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The fall I turned a new leaf

October 2, 2018

David-WeldIt’s one thing to read about surviving a traumatic event — quite another to live it.

As fall pours its bounty of fresh produce and balmy weather, I am reminded of the season last year, when I learned some life lessons — particularly, the value of tenacity and presence of mind when you’re injured and helpless, writhing in pain, with nobody around to help you.

A fan of books and movies about daring expeditions, I found myself in the middle of a misadventure of my own making that put my instincts to a cruel test.

I had been assigned to sketch a few “hidden wonders” of Long Island for my newspaper, Newsday. I had chosen my spots — a couple parks and trails, an ice-cream shop, a lighthouse and a beach lined with tall, red bluffs, deep inside a sanctuary in Smithtown. That last one seemed a bit hard to get to, but from the photographs I saw, it looked like the prospective piece de resistance — if I could get there.

I got the easy ones out of the way first, wrapping up the parks, lighthouse and ice cream parlor in a day, and then headed out to Smithtown the next morning, Nov. 9.

The David Weld Sanctuary, an isolated spot along the Long Island Sound, is a sprawling network of walking trails through thickly wooded terrain that loop around a wetland, to an open beach along a line of chiseled hills, whipped and eroded by storms and tides.

I squeezed my car into the tiny six-space parking lot, swung a bag with my camera, pens and pencils over my shoulder, ready to create what I was convinced was going to be my best work for the assignment.

Signs at the gate warned against straying from “marked trails.” A nearby kiosk offered a posted guide to the preserve, but no directions to the beach, where I was headed. I trekked along, clicking away with my camera, happy I had all day to get there. Going by compass directions, the beach should have been a short distance north from the parking lot — but I soon found that the trail heading north tapered off into a dead end, down a slippery slope littered with fallen leaves and branches, close to what looked like winding stream.

I retraced my way back on the trail, and this time headed east. Not surprisingly, the path snaked around the wetland, before leading to the beach — a roundabout route to my destination. This was a “hidden” spot because it was practically inaccessible, thanks to the park signs, which are no help.

After walking through the dark woods for more than a mile, I found shafts of daylight streaking  through the tall trees. The edge of the forest was near. Soon the sight of a golden beach and sea beckoned me to an opening. I took the bait and headed for the crooked,  muddy path down the bluff. A solitary boot print assured me somebody had stepped down this way.

Gingerly, I extended my right foot and felt the ground with the sole of my worn-out sneaker. Would it take my weight? I had to find out.

Big mistake.

As I lifted my other leg to descend, my right foot twisted with an audible snap, and I fell on my  butt in agony, momentarily paralyzed. A pain shot through my leg — I knew I had broken my ankle — and my foot began swelling almost instantly.

I waved to a couple strolling on the beach in the distance. The man seemed to respond, and began approaching me.

“I think I’ve broken my ankle trying to go down this bluff,” I told him when he was within earshot. “Can you tell me the shortest way to the parking lot?”

“Well, there’s a better way to get back up, further down,” he said pointing to a spot where the access to the beach was smoother. How was I to know, I asked him. There were no signs. So much for marked trails.

“I’m sorry I can’t help you,” he said. “It’s still a long way to the parking lot.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll try to make it.”

The man walked back to his partner, and I began testing my ability to hop along on one foot, with minimal pressure on the broken ankle. I made a mental calculation. It was about 1 p.m. I had to get to the nearest hospital emergency ward, but the parking lot was a couple miles away. The park closes at 5 p.m. So if I inched along at a snail’s pace, I could make it in an hour or so. I could then get into my car, drive with my left foot — if not my right foot — get medical attention and then call my daughter, who could pick me up.

But first, I needed to get my photos of the beach — I wasn’t leaving without them.

With my right foot throbbing in pain, I took out my camera, hopped to a suitable point on the beach and clicked away furiously till I had satisfied myself with pictures from every possible angle and composition.

Done with the photos, I packed the camera into the backpack, strapped the bag on my shoulders, balancing on my one good foot, and began my excruciating journey to the parking lot — first crawling up the gentler gradient to the forest trail the man had showed me, and then setting out on the long trek to the car. Perspiration soaked my forehead. My foot was taut and swollen inside my shoe. The  bag added to my weight, but I had to keep moving, I told myself. Sitting and resting would only delay treatment and make things difficult. So I inched along, trying my best not to fall again and worsen my injury.

My thoughts strayed to the three years I had spent in military school back in India. This was what they prepare you for. I thought about wounded soldiers and how they fight the elements to survive — nature is as much an adversary as the enemy. Decades ago, had I not been rejected on medical grounds because of my broken arm, I might have been in the Indian Army myself. Many of my classmates had joined the armed forces and fought in wars. Some had died. My rejection had saddened me as a teenager. I had missed my first goal in life. Maybe this was the universe’s way of giving me a taste of what I had wished for.

Checking on my progress, I found the sea had receded into the distance and that I had traveled a few hundred feet — I was going to make it, probably in less than an hour. And if I could hop this far with a broken ankle, I could definitely drive with it. A walking stick would help to reduce the pressure on it. I picked up a fallen branch that looked like a strong bough. It was too flexible and wasn’t much help, but still better than no support.

On the way, I passed a young man with headphones, heading to the beach. I smiled and told him I had broken my foot on the bluff. He shrugged and smiled back, probably absorbed in his music.

Dragging myself across what now appeared to be  inhospitable terrain for an eternity, stopping occasionally when the pain got unbearable,  I eventually made it to the gate. My spirits soared. Thrilled that I would now be able to drive myself, I collapsed into the seat of my Prius and tested my ability to manipulate the accelerator and brake with my broken foot. It felt a lot easier than what I had just endured.

Soon, I was coasting down a hilly road that led, without the aid of a GPS signal for quite a distance, to the nearest hospital — St. Catherine of Siena.

The hospital parking lot was chock-full of cars. I found a spot far from the ER. Heads turned as I did my one-legged hop over the concrete pavement, stopping to ask a lady  directions. Few people made eye contact, probably because they had worries of their own.

Once in the ER, I grabbed a wheelchair. After a short wait — emergency rooms are like triages that take patients according to priority — I was X-rayed. A doctor dressed my injured foot and told me I had suffered a bimalleolar fracture and might need surgery.

I broke the news to my editor, and my daughter, who drove a long distance to pick me up and take me home.

What followed was a long spell of pain, swelling and immobility:  a two-week wait before surgery — by a talented young Indian doctor who was fascinated by my artwork, and the length to which I had gone, and promised to visit the ice-cream parlor I had sketched — and then two months of bed-ridden recovery.

While I was home, I finished the assignment, which took an extraordinary effort  because I had to get out of bed and sit on a chair with my right leg propped up, to prevent swelling. But I kept at it, and finished more than 7 watercolor paintings, five of which made the cut.

The Smithtown bluffs (shown above) were the most striking.

Eventually I limped back to work, and gradually got better.

It’s been almost a year after the accident, and I’m wiser from what I’ve learned about my flaws and strengths — and that when it comes to the crunch, I can tap into my inner reserves of faith, endurance and determination.

But I am humbler about nature and the environment. It is a precious gift we must learn to preserve and respect — and never take for granted.

After all, we’re not the ones in control. One misstep and you could be in deep trouble.

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One Comment
  1. Shoshana permalink

    Beautifully written!

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