I'm sure you've all gotten bored by now with the serial romances and political diatribes. I think we need something new around here, wouldn't you agree? How about a medical drama? They're pretty popular on TV. Why don't I write you an ER-style med drama, complete with a dash of George Clooney-esqe romance thrown in for good measure? Would you like that?
Every word that follows is the gods-honest truth.
London. The Tideway. A beautiful day, which is rare. The water was bit bouncier than we were used to (the Avon never gets so much as a ripple, even in gale-force winds), but it was as calm as anyone had ever seen it. The sun was shining; it was cold but not freezing; altogether as perfect a day as could have been ordred up for the occasion. The occasion? Fours Head, of course! 4 miles of muscle-heaving, blade-bashing, leg-driving, agonizing glory.
We launched our coxed 4 by Putney bridge and set off up the Thames to Chiswick, where the racecourse begins. It was scrappy at first, but as our nerves settled so did our rhythm and we fell into a strong, steady cadence, periodically giving a burst for 10 strokes at higher-than-race pace and settling down again. 1 mile past, 2 miles, 3 miles. We reached the marshalling area and slotted in with our division. The stream was strong, and every few seconds we took a few strokes to keep from drifting. Slowly we worked our way up the mile-long queue to the start.
Our coxwain asked us to take a few strokes to hold our position. My hands moved forward, level above the saxboard, followed by my body lean as I pivoted from my hips. I felt the gentle tug in my hamstring and let my knees break, bringing my butt gracefully up the slide toward my heels. I squared my blade with a flick of my left wrist, raised my hands to the catch, felt the resistance grab hold of my blade, locked in my lower back, and... *pop*!
that's not right. there's supposed to be a smooth drive there, not a *pop*.
well, we're *popping.* deal with it.
um, ok then.
I finished the stroke, but something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. I took another stroke. Red hot pain stabbed at my lower back. I took another stroke, same thing. Clearly this was not a fluke, and it wasn't going to just go away.
My cox called "easy oars."
"Um, guys?" I said. "I've just done something to my back. I don't know what, but it's bad."
"Do you want to race?"
"Yes, I want to race, the question is whether that's a good idea."
I met my stroke-woman's eyes. I could see her thoughts. Don't you fucking tell me we've come all this way for nothing. You are NOT going to sit on the start line and tell me you're not racing, you fuking cunt.
I pondered the options. Paddle home and lose whatever respect my team mates might have had for me, or race and risk fucking my back up beyond repair. I was thinking about a former team mate of mine who injured her back in a similar fasion and was never able to row again. I was terrified of suffering her fate.
On the other hand, there was no guarantee that would happen, but it was a garauntee that if I said I wasn't going to race my team mates would justifiably hate me forever. I would lose a lot of standing in the club. I would be seen as a liablity, unreliable. It would forever be even more difficult to convicne my coaches that I belonged in the top boat.
Besides, we were 4 miles from where we needed to be, and there was only one way back: row. So it was a question of slowly or row fast. I figured if I row fast at least I get there sooner.
"Cox: If you hear me scream bloody murder during the race, you stop the boat instantly, do you understand?"
"If I hear you scream I'll drop out bow pair instantly and have stern pair paddle us off the course so we don't cause a crash."
And off we went.
There are 2 kinds of pain in this world: good pain and bad pain. Good pain is productive; it's the measure of progress, of effort, and achievement. It's the pain of your legs burning with lactic acid, the pain of your chest heaving as you try desperately to get more air in your lungs, the pain of the blisters on your hands bursting mid-stroke. Good pain is the pain you suffer gladly in order to win.
That is not the pain I was feeling yesterday. I was feeling bad pain, unproductive pain, worthless, miserable, unnecessary pain: the pain of sprained ankles, broken hearts, and, in my case, a ruptured disk. And that is how I rowed Fours Head: with an injured back that made every stroke (30 strokes a minute for approx 25 minutes -- you do the math) agony. Every time I engaged my blade and suspended my body weight from the handle it felt as though I was being stabbed with a knife in the small of my back.
I prayed for Hammersmith Bridge. When we passed Hammersmith I prayed for the black barge. I heard my coach shouting at us from the bank. I prayed for the finish.
