I looked up at the parallel bars and took a deep breath. I was next and I knew, I just knew, that I would not be able to perform the task Coach set for us. I fidgeted in the line and tugged at my gym shirt. This was the first year I had to change for gym class. I missed jumping rope and playing kickball. Why did middle school P.E. class have to have units? Why did we need a gymnastic unit?
I watched in awe as the girl in front of me pulled herself up and propelled herself across the bars. I could see her arms straining as she held herself up and was impressed that she made it nearly all the way across before dropping neatly to the mats below.
Coach waved me forward. I tugged at my shirt again. I scuffed my feet across the floor, my sneakers squeaked and chirped. I stopped in front of Coach and listened with half an ear as she gave me instructions.
“Alright?” she asked.
I hadn’t understood a thing she said.
“Please, Coach,” I whispered up at her while my eyes were fixed on the bars looming above my head. “I can’t do this.”
“You need to at least try.” Coach gave me that look. The one that makes you feel small and like crap because you’re afraid. I was overweight in 5th grade and Coach seemed to think I was trying to get out of any exercise.
“Coach,” I implored and nodded to a small group of girls jumping rope. “Let me do something else. I can not do this.”
“Heather,” Coach was patient but insistent, “Everyone has to give it a try first.” She leaned down, her eyes sympathetic. “I don’t expect you to be perfect. I expect you to try. That’s all I’m asking.”
I nodded even as tears pooled in my eyes.
I walked up to the bars. I could feel all sorts of eyes on my back. It made it worse. I reached up for the bars and had to go on tiptoe before I could grab them. It wasn’t as hard to pull myself up as I thought it might be, but I knew that it was going to be near impossible to lift my body up over the bars. I struggled. I pulled. I strained and grunted. Coach kept giving me very loud words of encouragement. And then I was up, my upper body over the top of the parallel bars. My arms burned and then, all of a sudden I was on the mat, my left arm bent funny underneath me.
I screamed and the tears that I had gotten a head start on flowed freely. Coach crouched beside me, assessed and gathered me to my feet. She walked me to the nurse’s office where a quick phone call to my mom had her speeding to the school. By the time she arrived my arm was puffed out twice the normal size and turning an ugly bluish purple. My tears had yet to stop. I had ice wrapped around my arm and was quickly shuffled off to the doctor’s office.
Back then doctors did everything in-house. There wasn’t a specialist just the general practitioner. Dr. Smith ushered us into an exam room, threw some lead pads over my chest and snapped a few quick x-rays – the first I’d had except for dental x-rays.
I sat as still as I could while the x-rays were being developed. Mom stood by me smoothing the hair from my forehead. The room felt too warm. I felt too clammy. Everything seemed like it was spinning and a roller coaster at the same time. I closed my eyes and gulped. With every heartbeat, my arm felt like it swelled and ebbed like the ocean tides.
“Mom?” I whimpered.
“It’ll be fine, sweetie,” she said.
I wanted to believe her. And then the doctor came back in. He waved a shiny, floppy black x-ray at us.
“It’s definitely broken.” He shoved the picture onto a light box. “Both the radius and the ulna.”
He pointed to the breaks. My bones were clearly not in the right place. The x-ray showed that just above my left wrist, both snapped – thankfully not too much and certainly they weren’t poking out through my skin. My stomach rolled as I stared at the x-ray.
“I’m going to need to set it.”
He took out a bowl, plaster and rolls of gauze and thick cotton. I watched as he prepared everything next to the exam table setting each tool needed on a shiny stainless steal tray.
“I don’t feel so good,” I mumbled and lay back down.
“This is going to hurt, Heather,” Dr. Smith said. “I won’t lie. But I need you to lie as still as you can, understand?”
I nodded and my mom moved closer to my side. The doctor took my arm in his hands and began to gently rub.
Then SNAP! My arm clicked back into place, one of the single-most disturbing noises I have ever heard. I shrieked, my voice cracking and echoing in the room.Tears exploded from my eyes. The room spun about and tilted oddly. The door pounded open as a nurse rushed in expecting to find someone dead.
“I’m going to be sick!” I screamed and turned my head.
Mom grabbed a plastic bowl and shoved it under my mouth as heaved up my lunch. I sobbed while I puked, the smell stinging my eyes and eliciting more tears. When I was once again calm, with nothing else to come up, my mom helped me clean up and got me a drink of water to rinse my mouth out.
Dr. Smith, working quickly, wrapped my arm in the thick cotton and began slapping on warm strips of gauze dipped in plaster. My arm, throbbing slightly less than before, felt heavy and warm. The shiny white cast weighed my arm down. I felt off balance. Dr. Smith fitted me with a sling.
“The cast will need to stay on for six weeks,” Dr. Smith said. “Keep her calm – don’t let her run around. You don’t want her falling again.”
“Does this mean I can’t go to gym?” I asked staring at my arm.
Dr. Smith nodded. “I’ll give you a note.”