What It's Like to Wear a Cast
Temporary walking accessories: bent-knee cast and crutches
When your leg is in a cast, you need a sense of humor and lots of patience!
Wearing a bent-knee leg cast may temporarily change your lifestyle, but it needn’t immobilize you. You can adjust to the limitations it imposes and may even acquire a new level of patience from the experience. I know, because in the late 1970s a multiple ankle fracture forced me to slow down for three months.
These days, casts are lighter—and an injury like a shattered ankle may no longer require rigid casting. A cast may not have to be worn for such a long period of time, and it may be removable when resting.
I wish I could blame my broken ankle on a daredevil feat, such as skiing, mountain climbing or some other athletic action that was totally foreign to me. Answering the question, “What happened to you?” with the wimpy, “I slipped while running to get out of the rain and fell on my ankle,” just didn’t do much for my (admittedly, wimpy) image.
After my tumble, I awoke from surgery to find my right foot and leg encased in a rigid bent-knee cast that felt like hardened concrete. The surgeon explained I was not allowed to place my foot on a walking surface for three months, so all the work he’d done pinning together the bones of my ankle would not go to waste. I'd have to get around on crutches while my bones healed.
The day before I was to leave the hospital, a nurse trundled me off to the physical therapy lab in a wheelchair. There I was given a lesson in the appropriate hop-step technique required for movement with crutches when one leg cannot be used.
Believe me—it is not as simple as it looks! For one thing, putting your weight on crutches imposes a physical insult on your armpits—that is, if you use the crutches the wrong way. I needed lessons for the safe way to use them in order to avoid damaging a nerve in the underarm area. I was instructed to move the hand rests further down each crutch and to place the top of the crutch at an angle several inches below the underarm before moving.
Now, this was a totally unnatural state of affairs. If humans had been meant to move about in such a fashion, we would have been born with thick calluses on our upper sides. Use of the crutches produced those calluses, of course, but first I had to endure blisters.
The most difficult aspect, for me, of mastering the use of crutches was learning to hop up and down the lab’s practice steps—four steps up to a wide platform, four steps down the opposite side. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Not if you haven’t tried it with one unusable leg! I had a bit of trouble with those steps and probably took longer learning the hop-step than the average person, but finally “graduated” from crutch class.
You must learn to use crutches properly before being released to go home.
Back home again....
“D”-day arrived. I was discharged from the hospital, and some of my family arrived to drive me home. They invited me to stay with them while I was on the mend, but an independent woman such as I would (naturally) insist on going straight home to her own apartment.
Need I tell you that my apartment was located upstairs? Up twelve v-e-r-y s-t-e-e-p steps? Concrete steps with large open spaces between each one? When I first encountered those steps with my crutches placed as I’d been taught, that staircase seemed about a mile high.
The offer was renewed for me to stay three months at a single-floor dwelling, but must I remind you that I was Independent Woman? I was also quite stubborn. Swallowing my pride, I sat on the second step from the walkway and “bounced” my way backward and upward on my own bottom, finally reaching the top. It wasn’t a dignified homecoming. (I felt sure my neighbors were watching this performance behind slightly-opened drapes.) Still, it got me to my front door and into my own abode.
I vowed silently that I would do the hop-step properly from then on when traversing the staircase, and I did, but it was always scary hopping up those steps. Hopping down them seemed easier, probably because those open spaces weren't right in front of my eyes.
Once inside my apartment, I got settled in and promised to phone my family if I needed anything. After they left, I looked around and realized I’d have to adjust the way I did almost everything. Moving was slow, so everything I did happened more slowly than was normal for me. Also, I had to exercise caution not to lean and become over-balanced, because the last thing I wanted to do was fall again.
I had to tape a large garbage bag snugly over my cast to keep it dry before I could take a bath. That also meant sliding over the side of the tub and leaving my "wrapped" leg propped and dangling over the edge. The bathwater couldn't be run until I was in place, and it was necessary to let the water drain before I made the reverse moves to get out. I had to add fifteen minutes to my personal hygiene schedule so I could lie down and rest after these bathtub maneuvers.
