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A tale of two accidents: Injury at 20 is not the same as injury at 55.

An ordinary morning in Syracuse, New York. The kettle was on. I decided to whip down the basement stairs to start the washing machine. Stairs with a rail, but a rail set back in a recess. A brick wall at the bottom, so you have to make a sharp turn into the laundry. The laundry bag was lying on the top stair, so I kicked it down -- or that was my intention. I don't know where the bag ended up, but me, I was airborne, headfirst, grappling at empty space.

I can't say I remember the impact; next thing, I was lying on my back on the concrete in the narrow gap between the bottom stair and the wall, and yelling for my partner, Harriet. Harriet is one of those people who is always in the middle of something and tends to say: Wait there. One moment. But I screamed, and she came straightaway.

From her point of view, it looked bad, my forehead covered in blood, no sign I was about to get up. As the shock began to wear off, the pain in my left arm grew. My mouth was dry. I agreed she should call 911.

An army of tall men arrived, first the firefighters for some reason, then the ambulance paramedics. Surreal, towering at the top of the stairs, giants stepping over me. A barrage of questions about whether I'd lost consciousness, then they eased me onto a rigid stretcher and fitted a neck brace, even though I said my back and neck felt fine. No painkillers, they insisted, and no water, until I was x-rayed had and had seen the doctor.

Later, it was evident I had hit the wall with my arms and head, left arm first, then forehead several times like a drum-roll, then right arm. I hadn't the slightest bruise on my lower body. The x-rays showed a dislocated left elbow and shattered wrist. My other wrist felt a bit sore, but so much less so that it was another two weeks before we found out it was fractured too. I had no glaring symptoms of concussion at the hospital, but when I lay down that night, and whenever I turned over, the room spun.

If one is going to fall headfirst down a flight of stairs, the US in the 21st century is an ideal venue--as long as you have insurance, that is. My Australian travel policy covered me, but the costs could have wrecked an uninsured person's life--the situation of millions of people in the US. Doing without treatment after such an accident would hardly have been an option--by the time I was moved; the pain of the dislocation was almost unbearable.

It took an hour or two before it was finally ruled safe to give me painkillers. In the meantime, when we were left alone, Harriet and I, fresh from months of antiwar rallies, wryly chanted: What do we want? Morphine. When do we want it? Now.

Harriet stayed the whole day in the emergency room, while I was wheeled in and out of x-ray, inspected by an excellent orthopedic resident called Elvis, and finally knocked out while they wrestled the dislocated bone back into its socket, manipulated the shattered wrist into a straight line, and encased my left arm in plaster. They sent Harriet out for this procedure, which must have been rather gruesome for anyone who was not unconscious--the nurse fled the cubicle near the end, looked wanly at Harriet while parting the curtain, and fainted at her feet.

It was 35 years since my body's other watershed moment. I was 20 then. It was equally sudden. A cool April morning on a country highway through the forests of East Gippsland in southern Australia. One minute heading for my sister's eighth birthday party, the next skidding into a head-on collision. That transition dreamlike, a moment when the back wheel caught the soft dirt on the road margin and the car was on its own trajectory, out of my control Again, no memory of the impact--very little, memory at all. I recall telling an ambulance officer I had to be back at work on Monday and how he smiled. I was still sitting in the driver's seat, in deep shock, unaware of my broken legs as they cut me out of the car.

Nor did I feel any pain until, eight hours later, I got to the Gippsland Base Hospital in Sale, where I was born, and they took the splint off my broken femur. My language, in 1968, absolutely scandalous for a girl; so bad apparently that the doctor lectured my mother about it. After that, apart from a dream--a lurid nuclear catastrophe at Port Melbourne and a narrow escape through the dock-lands--I knew nothing for a week. Then I woke up feeling pretty good, with a grin and an appetite.

Surfacing to five months in hospital, I nonetheless felt lucky. Few people, I was told, had ever survived a severe embolism of the bone's fatty tissue--an occasional effect of a bad fracture, where the marrow leaks into the bloodstream-and no one had in Australia. It was touch and go, but I made medical history. Thanks partly to my mother's anxious watch and insistent interrogation of the doctors, and partly to the unpredictable behavior of the fat, which bypassed my brain. Young then, and determined to resume a full life, my helplessness did not much trouble me--I was confident it would be ephemeral.

I was the kind of person who ran everywhere and, though this habit was interrupted briefly by the car accident, I was running again a year later and went on running for another 20 years. As the running subsided, I walked in rugged country. For years, my greatest pleasure was to drive up into the mountains of the Great Escarpment of eastern Australia, with whatever friend I could persuade, take map and compass and a billy for tea--and tramp out into the trackless bush, through gorges and turbulent upstream rivers, across swathes of dense groundcover where I had to cut my way, aiming for pinnacles and waterfalls. I called them Iron Woman expeditions.

Though recovery felt complete, my broken legs had set hidden traps for the future. With age came the return of the injury. Damp weather began to attack my knees. I could, predict rain. Then, around my 50th birthday, quite suddenly, the arthritis set in-the intermittent twinges became constant. My doctor 'told me to walk less often and shorter distances. As if I had only a certain quota of steps left, and I'd be wise to ration them. The Iron Woman sat down.

There's a lookout on the northern spur of Firestone Mountain on the escarpment, where you can look east into the Forbes Valley and west into the Hastings, a rocky spot with windswept gum trees and a sense of being in the sky. To get there, you ascend through the rainforest, no track, blazing the trees to mark your, path. Last year, when Harriet came with friends from California, I was determined to take them there. Having plied myself with anti-inflammatory drugs for days, I made what I knew would be my last trip. to the northern ridge.

A luminous winter day for the eight mile hike, boiling the hilly on the summit in the sun, lazing on the warm rocks. A certain frisson on the way back when we lost the next blaze for a while. Despite the unnerving sensation of bone grinding on bone and days of hobbling recovery, I was recklessly grateful for the pretext to use up a great number of paces, to be up there with friends among the windswept gums, to gaze down again at the forested folds of the mountainsides and the tiny paddocks, far below on the river.

Like many middle--aged people--and despite the glaring evidence of wrinkles and aches--I had not until now been compelled to make the transition from identifying myself as "young." My recent injuries cut across this fiction. Though relatively mild, at least by comparison with broken legs and coma, the context is sharply different.

At 20, being helpless was a passing phase, borne amazingly lightly. This time, I got a foretaste. of being old and irremediably dependent--in the first week I couldn't face stairs without an escort. Six weeks later, my head is still dizzy, my left arm swollen and stiff. The road back feels endless. Optimal recovery no longer promises a return to perfection.

At 20, being a miracle survivor reinforced my youthful sense of immortality, made me invincible. And tempered every tendency to feel unhappy about the damage to my legs. Now, though I've focused on the considerable luck involved in not breaking my neck--or even my right arm--its been hard to counter the sinking feeling, the regret, about damaging a body already past its best.

Last weekend at Niagara Falls, exhilarated by the causeway walk over the rapids, but exhausted by lunchtime, I tried to reassure Harriet. Won't be long, I said, till I'm back to the full 82 percent.

KERRYN HIGGS is the author of All That False Instruction, Australia's first lesbian' novel. It was reissued by Spinifex Press in 2001. She is also a freelance environmental writer.
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Title Annotation:Women Aging
Author:Higgs, Kerryn
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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