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Expecting The Best - Preparing For The Worst

As roller derby players it is all too easy to push the idea of major injury to the backs of minds; particularly players who are relatively new to skating. Having mastered the fundamental skills to play the sport and feeling stronger and fitter than ever, it is easy to feel somewhat invincible out there on track.

Once the initial fear of being hit by the ‘big girls’ disappears and we find we can cop a beating with not just bravery but bravado, our pain thresholds increase and we can not help feeling that ‘bad’ injuries are something that happen to ‘other skaters’. We let the thought sit quietly in the backs our minds and assuage any fears with the old adage – ‘It won’t happen to me.’

I certainly never thought it would happen to me.

As a bouting player for almost three years and having roller skated for much of my childhood, I felt relatively experienced on my skates. I imagined that if I was to suffer a major injury, it would be during a glorious moment during a bout. Sometime in five years or so, whilst attempting a spectacular apex jump, I am knocked illegally mid-air and come down awkwardly (still in bounds), yet still on my feet long enough to call off the jam. I’d have a broken ankle, but at least I’d still have the points!

I’d like to say that’s exactly how I recently sustained the injury that has put a halting stop to my derby ‘career’, but unfortunately reality is far more mundane. Six weeks ago, I broke my tibia and fibula, smashing the main weight bearing bone into five pieces, during a routine warm down drill.

I am not here to cast doubt and fear into your derby-minds. Unlike those jilted mummies imparting their horror birth stories on wide-eyed first time pregnant mums, I am not compelled by the mere cathartic (and frankly sadistic) pleasure of telling you how much it hurts. Rather, I am compelled to share my experience in the hope that whoever reads this will be less ill-prepared than I if it ever does happen to them.

Ill-prepared for coping with a broken leg is to put it mildly – my injury came straight out of left field. I was eagerly gearing up for an exciting season with my club, looking forward to skating with new additions to our team (who I’d had a major role in coaching), with the prospect of travelling all over the country in the months ahead for competition. I was bursting with the prospect of now being a ‘veteran’ in my club, and having the privilege of off-loading some of my administrative duties and concentrating more on developing my skills as one of our team’s primary jammers.

The night of my accident topped off what was a psychologically tumultuous month in my personal life. Like many derby players, I was straddling the fine line between derby and real-life and over the course of February the strain began to take a toll on me physically. I was worn out and unwell and that night and was in the throes of full-body flu. Again, like many derby players, I ignored my exhaustion and carried on training regardless, loath to let my team down in the lead up to a game the next weekend.

After a full day at work feeling like hell, and then pushing my body through a two-hour training session, I was like the skating dead. Hindsight is a bitch, and the fact that I was sprinting off-track during the drills to vomit in the bathroom every 15 minutes should have been warning enough to stop. However, I am well-known for being a ‘vomiter’ after jamming, and so perhaps my body’s warning signs weren’t explicit enough.

In the last few minutes of the session whilst doing my final lap, I was stretching my groin muscle up on one skate and my right ankle just gave way. Lethargy, coupled with the build up of lactic acid from training and just plain inattention to what I was doing, caused me to fall like a ragdoll. In a split second, my entire body weight travelled through my main leg bone and - due to both the sticky wheels I skate on and the unforgiving nature of the concrete surface I skate on – had nowhere to go. I felt and heard the bones in my ankle crack (more than once) and then immediately felt nothing. My entire lower leg was numb.

Adrenalin is a wonderful thing – the body’s natural and instant painkiller. If there’s one thing I can say to help calm your anxiety about breaking a limb, it’s that when it first happens, it doesn’t hurt much. Our brains are miraculous in their ability to protect us in that way.

