My Darkest Timeby Gaurav Jain July 22 2020, 4:53 pm Estimated Reading Time: 17 mins, 28 secs
In this long-short personal story of having overcome a big challenge, Gaurav Jain says, “When you break your leg, you know it! There is no perhaps!”
“Take the ball to the corner, run down the clock ” - his friend shouted at the top of his voice, although he could be barely heard over the bustling wind intensifying with each passing second. There were just few seconds to go and everyone anticipated the shrill of the final whistle to pierce the tranquility of Mother Nature’s work. This was a friendly match with no trophy, medals or a cash prize to be won here but what was at stake was far more important - bragging rights! Well those are priceless. Games of sport test the skill and strength of opponents and the humiliation of defeat and pride of victory are in themselves motivators.
A quick glance over his left shoulder he realized he was in the clear, an arms length away from the nearest defender who was right on his tail. With adrenaline coursing through his veins, facing forward he began to sprint. He pushed harder and went faster, his calves burned, breath coming in short gasps formed a cloud in the air. A thin layer of sweat covered the nape of the neck, he felt a bead of sweat roll down his forehead and splatter on his chin, his tee was drenched and throat parched.
As he pounded heavily across the packed sand his feet were trying desperately to create a form of traction.
Gut wrenching, heart pumping, everything was a blur around him - after several thrusts forward his legs were aching, screaming in pain and he was put out of his misery when time was called. The shrill sound was music to his ears; he was already spent and needed no second invitation to come to an abrupt halt. He tried to exult in joy but the sound escaped him. Bent over double, hands on his waist, he soaked in the scene around him as sweat dripped from his forehead each drop creating a small wet patch right next to his toes on the golden sand.
After a couple of minutes of rest, his heart rate was coming back to normal and as he stood upright he could hear the muffled cries of joy, the loud cacophony of chants, nicknames and abuses being hurled as friendly banter far away in the background. The cool sea breeze gently brushed his face, a face aglow with the last orange rays before the twilight beckons the stars.
It was few minutes past 7 pm; a humid day in mid June was about to come to close. He faced the sea, lost in the rhythmic percussions of the waves on sands. The sea teemed and hissed, scraped the pebbles, lashed the beach and released. It slapped the beach with its salty lips and polished the seashore. Its work done, it receded leaving behind seaweed and some plastic trinkets in its wake.
As his eyes drifted towards the horizon, he saw a fiery red, golden orb slowly mingling with the sea, gently getting engulfed by the vastness of the still water. The sun poured out its brilliant hot oranges and reds into the clouds like a pot of molten lava. Never before had he realized how tenuous and thin clouds are. Wispy and frail, like they only just exist - an orange haze casted over the moving sea, reflecting off every wave. The sky was painted with rich hues of red, blended with orange, purple and crimson. The sun a perfect disc was cut in half by the edge of the world.
What is it about a sunset on a beach that truly reaches in and feather touches the wilder parts of our soul? Is it the magic of the colors, the sound of the water or the intoxicating smell of the wet beach sand or a combination of all three? His lips now bore the semblance of a smile; just enough to show that he was enjoying his thoughts lost in the moment.
“Oye kahan kho gaya hai, jaldi aja!”
He turned around and motioned his friend to continue ahead, he would get the ball and meet them back at the beach resort. He wanted to stay lost in the moment a little while longer only to be jolted back to reality by the characteristic husky accented voice of his friend. He picked the ball up, and brushed off sand from his tee and shorts.
He yearned for a cold long shower; the sand particles had made their way up every nook and crevice of his body. As he looked back the entire length of the pitch, his footprints from the last dash were still fresh in the sand. He took a few seconds at full throttle but it would take an eternity now as he gingerly walked back feeling a slight lingering pain in his hamstring.
The blood had dried off and the scratch on his left knee was dotted with golden grains. The game had been physically tough. Lunges, dives and tackles were flying in. Many were mistimed and several brawls broke out periodically. He stopped for a moment to stretch his right foot, and gently wiped off sand from his ankle. This is the same ankle he had shattered in multiple places while playing the beautiful game, a decade and a half back.
He had just completed his mid terms, the last paper was the toughest - a subject he hated to the core and one which had no practical application in the field he had decided to pursue once he would graduate as a computer’s engineer from one of the best colleges in the capital city. The third year of engineering college is the trickiest, by then you know whether you want to devote the rest of your life to coding in a software company or pursue higher studies.
Irrespective, one is forced to sit for placement - a week long circus of top companies flogging the campus to recruit the best minds for banal jobs, where candidates are judged not on their creative excellence or innate brilliance but by the research papers they have co-authored and the grades on their papers.
The cut off marks for placement is up to the third year and since everyone wants a job just as a back up even if one plans to pursue higher studies, it was important to get a decent grade in subjects like Power Apparatus which had zero practical application in his chosen field.
