Over the weekend, on a glorious day of blue skies and radiant sunbeams in Italy’s Abruzzo mountains, I fell.
I wasn’t even skiing that fast. It was only my second run of the day (of course). Half-way down the mountain, I gave in to a stupid fall triggered by ice, and I sprawled out like Pinocchio in a face plant. My legs were tangled and pointed in opposite directions. I cried for help when I couldn’t move my legs from their trapped state. My boots remained locked in my skis’ bindings.
I don’t remember much about my fall. But I do remember hearing skiers nearby who stopped to gaze, gasp, and offer sideline commentary.
“Whoa, I can’t even look at her legs,” a man’s voice chimed in Italian. “Makes me feel sick to my stomach. Che impressione!”
Disgusted by the mangled position in which I had landed, he skied away.
It turns out that he was The Good Guy. He was the one who notified the emergency team of my ugly fall, and, shortly thereafter, triggered a Carabiniere-alpine-skier and a ski patrol doctor to arrive at my side on a slick blue-and-red snowmobile.
Meanwhile, my sweet daughter and her adorable friend, who were skiing behind me and saw me fall, sprang into action like mini Super Heroes. Their slender body frames found Herculean strength to pop my boots out of their bindings. Once my boots were free, I felt a passing relief. Then, a lingering pain. My ankle throbbed, and my knee felt stretched and pulled. The emergency alarm of the approaching snowmobile brought a lump to my throat.
“Signorina, what happened here?” the bearded, tanned ski patrol doctor asked as he knelt beside me in crunchy snow.
“Mamma, mamma!” said my daughter. “Did you hear how he called you Signor-ina?!”
Having officially reached Signora status at my recent 50th birthday, I felt momentarily young in a moment when my older body had betrayed me.
Once the ski patrol doctor saw me wince after poking and prodding at my knee and ankle, he scooped me up, and planted me on the back of the snowmobile, seated behind my Carabiniere driver.
“Mamma, it’s my dream come true,” piped my daughter, using her stadium voice as she waved goodbye to me. “A ride on a snowmobile with your arms around the waist of a hot Carabiniere!”
I’ve always admired how my daughter assumes no one understands English in Italy, and shares openly whatever is on her mind.
He grinned, revealing perfect, piano-key-white teeth. My ankle and heart throbbed in unison. He revved his engine, and he gently escorted me down the hill while I held on. I was starring in Chips In Abruzzo with my modern-day Erik Estrada in a Moncler ski suit.
In the Red Cross chalet, I stretched out on the examination bed, and felt like a defeated defender meeting with the coach. In walked an elderly doctor with round wire-rimmed glasses, white eyebrows, and a white beard — he probably played Babbo Natale at the ski resort’s Christmas pageant or Pinocchio’s father Geppetto. He gently squeezed my ankle. I kicked him like an angry donkey.
“Feels like you have a mini-fracture,” he said as his warm palm cupped my cold heel. “It’s time to head to the ER.” We fist-pumped, and off he went to have a mid-morning espresso.
Just as I was starting to droop into a sadness at his prediction and sink into the reality that I had ruined the day of the friends with whom we were spending our ski weekend, my daughter charged in to the chalet to stand by my side.
“Where’s my girl?” she said, her poles flying, one glove missing, her smile as wide as a watermelon slice. “Soooooo, how was your ride? Did you wrap your arms around his waist? How fast did you go?”
And it was then that I was reminded that there are two types of people in emergencies: those who panic, and those who stay calm.
My daughter, ever the healer, moved me to tears, as the sort of person who stays calm in a crisis. In my very low moment, she made me laugh with her earnestness, her innocence, her enthusiasm, and her ability to make the best out of the worst.
Others kept their distance to protect my space and privacy, fearful to come too close and shatter the fragile me they saw slowly sinking into depression on the doctor’s table. But my daughter swept in like a bouncy Golden Retriever puppy, ready to play and protect, nurture and nudge. All I hoped for in that moment was that she would one day follow her calling to help others as a healer, teacher, therapist or counselor. Her attitude showed how she can lead in a crisis, and everyone was thrilled she was Captain.
My husband drove me to the nearby hospital in Aquila, a half hour away, where we spent six hours in the emergency room. Several x-rays later, doctors concluded that I had a micro-fracture of my lateral malleolus in my right ankle.
Seven years ago, walking my dog in the Villa Borghese, I had fractured the same ankle when I tripped, and had worn a cast for a month thereafter. Evidently, despite all the physical therapy and ski trips since then, my ankle gave out again, not strong enough to resist my Pinocchio pretzel pose.
Something else happened while I waited in the hospital. Two of our closest and oldest Italian friends kicked in as the doctors they are during the work week. Both have a bedside manner plus knowledge and experience in their respective fields that charms cranky grannies and soothes middle-aged mammas.
