On Falling, Part IV: Still Feeling Feelings, Almost Two Years Later

I am resurrecting this long-dormant blog to write about my ongoing process of healing after falling off a 30-40′ cliff in June 2015. I think these kinds of experiences change you; at least, I think it changed me, somehow. This is part of a series – check out Part IPart II, and Part III

I have been feeling some serious feelings about the accident lately. It has been almost two years since my accident, yet it still affects me nearly every day. Although I was finally discharged from twice-weekly physical therapy four months ago, I am not fully “healed,” nor should I ever expect to be. The next decade or two will almost certainly bring me post-traumatic osteoarthritis in my knee, which will eventually require a total knee replacement. I’m still working through my PTSD, which has given me a few panic attacks and prevented me from rock-climbing. At the same time, I’m doing things I couldn’t have imagined a year ago–hiking several miles in a day, skiing double-diamonds, walking nearly pain-free much of the time. I am trying to balance feeling grateful for the healing my body has done with the anger and sadness I feel about the limitations the accident has imposed on me. I will never not have a bad knee, a reconstructed jaw, and several fake teeth. This is my body now, and I am still working to accept it.

Enjoying the poppy bloom.

Over the weekend I hiked about eight miles at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. It was a gorgeous day, the poppies were in full bloom, and with my trusty hiking poles I was able to navigate the trail with minimal pain prior to about mile five (the last three-ish miles were an exercise in pain tolerance). I had a lovely time. But now, three days later, I still feel a deep ache in my knee that just won’t go away. I keep willing myself not to limp when I walk, because I know that will just cause back pain. I wonder, will I always feel this way after hikes? Is this the start of the post-traumatic arthritis my doctor warned me about? Will I ever feel “normal” again?

I find myself once again diving into medical literature I don’t fully understand, trying to find some reflection of myself in the studies of tibial plateau fractures, fixation techniques, and long-term outcomes. I haven’t found anything that makes me feel better. In the few months after the accident, I also spent a lot of time with this literature, taking advantage of my access to medical journals and databases through my university. I learned that 1) my leg injury was pretty fucking bad, 2) orthopedic surgeons still consider this type of injury a “complex challenge,” and 3) I’m really fucking fortunate that I didn’t have any complications following my surgery. A while back I checked some of the search-and-rescue literature to learn about my situation there, and it led to a similar conclusion: all in all, I got lucky.

And it’s true, I did get lucky. Most people who have fallen thirty feet in the wilderness do not live to write blog posts about their experience. Sometimes I’m still amazed that I didn’t die that day, and I am full of awe and gratitude. But at the same time, healing from this is still a slow, difficult process. I sometimes feel sorry for myself. This makes me feel like I’m a “bad survivor,” that I’m just not trying hard enough to look on the bright side (I talked about this in Part III of this blog series over a year ago, but I’m still not through with these feelings). Of course, I am actually trying my damnedest to look on the bright side, but that doesn’t change the reality that I have chronic pain and might have it forever. This is a difficult thing to come to terms with.

I don’t know where to go from here. It seems like I should end this post on a quietly optimistic note, like, “I’m still in pain, but I’m getting my life back one day at a time,” or, “overcoming this obstacle is showing me my own humanity” or somesuch, but right now I’m just tired and in pain. I’m giving myself space to work through this whole process, and that has to be enough.


Penn State’s Medical Leave Policy Hurts Graduate Students

(Originally posted at Onward State)

When a graduate student at Penn State becomes ill or injured for an extended period of time, they enter the strange, labyrinthine world of the Graduate School’s medical leave guidelines. Instead of promoting healing, the guideline jeopardizes graduate students’ health, financial stability, and graduate trajectories.

I suffered a concussion in June of 2014, and endured several months of constant headaches, fatigue, memory loss, and dizziness. A specialist at Penn State Hershey diagnosed me with “post-concussion syndrome,” recommending “brain rest” and limited activity until my symptoms resolved.

Health and recovery were the least of my worries. Although my doctor at PSU Hershey encouraged me to take medical leave for the entire fall semester, using this much-needed time to heal meant losing my health insurance and half of my yearly income. Despite doctors’ orders, I had little choice but to continue my graduate studies and research assistantship.

Penn State urgently needs standardized policies to protect graduate employees who are ill or injured. The Graduate School’s guidelines regarding medical leave are unclear and unenforced, and serious medical concerns are instead handled ad-hoc on a department-by-department basis. While students have a right to medical leave, the guideline states that if a student needs more than six weeks of leave, they can lose their stipend and health insurance. Graduate students have no safety net.

Despite the fact that graduate students teach courses, work in labs, and are compensated by Penn State for our work, we are not considered university employees. As a result, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers us no protection. Furthermore, students and departments are often unaware of the details of the graduate school’s policies. With no formal organization to advocate for graduate employees, we are left to try to negotiate within a system that does not prioritize our health and wellbeing.

