While on a camping trip with her family, Alison Guss, a documentary filmmaker, fell 17 feet off a cliff and shattered her leg. This is Alison’s story of trauma, healing, and reflection and how her husband, Ric, helped her recover while managing their children.
I should preface by saying that Alison and Ric are very close friends of mine and my husband’s. After my own family suffered a loss, they remained resolute in their commitment to remain connected. I can attest to the fact that I did not make it easy, so busy was I punishing myself. And yet, every weekend Alison and Ric invited us to their dinner table (in retrospect, it might have been more a directive than an invitation). This is to say that they defeated my only superpower with their own kryptonite. So where I turned my magnetic pole in the direction that forces things away, they just kept coming at us with chili and roast chicken.
During my discussions with Alison I began to realize that there was so much she was leaving out. I wanted to spell things out in a way that would amplify her gifts. I wanted everyone to know how brave she has been in so many ways. I wanted to show her off. So what was originally intended as a first-person account ended up feeling better, to Alison, in an “as told" to kind of format. I am so proud to know her and her family and to be able to tell her story.
The Day of the Accident
I asked her to describe the day of the accident.
Alison recounted that it was a beautiful Memorial Day weekend, six or maybe seven years ago, while camping with her family in upstate New York she fell off a cliff into the Hudson River and shattered her leg. I asked when the accident had occurred and she hesitated, realizing that although she is a documentarian, she was unable to remember either the year of the accident or the bones she broke.
She could not resist, stepped away to find medical records but returned only with vaccination records. I told Alison that it was not important. I asked whether it was interesting to her that these details were mercurial. Did they, I wondered, shine a subtle spotlight on the effect of trauma? Alison sort of side-stepped the word “trauma," and I note this here but won’t belabor the point.
Continuing, Alison said that she, Ric, their daughters, and some friends decided an easy camping trip close to home would be fun. That afternoon, as they walked along a path that snaked a steep bank, they decided that stargazing close to this vantage point would be fun. Later, when they returned, the girls skipped slightly ahead of Alison. Being mindful of keeping them in sight, she stepped forward on the dusky path. It had been raining heavily that week. She stepped on a pile of wet leaves and abruptly lost her footing and fell about seventeen feet down a cliff into the Hudson River. The full force of her fall was absorbed by her right leg.
On impact in shallow water, Alison describes remembering things more or less in sequence. She describes managing to haul herself onto a boulder with her upper body strength Looking at her leg, she realized that the bone was protruding through the skin. She recalls remembering strange things about those early moments. She was angry that she had lost her glasses and could not see. She was not feeling pain – and wondered about that. She recalls taking her leg out of the river water and then putting it back in because she understood that if she looked closely, she would faint.
After the fall, the children ran back to the campground yelling to Ric that “Mommy fell." He sent the kids to a ranger station to get help and clambered down where she had hauled herself out of the water. Holding her hand, they talked and kept calm. Shortly thereafter, Alison was rescued by a police boat. As she describes it, a hero EMT walked to her and picked her up. Alison remembers apologizing for interfering with his night. To this day, she recalls his response: “Ma’am, I was just watching terrible reality TV. This is the highlight of my night."
At that moment, with medical care at hand, Alison remembers the searing pain blowing up.
The Hospital/Pre-Surgical Days
Alison was taken to a level one trauma center some distance from her home.
She remembers the early days after the accident as confusing. She was in a great deal of pain because surgery was not an option until the initial trauma had subsided and doctors were certain her leg was not infected. She remembers being scared. She remembers being lonely and recalls the food as terrible – see above for a reminder about the communal nature of food in her house.
The Hospital /Surgery & Post Op
After a week or so, she had surgery. She describes her mood as gradually improving. I asked why and she seemed to suggest it was a releasing of fear – that she would die of sepsis. The hardware in her leg seemed to signal the beginning of a recovery. She describes how she began to understand how incredibly lucky she was.
What Helped to Manage A Long Stay
Flowers were great. Alison remains grateful for the wonderful people who cared for her in the hospital but reminds that hospitals as institutions are ugly. For this reason, she developed an appreciation of flowers she had not had before. She found it incredibly touching to be remembered in this way and would rest her eyes on bouquets. She now sends flowers all the time. She notes that many pass, preferring something more “practical." Others point out that flowers just die. While Alison understands these points, she can’t forget the beauty and the comfort of these mercies. She loved cards too.
Things to Engage the Brain. I asked what kinds of things helped keep her mind active (I can’t imagine Alison laid up for weeks because she is in constant motion). She pondered this and ultimately said that anything that breaks up the monotony of a long recovery where one is immobilized, I asked if Spotify gift card or an audiobook subscription would have been fun. “Yes!" said she. (Editor’s note: In this vein, Netflix viewing parties could be fun too.)
Games and Things. Alison remembers an old friend who sent a box of puzzles and Mad Libs. Mad Libs are fun when your kids visit. They are actually fun when anyone visits. I can definitely see that for Alison, Boggle would be much better than too much binge-watching TV and painkillers (Target gift card, hint, hint).
Things That Put You Together. Alison remembers a friend coming to wash her hair and finding it to be such a loving and even kind of intimate comfort. She reminded me that the last time her hair was wet it was river water. So this felt especially cleansing.
Discharge from Hospital and Helpful Things
Because of an adequate support network, Alison was discharged from the hospital and permitted to skip in-patient rehabilitation. She and Ric recall being surrounded by friends, family, and neighbors. Their school-age daughters were provided too numerous to mention offers of help and assistance.
Alison and Ric were also grateful for the food that arrived. This was very useful because Ric was managing all the household responsibilities that don’t slow down when your wife is debilitated
Ric mentioned that rides offered to Alison to medical appointments were deeply valued. He added that “fun" excursions were equally helpful in a different way, such as to lunch or a movie (sometimes these were combined with a doctor’s appointment pick-up). Is this technically non-essential? Yes. Is it incredibly helpful anyway? Also yes. He calls these things encouragements to recover.
When Alison reflects, she leads with what she calls the “positives." She told me the doctor said it was a miracle that she kept her leg. She carefully considers that miracle, accepting it mindfully. She lives with a daily intention to try to help other people. She tells me that she understands physical limitations in a way she had not before. She sees this kind of empathy as a gift that has changed her. Her fortune at being here, at having recovered, and have regained health (with occasional pain too), is not lost on her.
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