In Their Own Words -Susan and Joan Break Legs

I adore reading accounts by fracture victims of their injuries. Several months ago I published a blog post of writer Erica Jong's recollection of her broken leg. It was well received by readers, so here is a double header follow-up.


Our first contributor is Susan. She is the Editor and Chief of one of the largest women's magazines in the United States. Several years ago, Susan published a piece on-line about the leg she broke as a senior in high school.

Recent picture of Susan. She is 6'1" and has legs that go forever

Somewhere out there, there is a woman who is about 30 and played goalie for her high school soccer team. Twelve years ago, at a tournament in Southern Illinois over Easter weekend, she collided with me. I was playing forward on the opposing soccer team and that crash snapped my tibia in half.

I remember getting a breakaway with the ball, tearing down the field, colliding with the goalie as she slid into my leg to grab the ball and then hearing a loud crack as I collapsed to the ground. My coach and teammates said my right shin looked like a valley, with the broken bones pointing towards the back of my calf, dangerously close to breaking through skin. I was rushed to the tiny hospital nearby -- over brick roads, mind you, which is an extra special treat when you have a broken leg.

From there, I took a 3-hour ambulance ride back to my hometown, which had a surgery center able to handle the injury. I underwent emergency surgery the next morning. To repair the break, the surgeon aggressively inserted a titanium rod through the middle of my broken bone (he said he bent a few tools trying to get the rod in.. thanks, I think?), along with two screws, one at the top near my knee and the other at the bottom above my ankle to hold everything in place. The goal was for the bone to gradually grow back together around the rod.

Recovery was long and painful. I was completely non-weight-bearing for what felt like ages and turned into a depressed sloth that laid on the couch, unable to lift my leg even the slightest bit off the couch. Painkillers didn't really help and the strongest ones made me too out of it to even function. I had to forgo a trip to my soon-to-be college to compete for a scholarship, fake-smiled my way through senior prom on crutches and limped slowly across the stage at graduation.

Yet, I was lucky. There have been others with tibia breaks that end up with a lower leg amputation. My doctor told me that I would eventually be back to normal. But contact sports like soccer were a risky gamble due to the fact that if I were to get kicked in a similar place again, the bone would not just break but shatter into pieces around the rod inside my leg. As I slogged through physical therapy that summer, slowly working my back to "normal," I developed a new appreciation for simple activity. When I was well enough, I focused on running, in a straight line, without anyone kicking at me.

Susan showing off her sandy toes

In 2008, I completed my first half-marathon. In 2011, I finished my first full marathon. I've since completed countless races, 5 half-marathons, 2 more full marathons and 1 half-iron man.

There's truly not a day that goes by that I don't think about what happened that spring day. Whether aches in my leg when the weather shifts (yes, that really happens!), setting off alarms when I go through airport security or just seeing the scars on my right leg when I wear dresses or shorts, it's constantly on my mind.

The long-term effects of my injury remain to be seen, but for now, my rod reminds me that it's a privilege and a gift to be able to move freely. (And it's a great push to get going whenever I feel lazy!)

Susan (right) during an interview

So girl, if you're out there: Thank you. Thank you for giving me a whole new appreciation for my body and for the simple ability to walk and run and jump. I never want to take it for granted.


Our second contributor is a former US Olympic Gold Medal Marathoner named Joan. Joan broke her leg skiing in high school and took up running as a form of therapy. Here is Joan's account of the injury.

I won't forget the raw afternoon in 1973.

I stood at the top of the Maine Slope at Pleasant Mountain in Maine. I had been practicing for hours on this slalom course and wanted one last try at a perfect run. I was a tired fifteen year old and the light on the mountain was flat, but I pushed myself to ski.

I lost my concentration on the middle of the course and forgot which way I was supposed to be turning into a gate. I rammed the gate and heard my leg break. There was pain, but my scream was more out of surprise and frustration.

People jumped off the T-Bar lift and came running when they heard me yell. Looking at them, I tried to take my off my mind away from my leg by imagining they were dominoes falling in a neat line.

My brother Andy reached me first. He had been watching from the top of the course. He tried to comfort me saying that the leg might not be broken after all. But I experienced a peculiar sense of knowledge lying in the snow. The leg was broken for sure. I have felt that way only once since then: five weeks before the 1984 Olympic Marathon trials my knee stopped moving and I knew, certainly, that something serious had happened. In neither case was it the pain that revealed the truth; it was the calm, persistent from somewhere inside my head.

I was taken down the slope on a ski patrol toboggan. Thankfully, nobody said what I was thinking: that it wouldn't have happened if I had only given in to fatigue and quit for the day. My father met us at the bottom of the mountain and took me to a local hospital. I was given a shot of morphine and loaded into the backseat of our station wagon for the hour-long drive to the Maine Medical Center in Portland.

 I had gone to bed the night before planning to shower and wash my hair in the morning, but an overnight snowfall as already meant we had to get going early. So my hair was dirty when I started out, and after a day of skiing it was filthy. My sole concern at the Maine

Medical Center was that no one should see my hair. I tried to keep my ski hat on during the whole procedure, but it was removed. I imagined the doctor and nurse at the emergency room desk chuckling about the greasy-haired teenager.

I was fully sedated while my leg was set. I had expected some anesthesia, but was surprised to find myself waking up in a strange room several hours later. The doctor was leaning over me as I opened my eyes. He asked me typical questions: how did I feel, what was my name, etc. I answered him by saying "Thanks for fixing me" and trying to jump out of bed. In the mist of anesthesia my only thought was that he'd put my leg back into working order. He convinced me otherwise and I settled back until the doctor let my father take me home.

The broken leg was the last thing I needed. I had hoped to climb into the "A" ranks of ski racing and there were other things on my schedule that that winter. I wanted to get an early start on preparations for the spring track season. Most of all, 1 wanted to get my driver's license: my exam was set for the following week.

I wondered if there wasn't some sort of compensation for my mishap. I had spent the whole weekend worrying over a paper I was supposed to write on Edith Hamilton's Mythology. I was thinking about that paper as I took my final run down the mountain. I didn't know where I would find the energy to write it after such a long day. Usually my schoolwork came first, but this was a rare occasion when I had put something off for too long. Now I had an excuse for an extension. I smiled for the first time since the accident.

I stayed away from school for a couple of days and did a good job on Edith Hamilton. If I had a favorite season in those days-and it is difficult to choose a favorite in Maine, since all four have something wonderful to offer-it was winter. So it was maddening, but I had to learn to live with the inactivity. I tacked a couple of cardboard signs to my bedroom door, reading "Stamp Out Summer" and "Half Fast Skier."

 On my first day back at school I tried to sneak into biology class behind a crowd of students because I didn't want the teacher to ask what happened to my leg. Unfortunately, I was not yet graceful on my crutches, so I bumbled into the room and took my seat noisily. Nobody said anything as I pretended to be fully occupied in finding a pencil and my biology notebook.

The teacher, Keith Weatherbie, was also the coach of the boys' cross-country team, and I had run with them on one occasion the previous fall. He expected a great deal from his athletes and, to use his favorite metaphor, I already had one strike against me, I was a girl. That's what I thought, anyway. I was sure he'd feel I was a hopeless nerd for breaking my leg. I was also certain he would be upset with me because I had not done my best as an athlete.


The cast gave me fits until I got it changed for a smaller, lighter walking version. There were three flights of stairs at school and I had to climb each of them every day. All the hard work involved in just getting around probably kept me shape for those months, and I had the solace of making high honors twice that year.


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