Injured and concerned about my own health care coverage, I reached out to my department for support. Since I was injured and needed medical care, I could not risk losing my health insurance, but I also could not simply take six weeks off and jump into graduate courses mid-semester. I was told that by taking more than six weeks of leave, “you would in effect be taking a hiatus from the program and would lose both your [financial] support and health insurance.” So medical leave, while technically an option, was not feasible within Penn State’s guidelines.

My doctor insisted on a reduced course load if I was not granted a semester of medical leave. However, Penn State has no provision for part-time work or a reduced load for graduate students. My only real option was to struggle through the semester on a full course load, defying doctor’s orders. And while my professors and advisor were accommodating, my work and health both suffered.

A 2014 report conducted at Penn State on parental and medical leave found that Penn State lags behind other major research universities in providing a formal parental leave policy for graduate students, an issue which extends to medical leave as well. Students who are better equipped to advocate for themselves tend to have better outcomes, while the most vulnerable students lack protection.

Penn State grads need a graduate employee union that can provide a framework to negotiate benefits and stop unreasonable policies from hurting us. As is, the current policy simply does not provide adequate protection and flexibility for students dealing with illness, injury, and other life-changing events. Through a graduate employee union, we could directly negotiate with Penn State’s Graduate School to implement and enforce a comprehensive and usable medical leave policy. We need a policy that enables students to prioritize their health without jeopardizing their degrees.

On Falling, Part III: Triumph Narratives and Feeling my Feelings

I am resurrecting this long-dormant blog to write about my ongoing process of healing after falling off a 30-40′ cliff in June 2015.  I’m still sorting through trauma, pain, frustration, and gratitude to be alive. I think these kinds of experiences change you; at least, I think it changed me, somehow. This is part of a series – check out Part I and Part II, and keep an eye out for more posts over the next few months.

Recently, when people have asked me how I broke my leg, I have been telling them, “well, uh, actually, I fell off a cliff,” and then I’ll chuckle awkwardly (and inappropriately) not because it’s funny, but because I don’t want to think or talk about how horrible it was. Maybe I’ll crack a joke: “after having my jaw wired shut for six weeks, I have a whole new appreciation for solid food! Ha!” or, “with all this titanium, now I’ll always set off TSA metal detectors! Ha!” If I tell you the story like it was no big deal, then maybe it won’t be a big deal, right? Maybe if I spend enough time acting brave, then I’ll actually feel brave.

Triumph narratives have been bothering me. I feel a certain pressure to be “courageous” and to “beat the odds” or whatever, especially because I already survived something that could have easily killed me. It seems like the only culturally-correct way to be injured or infirm is to be a “warrior” about it–there’s no room in our lexicon for vulnerability, frustration, and the banal pains of healing.

Continue reading “On Falling, Part III: Triumph Narratives and Feeling my Feelings”

On Falling, Part II: At the Hospital (or: Becoming a Cyborg)

I am resurrecting this long-dormant blog because I need to write about what happened to me this summer.  The TL;DR version is that I fell off a cliff on June 21 and miraculously survived, but there’s obviously much more to it than that. I’m still sorting through trauma, pain, frustration, and gratitude to be alive. I think these kinds of experiences change you; at least, I think it changed me, somehow.

Over the course of the next few weeks (months?), I plan to write a series of posts about my experience. Part I talks about the accident itself, and this post is mostly about being in the hospital.

I went into the hospital via the helipad on the roof. The first responders in the search-and-rescue helicopter cut off my hiking clothes before we landed so that they could start treating me as soon as we arrived at the hospital. I always thought it would be weird to get my clothes cut off like in some TV medical drama, but it turns out that if you’re in bad enough shape to need your clothes cut off then you’re also in bad enough shape that you don’t really give a shit. No one at the hospital knew exactly how bad my injuries were, so everyone was in full trauma mode. They asked me my name several times, but my broken face couldn’t get the words out clearly. I had started wearing an ID bracelet while hiking earlier this year, so after trying to say my name a few times I gave up and pointed to my wrist.

At the hospital the day after the accident.
At the hospital the day after the accident.

Someone came by to stitch up my chin, which apparently had a horrible gash through which I had lost quite a bit of blood (my skin was yellow all week, which I guess is something that happens from blood-loss?). I didn’t find out until a week or two later that bone had been showing through the wound — I suppose the adrenaline dulled my pain and made it feel more like a small scrape. I was given a full battery of x-rays and CT scans, most of which I don’t remember. In fact, I don’t remember much at all from my week in the hospital. they gave me heavy-duty painkillers right away, which made everything more tolerable. The x-rays and CT scans showed that I miraculously had no life-threatening injuries — no internal bleeding, no spinal damage, nothing. I did, however, have a fractured tibial plateau (leg/knee), a fractured mandible (jaw), and a tripod facial fracture (cheek), all of which were pretty severe, not to mention several scrapes and bruises, five broken teeth, and some whiplash (obviously).

Continue reading “On Falling, Part II: At the Hospital (or: Becoming a Cyborg)”