Have you ever read Beowulf? No? Go read it. Yes? You know the part where Beowulf rips Grendel's arm from his body, and Grendel lets lose with the most baleful, inhuman howl imaginable? That's the sound I made when we crossed the finish. I didn't even wait for my cox to give the call; I just stopped rowing and shook with pain, trying to catch my breath while crying. Not an easy thing to do.
Our stern pair paddled us toward the bank. I didn't get out. I was waiting for someone to arrive and hand me my wellies. My bow woman had flip flops with her, so she hopped out of the boat and bounced through the cold water and up onto dry land. She forgot to keep hold of the end of her oar. The bow of the boat was pointed into the stream. When she neglected to grab her oar, the bow got caught in the current and was pushed out away from the bank, so the boat was suddenly perpendicular to the bank and being carred rapidly downstream into the path of dozens of oncoming crews. Moreover, with no one holding the bow blade, we were in serious danger of capsizing.
"Number 2! Hold the bow's blade!" someone yelled from the bank. I reached behind me to grab the handle. The twisting motion wrenched at my back, and I howled again.
"Number 2! Tap the boat on with your own blade, try to bring us around!" called my cox. I tried to tap my own blade with my left hand while holding the bow blade behind me with my right. I managed a few feeble strokes, but it had no effect and the effort was agonizing.
"Number 2! Stop panicking!" called someone from on shore.
"She's not panicking -- she's injured!" yelled back the woman sat at 3.
That changed everything. My coach arrived and saw my face contorted in pain. Fully clothed and seeing we were in nearly unrecoverable danger, he ran out into the water, grabbed the bow blade, and pulled us toward shore. He then bent over, lifted me from the boat, and carried me to an ambulance that was parked nearby for just such purposes. My knight in shining spandex!
Inside the ambulance the three paramedics were fussing over a rower who was having an asthma attack and suffering mild hypothermia. She was obviously in need of more immediate attention, so I just sat there gingerly and waited my turn. After about 20 minutes, during which time my wet kit had begun to chill me and my teeth were chattering loudly, a medic finally asked me what was wrong. Briefly, I told him.
His response was to give me one tablet of paracetamol and tell me not to train for a while.
Really? No shit! Thank god for that super-human medical advice, because that never would have dawned on me, i can tell you.
I took the paracetamol and 3 ibuprophen as well. (I have arthritis. I always carry ibuprophen in my bag as a rule. It lives there permanently next to a dry pair of knickers and a rigger-jigger.) After changing (with much difficulty) into some dry kit in the bathroom of a Thames-side boat house chosen at random by me, I stuffed myself into the front seat of my team mate's 3 door subcompact hatchback and braced myself for the 2 1/2 hour drive back to Brizzle.
My mum rang my mobile, and I gave her the grim details.
"Can you stand?" she asked.
"Can you sit?"
"Bolt upright, but yes."
"Can you lie flat on your back?"
"Don't know, havn't tried that yet."
"Well, as long as you can lie on your back by Wednesday, I reckon you'll be fine. In fact, you'll probably want to spend the whole week flat on your back."
Seriously, I didn't need to hear that from my mom. I repeated this bit of the conversation for my mates in the car, who declared my mom "a lege."
They dropped me at my flat and I took the lift upstairs. My flatmate greeted me and said "I heard you had a rough day. I'd hug you but it's probably not a good idea with a slipped disk." (One of his friends is dating a guy on in the boat club, and word apparently spreads fast. News of my injury got home before I did.)
Now I was faced with a dilemma. I had a friend who also happened to be a highly-skilled A&E doctor. Have a friend? Had? This is the bloke who vanished, unkissed. I knew that if I called him he could and would help me, but I also knew he wanted to be left alone, to make a clean break of our brief connection. Do I disturb his peace for purely selfish reasons? What kind of a friend would I be if I took advantage of his position?
But I was hurting, physically and mentally. The paramedics said it might be a slipped disk. My thoughts kept flicking back to O Captain My Captain and how she did her back in exactly the same way, and was never able to row again. I was in pain and I was terrified. I needed a friend as badly as I needed a doctor, and I knew if I waited Iwouldn't be able to see a university doctor until Monday. The paracetamol and ibuprophen were not going to get me through the weekend. I made a decision, turned on my computer, and opened gmail.
And just like *that* he was standing in front of me. As abruptly as he vanished from my life only a few days before, he walked back in again -- in a wimper and an email.
To be continued...
(Sitting at the computer is bothering my back. I need to go lie down. Sorry.)