In my last essay, I provided the backstory of how I ended up learning to skate, becoming a goalie, and loving being on the ice. This is about what happens when you play on goalie skates – which are flatter than player skates – and how you get out of practice for skating on player skates – which are more curved and rock more than goalie skates. It’s about how when you get back on player skates, “just to change things up a little”, things can go sideways in some pretty horrible ways…and I’ve got visuals.
Some time ago, I wrote an essay about being a cocky twenty-something and getting my ass handed to me. Until Thanksgiving Day, 2019, that was probably the worst pain I’d ever felt. I also wrote something about how events are like links in a chain and when those links break, there can be trouble. Until Thanksgiving Day, 2019, I was pretty sure I knew enough about links breaking such that I could step back and stop the forward momentum of any trouble before, say, link four broke. People like to think they have a pretty good sense of self-preservation and can avoid banging themselves up as they work their way through life. People can be wrong.
Jimmy, our youngest, was at university in Canada. Their Thanksgiving break is in October and he had classes so couldn’t make it back for the US Thanksgiving. It was just Darla, Kyle, and me for the holiday and we decided to go to a stick and puck session at a nearby rink. This is just an hour of shooting on the net with others and, from time to time, participating in an impromptu pick-up game. Having not played “out” (as a player) for a while, I decided to shelve the goalie gear and bring my player bag. While putting on my gear, I decided to leave my elbow pads in my bag. I’m not entirely sure why.
Link number one…broken.
When I first started playing hockey and had finally gotten all the equipment, I used to say I felt “up-armored.” The confidence all that padding instilled was liberating. I could push the envelope and skate hard with little worry that falling on hard ice would do much damage. It was still possible to fall and even fall wrong, but the pads did a lot to help mitigate any pain. So, that day, even though I hadn’t skated on player skates in a while, I felt confident in my ability and could do all the things I’d done before without any trouble.
Link number two.
When doing a hockey stop, you turn both skates to the side in parallel, lean back, and bend your knees. Normal people stop and remain perpendicular to the direction of travel. But me? No, I’m not normal and when I do a hockey stop, I tend to spin about 180o so I’m facing the direction from which I’d just come. I still stop – finishing things up with a little backward snow plow – but that little loop can get me into trouble sometimes if the ice is rough. I’ve fallen flat on my ass a few times doing that. If you’ve never fallen directly onto your tailbone take it from me, if you do, it will ring your bell pretty hard. Even out of practice, I was still doing that spinny, goofy hockey stop.
Link number three.
When the Zamboni resurfaces the ice (Fun Fact: Zamboni is the Kleenex of what are called ice resurfacing machines) getting close to the boards with the blade is difficult. The ice at the boards sometimes tends to be a little rougher than the rest. It can have bumps and chunks (depending on the skill of the driver) that freeze and your skate blade can catch on these chunks if you’re not careful. The ice was rough at the edges the day we were at stick and puck.
Link number four.
I was not used to my skates and my technique was rusty. Darla was over by the boards so I skated over, going into one of those goofy ground-loop stops. I was standing a little too upright and as I was sliding and turning, my skate blade caught one of those frozen chunks of ice. The fifth and final link of the Chain of Trouble broke. My feet stopped cold before the rest of me did.
It happened in what felt like 200 milliseconds; one moment, I was upright and skating, and the next I was crumpled on the ice. But if it was 200 milliseconds, a lot happened in that short amount of time.
First, even though my skates had stopped, my body kept moving. Now I was a giant upside-down pendulum and my center of gravity shifted way backward. I started to fall and then I left my feet.
My instinctual response (which is a ridiculous instinct) was to put out my left hand to break the fall. Which is what I did. But the problem with that was, I didn’t have my elbow pads on. Hockey elbow pads tend to keep your arms bent but my left arm went straight and my elbow locked.
I was now a human pile driver, driving my caisson arm into the ice with the entire weight of my body. Since my arm was stiff, there was nothing to give or absorb the impact. As whatever cushion my arm provided was used up, there was plenty of inertia and downforce to spare and my hand exploded with exquisite and immediate pain. It was the kind of pain that consumes everything you are. Every thought, all sensory input, everything. There is nothing else but that pain. Anything that gets through is all terror and feeble attempts at understanding what’s just happened. I still can’t grasp how tremendous it was and can’t fathom what a more serious injury would feel like. I got to my knees and pulled off my glove. My wrist was turning grayish and swelling. I was nauseated and clearly going into shock. There was no doubt in my mind about what I was looking at. I think I remember thinking Oh, shit, and then, this can’t be good.
