The Time I Put an Axe in my Foot: A Cautionary Tale

(I wrote the following over several weeks in an effort to process my accident, so it’s quite rambling and long-winded. Also, there are a few mentions of blood, for the squeamish.)

Several times now I’ve tried to write about my accident (or axe-ident, as I’ve come to call it) in detail, but it’s been hard. It’s been difficult to re-play what happened in my mind’s eye; those seconds in particular I spent processing exactly what I’d done — home alone, panic, disbelief — the image of my brown leather boot sliced down the front singed in my mind forever.

Two interesting things happened before the accident. First: I had said to B. earlier that day, out of nowhere, “I really like chopping wood. It makes me feel strong — empowered!” She agreed she gets the same feeling from weed whacking, and we carried on with our day.

Second: I can’t recall if it was the exact morning of, or a day or two prior, but I was laying in bed in that strange awake-but-still-dreaming state and saw, in my mind’s eye, a vision of our cat, Moo, sitting on the round we use to cut wood, and me taking a great big swing with my axe. The dream/vision/whatever-you-call-it startled me into consciousness, and I struggled immediately to understand it. It didn’t feel violent — I never brought the axe towards him — and so I wondered if it had to do with the many difficult and emotional weeks I’d spent worrying about his health as he slowly recovered from a urinary block. I can’t help wonder now if it wasn’t some kind of warning.

When the accident happened on January 14, Moo was almost fully recovered, but we’d spent the month and a half prior focused on his health and improvement, and our home — and my emotional well-being — were still in a state of disarray. This was compounded by it having been an extremely exhausting holiday season co-juggling the demands of a small business on top of my day job, mixed in with a bad bout of food poisoning and a tree having fallen on our deck during a terrible windstorm in December. But, things were seeming to calm a bit and life was bordering on normal, and I’d been looking forward to spending the next weekend deep-cleaning the house and focusing on plans for the new year. We’d even bought a brand new treadmill the evening before the accident, planning to focus on fitness in advance of a trip to Mexico this spring.

The day of the accident, I arrived home a couple hours ahead of R. and planned to get a fire going, just like any other night. I’d been splitting firewood and cutting kindling all season, and as much as it was something I enjoyed, I was always hyper-conscious of being careful.

I can’t figure out what made that particular Monday any different than all the other times I spent at the woodshed. Overtiredness, overconfidence, overly-distracted? I don’t remember being careless, but I also don’t remember being especially careful, either. I’ve tormented myself trying to figure out how I could’ve let it happen, have berated and chastised and punished myself for having allowed it to happen. Accidents happen, yes, but I couldn’t escape the fact it had been my own doing, my own fault, and I spent the first days of my recovery suffering as much from the unbearable pain as the unbearable anger at my own self for what I’d done.

It happened all so quickly, and I can’t help admire the body’s ability to protect us from the severity of a situation as it seeks safety (compared, say, to the time I nicked off a chunk of my thumb with my mandolin slicer and couldn’t stand upright from the queasiness).

The hardest part for me to re-live is right here: the arc of the axe not meeting the wood, but instead the hard leather of my boot toe. The thought: surely not. A dull pain, tossing the axe aside, rushing in through the mud room and into the kitchen where I tore off my boot and saw the blood quickly seeping through my sock.

Thinking, no, no, no. The out-of-body disbelief of what I’d done. Do I call mom and dad, I thought, but what could they do? The realization of being home alone, and the way the blood just kept coming and coming. I gathered enough wherewithal to grab a clean towel (and not the one we use to wipe Bailey’s feet, which was my initial instinct), then, in what I could imagine was a state of shock, Facebook messaged our neighbour across the road: “L., are you home? I need some help, cut myself very badly with an axe. Could I trouble you? Split open my foot, bleeding quite badly, can’t feel my toes.” (I’ve chuckled a few times at the absurdity of my plea — recognizing the seriousness of the situation, but trying to diminish it in my refusal to acknowledge just how bad it was. “Could I trouble you?”)

Our poor neighbour who, up to this point we’d exchanged only small pleasantries with — freshly grown kale and blackberry jam — helped me into her van as I bled profusely into the towel I pressed to my foot, trying desperately not to panic her small children in the back, witnesses to the gory ordeal.