Some tasks, such as grocery shopping and laundry (no washer and dryer in my apartment then) were beyond me. I had to accept the help of my family for these things during the three months I wore the cast.
In fact, this is why you need patience in such a situation, especially if you’re as dogged about doing everything for yourself as I was back then. I had to learn to accept help gratefully and graciously without protest. This was difficult for me at first, but I came to understand that people who offered to help genuinely wanted to make life easier for me during this trying time. While the phrase, “it’s more blessed to give than to receive” may be true most of the time, the reverse is in order when you really need help. Let other folks enjoy that blessing by accepting the help they freely give.
The car I owned at the time had a standard transmission, and I couldn’t use the clutch while in the cast, so my boss kindly offered to let me ride to and from work with him each day. Since he didn’t live too far away from my apartment, I didn’t consider this a major imposition. He was also gallant enough to walk up and down the staircase each time--just in case I stumbled.
At the office, I let coworkers bring me supplies, make photocopies for me and bring a lunch tray to my desk. Everyone was incredibly helpful, and no one appeared resentful of the extra steps they took for me. Again I realized that most people are glad to help someone who obviously needs it.
At home, I didn’t have the luxury of something being brought to me. After spilling coffee on the carpet a few times, I admitted defeat regarding movement of food or beverage while on crutches. I gave in and ate my meals sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter for the duration of cast time.
For once, I had an excuse not to go Christmas shopping (proving there is, indeed, a bright side to every dark situation). Can you guess I don’t have the shopping gene? I ordered gifts, cards and wrapping supplies from a mail-order catalog. (If I were out of commission during holiday shopping season nowadays, I’d shop online, which I do anyway for everything other than groceries.) While people who could use both feet fought their way through the crowds of shoppers at the mall, I relaxed. That Christmas also brought me the most unusual gift I’d ever received—a hand-crocheted cast warmer from one of my sons!
The most frustrating issue with which I had to contend was the inability to scratch my leg beneath the cast. Anyone who has ever worn a rigid cast for any length of time knows it’s an unwritten law (one of the permutations of Murphy’s Law, no doubt) that skin trapped in the warm moist environment of a plaster case will invariably develop a maddening itch. The corresponding law of nature is that trying to ignore the itch will cause it to increase tenfold. In desperation, I looked about for something harmless that I could insert inside the cast and use to scratch. (The surgeon had warned me about this possibility and said, "Don't do it.")
Ignoring his advice, I poked a plastic drinking straw inside the slight opening as far as it would go, but it still wouldn’t reach the itchy spot. I stretched my two fingers holding the straw a bit further…and dropped the straw down inside cast! Now I had an itch that hadn’t been scratched plus a “foreign object” inside my cast. Raising my leg and shaking it wouldn’t dislodge the straw. The cast was fairly snug, so that straw had gotten stuck inside, and that added to my discomfort.
Can you imagine how embarrassing it is for an adult woman to call her doctor and confess that a plastic drinking straw is trapped inside her leg cast? By the time I made that phone call, the edge of the straw was contributing to the itchiness beneath the surface of the cast. I felt like screaming from frustration.
A trip to the doctor’s office was required, where the existing cast was cut off (and the straw exposed), my leg examined for damage and a fresh cast molded onto my injured limb. Might I add that the doctor did not offer to let me scratch my leg while it was exposed, but frowned when I suggested it?
When the cast finally came off for good, it was a day for celebration. I had to use a cane for about a week, but soon was able to walk unaided. For a long time afterward, I was very aware and appreciative of being able to do simple, ordinary things, such as carrying a cup of coffee from the kitchen to the living room without spilling it.
I must credit this experience--unpleasant though it was at the time--to providing the impetus toward improving my less-than-stellar degree of patience. Like any other positive change I've attempted to make in my life and personality, developing patience requires (1) awareness of the need; (2) mindful practice; and (3) periodic "trait checks" to be sure I haven't regressed to my formerly impatient state. I don't claim to be the most patient person in the world these days, but a degree of formerly lacking patience was added to my arsenal of coping mechanisms during that three-month period when I was trapped in a bent-knee cast.
See? If you look diligently enough, you can find a positive aspect to many situations that seem completely negative upon first assessment.
© 2011 Jaye Denman