Always swerve to the right

On 18 August 2018 Karen broke her ankle.

12 months have passed, but it only feels like yesterday that we were on our bikes in Thailand, rain in our faces and wind at our backs as we tried to escape the storm.

Life’s big twists often rest on seemingly insignificant decisions. In this case it was as simple as a concrete obstacle in the middle of the bike path – me swerving right, while Karen swerved to the left.

She couldn’t have known that beneath the shallow water lay a slippery surface that instantly caused her front wheel to slide out from under her. All I heard was an innocuous thump as she hit the road.

She’s a tough cookie – a lot tougher than me – but one look at her face and I knew something wasn’t right.

And so her sentence began.


Being driven to Rayong Hospital by our lovely landlord and friend Kwan who was invaluable in those first hours and days – hoping the ankle was dislocated, but deep down dreading the more likely diagnosis.


Both bones broken, plus dislocation. Two plates and 13 screws required.


A week or two later – not pretty! Even after more than 12 months there is still swelling and fluid around the ankle that is yet to disappear.


Karen hated this boot with a passion. It was attached immediately post-op and for the next two days was pumped full of ice water to help keep the swelling down. Karen has a high pain threshold for everything but the cold, and this was torture.


The silver lining to the experience was the hospital in Rayong and its wonderful staff. Of all the possible places to break an ankle – other than Bangkok – we couldn’t have done much better. Google Translate made the occasional appearance, but at least Karen didn’t have to worry about the gift of Hepatitis.


The first of many wheelchairs.


And so the recovery began. In a tiny apartment surrounded by empty rooms and off-season Russians, with the dulcet tones of karaoke and construction in our ears.


Those first few days and weeks were a challenge for us both. Simply taking a shower was a 30 minute exercise in patience. Bagging the lower leg, taping to prevent water ingress, levering herself up onto incorrectly sized crutches, hobbling around the room avoiding sharp edges, and into the bathroom – ensuring there were no wet surfaces on which the crutches could slip – reversing into the plastic chair, leg raised onto a second chair to reduce the blood pressure, toiletries all within arms reach. Now you can start showering…rinse, and repeat, for weeks.


Painful day bleeding into painful, mind-numbing day.


There are only so many podcasts and TV shows.


Good days were rare, but we made the most of them when they did appear.


A major concern for many months was Karen’s tightly contracted Achilles tendon. Every day she would sit on the edge of the bed, left foot flat on the ground and the toes of her right leg touching the ground. And then stretch…trying in vain for weeks to get her heel to touch the ground. She got there, but the pain and discomfort were a constant.


Another unexpected upside of being in Thailand was easy access to Lazada – the Thai equivalent of Amazon. As soon as we could arrange it Karen had her very own wheelchair – this trusty steed serving her faithfully in both Thailand and Malaysia for the next four months. Airports are an interesting experience when you need wheels!


Small things like ‘putting on a face’ became so much more difficult and frustrating in a room not designed for wheelchair mobility.


Juggling wet hair, modesty towel, brush and makeup in the confines of a wheelchair.


With the arrival of the wheelchair came sweet release from the confines of our apartment. But only for a time…no matter how long we wanted to stay out, the swelling eventually grew intolerable and we would have to return so that Karen could put her leg up again.


All the online stories from others that had experienced similar injuries were telling us that 12 months was the light at the end of the tunnel. So long…?


We tried to escape to the foreshore every afternoon, for fresh air and the monsoonal wind in our faces. The locals soon got used to our trundling ways, as did the local dogs that took the opportunity to come and say hello to this new human at their eye-level. These broad roads and sidewalks were another unexpected silver lining to being in Ban Phe. I can’t think of another place we have visited in SE Asia where there was such smooth, unimpeded mobility.


We would often rest at the southern end of Mae Ramphueng Beach, greet the locals and soak up a little sun. We would have loved to have gone further, but the sand was too soft and deep for the wheelchair.


Another day done and dusted, another day closer to recovery.


Ever so slowly we could see the changes occurring. Wounds healing and the pressure in the ankle reducing. It’s funny how these things work…if it wasn’t for Karen being laid up in bed 24/7 she would never have stumbled onto her new job working remotely for a Melbourne fintech company – which she loves!


Caught in a moment of contemplation, shortly before we were scheduled to leave Thailand, and her final check up with the doctor to get the ‘all clear’ for flying.


Enjoying a great sunset on the beach in front of our apartment. It was times like this that made up for the weird and wonderful sacrifices you sometimes make for cheap accommodation – washing our dishes in the bathtub because there was no kitchen basin, limited cooking facilities, karaoke at all hours etc. etc.


Even though it didn’t feel like it, Karen was reassured by her doctor that her healing was on track. Her wheelchair remained the most common mode of transportation for weeks, but after a quick training session at the rehab centre (pictured) bit by bit she introduced crutches to her routine.


Crutches come with their own dangers – more freedom, but also greater risk of falling again and doing more damage (of which there are plenty of horror stories online!). It took weeks to realise that the hospital had provided her with incorrectly sized crutches, but even so she relished the freedom to move.


After moving to crutches and eventually donating the wheelchair to a needy organisation in Kuching the ‘step’ changes in healing were fewer and further apart – replaced by a slow, gradual process of building up strength through practice. In the meantime we continued our travels – from Kuching to the busy streets of Kuala Lumpur, mayhem of Saigon, icy solitude of Sibiu (Romania) and the chaotic maelstrom of grilled meat and bonhomie that is the Balkans. For months we never thought a hike like this would ever be possible again, but through persistence and patience she got there – scrambling up ‘Maja e Tujanit’ in the mountains on the outskirt of Tirana (Albania).


We hate the word ‘journey’ – but that’s what it has been, and what it continues to be. Ups, downs, occasional reminiscences, but always looking ahead to the next challenge. Today’s plans? We’re thinking about getting on a couple of bikes and going for a ride…


Life lessons?

  • Always take out travel insurance – we would have been more than $20,000 out of pocket – World Nomads have been brilliant
  • Hope shines, and opportunity awaits, even in the darkest corners
  • Blessed be the carers of this world – especially those who don’t receive a cent for their selfless efforts – they truly are saints
  • Always swerve to the right 😂

Thanks for reading, and happy travels! (sans broken ankles)

Andrew and Karen.

2 Comments

  1. On Jan. 10/20 I broke my femur the bone broke in 3 places I slipped on snow it is now June 7 almost 6 mts. later and I still use a walker. I read your story and you inspired me not to give up hope, you said it will take one yr. to heal and get back to normal. I’m so glad I found your story, thank you for sharing. I’m in B.C. Canada.

    1. Hi Bob! Thanks for getting in touch – we really appreciate it.

      Wow…a femur?! That must have been a terrible experience and we sympathise wholeheartedly with how frustrating the recovery process can be. Two steps forward and one back is how it often seems…but it’s when you look back that you realise you HAVE actually been making good progress 🙂

      I’m glad our story has helped you. You might also want to have a look on Facebook if you have an account, as there are many support groups for people who have experienced broken legs/ankles etc. and they have a lot of great advice.

      Hang in there, it won’t be too long and you’ll be getting that mobility back!!

      Warm regards,
      Andrew and Karen.

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