Getting hammered on spring break isn't what it's cracked up to be, says Jim Barry.

Getting hammered on spring break isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, says Jim Barry.

On March 20th last year, the first day of spring, my spring “break” began innocently enough with a routine trip to the doctors for a skin biopsy. This is a fairly common procedure for an Irish person with red hair who once spent too much time in the sun trying to get a beautiful dark tan. It never worked.

After I left the doctor, my wife Patricia and I went for lunch and back home. Events went downhill from there. My spring “break” was an actual break in my left femur bone. I split the bone horizontally at the joint just above the knee, shattering the joint cavity.

Ordinarily this would be extremely painful. But as circumstances would have it, I did not notice the pain.  An optimist, I always try to look to find the best in all situations and this was no exception. I have had multiple sclerosis for 35 years, not walked for the past 12, and do not have much sensation in my legs. I suppose, if I had been able to walk or bear weight on my leg, I might have been screaming another tune.

Back to that afternoon:  Around 3:30 p.m., I fell off my stair lift. All the weight went on my knee. Uncomfortable but not in pain, with help I was able to get back on the lift, to my wheelchair and in the house.  After dinner, I was watching NCAA March Madness when I felt lightheaded, called for Patricia, and passed out.  She dialed 911. When EMS arrived, I had very low blood pressure. I was once a marathon runner so my blood pressure has always been low; but I was pale and going in and out of consciousness. They decided to bring me to the hospital.

The heart attack that wasn’t

While in the ambulance, I lost consciousness again and they performed countless tests to find out why I passed out and why I was losing blood pressure. We got to the hospital about 10 o’clock, where the ER staff did more cardiac tests.  The results revealed a typical healthy runner’s heart/lung profile but could not explain the dropping blood pressure and loss of blood count. They admitted me to the cardiac ward where I spent a fitful night having blood drawn and being monitored every 30 minutes.

It was over 24 hours before a broken leg was diagnosed.

I am fortunate with my MS that I had no pain. The obvious flip side is that, in a major or traumatic incident such as a fall, lack of pain can be downright dangerous. A former college dorm-mate, who served on ski patrols for years, told me that a broken femur is one of the more dangerous injuries he would come across. The femur, one of the largest bones in the body, produces a lot of blood. When there is a break, the resulting blood loss can be problematic. Ultimately I did received four units of blood before the operation. A femur break, without pain as an early warning system, can mask life-threatening consequences.

Getting ‘hammered’ five days later

On March 25, several friendly nurses at the hospital informed me that I had gotten “hammered, nailed, and screwed.”  It’s not what you think.  (By the way, what were you thinking?)  The operation to repair my leg involved inserting a guide wire into the femur bone marrow and then hammering a rod up to the hip where it was screwed together. A nail, once inserted, then fixed the fractured knee cavity.

All this required an additional 21 days of rehabilitation at a local rehab center.

Unfortunately, one consequence of this accident is loss of flexibility. Prior to the break, I could rearrange my legs by reaching down and moving them. Now they are rigid and very heavy. I don’t know how they gained so much weight. My wife says they must weigh a ton. Moving them has become laborious, requiring much more effort to simply change positions. I’ve had months of physical therapy slowly bringing my legs back to a pre-break flexibility. It’s a wonder how skillful the physical therapist have been I’m so thankful.

Learn from me, grasshopper!

Now you know the story of my spring “break.” Why do you and others need to know about it? It is a cautionary tale for all people with MS to be especially safety conscious and diligent about their surroundings and points of risk. I hope my experiences serve to encourage others with diminished capabilities to be careful.

James Barry is a long-time disabilities advocate and former Verizon corporate manager.