Lessons from a broken back

Gaining meaning and a new sense of purpose through adversity

I had planned my trip back home to Australia for months. This holiday was particularly special as my daughter and I were to join my father, now 87, so time with him is precious. It was to be just the three of us for 10 days in a beach cottage, together for the first time in years. I arrived in Melbourne in early April, to predictably perfect autumn weather, crisp mornings, blue skies, and sun shining days. My father and I had time to connect for the first couple of weeks and eagerly awaited my daughters’ arrival. Then, it was off to our coastal cottage where we proceeded to settle in. The scene was picture perfect, beach, gum trees, cozy cottage complete with fireplace, balcony for sunning ourselves and an of course the essential Aussie barbeque, all the best reminders of home. Our first evening was spent on the balcony accompanied by parakeets and kookaburras, cooking up a storm. This was the best ever start to our holiday. Alas this dream escape was soon brought to an abrupt end.

After a late night of good food, loads of laughs and story telling we headed off to bed. The very next morning I stepped out of bed and venturing downstairs for breakfast, tripped on the top stair, tumbled down the full flight of steps and landed flat on my face sprawled on the timber floor. I was screaming to my daughter for help, something was very wrong with my back, I knew not to move. In those moments on the floor I found myself thinking ‘surely this is not my destiny.’

Due to the immediate action of my daughter I was soon being strapped into the rescue helicopter and in shock, terrified I was flown to the trauma unit in the Alfred Hospital. And so my plight began. It was soon discovered I had broken my back, a compression fracture at L2. With swelling on the spine causing numbness in my right leg. For days in the hospital I was uncertain about my future. When I wasn’t being consumed by the intense physical pain, I found myself overwhelmed by a roller coaster of emotions. Oscillating between concern for what lie ahead in every area of my life and feeling devastated by the commitments I could no longer keep and the people I would let down.

Before the accident, back in England, I had been a keen road cyclist and ran every day. I loved the feeling of aliveness that exercise gave me. As an independent consultant I appreciated the autonomy my business afforded me and enjoyed coaching others in my area of expertise of wellbeing and performance. And here I was lying helpless, injured and traumatized. In that moment of the fall my entire world changed. Its now 5 months since the accident and I’m back home in the UK, and when I look back there are many precious lessons I’ve learned.

LESSON NO 1. Be careful what you wish for, it doesn’t always come in the package you expected

Before leaving for my holiday, I had been working incredibly hard, long hours and away from home a lot. I can remember on many occasions telling friends that ‘I need a break.’ The conversation I was having with myself was ‘this cant go on, but its just till I get through this next project.’ It was not like me to be so out of balance. I sure got what I asked for, pulled up short with the sort of break that no one would wish for. I am much more discerning now about my choice of words.

LESSON 2. Always be profoundly grateful for the people who love you and let them know

Whilst in the trauma unit, throughout the night I could hear the wailing of patients in unbearable pain. Mornings held the desperate cries from those too frail to care for themselves being asked to leave the hospital due to the need for beds. This was an environment steeped in despair and vulnerability. Neither of those states comes easily to me, having always been strong and independent. I soon learned that in this state of trauma I needed understanding, compassion and love. I had nothing to give. By contrast to my roommates, my daughter, my family and friends came to visit. They brought me food, held my hand and reminded me I was not alone in this episode of my life. My nephew Stuart came to my hospital bedside like a knight in shining armor with the full plan of how I would be taken care of. His wonderful wife, Stacey and 4 beautiful children graciously took me into their very full lives. Theirs is a home filled with love and laughter, healing in itself. And with the tireless loving care from Stacey (wife, mother and nurse extraordinaire) my healing progressed. My heart has expanded with the experience of being loved so dearly by so many. I feel truly blessed.

LESSON NO 3. A broken bone is not the same as a broken heart

Pain is mandatory for all us at some stage in our life, it can be dealt with by medication, but suffering can increase as our human emotions get entangled in the experience. The ‘trauma’ unit, which I had been taken to, was well equipped for repairing what had been broken physically but absent was the emotional healing I needed. I had found myself reliving the accident, dealing with days of uncertainty and intense fear for the future. I felt the trauma in my back but also in my heart. My confidence and inner strength had been shattered. I needed to rebuild my sense of self. Not in any of my visits to the doctors’ surgery was this spoken about. If I raised the issue it was brushed over as if my body was an isolated entity operating independently of my inner world. I knew that all levels of healing needed to happen. I let myself cry, I allowed myself to feel vulnerable and to be taken care of. I felt scared and spoke about it. If I didn’t have the energy to engage I withdrew. I knew it would take time for my bones to mend and sensed that it would take even longer for my inner strength to return and to be able to trust myself in the world once again. I know that by letting myself fully experience and talk about what I was feeling and dealing with allowed me to move on. Someone who will really listen is sometimes all we need.