We contemplated whether the walk-in clinic or emergency room would be the best bet, because at this point I was still under the impression it couldn’t possibly be that bad — I wasn’t in a whole lot of pain (thanks, body!) and so figured it would take just a few stitches and I’d be set to go! A phone call to the clinic set us en route to the hospital, but R. texted at the same time to tell me he’d stopped at the gas station for a car wash, which had me frantically phoning him to say, “Okay, don’t panic, but…” L. kindly dropped me off at the Co-op, I hobbled into our car with R.’s help and we started our journey across town to the ER.

Even as we checked in to triage, my body was still maintaining enough sense of shock to protect me from the severity of the situation. The nurse wrapped me in gauze and we sat and waited amid the strange, unsettled energy of the emergency room, R. bringing me Sun Chips and Vitamin Water to combat my growing hunger (“Let’s grab a burger after we’re all finished up, ‘kay?”).

After about an hour and a half of waiting, the blood had soaked so thoroughly through the layers of gauze they’d circled around my foot, it had begun dripping onto the floor. And so R. wheeled me back to triage and requested fresh bandages, hopeful the amount of blood would help fast-track our progress.

Which it did. From there I was quickly wheeled into the back, with nurses coming by to ask for the details of what happened, administer a tetanus shot, reassure me the doctor wouldn’t be long. By then, with the knowledge that I was safe, it was like my body finally surrendered, and I started shivering uncontrollably with anxiety.

After a short time, the doctor and accompanying resident appeared and explained the resident would work on freezing my foot so they could more closely assess the situation. Too anxious to watch her work, I tightly squeezed the blood out of R.’s fingers as she slowly began injecting anesthetic. In spite of several needles, the freezing refused to take effect in one particular spot, so that every time she poked and asked, “Can you feel this?” I’d cry out with tears rolling down my face.

With the resident thoroughly covered in blood — I’d severed an artery, I was told — the doctor was called back to try to get the final spot to freeze. At one point as the two of them worked away, I visibly saw R. shudder involuntarily and shouted, “What?! What was that? Are you messing with me?!” He later confessed the bleeding from my artery had been so bad, it arced several feet in the air, the doctor’s eyes briefly meeting his with unspoken alarm.

By then I’d lost grasp of time, but was finally told the bleeding was, in fact, so profuse, they couldn’t keep the wound clear enough to assess the damage. They quickly stapled me up and disappeared to “call on plastics,” as they put it, while I was left sobbing with anxiety, asking, “What’s going to happen, what’s going to happen?”

I wasn’t sure how many minutes had passed, but all of a sudden the E.R. doctor appeared again with several nurses who circled me, asking me to remove my clothing and jewelry, and behind them, another tall doctor outfitted in surgical garb who introduced himself as the orthopaedic surgeon. It hit me, then — this girl, who’s had the good fortunate of spending very little time in the hospital, save for a wisdom teeth extraction more than 10 years ago — was swiftly being prepped for surgery: IV inserted in my arm, hospital gown draped over my shoulders, belongings stuffed into a plastic bag.

I was helped onto to a different hospital bed and rolled towards the x-ray lab to determine whether I’d damaged the bone. Everything was quick and overwhelming as I watched my reflection drift past the mirrored globes on the ceiling of the narrow hallways, tilting my head back to try and find R. as unfamiliar faces leaned over to comfort me (it was a steady stream of tears by now). The x-ray tech was a sweet young girl who calmed my nerves, but before I knew it I was rolled back into the narrow hallway, the surgeon informing me how I’d literally shaved off a piece of bone. Somewhere in the chaos I said goodbye to R. and lay on the gurney outside the operating room as an anesthesiologist with intense blue eyes asked me when I’d last eaten (the damn Sun Chips!), whether I’d received general anesthetic or morphine in the past and if I could sign the form he held in front of me.

I was rolled into the operating room and helped onto a different bed, wordless with overwhelm. All I could think was how much the scene reminded me of television, people all around hooking me up to the IV bag, attaching electrodes to my sides, talking to me and among me, and all the strange blue and whiteness of the room — blue scrubs, white tiles, steel surfaces.

