How a Broken Leg Made Doctor Helen a Better Doctor

Helen was a junior in high school in 1972. She came from a fairly well off family and lived in the Charleston, South Carolina area.


1972 was a confusing year in the United States. Richard Nixon was president. The Watergate incident - a politically motivated break in by Republicans at the Watergate building in Washington, SC - would signal the beginning of the end for Nixon's presidency. The Vietnam War still raged. Helen's male classmates were subject to being drafted and sent to Vietnam. War protests were common and many high school seniors were heading to Canada to avoid the draft.


Helen was, and is, a beautiful red head. She was popular in school although not the cheer leading type. Helen played guitar and had dreams of moving to New York after high school to become a folk singer.



A freckle faced Helen a year before her accident


In March of 1972, Helen was driving home from school when her car was hit by a drunk driver. The drunk driver was killed. Miraculously, Helen emerged unscathed except for a displaced fracture of her tibia just below the knee. Helen was placed in skeletal traction for several weeks.



Helen's skeletal traction. Notice the ashtray in the hospital room and the state of the art television in the background

Helen was kept heavily drugged during her first week in traction. Helen was still in significant pain four weeks after the injury when her traction pin was removed

A close up Helen's traction apparatus for those of you who are traction fans

Helen was not a fan of the staff at Roper St. Francis Hospital where she spent her time in traction. In 1972, nuns still staffed many of the nursing positions at the hospital. Although Catholic herself, Helen found the nuns rude, unsympathetic to patients, and under trained. The flowing cassocks worn by the nuns would often strike the weights that hung near the bottom of Helen's bed causing the poor girl to scream.


And the doctor's were not much better. Because the hospital was under cost cutting pressures, procedures were often done without the benefit of proper medications and in settings that would be inappropriate in today's hospital environment.


In late April, a portable x-ray machine was wheeled into her hospital room. The x-ray revealed that Helen's fracture was reasonably well aligned and that she was to be fitted in a cast. An overweight doctor appeared two hours later. Helen's leg was unceremoniously removed the weights and pullies and dropped on the bed. With cigarette in mouth, the uncommunicative doctor used a manual drill to get the Steinmann pin out of Helen's leg. Helen's screams were muffled when a nun shoved a pillow in her mouth.



One week after her release from the hospital, Helen is shown wearing her toe to thigh plaster cast. She is at a family gathering and still in significant pain

Things did not improve when Helen's bed was wheeled down to the hospital cast room. This time Helen was given a wooden block to bite on while a doctor and cast technician pulled and twisted her leg into the proper position for casting.



Helen at her sister's graduation from high school in May of 1972. Helen remarked at the time that she often felt like a piece of meat being moved from one venue to another by her family

Helen, wearing the yellow blouse, is still in the cast at a summer gathering at her family's property in Mt. Pleasant, SC.

In 1972, fractures tended to be treated conservatively. Helen's leg was x-rayed every two weeks but she remained in the full leg cast from April until July. The cast then received a new layer of plaster when a rubber walking heel was placed on the cast. In late August, the cast was cut down to a half cast still with the walking heel on the bottom. So Helen's foot and ankle remained in a fixed position for a total of 22 weeks. The cast was finally removed in mid October.



Helen on Thanksgiving day 1972. Helen was now cast and crutch free but walked with a notable limp. The limp remained until early 1973.

Helen did in fact try her hand at the New York folk singing scene after graduation from college. She quickly tired of the chaotic scene and returned to Charleston for college and later Medical School.



Helen wearing cap and gown and now with curly hair at her graduation from the Medical University of South Carolina medical school in 1984

Medical Schools do not normally have valedictorians. But Helen was the top student in her graduating class. In her speech to the graduates, she used the medical staff's behavior during her recovery from her broken leg as examples of behavior that should not be emulated by her fellow graduates.



A modern day Helen on the right shown with her niece who is also in medical school. Notice any resemblance?

Helen went on to become a highly respected pediatrician in the Charleston area. Patients love her for her caring and compassion. In an ironic twist, Helen joined the staff of Roper Hospital in the late 90's. The hospital was sold by the Catholic Church to a private foundation in 1989. Roper is now recognized as one of the finest medical providers in the southeast of the United States.

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