I broke my leg playing football and this is the story of my NHS treatment

In Depth

On paper, October 27, 2018 was a good day. I scored twice, I was Man of the Match, and we got through to the next round of the cup.

It was also the day I broke my leg in two places, p*ssed off my wife, ruined our plans and spent the first of 10 nights in a hospital bed. F*ck what the paper says, October 27 was definitely not a good day.

I’d never broken so much as a toe before that day, but the moment the keeper came crashing through my leg, I just knew.

I didn’t hear the break like a lot of people say they do, but I just knew it was broken. I wouldn’t describe the pain as excruciating, but it was certainly unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It was as though my blood had been replaced by ice-cold water. I immediately knew not to move.

And I didn’t. For around an hour waiting for the ambulance to arrive. It was my first taste of an experience very different to that of a professional footballer.

Not that I hold any ill will, of course – there’d have been plenty more pressing emergencies for the ambulance service to deal with than me with a broken leg. But lay there on my stomach for an hour, with the toes on my broken leg pointing down into the turf, it was hard not to get a tad agitated.

The pain I could handle, that was a constant feeling I got used to, but by the time 30 minutes had passed the urge to move my leg had completely consumed me. The strain of keeping my leg and foot in one (uncomfortable) position for so long was unbearable.

A phone call to my wife didn’t exactly raise my spirits. “Oh, so we’re not going pumpkin picking? … I take it you’re not going to play again after this then?” Sympathy, it’s fair to say, was in short supply at that moment.

My team-mates were rather more supportive, thankfully, all staying to chat for the hour. I’ll never forget the way one in particular, Christian, looked after me, crouching down beside me and rubbing my back to keep me warm. Cheers, mate.

Looking back, I was remarkably chirpy, asking if we’d got a penalty, joking I could play the last five minutes with a bit of Deep Freeze and ceremoniously handing over my captain’s armband. Lying there thinking about the pain certainly wasn’t going to do me any good so an hour of good craic seemed like the way to go.

When the paramedics finally arrived, they were brilliant. I was straight on the gas and air, which, incidentally, I’m convinced does absolutely nothing other than give you something else to focus on, and within five minutes they had me in a vacuum splint and turned over. Christ, that was a relief.

The paramedics were actually pretty convinced I hadn’t broken my leg. Based on the amount of pain I seemed to be in, they suspected it was more likely a sprained ankle. Apart from the gas and air, the only pain relief I had on the way to hospital (the Manchester Royal Infirmary) was paracetamol. Morphine wasn’t needed, they concluded.

I can’t lie, I felt a stupid kind of pride when I was cut out of my boot at the hospital and the paramedics saw what I’d actually done. They were more than a little surprised; clearly they’ve never treated a lad from Stoke before. We’re made from stern stuff, us Stokies. Anyway, I took the chance to get a photo. If you’re of a strong disposition, have a look.

I stayed in a holding bay for probably half an hour with my leg uncovered and without even gas and air for company before I was moved to a new area, sent for an X-ray and then returned to wait for an orthopedist to see me.

Only there wasn’t one available and so I was seen by an A&E doctor instead. He told me that I’d completely fractured both my tibia and fibula and that I’d almost certainly need to have a metal rod and screws inserted into my leg. It came as a complete shock to me – I assumed I’d be put in a cast and sent home that day. How wrong I was.

Anyway, the doctor told me there was a chance I could avoid the rod and screws if he could manipulate my bones into a good enough position so that they’d fuse naturally with a cast.

So I was put into a light sleep and roused just as they were finishing wrapping my slab cast, which kept the front of my leg uncovered barring some light dressing to allow any swelling to go down.

The doctor was ridiculously self-congratulatory about how well it had gone – honestly, I thought he was going to high-five me at one point – and I convinced myself I’d got away with it.

Shortly after I went for another X-ray. I asked the radiologist hopefully how it was looking, and though they’re not really allowed to say much, she said enough to dampen my enthusiasm.