The energy of that impact immediately traveled into my wrist, snapping off the tip of my ulna (the small bone) and shattering the end of my radius (the bigger one) into five pieces. It also moved some shit around in there. Cartilage, muscle, something. A bunch of fluid was rushing to the injury too in my body’s attempt to un-fuck itself. It wasn’t working.
To the emergency department, stat! I can’t really even remember the ride with Darla (we left Kyle back on the ice) to the ED. While Darla parked the car, I walked in and reported that I thought I’d broken my arm. They offered to help me with my jacket and I yelled, “No!” I was terrified of any extra pain, so slowly, slowly shucked off my jacket myself. They understood.
The attending physician was friendly. He took some x-rays and showed them to me. Not good. But that was already clear.
“Yeah, you’re probably going to need surgery,” he said, being nonchalant as only doctors who’ve seen a lot can be. I don’t read x-rays, but things looked a bit hosed in there. He told me he would have to reduce the break. I didn’t know what that meant at the time but this is recreating the injury in reverse to try to get things sort of lined up as they should be. He gave me some local pain meds and was chatting me up when he suddenly yanked my hand.
“Motherfucker!” I yelled, putting all politeness and decorum aside for the moment.
The pain meds helped only a little and I understood the logic in this madness. He distracts me, yanks my hand to get the bones and fragments into a sort of stable state, and hopefully, the distraction will minimize the brief shock and pain, tricking my brain into thinking it didn’t actually hurt. My brain wasn’t really on board with that but it worked somewhat. This whole situation sucked.
The temporary cast was plaster plates on the top and bottom of my arm that were formed to the delightful new shape of my wrist joint. That was all tightly wrapped in about thirty miles of ace bandage. This would stay on for about a month and a half. The shitty part was, Jimmy was coming into town for the Christmas holiday and we had plans for some ice time. I had to sit on the sidelines and miss the rare opportunity for us to all skate together. I was so sad about that.
In January, I got to wear a stylish hospital gown, had an IV line put in, and an anesthesiologist injected a shitload of drugs into my shoulder which, in about 10 minutes, rendered my arm one of those salamis you see hanging in the deli. The pain was gone, but I couldn’t use my arm at all. It was kinda weird.
Then came the good stuff in the operating room. Either the same or another anesthesiologist with gorgeous eyes came into view beside the gurney I was on.
“Nap time?” She said. Like I had a choice.
“Will I dream,” I said (yeah, I actually said that)
“Some people dream”, she said and she pressed the plunger on a syringe; duly unimpressed by the clown on the table.
“Woo hoooo!” I yelled, just before I lost consciousness, and as things went dark, I barely heard the seven or eight (there were so many people in there!) medical personnel in the room chuckle. At least I could still work a room.
When I woke up, I had a titanium plate in my wrist with 10 screws holding all that shit in there together. The x-rays still kinda freak me out. I was briefly obsessed with it and looked it up, downloading the “instruction manual” for the Stryker VariAx Distal Radius Locking Plate System. And, yep, it matched what’s in my arm.
The temporary cast (more of a two-sided splint, really) was replaced with one similar to it so the swelling could do what it was going to do before it subsided and the repair could heal. They do this so that, If anything goes weird with this kind of procedure, they can get to the surgical site easily so opt for that splint instead of a cast. After about six more weeks it was clear things were progressing well and I got a fixed cast (it was blue fiberglass.) That was on for another six weeks or so. When that came off, I got a custom, plastic wrist guard and I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to use my left hand anymore. It was painful and weak and I had no range of motion. A bit of physio helped with that but it was a few months before I had the confidence that things would be all right. It was a little unsettling, to be honest.
Finally, in June 2020, against the doctor’s better judgment, I returned to the ice. It was both frightening and thrilling. In the back of my mind I was thinking, “if I land on this thing wrong, that’s it!”
The injury I had is called a Colles Fracture. I also found out that this is the most common type of bone break in human beings. Who knew? But it makes sense. You’re walking along on a cold day, step on some ice, succumb to that stupid instinct, and bam, scrambled wrist bones. “The finger bone’s connected to the hand bone, The hand bone’s connected to the…well nothing really at the moment…bone, Now shake dem skel-e-ton bones!”
I see people with the same casts/splints I had, in their various states of progress, a lot more now. It’s like when you buy a maroon car, it seems like there are maroon cars all over the road. Be safe people. There’s a lot of ice out there!
Main Photo by Thomas Sola