I won’t go into the lengthy story about how I had an adverse and disturbing reaction the ‘green whistle’ pain relief gas that the Ambos had to administer, other than to say I am deeply sorry for punching my teammate in the face whilst she tried to help the Ambos transfer me onto the stretcher. I genuinely had no idea where I was or that my body was experiencing pain, because in my drug-induced state I was happily partying with a drink in my hand and couldn’t work out why no one would give me a cigarette! Little did I know I was actually screaming the rink down and violently resisting everyone’s attempts to move me. Thank goodness for the drugs (and my teammate’s ability to forgive).

Once safely delivered to emergency and then eventually settled into the orthopaedics ward I was informed of the extent of my injuries. The doctor on call queried if I had a bone density problem due to the extreme nature of the fracture, expressing that it was the type of injury usually seen in car crash victims. No, I told her, I don’t have a bone density problem, I play roller derby. I later learnt that this is a common reaction from doctors who haven’t before seen roller derby fractures.

When derby players break bones, we seem to do it in the extreme. The high impact nature of our sport and the fact we strap wheels onto our feet mean that we place a great deal of pressure on the two bones in each of our legs that hold us up. The fractures we incur when our balance or fall goes wrong is logically similar to the kind of pressure enforced on bones in a low-speed car crash – the full weight of our bodies, thrown (or falling) and then landing hard onto a hard floor with nothing to absorb the pressure. I am in no way comparing the overall trauma of a derby injury to those incurred in a car accident, but it is a reasonable comparison when you consider the impact on our bones. No wonder the ER doctors are slightly freaked out by our chosen sport!

After a week in hospital and dealing with a major complication after surgery (Compartment’s Syndrome – Google it), five weeks on I am still struggling with the reality that ‘It did happen to me’. I can’t help but thinking that if I had been better prepared both mentally and practically for the possibility that I would become injured? Would I be in a better place both mentally and practically during my recovery if I had given the prospect a little more serious thought?

I am in the same position as so many of my derby peers in the fact that I have children and a professional career as well as my derby life to consider. These essential responsibilities have been put on hold because of my injury for at least three months. I am unable to care for my children or work. Aside from the other essential day to day independence I have temporarily lost (like walking and driving), the impact has been huge, not just myself, but on all those around me whom I love and depend on me.

When we choose to participate in this sport, we know we are taking a risk, but we tend not to think beyond that. We take out skaters insurance and we hope for the best, but most of us don't plan for the worst. I am not suggesting that you should all live in fear of something that may never happen, I am simply saying that as skaters, we should ensure we are prepared just in case it does. For example, people who live in fire-prone areas make sure they have a plan that will help them deal with the worst case scenario. However, the slight chance of their houses being at risk hopefully doesn't affect their day-today enjoyment of living in their chosen bush setting. They plan for the worst, but that doesn't stop them from expecting the best. For derby players who do hold down steady jobs and have dependants, I believe it would be useful to look at injury with a similar mentality.

Rather than put our heads in the sand when it comes to thinking about injury, I challenge you all to put together an 'major injury action plan'. These are some of the things you will need to consider:

If applicable, who will help me care for my children (for up to 3 months) whilst I am incapacitated? Does this person understand the length of time they may need to help out if you were to be injured?

Who will cook, clean and do your grocery shopping for you?

Who will stand in for you as driver to get your kids to school and get yourself around to appointments?

Is your workplace aware that sustaining an injury is something that could happen? Take some time to sit down with your HR manager and discuss your sick leave entitlements and figure out a plan of action in case you do need an extended amount of time off.

If you are a casual worker, what will you do for money? Is the income supplement from your insurer sufficient for you to live on for the duration of your recovery?
If you have pets, who will help you care for them? ie - who will come over and walk, groom, feed and clean up after them?

These questions are not particularly easy ones to answer, but it will be easier to consider them now than after the fact. They are also by no means exhaustive; there will be many other things to consider depending of course on your own individual living/working situation and the nature of the injury that you might sustain.

Hopefully you may never have to put your plan into action. However, if you do, at least you have already asked yourself the hard questions. So please take the challenge and replace the old 'It won't happen to me', with the more useful 'PREPARE for the worst, but EXPECT the best'.

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