The Life-Changing Consequences of a Bad Fall
Lessons Barbara learned after her second bad fall,
products that helped her recover,
and her strategies for getting help.
This Bulletin shares the story of my second life-changing fall with a brief mention of the first one. As I wrote this, I was remembering the stories of five of my friends who have suffered emotional and physical pain from falls that resulted in lifelong consequences for four of them. With some 36 million falls being reported every year among adults sixty and older, there are a lot of folks in this “had-a-bad-fall club.” But even young adults can suffer a life-changing fall.
I’ve had only two tumbles worth mentioning since my first life-changing fall on black ice in 2010 when I hit my head, lost consciousness for a while, and ended up in the ER. This fall had lifelong consequences for me as a writer and was also the beginning of the balance issues I have today. (You can read about that fall here, and the benign brain tumor I learned I had while in the ER.)
As for my inconsequential fall in 2019, suffice it to say I didn’t break my hip when I landed on it because I’ve got strong bones; have never broken any bone, perhaps because I’ve taken calcium for decades.
The Consequences of One Misstep
As usual that day in October, I was going down six carpeted stairs to the entry level of the house to turn on the porch light. Given my balance issues and arthritic ankles, I now go down these stairs sideways, with both hands on the decorative iron railing and taking it one step at a time, placing both feet on a step before progressing.
It was nearly dark then, but I neglected to turn the hallway light on and didn’t realize until I took the last step that I was on the stair step above it. I went down hard with my full body weight on the left foot and my right hand clinging tightly to the last vertical railing post as the momentum swung me left. Momentarily hanging about two feet from the floor, my only thought was that I had to land flat on my back instead of my hip or arthritic tailbone when I let go.
Whew! I thought as I lay there on my back considering my predicament. Nothing broken, my back isn’t hurting, and I didn’t hit my head; maybe I lucked out. But how do I get myself up in this limited space? The usual advice for getting up from a fall wouldn’t work for me on a hard floor with little to grab for support; also I can’t put my weight on my knee-replacement joints without intense pain. I must have wiggled around for more than ten minutes before coming up with my only option for getting up (other than to call for help). I grabbed the only nearby door knob with my left hand and the stair railing with the other and somehow got my butt on the bottom stair step. After that, it was simple to get to the next one and finally stand up.
The Results of this Fall
This fall gave me new mobility challenges, to say the least, prompting me to redefine what being mobile means to me: It’s “getting from here to there any way I can.”
It took a few days before I began to realize that this fall had done more damage than I could have imagined. It began with pain in my right shoulder and upper arm that soon had me calling my internist for a referral for physical therapy. I’m still taking PT as I write this. The shoulder is good now but the arm still needs help.
Three weeks after the fall, a new symptom manifested when my left ankle began to give me intense pain. I quickly ordered an ankle brace that helped until I could get an appointment with my podiatrist. He suspected I’d damaged the tendon that runs across the ankle and told me to stay off my feet as much as possible until I could get an MRI. Two weeks later the diagnosis was a “longitudinal split tear involving the tibialis posterior tendon,” one of the most common problems of the foot and ankle. By then, I was wearing my first pair of orthopedic shoes, which my podiatrist said were so good they negated the need for a CAM boot if I wore the ankle brace as well. He told me the tendon might heal in time, or not; that a lot of people who have pain but aren’t helped by physical therapy or don’t want to consider surgery simply live with it and take pain meds as necessary. I’ll have a follow-up MRI sometime in the future.
Meanwhile, I’m grateful to have no pain from the tendon tear, perhaps because the direction of it is longitudinal instead of across. But the lifelong consequence for me is that I may have to wear expensive orthopedic shoes for the rest of my life. (So much for wearing all my house slippers and tennis shoes again.)
I highly recommend the ComfiLife ankle brace and the shoes and boots I got from Orthofeet.com. Although expensive, the shoes are worth the price. Due to my balance issues—which therapy hasn’t helped much over the years—I now need a walking stick for support whenever I leave the house. I don’t need it inside because the strong ankle support of the shoes enables me to walk with more confidence and better posture too. They also make me less aware of the idiopathic polyneuropathy (constant tingling) in my feet.
A Cane vs. a Walking Stick. Moving from a cane to a walking stick was life-changing for me in a good way. The cane forced me to bend over a bit because it wasn't the right height, so my walking posture suffered and the cane also made me feel old. But my Dynamo Prime Stick Cane gives me the mental and physical support I need to walk anywhere without fear of falling. It can easily be adjusted to a height between 33 inches and 55 inches, so healthy young people use it for hiking, which makes it “a cool stick” not just for seniors. People often stop me on the street to comment on it and ask where I got it.
Things I Did After This and Other Falls
• I found a firm pillow and put it in the closet next to the stairway so I’ll have something to put under my knees if I ever fall in the entryway again. (A possibility since I plan to be in this house until I die.)
• I vowed to never again go down a darkened stairway without turning on the light.
• I learned the importance of seeing a doctor quickly to get a diagnosis instead of just hoping things would get better with time and a few Tylenol tablets.
When we live alone, it’s a good idea to make plans for how we're going to get emergency help when we need it. Here’s what I’ve done.
• Instead of getting an annoying call button years ago to be worn around my neck or on my wrist, I chose to use my little Tracfone as my “help-I’ve-fallen-button.” This less expensive option works for me because I carry the phone in my slacks or jeans pocket all day and can use it to call someone for help if needed. But note that I don’t recommend this phone for anything but emergency calls. (See BBB complaints.)
• I also have a smart cell phone I keep nearby all the time but use only for texting and emergency calls or GPS when I’m out and about. Sister Mollie and I devised a plan whereby I text her twice a day. If she doesn’t hear from me on schedule, she checks to make sure I’m okay. If I don’t respond, she will send me help. (Two friends have keys to my house.)
• The KnoxBox is my most comforting option for getting emergency help if I can’t get to the door. A fireman friend urged me to buy this inexpensive device and then installed it for me. It holds the keys to my front door, which are accessible to first responders with a special code the Fire Department has. Now someone can get to me without damaging my front door, take me to the ER if necessary, and then lock the house behind them.
A Helpful Video
Older people are advised to practice how to get up from the floor before they actually have to do this after a fall. This short video offers a good demonstration of how to do that.
This article was first published as a Brabec Bulletin on February 6, 2023.
Barbara Personal T/C