He had spent the entire night in a hostel room crammed up with a dozen of his friends broken up in motley groups - one was assigned to browse through the past 5 year papers and search for common topics, one group was tasked with few critical chapters while the last one was frantically combing over the photocopied notes of the topper trying to mug up the sections marked IMP (Important) on the top right corner. After a few hours all would reconvene and each group would explain to the others the key points - this meticulously planned shared rote learning was the pivotal reason why he had managed to do decently well on paper even though he hardly attended lectures.
As the bell sounded and everyone got up and handed over their papers, the joy in the air was palpable, it was one of sheer relief - all knew the course books won't be needed for some time now, they would make their way back into a corner of the room, lie in hibernation there till the end term beckons and just like now for a few days they would assume center stage again!
He had already planned to spend the night with his friends, a party night out would help him de-stress, the last week had been tough and demanding. As the sea of people filtered out from the examination halls and everyone gathered in the common admin area, he was frantically searching for his friends.
The entire day had been overcast and the rain was playing hide and seek, a powdery drizzle in the morning, a few scattered spells of light showers in the afternoon but by late in the evening the flood gates had opened up and it was a heavy downpour now.
C’mon this is the perfect weather to have a quick game of football he said, only a handful of his friends agreed while the rest wanted to brave the rain and make a quick dash to their dorms and get some sleep. While the rest of the students waited for the rain to ease up under the comforting shade of the big admin block building, he and his five friends made way to the college grounds to have a quick game of 3 a side.
The ground was wet laced with puddles of water, the rain made it easy to slip and slide and 30 minutes into the game he was met with a crunching tackle, he rolled over his right ankle, the entire body weight coming on that one tender spot and he crash landed on the ground wincing in pain. He heard a loud snap, a sound like a gunshot or a truck backfiring or the kind one hears when they snap a raw carrot in two, only louder.
When you break your leg, you know it! - There is no perhaps!
He experienced shooting gut wrenching pain as he was spread on the floor motionless gently clutching his right ankle. The pain weakened after a minute or two, tricking him into taking a helping hand from his colleagues. He tried to stand up and put some weight gingerly on his right ankle and felt the pain firing like a cannon shooting up the line to his hip.
When he lifted the ankle off the ground - no pain, when he put it down the pain grabbed and gripped him again; it was as if a gnome inside his leg was hacking it away with a chainsaw. It took his friends an hour to get him to the nearest hostel room; all along the way he carefully avoided the right ankle to bear any weight.
The ankle by now had swollen to twice its size; there was a "rush" of blood that he could actually hear in his ears. It was like a river. The blood forms a cocoon around the broken part of the leg. This eventually becomes what is called the "soft callus." It is like a mass of blood clots. It becomes a hard callus as the injury site begins to rob calcium from all parts of the body to make raw building materials.
He frantically dialed his dad a general laparoscopic surgeon and decided after talking to him that it's best to head home and get it checked by a specialist immediately.
There was no luxury of instant on demand cabs and the public transport of Delhi wasn't as developed as it is now, the metro project had just commenced and there were hardly two to three rail lines connecting a few areas of the capital city.
He had limped his way finally to the metro station his dad was supposed to meet him at, he couldn’t forget the look on his dad’s face once they had made their way to the car and he had examined his ankle for the first time under the interior car lighting. The swollen ankle was flushed red, slightly brown and now the tissue was no softer. His dad had a stoic expression as his eyes took in more light than he expected, his unwavering gaze seemed to pierce through. He was processing a million things a second, every part of him went on pause as his thoughts caught up. He placed his right hand on his shoulder and said, “Everything will be ok!”
“Nurse kindly prepare the X ray room, I will be there with my son in 15 minutes and connect me with the orthopedic surgeon on duty”, he crisply stated while driving through the traffic skillfully, one hand occupied with the cell phone and the other juggling between the gear and the steering wheel.
Sitting on the back seat with his leg resting, the urgency in his dad’s voice was a sure shot give away that this was something serious.
He lay there on the OT table, the X-ray was placed at some distance, the Orthopedic surgeon had gestured his dad to meet in the adjacent room and the room was all to himself now. He had tried to crane his neck to glance over the X-ray when both his dad and the orthopedic surgeon were critically analyzing the break, all he could see was the ankle bone on his right foot had splattered into half a dozen small pieces distinctly visible and out of place.
Boss, this is definitely an impact fracture, he overheard the orthopedic tell his dad as they left the room to talk further. The words were enough to sink him deeper into despair. He knew all along for the past few hours but still this confirmation was a fatal blow he wasn't prepared to hear. He tried his very best to overhear the conversations; the thin green curtain partitioning the rooms couldn't soundproof their discussions. The orthopedics’ hoarse bass voice was like an echo in an empty house.
Sir, the first stage of the bone healing process is underway, I can see a clear formation of hematoma. The second stage would be the formation of fibrocartilage callus over the break. This will hold the broken ends of the bone together and begin the process of re-fusing them. Within the callus, new blood vessels and spongy bone will be formed. This will take an average of two to three weeks. The third stage of bone healing is the replacement of the fibrocartilage with hard bone. Cells called osteoblasts, which deposit minerals on bones and within them for formation, rebuilding, and restructuring, dominate this process. This process will take about two weeks. Osteoblasts also run the majority of the fourth and final stage of bone healing, which is bone remodeling. It will take about two weeks, and it will completely replace the fibrocartilage callus with newly formed hard bone.