Later, I was moved to a short stay ward where I was seen by three orthopedists who, let’s say, were not quite as enthusiastic about the A&E doctor’s handiwork as he had been earlier. In fact, they were angry. They asked for his name and vowed never to let him do another manipulation.

It turned out he had manipulated my leg into completely the wrong position, with my foot pointing upwards at a 90-degree angle. I had no idea this was wrong at the time, obviously, but they showed me the two X-rays and the break clearly looked worse after he’d messed about with it.

Second time ‘lucky’

Anyway, they said they’d do what they could to improve things. They wouldn’t manipulate it again, they said, but they would move my foot into a better position and re-do the cast. And they wanted to do it there and then, meaning I’d be fully awake this time.

They called for gas and air, but it was taking too long so I gave them the OK to just get on with it. They did tell me it’d be extremely painful, but I’d handled everything else alright so felt like a hard bastard. I had a bit of morphine through my cannula and let them crack on.

I’m struggling to think of a more painful experience I’ve had in my life than what followed. My wife was allowed to stay and watched them sharply pull my foot back several times, straightening my bone. It didn’t look like it would have caused a person with a normal leg any pain whatsoever, she said, but it’s fair to say it f*cking hurt me.

But at least the worst was over, I thought. I’d been nil by mouth all day, but it was gone 9pm by now so I wouldn’t be operated on that night. I went for another X-ray and got on the pop and crisps. Party time.

Start of the cycle

Sometime after midnight I was moved to the trauma unit to sleep for the night, thinking I’d wake up in the morning, go to theatre and be home to my wife and children by the afternoon. Oh, the joy of naivety.

Sleep is at short supply at the best of times in hospitals with noise and observations through the night, but throw in a cast which forced me to lay on my back, and the fact that the tiniest of movements caused enough pain to wake me up, and it’s fair to say I’ve had better nights.

The next day, having been nil-by-mouth again since 2am, it was sometime in the afternoon, after dinner, when I was told I wouldn’t be operated on that day either. And so the nightmare cycle had begun.

Six sleepless nights followed by days which started with hope of surgery but ended in disappointment. It got boring, quick. The days when I found out first thing in the morning were actually a relief. Food>futile hope. I’m just so grateful to my wife and dad, who both visited every day. Those visits meant the world.

I stepped up from paracetamol to codeine at nighttime and tried morphine one night just to see if I could get some sleep, but nothing helped. By Thursday, still not operated on, I’d given up.

I wasn’t annoyed – how could I be? I was getting bumped off operating lists because emergencies kept coming in – but I was in the biggest hospital in Manchester and it was coming up to Bonfire Weekend; I could have been there, bed-ridden, for weeks.

So I asked to be moved to Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport. There was less chance of any firework-related disasters in Stockport, I thought. And sure enough, I was transferred on the Friday and operated on the next day.

An incision was made through my knee where a metal rod was inserted alongside my tibia, with screws inserted to the side of my knee and ankle to keep it in place. The smaller, fibula, bone, which isn’t weight bearing was left to heal by itself.

The surgery went well, I was told, and the slab cast was off. All that remained was some light dressing, which seemed crazy but was a massive relief after a week of leg sweating and itching. It had some air on it again, it was pointing in the right direction, and I could move a bit more freely. Well, theoretically at least.

Small steps to recovery

It had only been a week of inactivity, but my leg muscles had already turned off. I couldn’t raise my leg off the bed. I couldn’t even move it from side to side. The rode and screws were in and the cast was off yet I still couldn’t f*cking move. The hard work started here.

I was assessed by the physios the next day. I could slide my leg from side to side with a bit of plastic underneath, it turned out, and that was the first step of a very, very long road to recovery. I was given exercises to get on with and, for the first time in over a week, I had something I could do, something to work towards.

The next day, two after surgery, I walked for the first time. Well, kind of. I walked about two yards from my bed to the wall – and back – with a Zimmer frame. Thirty-three and walking with a Zimmer frame FFS. I was not expecting this.

