Before 10:48 A.M. Central European Time on December 26, 2007, I had been but theoretically aware of the thin line that divides normalcy from catastrophe and, ultimately, life from death. Bad things happened, of course, but they happened to others.
That snowy Wednesday morning, two days before I was due to return home from Europe and fifty feet from my van parked in a Belgrade street, I stepped into a narrow water service manhole. It was more a hatch, really, and only partially covered by the steel cap that should have been fully inserted into the opening. The resulting trap was made invisible by a thick layer of freshly fallen snow. In an instant I crossed the Thin Line.
That’s why I have been absent for so long—five weeks!—from my News & Views column. Events that breed a self-focused frame of mind also make the great wide world look less important, and therefore less worthy of the effort of critical scrutiny.
The fall itself was surprisingly painless. At first I was puzzled, rather than concerned, as I tried to sit up and drag my right leg from the shallow hole. I couldn’t. When I lifted the thigh with both arms, however, the foot came out hanging limply downwards, unattached to the leg joint. I could neither move it nor feel it. It was bad, and this time it was me.
The creeping nausea quickly followed. My hands were too trembly for the tiny Siemens phone. Some kind passers-by called 011-94 instead, and tried to make me comfortable by placing a rolled-up coat under my head. The ambulance came quickly, just in time to deliver a comforting i.v. shot as the messed-up joint started sending short, sharp shocks upwards.
It was the first big snow of the year and the traffic was awful. It took them an hour to get me to the Emergency Center but the memory of the trip is blurred. Once there, however, x-rays were quickly taken, clothes removed, intravenous drip inserted, and treatment options presented. Fractura trimall. cruris dex. S82.8— closed triple tibial plafond and foot joint fracture—offered two alternatives: external cast, or operation with internal fixation. The former seemed inherently more attractive at first. I was warned that a nasty multiple fracture could heal badly, however, whereas surgery offered excellent prospects of eventual full recovery. The decision has to be made quickly, without prior detailed Google searches or Net forums. I opted for the scalpel and signed the form.
The operation at 9 that same evening lasted just over an hour. It entailed the insertion of seven screws and a plate to keep the bones in place while healing. I was fully awake throughout—having chosen spinal over total anaesthetic—and the only creepy moment was the noise of the bone drill. The thought of some parts of my skeleton undergoing treatment usually reserved for joists and two-by-twos was also oddly funny. It brought to mind the musings of a cheerfully insane American who maintains that,
In the near future you will discard your body—you will literally throw it in the trash—because you will neither want it nor need it. You will discard your biological body gladly, like you would discard an old pair of shoes today. You will be quite grateful to be rid of it . . . In the process of losing your body, you will achieve a level of freedom and longevity that is unimaginable to us today.
Yeah, whatever; this morbid obsession with physical immortality has been a regular feature of post-Christian flights of fancy for three centuries, if not longer. For now it’s memento mori for me, and I am glad that my surgeons are Aleksandar Lesic and Marko Bumbasirevic, masterful cutters and carvers who head the Microsurgery Unit. They are in the business of patching and mending, rather than discarding.
These gentlemen and their crews have perfected their trade on some thousands of ugly cases in the decade of ex-Yugoslav wars and Serbia’s NATO bombing 10-15 years ago. God, I am grateful that my misfortune befell me in Belgrade, rather than, say, in London, with its terminally dysfunctional National Health Service offering services equally perilous to life and limb of the captive millions of its “clients”—regardless of the blighters’ race, gender, or sexual orientation. Yes, the Belgrade Emergency Center has a building more than a hundred years old that needs new bathrooms and a fresh coat of paint; but when some top-notch Swiss doctors tell you that your kid’s leg has to be amputated, it may well offer your only hope.
Five days that followed the operation were made memorable by the fact that my immediate neighbor on the ward was a respected underworld figure, Ugo Aranitovic, allegedly Mafia boss in the city of Sabac and a character straight out of Pulp Fiction. Intelligent, eloquent and talkative, Ugo is awaiting trial for murder and extortion—and at the same recovering from a nasty leg wound, gained in the line of duty. With two armed policemen in attendance round the clock and a chain securing his good leg to the bed, he had an eager audience for captivating stories of daring, intrigue and death that moved from Amsterdam to Sarajevo, from Rome to Montenegro.
All interesting things come to an end, however, and on New Year's Eve I was released to the care of my in-laws in New Belgrade. Ten days of pampered rest and recuperation followed, with my mother-in-law’s home cooking a welcome change from the institutional grub reminiscent of my army service.
There were two issues, though, that cast a shadow on those lazy days: the thought of my long-suffering wife soldiering on her own during the holiday season, and the knowledge that—come early dawn on January 10—I’d have to become personally mobile in order to attend three previously scheduled conferences in Rome (January 10), Bratislava (January 14), and London (January 17). Doing them all, by plane or by car but always on crutches, with the leg barely healed and in plaster, was insane; but not doing them was not an option.
As of last Friday afternoon I am safely back home, utterly knackered but recovering fast and almost ready to get back to work. Watch this space.