The Other Side Of Medicine: Pole Vaulting Disaster

I landed awkwardly and slowly pulled my right arm out from under the pole but something was wrong.  Horribly wrong!

This was the first time I had made it over 8 and half feet!  I could feel my body clearing the height but as I released the pole my arm swung around and caught the bar as it fell off.  It all seemed like it was in slow motion as I slowly descended with the bar caught between my body and right arm.  I landed awkwardly and slowly pulled my right arm out from under the pole but something was wrong.  Horribly wrong!

It started 3 months prior.  I was a freshman in high school with aspirations of being a track star.  When surveying the events, I saw pole vaulting and was instantly hooked.  “You mean I can get up to over 12 feet in the air and land safely?  And I don’t need to run? Count me in.”  I had done cross country earlier in the year and had come to detest running (ironic now that I love it).  The team broke into groups for each event and I followed the studly, ripped upperclassmen pole vaulters over to the training area.

I should have known this wasn’t my calling.  I was over 6 foot and as gangly as an oak tree.  Nonetheless, I put in the hours and went through the tortuous training to develop my form.  It was still horrible!  I didn’t have enough upper body strength to lift my lower half up and push off the pole to do the pretty body arc that you see at the olympics.  It was more like a forward baseball slide in the air.

The first few meets were disastrous.  I didn’t even clear a height.  I now look back on it and can imagine the other more experienced pole vaulters thinking, “Okay… Lower it down to the lowest height and let’s get this over with.”  I still persisted.  Unfortunately, I was still horrible.

At about the 4th meet I was finally getting a little better and actually cleared 8 feet.  I had done this in practice but never in a meet.  This is a horrible height in pole vaulting but for me it was progress.  The bar was then moved up to 8 and a half feet.  My first attempt was a great display of me kicking the bar off the stand.  The second attempt was when it happened. My body cleared the bar but my right arm didn’t and I came down with my full weight on the bar which transferred all of the energy to the ulna and radius in my forearm.  These bones couldn’t take the pressure and snapped in half.  I didn’t feel a thing… until I looked at it.  The arm wasn’t responding to the input from my brain so I looked to see what was wrong.  Halfway up my forearm a new joint had formed into an awkward looking S-shape that instantly made me nauseous.  I became lightheaded and small sparkly stars appeared in my peripheral vision and moved to obscure the image of my arm. I sat there unable to move and let out a scream.  Instantly my coach and dad were at my side.  I closed my eyes and started breathing deep.  The nausea and stars cleared only to be followed by an indescribable pain that again made me feel like passing out.  I bit my jersey to keep from screaming again.  They brought ice. It helped.  I was escorted to the hospital in an ambulance.

At the ER, xrays confirmed the obvious fracture but it was displaced at an unacceptable angle and needed to be set.  The orthopedist, Dr. W, was called and he stated he would have to push the bone back into place.  What?! I thought.  The mental anguish and pain of the initial break flooded back into my brain.   I started to sweat.  “Don’t worry,” he said, “You’ll be sedated for this.”

I was hooked up to an IV with medication flowing into my body.  The room became fuzzy and a blissful feeling washed over me.  My dad and Dr. W were also in the room.  With the medication I didn’t have a care and was happy to oblige when Dr. W lifted up my arm.  “Are you ready?” he asked.  “Go ahead,” I slurred. He suddenly applied a large amount of pressure on my wrist opposite the direction the bone was angled.  Instantly the severe pain from the original break returned and I was snapped out of my blissful state.  The pain was unbearable and I screamed.  More accurately, I wailed like I was being tortured.  My dad couldn’t take it and had to leave the room. It lasted maybe 15 seconds but tears filled my eyes and my body gave out.  It was horrible.  That was twenty years ago.  It was so traumatizing I remember it like it was yesterday. The arm healed fine after that with Dr. W’s care.  He is a great doctor and now I refer to him often for orthopedic care of my patients.  He was doing what was best for me and I can’t imagine the emotions he was experiencing as well. If not for him, I would have a deformed arm.

Being a patient in a situation where I had to experience pain at the hands of a doctor was difficult.  Now I have been on the other side.  I have had to do procedures where the patient has experienced pain to fix a problem.  I have gone through the emotions Dr. W must have experienced and had to power through to complete the procedure.  It is hard. The next time you need to go through a procedure, please know that your doctor cares.  We hate having to put you through pain but know that sometimes it is necessary.  Don’t be surprised if you see our eyes steam up if you experience any discomfort.  We feel it too.


Photo Credit: Mark Vaughan, MD
Disclaimer: The photo above is of my cousin who is a very good pole vaulter (unlike I was).

One thought on “The Other Side Of Medicine: Pole Vaulting Disaster”

  1. The only reason that you are able to write such moving articles is the fact that you are a caring individual and well suited to being a health care professional. The art of caring is not universal among physicians. As a former ER nurse, I have known many family docs and specialists who see not much more than dollar signs in the eyes of their patients. While many of them, but not all, were technically skilled and did well for their patients, not all (or even most) of them truly cared. I have been fortunate in my lifetime to have had two family physicians and two surgeons who were extremely caring. With the “surgeon on call” rosters still used in many institutions, emergency patients (particularly those who are medically naive or cannot advocate for themselves) get whoever is on call – not the safest way to choose a doctor. You obviously fall into the very caring category but large numbers of your colleagues are not.

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