In retrospect, I think what made the whole experience so traumatizing was just how quickly it happened — the sudden understanding that what I’d done was far more serious than I’d originally thought, that I was being treated as an emergency, that I was being rolled into a surgery I never fathomed having (so much for just a few stitches!).

I answered random questions as the surgeon and nurses tried to distract me, and I remember them explaining something about giving me gas. I remember listening to the surgeon as he spoke my name aloud, the realization he was dictating the procedure for a recording. I remember one of the nurses, a man, holding a plastic mask against my mouth and nose, telling me to breathe deeply, and how claustrophobic it felt, how I wanted so badly to rip the mask from my face. And then it was dark, and I was asleep.

I was groggy when I woke up in the recovery room, and shaking uncontrollably. My throat and lips were dry and extremely sore, I later realized, from intubation. I recall the surgeon being there as I first came to, explaining to the nurses, “It’s always the healthy young people that shake the most when they wake up.” I was trembling so dramatically — was so cold! — that they eventually brought over a giant piece of plastic they called the “bear hug”, which they draped over me and began filling with hot air. The two men chatted among themselves as I continued to lay trembling, staring at photographs of safari animals mounted in a row near the top of the wall, and one incongruous photograph of a house cat in their midst. I wanted to ask them what was up with the cat, but couldn’t form the words.

Eventually my body stopped shivering, and I hazily remember being wheeled into a dark room in what I’d later learn was the maternity ward. It was late — one in the morning, I believe — and R. was there, and there were nurses attending to me, but much of the night is still a shadowy blur. The surgeon wanted to keep me on IV antibiotics for a full 24 hours (dirty axe and all), which means I wouldn’t be discharged until late the next night. R. left after a short time and I was encouraged to sleep, but the person in the bed next to mine was snoring so loudly, there wasn’t a chance. I tossed and turned in the darkness processing what I’d been through, studying the giant white cast on my foot and responding to the nurses when they came to bring medicine and check my IV bag. The hours ticked slowly by, the trees outside my window forming a slow silhouette, until finally it was daylight and I was racked by hunger and exhaustion.

I heard the other patients around me receiving their breakfast and waited patiently for mine to arrive, meanwhile texting R. to ask when he was coming. A young, blonde nurse in pink scrubs finally checked on me. Apparently, having been a late night emergency, my meal had been overlooked, and I was delivered a bowl of gooey oatmeal, a mealy bran muffin and a piece of low-fat cheddar. I inhaled it hungrily (I hadn’t got my burger, after all!).

That day in the hospital felt like the longest ever. Whatever pain relief I’d been given for surgery had slowly worn off, and the pain came flooding in quickly, beginning with cold chills and quickly evolving into sobbing agony. At one point the woman in the bed next to me — the one who’d kept me up all night snoring — came over with her box of tissues and stroked my hair as I waited for the nurse to arrive.

Two times that day I was so hysterical with pain, they injected me with Dilaudid, the shot working quicker than the tablets they’d also been administering. I lay in bed all afternoon unable to sleep for the noises around me: a large family boisterously congregating with their elderly mom, who’d been admitted that afternoon — they bred dogs, and were playing video after video of yelping puppies on their phones — and the woman next to me who chattered unceasingly with her visiting husband. At one point the hospital even went into a “code red” lockdown, alarms sounding because someone on the floor above had allegedly lit a cigarette from their bed.

Eventually day segued into night. I ate pasta topped with tomatoes and a portion of unseasoned boiled chicken breast for dinner. The pain seemed to be largely under control and, after my final IV of the night, the sweet nurse on duty gave me one last dose of hydromorphone and helped wheel me downstairs so R. could fetch the car.

I don’t much recall the drive home, but I do remember once we arrived trying to navigate around the house on the knee scooter R. had rented earlier that day. The handlebars swivelled 360 degrees, meaning the stupid thing tipped over on me within minutes. R. was elsewhere, I think gathering my belongings from the car, and as much as I tried to avoid hitting my foot by falling on top of the scooter, my heel collided with the hardwood floor.

The thing about being cared for in the hospital is that the pain medicine was much stronger than what I was prescribed for at home. I was discharged that night with a prescription for Tramacet — a mixture of Tylenol and Tramadol — and had been told to supplement with more acetaminophen and ibuprofen. That first day, after the last of the night’s medicine had worn off, was truly awful. I somehow struggled through the daytime hours, trying to gauge how much I could tolerate, until 10 p.m., when it became so much I lay wailing in agony on the sofa as R. sat holding my hand, unsure how to help.

