Breaking bad and fixing better

breaking bad
Frattura de polso
means ‘broken wrist’ in Italian. I learned this in Edolo hospital. I didn’t get as far as learning ‘pain’, before the morphine kicked in.

What I did learn was that Tramodol goes down exceptionally well with brandy, broken stuff can end up stronger and Italian mountain dwellers love a bit of the impossible.

Best laid plans and all that

passo tonale

Passo Tonale. If you look closely, you might see the hole my arm left in the snow

I knew I’d broken my wrist as soon as I hit the snow. Classic snowboarder’s injury, apparently: a simple ‘hand down’ at the wrong angle splinters several bones. Five, in my case.

It was exactly half way through our holiday. Sunshine blasted out of the kingfisher blue sky turning the powdery runs into glittering icing. Such a contrast from the day before when we’d tackled our first black run in a blinding blizzard. Having said that, if I had been fully aware of the cliff-face I was taking on I probably would have bottled it and stayed on the chair lift. Maybe it was a case of pride before a fall; I was pretty bloody pleased with myself on the Tuesday evening.

Delighted with the clarity of Wednesday morning, we steamed up to Passo Tonale and practically drop-kicked the kids into their ski lesson. Barely an hour later I was skidooed off the mountain, every glittering bump sledgehammering through my smashed arm.

Lying on my stretcher on the floor of the tiny, white-tiled first aid hut nestled between ski schools and restaurants, wincing at savage flashbacks of bone shattering, it dawned on me that arm pain was the tip of this iceberg. This injury was going to be a full body kick in the crutch. A right-handed writer with a broken right wrist: fabulous. What the hell was I going to do about the stack of work waiting for me at home? I had websites and eBooks to write, a demo video to produce. I would be letting clients down and I wouldn’t be getting paid. Holy crap! What about school runs, cooking, laundry?


It’s pretty easy to feel sorry for yourself in such a situation. It is also, however, easy to snap out of it when faced with another person in a worse state than you. Enter a most unfortunate woman, stretchered into the hut, making noises I’ve only ever heard in a maternity ward. Her foot was dangling back to front. I can live with a broken wrist, was my first, selfish thought.

Next stage of injury: feeling stupid. With all my OCD planning and packing I had not foreseen this. Or perhaps I had. I always like to learn a few words of the language spoken in whichever country I’m about to visit, you know, ‘just in case’. My predictable stroll through basic Italian had taken me to a train station, a pizzeria, various social events and a museum. While useful for a weekend in Rome, not so much when taking three under twelves skiing.

Pericolo: danger, Aiuto: help and Ho torto mio ginocchio: I’ve twisted my knee, were quickly added to my skeletal Italian lexicon. Frattura de polso. Could have kicked myself for not learning that one. Which is something the poor cow next to me wouldn’t be doing for a while.

Breaking worse

House_in_Pliscia_by_La_Padevilla_dezeen_468_9First injury in 32 years of skiing, I thought, as we descended to Edolo in the ambulance, trying not to look at the bulbous deformity of my hand. Still flat on my back, ears popping, I remembered the first time I’d skied. Ten years old, on a school trip to Aprica, a town only about 30 ks from where I’d just tried to punch a hole in a mountain. I’d been blown away by the theatricality of the views on that first trip; the steepness of the mountainsides, the deepness of the valleys into which they plunged, houses and trees clinging defiantly to sheer rocks, flicking their teeth to impossibility. I’d been equally stunned this time. Shame I couldn’t see them now on this glorious day.

church pdl

Ponte di Legno’s 17th Century church

I was worried about the boys. They must be hungry. I hoped they would find a shop selling fruit and snacks like the one in Ponte di Legno, the 17th century town we were staying in. Blood oranges the size of grapefruits, grapefruits the size of cantaloupes. Ten different kinds of mozzarella, braseola, fresh bread. We’d pondered, incredulous, how it could be possible to find food of such quality at 1258 m, precariously teetering on Europe’s snowy roof, accessible only by roller-coaster roads, in the middle of winter. It beat seven bells out of my local, vertically unchallenged, Sainsbury’s.

At the hospital they cut the arm off my top. I felt drunk with pain. They gave me morphine. It still hurt but I didn’t care any more. X-rays came next. Everyone was so kind to me that I didn’t see the final bit coming.

A reduction. Such a harmless sounding word for such a barbaric act. Four people and one bone doctor. A bowl of plaster. Two yanking the hand, two holding the elbow, bone doctor slapping on plaster while the zig-zag wrist is pulled straight. Worse than child birth. And that’s enough about that.

Breaking good

The right-angle of heavy plaster encasing my arm from shoulder to finger nails was now the centre around which the whole family had to orbit. A sympathetic pharmacist mercifully furnished me some particularly creative pain relief. Tramadol drops in brandy: they work.

Back at home all my worries about tackling the every day came true, starting with resetting all deadlines to accommodate two weeks of rest. A million little movements, until now taken for granted, were rendered either laughably impossible or eye-wateringly agonising.

barbie cast

Barbie called. She wants her arm back

The good news came two weeks later when the ten pound monster cast was replaced with funky pink fibre glass, and more X-rays revealed I wouldn’t need surgery. The abject torture of the reduction had worked. Turns out, if you’re going to break a bone, best place to do it is on a ski-field. The bone doctors there get quite a lot of re-setting practice. I hope the poor girl with the broken leg had similar good news.

Stronger than before

When my arm emerged six weeks after I left the mountains, it was hairy, smelly, flakey with no visible muscles or even veins. It was a waxwork of an arm, frozen and stiff. I couldn’t twist it, clench a fist, bend my wrist or lift anything. It was shocking all over again to understand that healing the bones within was just the start of getting better.

My son waxed the hairs off for me. He enjoyed that much more than waxing his own leg, which his curiosity insisted he try. Silly boy. The rest was up to me. The success of recovery like life, I learned, depends on how much effort you are willing to make: you only get out what you put in. While action couldn’t guarantee results, not doing anything would guarantee no results at all.

My break was bad, said my physio – an intra-articular displaced distal radius Colles fracture, plus fracture of the ulna and three carpals. He said it was impossible for my arm to recover completely.


That was exactly what I needed to hear to launch me into full-on rehab mode. It took daily stretches and strength exercises which hurt a lot, but it’s better now. To the outside world, my wrist was never broken.

I am going to snowboard that mountain again and this time, without breaking my wrist. I am proud to be as defiant as those little Italian houses and trees, clinging to an almost vertical rock face. I can already taste again the wonderful food we found in the most unpredictable places. And I join them all in flicking my teeth to the impossible.


About Sally Nursten

Writer. Mother. Lover of life and all its twisty-turny ways.
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