damage to your leg.”
I ignore his advice, remove the ski boot, to release the pressure on my leg. I remain lying on the slope of the snowy hill, feeling sick to my stomach, faint, as though I’m in shock. I’m not sure what kind of help will arrive. I’ve never been through the experience of a serious accident. I begin to feel chilled from the wet snow melting through my blue jeans, soaking my skin. I lay on the hill and wait.
I’m not sure how long I wait, perhaps 15 minutes, for the first aid team to arrive. Upon arrival, one of the team members looks at my leg, shakes his head and says, “Your ski’s are fire wood.” “You should not have skied on them.” “They’re unsafe.”
Soon afterwards, they place my right leg in a wooden splint, lift me carefully into the stretcher, slide me slowly down the hill. At the bottom, an ambulance is waiting, with its back doors open.
I travel on the stretcher by ambulance to a small hospital in Collingwood. It is like a medical office. I am removed from the stretcher and placed on a hospital bed in the emergency department. Sand bags are positioned on each side of my right leg to prevent it from moving. I’m asked by the intake nurse to provide a health card. I tell her I didn’t bring it on the trip. My parents are called, but there is no answer. I lie and wait.
At some point, the doctor visits and examines my leg. He says, “Your leg is broken. We’ll take an x-ray to determine how seriously.”
After the x-rays are taken, the doctor reviews the photographs. He says, “Your tibia bone is broken.” You’ll require a cast for nine to twelve weeks. Afterwards, you’ll need rehabilitation to strengthen the muscles in your leg.”
A few moments later, he says, ” I’m reluctant to put the cast on your leg until we have your health card number and approval from your parents.” Then he leaves. I’m left alone with my thoughts of the accident. I replay the fall over and over in my mind.
For the rest of the morning and afternoon, I lie in the hospital bed, with my broken leg wrapped in sand bags, bones rubbing together like sandpaper applied to remove the paint from a wall, hoping that one of my parent’s will pick up the telephone in Toronto, provide the hospital with my health card number and approval. Occasionally, a nurse checks to see that the pain is manageable.
Lying in the hospital bed, unable to visit the washroom, I realize how quickly my life has changed from the bizarre skiing accident. In a moment of time, without any warning—I broke my leg. And now, I’m now trapped on the mattress of a hospital bed, unable to leave without the help of others.
In early evening, more than 9 hours after the skiing accident, the nurse is able to speak to my mother who provides approval and my health card number. Shortly afterwards, the doctor wraps my leg in a white cast. It stretches from my toes to highway up my right thigh. Later in the evening, an ambulance transports me from Collingwood to North York General hospital in Toronto. It’s a two hour drive in the dark.
It is two hours of contemplation. I realize that I didn’t know enough about skiing safety. I should have checked to see that the bindings would release. I should have check to ensure that the skis were safe to use. My accident could have been avoided. But I didn’t know, and no one told me that the ski’s were unsafe to use. I am just a beginner. I have deep regret about signing up for the ski trip.
For the next week, I lie in a hospital bed. My mind wanders like someone who is in shock. I feel anxious about wearing a cast. I am unable to get out of bed, travel to the washroom, down the hall. I am unable to take a bath or shower. I am unable to sit in a chair, relax and watch television. I am unable to sleep on my side. I must always sleep on my back. I worry about how I’ll get to school, how much work I’ll have to do to catch up. I am trapped in the bed, like someone who is paralyzed
During the second week, one of the rehab staff shows me how to use the crutches. Awkwardly, like an elderly person, using the assistance of the crutches, I learn how to climb out of bed, travel to the washroom on with leg. I learn how to walk with the aid of crutches. I spend a great deal of time walking with the crutches, up and down the hall of the hospital ward.
At the end of the week, I am released from hospital. At home, wearing a cast, I must learn how to perform basic tasks, things I’d always taken for granted. For instance, I must use the crutches to visit the washroom, to wash myself, to brush my teeth. To make cereal, I must stand on one leg, balance myself with the crutches, remove a bowl from the cupboard, fill it with cereal, pour milk into the bowl. In order to wear blue jeans, I must cut the right pant leg with a scissors, then pull the pants over the cast. Everywhere I go, whether sitting, walking, lying in a bed, I must lug the heavy cast around like anchor. It’s a mental struggle. I also feel physically tired. My arms are weak and stiff from supporting my body.
On the third week after the accident, I am returning to high school. I ride a special bus that transports handicapped kids to school. I feel like I’ll be permanently disabled. I have lost my independence and my confidence I’d rather be walking on my own. At school, some of the kids call me a “gimp”. I must carry books in a knapsack, slung over my back. I must learn to walk down the stairs on one leg, one arm holding to crutches, the other arm holding on to the railing. To get up the stairs, I must do the same, except I must hop up each step. It’s all so tiring and disheartening. I must sit at a desk all day with my leg stretched out. My leg swells. In the halls, I must worry about being knocked over by fellow students who are in a rush to get to their next class. During lunch, an endless stream of kids ask the same question: “How did you break your leg?” I tell the story over and over like a rerun of a B-movie. I grow bored. Most people want to sign my cast. I let them. Some write stupid comments; others make compassionate remarks, like “Get Well!” or “Best of Luck!”
The weeks pass slowly. My right leg is encased in a white cast. It’s itchy. It’s frustrating. It’s discouraging. Some days, I feel like I’ll never walk again. I spend March and April and May indoors, watching television. I count the weeks until the cast is removed.
After twelve weeks, I visit the doctor. He removes the cast. My leg has atrophied. It is half the size as my left leg. I feel sick to my stomach. The doctor reassures me that my leg will return to its normal size and strength .
I attend the rehab clinic a few times a week. I perform various leg stretching and strengthening exercises. Gradually, I’m able to put weight on my leg. But the leg is weak and putting weight on it is painful. For the first month, after the cast is removed, I’m unable to bear full weigh on the right leg. Gradually, with perseverance, the flexibility and strength improves. Buy the end of the second month, I can walk without crutches. But I’m limping. Gradually, I’m able to discard the crutches and walk. Time passes. Slowly, I am able to run again. Seven months pass. My life is back to normal, but I haven’t forgotten the accident, and how it changed my life, taught me a lesson about taking life for granted, assuming that everything will always progress as planned.
I am now 52 years old. I’ve kept my promise: I haven’t skied since the day of that skiing accident—the day I broke my leg. That is more than 36 years ago. I have no intentions of ever skiing again. You won’t see me on roller blades or jumping out of a plane with a parachute. The thrill of skiing just isn’t worth a potential mishap, like falling and breaking a leg. When I reflect back to that accident and the struggle to regain my ability to walk, I’m reminded of what it feels like to be disabled. I’m also reminded about how life can change in a moment of time, when you least expect it.