I waited alone, because Covid protocol did not allow for family members to accompany patients. Meanwhile, together with my practical husband, my doctor friends organized crutches, medication, and an orthopedic boot that were ready for me the moment I was released from the hospital (no easy feat on a Saturday evening in a sleepy alpine village).
The three of them were my medical Dream Team. Just as they had been 25 years ago, when I had a moped accident in Rome after swerving to avoid running over a cat. After that accident, I broke my wrist. These three, then in their twenties (my husband was then only my boyfriend, the doctors were then only in their residencies), went into action, and set me up with the latest in cast fashion, medical treatments, and physical therapy.
During this past weekend’s six hours in the ER, I thought at length about the depth of our friendships with these two doctor friends. How, despite our living outside of Rome for 13 of the 25 years we have known each other, they still feel like brothers. And they treat me like their sister. The moment one of them showed up backstage in the Aquila hospital to check on me I almost burst into tears.
Every morning, I challenge myself with a writing prompt. One morning this week, I came upon this one: What is a lesson you can take away from a recent experience?
Here are a few lessons I learned from this one:
—Call up those friends you want to spend time with but never see and make it a point to plan a weekend together. Pull out your calendars, and schedule it. The older we get the more I see that the only way anything comes to fruition is if you plan it ahead of time. Call me American or middle-aged. But this planning stuff works. And the best of friends forgive you when you fall down, and botch the entire weekend they had kindly organized.
—Listen to your loved ones when you are feeling down — chances are they are feeling just as sad as you are. My daughter did her thing. My son covered me with a blanket to keep me from catching cold, orchestrated pick-up points with GPS coordinates, and promised he wouldn’t complain about walking the dog for at least a month. My husband repeatedly offered me support, humor, food and water to lift my drooping spirits. And he cooks for us, even after long days in the office.
—Lean in to things happening for a reason, and don’t let an obstacle hinder you for too long. A friend experienced a similar ankle episode, and refused to let it stop her from traveling on a 12-hour train ride to Berlin from Rome, and, weeks later, on an overnight plane journey from Rome to Hong Kong. Another friend, who broke her foot, said she didn’t let the boot she had to wear for six weeks stop her from kayaking, among other things. I will ski again because it’s my favorite sport. I’ll do the physical therapy required to get back up and on the slopes. Watch me.
—Embrace the Italian public health system as it is extraordinary. Thank the ER doctors for working in tough, under-staffed situations. I must have had about six x-rays of my ankle and knee, and met with at least five doctors. Everything was done for free. I can’t imagine what it would have cost me in America. Every time I thanked a doctor, they looked shocked, as if it had been ages since they’d heard a simple grazie.
—It’s easy to ski near Rome — if you can’t make it to the Dolomites, Abruzzo will give you a great fix. We skied at Campo Felice but there’s also beautiful Campo Imperatore nearby. If you want to spend the weekend, stay at the Grand Chalet delle Rocche. It is run by a brother-sister team who were raised in South Africa but now live in Abruzzo, their father’s homeland. They were kind, generous, and extremely hospitable, and the all-you-can-eat breakfast was delicious. The hotel is warm, clean, quiet, and comfortable, and built several years ago according to the anti-seismic requirements necessary to feel safe in an earthquake zone. It also has a small, warm pool to heal aching muscles: Grand Chalet delle Rocche.
Then, we ate a scrumptious meal here, complete with arrosticini and polenta, at this cozy, village restaurant, which I strongly recommend: Barbagianni.
Years ago, I sang in a gospel choir in Rome, and one of our best hits was Donnie McClurkin’s “We Fall Down, But We Get Up.” It’s a song about moving on after sinning but, hell, it ran through my head the entire time I sat in the ER. It brought back memories of how our musical director used to always say, “If you sing once, it’s like praying twice.” I’ve been singing it repeatedly with the hope of healing faster.
Listen to it here for some entertainment:
I might moan a little bit about this accident but don’t listen to me. I’m not in much pain, my family and friends are rallying with love and support around me, and I’m happily reading, writing and resting at home for the next month. This missive is not a cry for help. It’s a way to help me pass the time. Once I write it all down, I work through it. This is my therapy. And, it is also my thank you note to my family, friends, and doctors after a rough weekend.
Instead, I ask you to consider helping those in Turkey and Syria as the death toll rises to 11,000+ people as of Wednesday morning after this past Monday’s horrific earthquake. We must help all those who have fallen down there. Organizations accepting donations are numerous but I recommend the following article to help you decide where you might like to give:
How to help Earthquake Victims in Turkey & Syria
Sending you healing wishes Sheila! Your descriptions of Sophia’s reactions killed me!😂😂
Sorry, my fellow ski-bum, that I wasn’t there to help! But you must get better soon, Dunja and I plan to ski with you in Europe someday in the not-too-distant future.