Sprain Wreck: Deborah Paul on Empathy

A painful injury gave me a lesson in compassion.
Your mother always told you to put on clean underwear in case you were in a car accident. What I recently discovered on my own is don’t wear sparkly purple toenail polish either, because you just might have to visit the emergency room after you trip off a curb, endure searing pain, watch your ankle swell up like a softball, and discuss your toes with a physician.

Looking back on the accident, I don’t really know if I missed the curb or was expecting a curb and, ironically, stumbled down a wheelchair ramp. Whatever the case, my germophobia was to blame. You see, I was enjoying a chicken-salad sandwich at Arby’s, and here came a woman covered with an angry red pox that I did not wish to contract. And where did she sit? In the adjacent booth! I grabbed my soft drink, rushed for the exit, and the rest is history.

The ER doctor said under normal circumstances he would have examined the color of my toenails, but there was the matter of the iridescent, glittery purple polish. The diagnosis was a severe sprain, including torn ligaments, and I left on a pair of crutches, nearly toppling over again. Sore armpits and raw palms aside, someone not coordinated enough to navigate a simple curb (or ramp) should not be expected to remain upright on such unwieldy devices.

The following days were hell. I fell flat-out in our foyer attempting to answer the door, at which point my elbows were bruised as well. Because of the ankle pain and throbbing, I could only make it to the bathroom on all fours, affecting my knees along with my other injured body parts. My accident-prone niece recommended a knee walker, a scooter-like device where one leg is bent on a padded bench, the other used to propel the patient in the desired direction. Those things move fast, and in no time, I was zooming across our polished hall floor like Tony Hawk. Nevertheless, the swelling persisted, storm-cloud black spread down my foot to my toes, clashing mightily with the chipped purple polish that remained, and I still couldn’t walk. All this resulted in a visit to an orthopedic surgeon, who fitted me with an unflattering compression stocking and put me on a walker. This elicited all kinds of jokes from well-meaning younger relatives asking whether I would be placing tennis balls on the legs and a basket in front.

The woman charged at me, lowering her face to meet mine: “I’m in a hurry, too.”

Now that I could shuffle around, it was time to venture outdoors. My newfound mobility prompted a trip to Kohl’s, which ended up changing my entire outlook. In a few days, I would be required to attend a religious service and ascend the pulpit for the naming of our newest granddaughter. I could not show up wearing the one gray stretched-out sock that covered my toes and fit over my swollen and multicolored foot. So, my sister—my advocate, best friend, and keeper—hauled me to Kohl’s in the hopes of finding at best a big shoe, or at least a better-looking sock. If you saw her kneeling on the floor of the women’s lingerie department, gingerly fitting my foot into a size extra-large slipper while I nearly careened off my walker, you might have cried. By the time we reached the checkout lane, she recognized my wobbliness and sat me in a wheelchair by her side. The line was long, and we courteously asked the sole cashier if she could request assistance upfront before I fainted dead away.

Another clerk arrived and offered to help the next in line: me, slumped in a wheelchair, and my panicked caregiver, juggling the walker, her purse, my purse, and three pairs of slippers (one in a semi-stylish leopard print). Immediately, the lady behind us, eyes narrowed and jaw clamped, bolted for the lane, edging us out. I asked politely if she would mind waiting for us, given that it was our turn, but she acted like she didn’t hear. Instead, she plopped her clothing items on the belt and proceeded to hand over coupons and inquire about special promotions. As she departed, I couldn’t help myself. “It would have been nice if you’d have let my sister go first,” I said. “I mean, look at me. I’m sitting here in a wheelchair.” At this point, to my horror, she charged at me, lowering her face to meet mine. “I’m in a hurry, too,” she yelled, her hand heavy on my shoulder. “My husband is waiting in the car to go to the heart doctor!” “Couldn’t be too serious,” I muttered under my breath, eyeing the emergency blouses she had stopped to purchase.

A stranger came running to my side. “I saw that!” she said, patting my hand. “That woman was horrible.” Right then, I recognized the plight of those who are truly disabled, relying on the benevolence of strangers to cope. How difficult it must be to navigate a supermarket in a motorized cart, open doors while incapacitated, or even get from place to place on crutches. The prospect of living permanently with such challenges is mind-blowing.

In the past, I have ignored those with disabilities, barely making eye contact. I certainly never attacked anyone like the woman at Kohl’s did me, but in all honesty, I never offered assistance, either. They have their problems, I thought, and I have my own. Since then, though, I am as attuned to those whose mobility is challenged as I once was to my children when they were small. I watch for those needing help out of the corner of my eye, holding doors, smiling, and waiting patiently while they pass. I couldn’t lift a heavy woman I saw fall in a parking lot, but I signaled the first able-bodied man I came across. We must use our strength to make life easier for those whose physical resources are diminished. Walking, I have learned, is a gift.

My injury and the many weeks of recovery taught me about empathy and compassion. We’re all doing the best we can, after all, whether we’re debilitated, infirm, old, worn-out … or simply a klutz.

Email Deborah Paul here.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach