In October 2019, while in Mexico City, I shattered the bones in my left ankle. It happened due to a… let’s just say embarrassing (if not stupid) accident, but that’s neither here nor there.
Though I arrived at Ruben Lenero Hospital on an atmospherically different pre-pandemic early afternoon, the sun was long past set before I was seen by anyone.
Finally, a resident arrived, performed a brief exam on my ankle, said something in Spanish, and had me promptly pressed into a gurney. I looked at my girlfriend, who’d been with me, hoping she’d have more answers than I did. She told me to relax — and that they were going to try to set the bones.
“What about painkillers?” I asked no one in particular. I didn’t get an answer before the resident grabbed my foot — which had been dangling from my calf at a sickening angle — and twisted it, hard.
I’d felt pain before, but this went beyond anything I could have imagined. Someone wedged a roll of gauze into my jaws for me to bite into, but I was screaming too much to keep it in place.
The resident twisted my ankle again and again, attempting to wrench the bones back into their correct position. I would have given anything in the world to make the pain stop. Literally anything.
I would learn later that Mexico was experiencing a painkiller shortage, hence the lack of anesthesia. I had to endure the painful twisting process twice more before they were finished — and then I (mercifully) passed out.
I spent the next 10 days in one of Mexico’s public hospitals, awaiting surgery alongside 14 other patients. Many of them had been there for weeks.
No one spoke English, and I barely speak Spanish, but few experiences in my adult life have had such a profound impact on me.
I’m just as susceptible to misery as anyone else. This might seem obvious, but when you’ve spent the better part of 2 decades living dangerously and narrowly escaping catastrophe, it’s easy to misplace your sense of mortality. And once some terrible reminder of it rears its head, people — perhaps especially those who are suffering themselves — can be humblingly heroic in ways small and large.
To describe my time in the hospital ward in detail would require far more words than I have for our purposes here, so let’s take a sort of impressionistic approach:
Javier — a 45-year-old, walking around with his ass hanging out and staring into his food like it was a crystal ball. We had to remind him to eat. And I had to remind myself not to take eating for granted.
Lorenzo — he had a broken leg but worried only about the pain of his fellow patients (“Tienes dolor?”). He was downright flabbergasted to learn that weed is legal in my native state of Washington.
There was a teenager lying across from me who had a shattered pelvis. I never learned his name, but I’ll never forget the thumbs-up he’d often throw my way.
Irving — another young man with a broken collarbone who insisted I take some of his contraband marzipan, because he was concerned that I wasn’t eating enough to heal.
The entire ward seemed to be in agony the night the hospital ran out of painkillers, which was also the night I happened to have my surgery. It was daybreak when a reinforcement dose finally arrived, carrying sleep with it.
With Frankensteinish plates and screws holding my ankle bones in place and no cast or boot for protection, I was released to convalesce at my Mexico City apartment.
A decade earlier, I’d broken my humerus (I’m not a daredevil, I promise). While recovering from that injury, I’d packed on a ton of weight. That must’ve done a number on me, because this time around, I was more concerned about keeping the weight off than healing properly.
So, I began strictly regulating my diet. Within 2 weeks of leaving the hospital, I was making daily trips via crutches or wheelchair to the gym four blocks away from my apartment. I doubt my doctor would’ve approved, but I’m notoriously stubborn.
Six weeks passed, during which my girlfriend fretted that I was pushing my recovery too hard. I insisted that I had this while being fully conscious of my stubbornness.
I did, however, ease into a sense of humility and an increasing appreciation for my limitations. A few falls, moments of pain, and the fear of having to start again at square one will do that to you. When I finally attempted to put weight on the ankle unassisted, it was terrifying, but I was elated to find that I could stand on both feet.
A few weeks later, I boarded a plane to Bangkok, carrying with me the weight of my backpack and guitar. Every uncomfortable step I took through the airport brought new doubt that my ankle would hold up, but I ignored it. I’d planned to be in Thailand by the end of the year to work on a writing project, and nothing was going to stop me.
I arrived on December 31 and couldn’t manage to do anything beyond watching the New Year’s Eve fireworks from bed. With each colorful explosion (and the tiny explosions in my ankle), the realization crept in — I really shouldn’t have rushed this recovery.
One night, after weeks of incremental progress with my self-made physical therapy program, I found myself walking down one of Bangkok’s unevenly paved streets.
I took a misstep and twisted my ankle. Pain and fear immediately swept me away. I was suddenly back in that Mexico City hospital with my bones being set, experiencing the uncertainty and panic all over again.
I staggered aimlessly along, trying and failing to calm myself. But I did have enough presence of mind to realize that this is what PTSD is — a sudden teleportation back into the moment of my most terrible pain. Even knowing it, I was still unable to escape it.
I desperately limped into a barber shop that was open late. It was quiet inside and, similar to the hard plastic beds in the hospital ward, the room had a half-dozen or so reclining barber seats running along each wall. But unlike the hospital beds, these chairs looked soft, comfortable, inviting.
The young Thai barber looked down at my limp and then up at my panic-stricken face and gestured for me to take a seat. I asked for a basic trim, but he gave me a haircut, a shave, and even a brief shoulder rub that instantly calmed me.
For those few short minutes, I felt better. The pain in my ankle subsided, and I was able to settle my thoughts. I wanted to pay the barber for the extra service, but he didn’t take a penny over what a trim costs. I thanked him in my bad Thai and gingerly walked home.
I have no idea if I would’ve found that barber shop if I hadn’t twisted my ankle, but I’m glad that barber’s door was open. Sometimes the best thing someone can do is have their eyes open to see someone else’s struggle.
That was 8 months ago, shortly before the world slid into full-blown pandemic panic. Today, I’m significantly more mobile despite (stubbornly) never having met with a proper physical therapist. There are still painful days and moments when panic rears its head.
Even so, my experience gave me transformational value I couldn’t have foreseen. I learned something essential about myself, about my strengths and frailties.
I have an individualistic streak that can veer toward pathological when left unchecked. Sure, self-sufficiency has its value, but at a certain point the maverick mindset can begin to verge on delusional.
Recovery is a process. It’s easy to forget that a process takes time and that time rarely has to be spent alone.
Recognizing kindness also requires slowing down. Even when the setting and circumstances aren’t ideal, don’t miss the people who can provide a moment of reprieve from the storm.
Nick Hilden is a travel, fitness, arts, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Health, Thrillist, Vice, and more. You can follow his travels and connect with him via Instagram or Twitter.