The tiniest of milestones became like conquering Everest to me. Within the next couple of days I managed shifting my leg without the plastic, raising it up off the bed for the first time and then walking with crutches. So on Wednesday, November 7, a full 11 days after breaking my leg, I was discharged from hospital. It wasn’t quite the in-and-out I’d been expecting.

I was still barely sleeping by this point, incidentally, and if I thought my own bed might help matters, I was wrong. My wife managed one night in with me before she decided separate beds were the way forward for a while.

A while turned out to be more than three months. Falling asleep wasn’t a problem, but staying asleep was impossible. Sometimes I’d be awake for hours on end, desperately trying but failing to find a position comfortable enough to get me back to sleep.

Physically, I improved quickly. I returned to hospital to see a physio a couple of times within the first 10 days of being discharged, and by that time I could walk with just one crutch. I could do basic exercises – squats, planks, leg raises, that kind of thing – easily enough and was referred to the hospital’s knee rehab class, which I thought was weird considering I’d broken my shin bone but makes sense when you remember I had a metal bar hammered through my knee.

I had my staples out and got my first look at the scars, which were nowhere near as bad as I’d feared; I was off crutches altogether about three weeks after surgery; I was driving again after six. I still couldn’t sleep through the night and wasn’t exactly power-walking, but I was making progress.

Yet there were still simple things that were proving incredibly difficult for me at rehab class. Trying to balance on my one, bad, leg for more than a few seconds, for example, was impossible. I was still sitting in the evenings pushing my foot into the floor to turn muscles back on in the side of my knee. Even now it amazes me how much else was affected by me breaking my shin bone.

Fairytale ending

But over the course of six months, things gradually improved. I got stronger, my balance improved and, eventually, I slept through the night.

It was undoubtedly the most satisfying moment of my recovery to date. The surgeon had told me I might suffer with knee pain for the rest of my life, and I’d started to resign myself to the fact I’d never have another uninterrupted sleep again so waking up to the sound of an alarm felt like winning the lottery.

I didn’t realise this at the time time, but exactly six months on from me breaking my leg, it was my team’s last game of the season. I was running on the treadmill by now so said I’d go along to do the pre-match warm-up and try some twisting, turning – and kicking a ball, of course. I didn’t tell my wife this at the time, but secretly I thought I might play the last couple of minutes if it all goes well just to get that first psychological barrier out of the way.

And it did go well. There were new feelings, sure – running backwards felt particularly strange – but no pain. So when kick-off arrived and one of the lads was running late, rather than see them start with 10, of course I offered to start. I’ll just be a body, I said, just be there.

And initially, that about summed up my involvement. I closed down a couple of defenders, chased a loose ball or two and challenged for a couple of headers. Then it happened. A ball got played over the top and there was only me and one defender there to chase it. F*ck!

I got there first, probably about 30 yards out, but the defender was right there too, and there was no way I was going to outrun him. So when a shoulder barge gave me a bit of room, I took the Papiss Cisse v Chelsea approach and just hit it. Twenty-five yards out, on the bounce, I caught it perfectly.

It had a bit of swazz on it, but it wasn’t a ‘Knew It Was In From The Moment It Left My Boot’ goals. Time seemed to stand still as I watched it arcing towards the far post, unsure whether it was going to hit it or squeeze inside it.

It just clipped the inside. The keeper was beaten – that was never in doubt – and it hit the back of the f*cking net. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been out for six months, played less than five minutes and scored a worldie. I screamed at the top of my voice, turned around and saw the whole of the team running towards me. I’d been daydreaming about coming on to take a penalty, but this was beyond my wildest imagination. I’d got my fairytale ending and walked straight off.

Now a couple of months further down the line, I’m still undecided whether I’ll add another chapter. I’ve discharged myself from rehab, I’ve played an hour’s training match at three-quarters intensity, and now it’s just a case of how hard I’m willing to work to get myself fit for next season. I’m just about to turn 34 – is it worth it?

That’s a question I’ll answer in the next couple of months, but whatever happens, my overriding memory of this experience won’t be that hour spent waiting for an ambulance, it’ll be the joy of seeing that shot hit the back of the net. And that’s priceless.

By Mark Holmes


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