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  • Writer's pictureNadine Bennett

Fast forward and start over

It was an accident, I dropped her while trying to hang her above the pool, and she fell and broke into pieces. When I sat down to glue her back together, I realized her broken body was perfectly symbolic of how 2022 went for me. I'm not one to write pity posts, but I need to address how shitty the past year was before we can move forward here together...

I had 2022 all planned out...the swim goals, the training, the passion and drive. My mom passed away on December 31st, 2021 and it took time to come to terms with the sadness, but I eventually got to a point in spring of 2022 where I could focus on myself and use her passing as a reminder to live every day with a deeper mindfulness. I was swimming well, working on technique, addressing worries and fears, testing my feeds, planning logistics for my upcoming swims. I had never felt more confident about what I was setting out to do - a goal of swimming 100km that summer in Vermont US.

And then in July, I had an accident in my kitchen. I stumbled on something and fell HARD into the corner edge of the island in the centre of the kitchen, which dug deep into my gut on the right side. I laughed it off at first, because I'm always clumsy and I thought - wow that's gonna hurt later! The next day, I was a little sore in my lower rib area, and figured I'd pulled something in the fall. I headed to the pool later that week anyhow for my last 10km training swim before my next big swim event of the season, and again, as I pulled my body up onto the deck after it was over, I noticed the area was still bothered. I went to a walk-in clinic the next day, just to be cautious, and was diagnosed with pulled intercostals (muscles between the ribs). We talked about the fall, but since my breathing was normal, they determined there wasn't likely to be any rib fractures. I took naproxen, which had no effect.

Now, I know that you know that athletes are idiots when they are hyper-focused on a goal, to the point that the mind overpowers whatever the body is trying to tell it. My pain got more intense, but I figured I could mask it with pain meds on my big swim and deal with it afterwards, so I packed up my swim gear and got the car ready. The night before I was set to leave for Vermont, my husband gently said, "do you really need to do this swim, can't you skip just this one and let it heal?" I reassured him I'd turn back if things hadn't improved by the time I got to Vermont. I told my coach about the pain too, we were planning to meet up at the swim, I wanted to her know I was worried at that point. The next morning, off I went.

It's about 10 hours from my place to Vermont, so I like to take two days to get there. The pain intensified terribly during the car ride on the first day, probably due to the jostling of the car. I had maxed out all possible pain med options, kept reaching down to apply pressure to my side, and was in such bad shape as the hours progressed that I knew I had to get off the road and lie down. I stopped at a motel in Maine, and immediately called my sister, who is a doctor. Talking it through with her made us realize that the fall in my kitchen must have damaged something, but again - my breathing wasn't laboured at the time, so it didn't seem to fit a rib fracture. It was best at this point to seek medical attention.

I didn't want to end up in a hospital in the US, I wanted to be back in Canada and close to home so that my husband or family could easily reach me. I got up early the next morning, headed back to the border, and then to the Moncton hospital emergency room. The last 20 minutes of the drive, I considered pulling over and calling 911, the pain was so bad I was now verbalizing out loud and all my energy went into focusing on the road, I pushed myself to keep going. At this point, my entire right side was raging with pain, 8-9 out of 10. My walk from the car to the emergency room door seemed to take forever, one foot in front of the other very slowly, my breathing was shallow and hard. I felt like my chest has collapsed on to my lung.

X-rays showed at least one, possibly two, ribs had separated from my sternum, something called costochondral separation. So while the symptoms didn't fit a rib fracture, the impact of my fall had caused my rib(s) to break off the sternum. The doctor exclaimed it was fairly uncommon injury, but yes my pain was real and no I would not be going to any more swims in Vermont this summer. And just like that, my season was done and over.

The weeks that followed were hard, the extent of the pain was shocking, I had to lay very still and let my husband do pretty much everything for me at first. I don't like taking medications unless absolutely necessary, but needed to be on the strong stuff for a couple of days to help me cope, and something milder for weeks after. The weight of my wet hair during a shower put painful pressure on my ribs, it was hard to wash myself because my chest was swollen and couldn't flex. I had to hold my ribcage in place when I pooped. I missed my mom all the more, her caring and comforting presence. I had to miss her celebration of life too because I couldn't travel, I'm not sure I would have gone because I prefer to grieve in private, but the choice was no longer mine to make. It really fucking sucked.

But it got better, eventually I could do little things - move around the house, cook meals, unload lighter items out of the dishwasher. I worked from the daybed in a horizontal position for about 4 weeks, the cat kept me company. And 6 weeks after the hospital visit, I stepped foot in the ocean for the first time, and walked back and forth in the shallows. I missed the water so much, the freedom of movement, weightlessness. Another month later, I was back in the pool, eager but cautious. My sternum was sore, having to relearn old patterns of movement. But I was back...sort of.

I had developed muscle spasms across my ribcage caused by unhappy intercostal nerves, sometimes lasting for hours, medication helped but it wouldn't go away. Then in early November, the point of impact where I fell started to hurt again, and worsened. My imagination went wild, surely some organ was about to tear apart and burst open. I woke up one morning in excruciating pain and back to the emergency room I went. This time they did a full range of tests - blood, X-rays, ultrasound, CT scan. The results? My body was healed, I was perfectly fine, a shining specimen of good health. What the actual fuck?

I was near tears after the doctor told me, I couldn't understand why I had so much pain if my ribs were healed and my organs all in perfect order. But by coincidence, the doctor himself had been through a similar experience, he had broken a finger and for many months after it was healed he'd get intense pain that was seemingly unexplained. The tests having ruled out any further injury, he felt the more suitable diagnosis for me was Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (excess and prolonged pain due to injury) and Allodynia (intense pain to stimulus that normally wouldn't be). It was as if my body and mind couldn't actually accept that I was healed - the intense pain had been traumatic, and the fear of re-injury haunted my mind daily. The pain was real, but the injury was healed.

He recommended physiotherapy, to help me re-learn movement, and he was right. The clinic where I go for massage/physio had someone on staff who was experienced with my condition, and helped me understand it better. The physiotherapist had me move through different positions in a controlled manner, do more to think positively about movement instead of letting fear take over, and eventually start doing physical activity even if I was scared.

It's been almost 9 months since the accident, and physically things are much better. I still get sternum pain sometimes and spasms in my rib area, but it's faint and only lasts a short while. The fear of re-injury is still pretty real though, whenever someone does breaststroke in my swim lane I'm on high alert, I start to imagine their whip-kicking foot reaching across and hitting me in the ribs, sending me into fits of pain. Case in point, the morning after I wrote the draft of this post, I woke up with mild spasm pain across the area from just having thought about it, reliving it in my head as I wrote it all down the day before. It will pass, in time.

A long read, but honestly I wrote this more for me because I needed to put this all down into words. I am ever grateful for the family and friends who kept me going, who listened and sympathized. But now it's time to move on, to get back to it. Swims have been rebooked, training is underway, and I'll start writing about all that here in the coming months. The broken mermaid? She's now fixed and hanging above the pool, where she belongs, a symbol of things to come. You'll get to see a picture of her again soon.

Reach out if you end up in a similar situation, happy to pass along guidance on how I managed things for myself until I was fully recovered.

Happy and safe swimming...

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