After calling the nurse’s line for some guidance on whether we should head to the E.R. (I was reluctant to return to the hospital in spite of the pain, plus the fact it was at least a 25-minute drive), we decided to make the journey based on her recommendations.

The wait at the E.R. was long and torturous, but I was finally seen by an older woman doctor who was kind and compassionate and could see how badly I was suffering. They gave me an injection of some type of anti-inflammatory, two hydromorphone tablets and an Ativan to calm me down, plus several more tablets to bring home until we could pick up the full prescription from the surgeon the next day (his office wouldn’t have the stronger meds available until the following morning).

The drive home from the hospital late that night was strange. I hadn’t slept the night prior, and the combination of hydromorphone and Ativan put me in a hazy state. I was seated awkwardly in the back of the car with my leg propped, watching the shadowy branches of trees pass by the window, telling R. how it looked stormy (he said it wasn’t), and how it looked as if the branches were reaching out to grab us.

Once we got home, as I lay on the sofa and tried to fall asleep, it was as though my subconscious was regaling me with a constant stream of gibberish — not hallucinations, per se, but a steady flow of colourful thoughts and sounds that made me too uncomfortable to fall asleep immediately. But, the exhaustion eventually won out, and I slept a few fitful hours on the sofa.

Navigating this recovery process has been unlike anything I’ve experienced before. For one, pain is extremely isolating. I have a brand new understanding of what it must be like for people who live every day with chronic pain, and the impact it must have on their emotional health. In fact, this recovery is the closest I think I’ve ever been to depressed — half my hours spent crying from the pain, the other half from the frustration and self-pity. During one of those first nights, as I lay wide awake at three in the morning with the pain and anxiety, I joined a Facebook support group for people who’ve had foot and ankle surgery.

Joining that support group made me feel monumentally less alone, made me feel just that much less isolated in my experience. With my procedure being the result of a traumatic injury, it wasn’t as though I’d had consultations with my doctor and surgeon about what to expect, how to manage the pain, what’s normal and what’s cause for concern. Having the ability to read about others’ experiences and compare them to my own lent me so much comfort during those first sleepless nights especially, and while it seems silly to be grateful for a bunch of strangers I’ll probably never meet in real life, that group stopped me from spinning out more times than I can count.

Which isn’t to say I wasn’t spinning, because wholly fuck, was I ever. I’m someone who’s accustomed to always having some level of control. As much as I’d like to deny it, my speed is frequently go-go-go, trying to fit as much into my day as possible. I’ve always abided by order — orderly house, orderly work, orderly meals. In fact, I frequently run myself ragged in the pursuit of orderliness, and the months prior to the accident — between Moo, the business, work and the holidays — put me at the furthest end of the spectrum I’ve probably ever been.

I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the situation and, as I said to a friend the other day, the Universe sure has a way of making us pay attention, particularly when we’re refusing to listen. It was definitely not lost on me that the accident coincided with an urgent need for a break. But alas, the beloved Universe does not deliver solutions to us in neat packages with tidy bows. The Universe is messy and extreme and, as I quickly learned, it forces us to face the shadows we’d so much rather ignore. I was, in the most literal sense possible, stopped in my tracks.

Coping with the fact that life as I knew it had to be put on hold has been hard. Coping with that fact on top of the ever-evolving pain and discomfort has been a serious exercise in staying positive. As I mentioned previously, there were many tearful days spent punishing myself for my own carelessness, refusing to forgive myself for what I’d done. There were just as many tearful days spent grieving the things I wouldn’t be able to do for an unknown quantity of time — cooking, hiking, cleaning, driving. I repeatedly told myself, “You’re so stupid. It’s your own fault you can’t do these things now. You’re useless. Look how useless you are stuck on the sofa, doing nothing.”