LESSON NO 4. We can create our own stories — a powerful one changes everything

After being notified that my spinal chord was intact, I knew I would heal in time, albeit 11mm shorter in height due to the compression fracture, but I would return to full mobility. I soon left hospital fitted with a fully molded plastic body brace instructed to wear it at all times, whilst upright. The next day I received an email from a friend who had heard about my plight and the brace. He wrote the following note: ‘I think your plastic friend deserves a name. What fits? What would you call a strong man who is 100% present with you 24/7, firmly embracing you, holding you up when you want to fall, gives you the space to think and express and feel and talk…and never interrupts you. Just holds you and listens. Never judges just is there. What name fits? How about Remo Boone.’ And the attached website: http://www.sheknows.com/parenting/articles/822603/boy-names-with-great-meanings). From that day on, I called my brace Remo Boone (meaning the strong one and blessed). Every morning I woke to Remo by my side, I would turn and say ‘good morning Remo’ strap in and get ’embraced’ for the day. My relationship to being supported in this way changed from that day, I never once felt constrained -always embraced. This is lovely!

LESSON 5. Invest in your physical well-being and listen to your body

After just 3 weeks, my doctor reported back on the x-rays of my spine, it was looking ‘great.’ Whilst I followed the medical guidelines I also listened to my body and did what I felt was right for my rehabilitation. I had received healing from a myriad of alternative practitioners whom I trusted, and found solace in their wisdom. Within 2 weeks I was feeling strong and walking up to a kilometre each day. One can never predict when that reserve of physical strength is needed to call on. Most of us take our wellbeing for granted until something goes wrong and its at risk. The doctors had said that my fitness level at the time of the accident gave me a powerful reservoir of physical and emotional reservoir to draw from. If my energy had been low and my body depleted before the accident I would not have progressed in this way and the outcome of the fall was likely to have been way more critical. The time and energy I had invested in my health, and the discipline of my fitness regime had paid off enormously. I have learned and experienced that our body’s’ ability to heal itself is miraculous. Its intelligence to indicate signs of stress and pain are our reminders to stop. And its wisdom is far superior to the limitations of my small mind and what I think I can do or should do. I have a new level of trust in my body to let me know what it needs, and to listen more closely. To pay attention to the signals and not override them when I think ‘I’ know better, not to push through. Whenever I ignore the signs I have paid the price..

LESSON 6. Building a new life requires letting go of a past identity

I am now mindful of my feet being firmly planted on the ground and conscious of the next steps I take forward, literally and metaphorically. Far more discerning with where I expend energy and with the people I spend time with. I have a new appreciation for who I am and of my own value. My strengths and virtues had been something I took for granted. I place a higher value on taking care of myself. There is no there is no ‘getting the old me back,’ I have to create a new me. I have relinquished the attachment I had to the person that was. I have had to reconcile that I’m no longer the person I thought I was – strong and invincible; there is more to me than I imagined. Being vulnerable has allowed for greater inner strength to be built. For months, post the accident a void seemed to exist, a chasm between who I thought I was and who I now saw in the mirror. What has come to fill the void is a profound sense of an expanded me. I felt as if spirit filled the gap, an undeniable, unstoppable essence of who I truly am. I felt stronger on the inside. I noticed the day this truly came alive for me. I was sitting at home and played one of my favorite songs, in a moment, stirred by the rhythm, moved by my senses, I felt the urge to dance. It was then that I knew I was on a new path, renewed; I know more than ever before that It is our spirit, not our body that is the source of our power. Spirit is everywhere in everything. I now have a profound respect for what I see as the infinite field of wellbeing, spirit, that exists in the universe, in nature all around us. It’s always there. We just need to be still and tap into it moment by moment and allow ourselves to be restored. Our bodies are miraculous, our spirits infinite. We sometimes need reminding. For me this was a very good reminder.


Karen Downes is an entrepreneur, author, international business consultant and coach.  In her mid twenties and as a single mother, she co-founded and built a start up business into a multi-million dollar enterprise in alternative healthcare, exporting product and training to 5 countries.  She now lives in the UK.  Her consulting business ‘the FLOURISH initiative’ specialises in the area of wellbeing as the foundation for human flourishing and business prosperity.  From experience Karen knows these two are inextricably linked.. Email: karen@karenleedownes.com / www.theflourishintiative.com

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