Out of Joint

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Out of Joint

*I wrote this essay in about two hours this afternoon to demonstrate how a descriptive essay could be built from around ten minutes of Internet research. Nothing fabulous, just an example for my students.

A car passing by woke me up. I heard the sound and opened my eyes to see headlights on the pavement from a worm’s eye view. I looked at my watch and saw it was three a.m. I tried to stand up. It wasn’t right.

Under normal circumstances, the heel bone, called the calcaneous, contacts the ground and flexes against the talus stretching the Achilles tendon. Calcaneous means heel in ancient Greek, and just above it rests the talus, a small bone in the center of the foot that acts like the center of a U-joint in the lowest part of the ankle. But talus is also used to refer to the pile of rocks at the base of a cliff. The second meaning seemed closer to me, as I collapsed again to the ground, unable to support my own weight.

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” A bad television commercial from years ago came rushing back in my head. If it wasn’t so embarrassing, I might have laughed. I moved my ankle back and forth. It can’t be broken, I thought, I must have sprained it somehow. I couldn’t remember. The last thing I remembered was waking up on the ground. My ankle seemed oddly disconnected from my body. It was clearly the weak link in the process of standing up. I could move it though, so I was sure it wasn’t broken.

The Dutch anatomist Verheyden first named the “Achilles heel” when he dissected his own amputated leg. According to myth, Achilles’ mother tried to make him strong by dipping him in the river Styx. She immersed him completely, except for one of his heels— leaving him vulnerable to attack there. But that’s not the only version of the myth. According to Homer, the great hero was vulnerable because of his excessive pride. My pride welled up after I fell down. The pain seemed secondary to the thought of being found helpless on the pavement of the parking lot.

I contemplated crawling the hundred yards back to my apartment. As I laboriously tested the limits of my limbs, another car passed by. Every time my tibia, the large bone at the center of my leg, the drive shaft that moves the leg forward, contacted the pavement it began to pipe a song of pain. Appropriate, really, because the word tibia is actually taken from a word for flute. Six flutes were found in China, the same year of my collapse, dating from 7,000 to 9,000 years old made from the leg-bones of cranes. Something was wrong, and the song of my leg told me so. I was reduced to crawling like a worm. After managing to travel the scant four-feet to the end of my car, I was in a cold sweat. It could have been shock; I’m not sure. I passed out. When I woke up, I looked at my watch again. It was 3:15.

It was at least thirty feet to the other side of the parking lot. I wondered if I would be squashed like a can on the pavement if I passed out again before reaching the other side. It was a tough decision, but my pride wouldn’t accept any other choice. I had to use my arms because any attempt to touch my leg to the ground created pain so intense I could not stay conscious. But I made it, and passed out on the other side on the comfortable grass.

I repeated the performance several times, finally arriving at my apartment by 4:30 a.m. where I slept in my own bed. When I woke up several hours later, I realized I needed to call for help. At the hospital, I finally found out what was wrong.

The primary ankle joint is composed of three bones: the talus, the tibia, and the fibula. My fibula, the small thin bone that makes up the other side of the primary ankle joint had sprung apart. Both my tibia and fibula were fractured and occupying different zip codes, leaving the talus a useless stone above my heel. It took thirteen screws and a long titanium strip to bring them back together, including a screw an inch and a half long to convince my fibula to stay in place and form an intact ankle joint. The word fibula actually means pin or clasp, and like a sprung safety pin, mine just wasn’t doing the job without help. Because of this experience, I received a crash course in the anatomy of the ankle joint. The doctor, though helpful, refused to say when I could walk again.

Three months later when they took the massive screw out the joint stayed together. Gradually, I was able to walk. My Achilles tendon had shrunken to a hard-knotted mass, and it seemed to take forever to get it stretched back into place. Only after I began to walk did the doctor tell me that it wasn’t a given. Many people do not recover from this sort of injury. I suppose for me, it was a matter of pride.