A few people commented how nice it must be to have time to catch up on reading and writing, on Netflix and projects. But it’s not the same as having the freedom to enjoy these things. Having a few hours to read when you still have the ability to easily get up and make a cup of tea, step outside to check the mail or toss the laundry in the dryer isn’t the same as reading a book (or five) because you literally have little other choice. Which isn’t to say I haven’t enjoyed the many books I’ve worked my way through so far, only that too much of one thing quickly loses its novelty factor.

My time’s been exclusively spent rotating between television, movies, reading and social media, and not much else. The pain during the first three to four weeks interfered with my ability to take on anything particularly demanding, which is why it’s taken me so long to get here, even, to write this out, let alone try some new kind of project. I even attempted the things I occasionally enjoy, like drawing and embroidery, but felt devoid of the creativity and inspiration needed to create something really satisfying.

Most of all, I’ve missed my time spent in nature, which is perhaps the thing I’ve grieved most intensely. Even now, at five weeks out, I don’t know how quickly I’ll be able to fully resume my ventures into the woods. My surgeon said that even once I’m walking, I can expect my foot to continue to swell and cause me some level of discomfort for the next six months, which is pretty discouraging. But it’s hardest now because I’ve barely been outside at all, let alone amid the trees and plants I love so dearly — the things that connect me to my truest sense of self. It’s no wonder I’ve had such a feeling of ungrounded-ness.

In spite of the shadows this situation has forced me to face, the thing that’s helped keep my spirits up most throughout it all has been the incredible support and generosity I’ve received from the people around me. Before I’d even been discharged from the hospital, our lovely neighbour (the one I’d worried about troubling!) dropped off a bag of food to R. — a saving grace during those first long and especially difficult days. Friends visited shortly after with a stack of frozen meals they’d generously prepared, freeing R. from worrying about cooking as he tended to me and the household. Other friends later showed up or sent R. home with yet more snacks and meals, while Mom stayed over a few nights as well, the comforting smells of her cooking and baking triggering such a comforted response that I cried all evening after she left.

I’m one of those people that never wants to impose on others. If I’m ever on the receiving end of someone’s generosity, I immediately begin fretting about balancing the scales and returning the gesture. I never want to put anyone out or feel I’m not reciprocating adequately, which is why I’ve always been reluctant to call on others. Being so lovingly supported by those around us during this experience has been a revelation of sorts, a newfound understanding that it’s not about feeling indebted, but rather, deeply grateful for a community of incredible people who so generously offer their support in times of need. I’ve exchanged my guilt for gratitude and know that when there’s someone who needs me in a similar time of need, I can give of myself just as graciously.

But perhaps the biggest thank of you all goes to my dear husband, who has taken such attentive care of me these past five weeks. Multiple times, as he delivers my dinner to me on the sofa, I’ve jokingly told him that there’s no going back after this — that I’m looking forward to his newfound role as resident cook!

In seriousness, he’s had to put up with a lot, including those countless bouts of weeping self-pity, only losing his patience with me one time (it was well-deserved, trust me). He’s slept downstairs across from me on the chaise sofa this entire time on the off-chance I fall off my knee scooter in the night. He’s kept the laundry going, met all my cravings for specific foods, feeds the pets and brings me a latte every single morning. He records and doles out all my medications (a clockwork affair those first couple weeks in particular), helped me amble upstairs to the shower and appeared with fresh towels when I finished, vacuums when I start complaining it’s driving me crazy, runs around the house grabbing me books and snacks and whatever else I may need, shovelled and de-iced the driveway when it snowed for my appointment at the hospital, and on and on (and on!).

Only a few short weeks after R. and I began dating almost 17 long years ago, I came down with an acute case of food poisoning. It was horrific in the projectile-vomiting sense, and in spite of that, he took attentive care of me those couple days, bringing me juice and snacks and sitting with me as I rode the unending waves of nausea. I remembered the way he cared for me then as I reflect on how tirelessly he’s cared for me now, even in spite of my worries, “What if you end up resenting me for having to do this all?” (he quickly reassured me, “I could never”). Even after being together such a long time, this experience has expanded our relationship that much more, has made me love him that much harder.

In one week from tomorrow, I have my six-week appointment with the surgeon. Consistent with all my other Type A attributes, I worry — a lot — when things are beyond my control, when I don’t know what’s going on. When I saw my surgeon one week in, he remarked that there was a lot of redness around my incision, and that perhaps it would be a good idea to send me back into the operating room to open up and clean out the wound once more. The thought of going through surgery again so soon — even if under less severe circumstances — triggered immense panic. He hemmed and hawed, deciding ultimately to wait until at least the following day.