The specialist kept on going into further details discussing the finer points of recovery and way forward, by this time he had too much of medical jargons to absorb and while his ears were transfixed on the conversation, mentally he was trailing off in thoughts, cursing the person who tackled him hard onto the ground. It had been over 20 minutes now. They were still discussing the way forward and the precautions to be taken when suddenly he heard something, which numbed him with shock.
“Sir, broken bones are treated with reduction, which is when the bone is returned to its proper alignment, usually non-surgically; however as explained this case is severe and we may have to go for reconstructive surgery. If it isn't a natural heal he may never be able to run again!!”
He didn't know how to react to this; shock had engulfed his entire body and rendered him speechless, incapable of showing emotions, tears began streaming down his eyes. He had bravely endured the pain, hobbled his way to the rendezvous point where he met his dad, seen the shattered ankle in the X-ray but the bone chilling sound of these words, the fatality in the sentence rocked his very being.
He couldn't imagine a life without sports, a life without the exuberance associated with a simple activity like running - something everyone takes for granted just can't be snatched away like this from him! The few days and weeks to follow would test his mental and emotional resolve; he would be staring into a deep abyss and would have to find the strength to not cave in.
Why me? Why did I have to pester my friends to play? The questions haunted him each night, the same nightmare played over and over again as he tried to wrestle back his thoughts just to get some hours of sleep. He was immobile, on crutches and physically stationed in one corner of the house, unable to move without help.
Each day had been gloomy with nothing to do, he felt helpless, powerless and frustrated. He needed help in doing the most basic things such as changing clothes and walking. Standing up, sitting straight or even sleeping properly were all challenges.
He was one of those for whom staying active kept them happy. Playing sports enriched his day with joy and fervor and the physical sensation it provided was as necessary to him as food and water. Unable to express that persuasion, it became a deeper problem – however enticing sofas, comfort food, video games and box sets seemed. He distinctly remembers going through the three phases - denial, distress and determined coping during his bed-ridden phase.
Denial helped him accept the injury at his own pace rather than being immediately overwhelmed with emotion - he could spend time reflecting and coming to terms with the new reality and process what had happened.
Days, weeks and months rolled by painfully, his recovery was gradual and days - mundane and uneventful. The checkups reduced to once a fortnight and he vividly remembered almost 11 weeks or close to 3 months in, the day he got the good news he had been silently praying for everyday; “Our boy wouldn't need to get the surgery done boss, his recovery is on track and we can see the alignment in place now”.
He wanted to jump with elation and hug the doctor. He had celebrated that day with full grandeur - this in fact was a big victory!
One month later he was back in the same hospital, this time a smile plastered on his face, the cast was to be finally broken apart so that the long arduous physical therapy could commence.
As the humming sound filled the room, the doctor wrestled with the oscillating saw to slowly peel away the fiberglass sheet of the orthopedic cast. The cast which was part of his body for 4 long months was finally coming off, the heaps of best wishes messages, some abuses written by friends and few caricatures drawn by his sister covered its entire real estate.
An hour later he could finally free his leg. The side effects of months of immobilization were clearly visible, the leg appeared shorter than the other one, had huge muscle atrophy, the lack of blood supply had rendered it darkish brown in color and it was covered with dead epidermal cells.
He turned his face away in disgust. At the age of 19 he had to learn to walk again. His mother had to watch him hobbling, wobbling, repeatedly falling over, getting up, crying and pleading for food and clothing for the second time in her life.
Her son who in a few weeks won't be a teenager anymore looked more like a toddler now. Multiple water and electrical physiotherapy sessions later, almost 7 months to the day now, he was finally walking. It was now time to resume from where he had left off.
As he wiped off the sand from his ankle, stretched his toes a bit and stood up, a cool breeze brushed his cheeks, the sun had almost set now and the last rays of the twilight were quickly receding.
In the distance he saw his group of friends walking back slowly to the resort, with the ball clutched in his left hand he started running towards them. He skillfully navigated the hard pebbles on the beach by adjusting his stride lengths and sometimes jumping sideways all while retaining a constant fluid running motion.
With the right recovery and a lot of mental toughness, one can return better, faster and stronger. The feeling of running again with no pain or discomfort was priceless.
As he quickly narrowed down the gap, he shouted at the top of his lungs - Wait up fellows! And, a few seconds later he rushed full steam ahead in the celebratory huddle, a carnival of laughter, high fives and exuberant noises greeted him.
He was happy his team had won but was ecstatic with what he had not lost. It's only when you flirt with the risk of losing something that you truly end up realizing the value of the same.
Those 7 months were challenging, egregious, unimaginably horrific and painful but he looks back on that time now with no regrets. That time taught him mental fortitude and a priceless lesson for life - to be truly grateful for things he had.