When I sent him a photo of my foot the next morning, he said it was still hard to tell, and would leave it to me as to whether I felt I should have the surgery that day (he’d booked me in, could I let him know?). Well, that had me spinning, as you can imagine! I was able to get him on the phone to ask my slew of questions and explain it had been my first morning without debilitating pain. Once I’d mentioned that, he said it would likely be okay to just wait and see, and keep an eye on it (the idea of going back for surgery just as my pain had lessened was an agonizing thought!).

Of course, as is the way, the surgeon left for holidays at the end of the week, and I was left fixating on the appearance of my foot for several long days, up until 3 a.m. in tears once more, Googling things like “signs of surgical infection.” Logically, I felt fairly confident there was no risk — if I were legitimately concerned, I’d waste no time getting to the E.R. But, being someone who’s previously never experienced any kind of major injury or surgical procedure, I really had no idea what was normal and what wasn’t. (It never did turn into a concern — the surgeon later confirmed the red blotches and bruises that appeared were totally normal.)

Physically, the whole experience has evolved day-to-day. I started off in excruciating pain, which gradually levelled off into less excruciating but still agonizing pain (me telling R., “it feels like someone is driving a nail into my foot”, or “it feels like I’m being stabbed with a hot poker”). That intense pain segued into acute discomfort, and then just constant discomfort. My foot started off swollen like a balloon, and though it now looks dramatically less grotesque, it remains puffy and red, with layers of skin peeling away. For a week or so I was having constant nerve pain, like electrical static buzzing through my foot, with frequent electrical shocks my Facebook support group aptly calls “zingers.”

My stitches came out at two weeks, which means the incision has flattened out and scabbed over (all still currently held in place with steri-strips), but the tendons that were stitched back together have caused me tremendous discomfort — the sensation of my foot being split in two, or strangled with a band. I think the feeling may be lessening somewhat now, although, when I place my poor swollen foot flat on the floor (out of curiosity), my second and third two float up from the surface.

I am hopeful that when I see my surgeon next week, he’ll give me his blessing to begin putting at least some weight on my foot. I am so antsy to be able to walk again, to begin rebuilding the muscles in my calve and ankle that have withered away in my time on the sofa. This past Saturday R. took me on my first non-hospital related excursion to the library, about 15 minutes from home, and the excitement of that outing was such an invigorating rush! I kept repeating to him over and over that night, “I’m just so glad to have gotten out of the house!”

I noticed last night, as well, I was able to last a short time longer in the kitchen than previously helping him prepare dinner — only a matter of a half-hour or so, but a small victory in the scheme of things. And, last night, for the first time since the accident, I slept upstairs in the bed, the orthopaedic wedge pillow I ordered on Amazon providing a much better base for elevation than the stack of pillows that have kept me company on the sofa. Life is slowly — slowly — gaining some semblance of normalcy. This week I begin my gradual reintroduction to work — from the sofa, on my laptop, with my foot elevated, mind you — but having something new and stimulating to occupy my attention will be a welcome shift towards that sense of routine I’ve always relished.

All this comes, of course, with a new understanding of myself, with so many lessons packed into this experience: be careful, be patient, be kind to yourself, surrender control, accept kindness, have perspective, allow. There have been so many times during this experience when I’ve felt so low, so burdened by my misery and self-pity that I couldn’t (wouldn’t) muster the determination I needed to hoist myself up out of that dark place. But here I am, five weeks later, and I’ve managed. And I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve had to learn and am continuing to learn — because I know I still have a ways to go, and I know there are likely still moments of despair and frustration yet to be faced.

And I don’t know exactly how to wrap up this long and rambling diatribe, or whether I’ll ever overcome my new fear of axes, and the fact that every time I hear R. chopping wood now, I silently wait for him to come back into the house to reassure me all is well.

For now, all I can say is, it’s a journey.

(Originally written February 2019.)

Written by

“We’re all mad here.” Just another 30-something elder millennial writing from the heart about whatever. Oversharing is my specialty.

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