Winter Break

To an onlooker, it must have looked like I was auditioning for a Life Alert commercial—“Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” With a sickening crack, my right foot twisted beneath me, sending me tumbling to my dorm room floor. Curling up in pain, I played the sound over and over in my mind, watching with wide eyes as my foot swelled up and adopted a green tinge.

December 10, 2016. The calendar had said it was almost time for break—but clearly, I’d taken it a little too literally.

A few hours later, I found myself hobbling across campus with pain shooting through my right foot and absolutely no idea of what was to come. I had only ever broken one bone before: a pinkie finger back in 2003, when my bike veered into a mailbox and ever-so-inconveniently crushed my right hand during the second grade cursive unit. Away from home, I’d never had an injury—or anything more than the common cold, for that matter. Now, having arrived in the lobby of McCosh Health Center, I stared dejectedly at the hours sign before me. Of course, my freak accident had occurred on a weekend—and after-hours, at that. Noting an emergency after-hours buzzer on the wall, I weighed my options. However, hopping on one foot back to my residential college wasn’t too appealing, so I eventually mustered the courage to press the button. Immediately, the voice on the intercom welcomed me into the after-hours clinic, and I was hit with a wave of relief. As so many times before, Princeton was here to look out for me.

Upstairs, a nurse examined my foot in the after-hours clinic. Noting its swollen appearance, she presented me with two options: I could wait to get x-rays on Monday, when the McCosh x-ray technician would be back, or I could skip the wait and have Public Safety (PSAFE) transport me to the local emergency room. After a second glance at the Frankenstein of a foot before me, I immediately chose the latter. While I waited for PSAFE to pick me up, the nurse brought me a water bottle and some vanilla yogurt. “Here, honey,” she said, smiling sweetly. “Snack on this. You might be in there for a while.”

She was right. In the ER, I was wheeled back and forth from the exam room to the waiting room, where I sat envisioning the months ahead. Finally, the doctor walked over and delivered my diagnosis: I’d fractured my fifth metatarsal bone, and would need to see an orthopedic doctor immediately for casting. The recovery time was eight weeks. She splinted my foot as this information sunk in, and then another staff member came over and gave me a crash course in how to use crutches. A half an hour later, I was dropped off in the parking lot with a second PSAFE officer, who helped me out of my wheelchair and into his car, slid my crutches onto the adjacent seat, and shut the door behind me—a routine that was entirely foreign to me, but would soon become second nature.

Back in my residential college that night, I was faced with a startling realization: my familiar routine was now Mission Impossible. I never take the elevator. Now, I could not take the stairs. Normally, when I miss a meal in the dining hall, I can pop over to WaWa or the University Store—both of which are less than a five-minute walk from my dorm room. Now, such a walk was out of the question. Luckily, my home-away-from-home continued to look out for me with motherly care. Shortly after I returned to my room, there was a knock at my door as my best friend delivered me dinner from a restaurant on Nassau Street. While I ate, she helped me in any way possible: polishing the newly exposed toenails on my right foot, laughing as I recounted my freak accident for the tenth time, and brainstorming a game plan for the following day. When she left, I called my parents, who decided that they would drive to campus to pick me up. There were three days of classes remaining before break but, having been medically excused by the ER, I was heading home to see a doctor on Long Island.

At home, I quickly learned that humor was the best—and only—way for me to deal with my injury. Immediately, my younger sister stationed me in my favorite blue armchair and placed a cowbell at my side. My voice wasn’t injured—I could simply call out if I needed something—but the cowbell fit my personality. It was whimsical. It was outrageous. It made us laugh. Since I could no longer carry items around (crutches have a sneaky way of stealing the use of your feet and hands), my mom gave me sweatshirts with built-in “kanga-pouches” where I could store a water bottle, my phone, and whatever snack I not so surreptitiously crutched my way into the kitchen to retrieve.

My injury gave me newfound appreciation for things I had previously taken for granted. After a month on crutches, my four weeks in a walking boot rendered me a child again. Suddenly, walking was the most exhilarating task imaginable. I walked outside to watch stars dot the night sky; I walked down the shoreline of my favorite beach; I walked from one end of the living room to the other simply because I could. I walked (at a snail’s pace, granted—but I was pacing nonetheless).

Arriving back to campus for second semester—my walking boot and crutches 100 miles behind me in my home on Long Island—I couldn’t help but laugh when I spotted a bright blue wristband in my dorm room. There, in block letters, were the two once-dreaded words: “PAGANO, BRIANA.” Smiling, I reached out for a thumbtack and pinned the emergency room bracelet to my corkboard. When I’d first broken my foot two months prior, I’d torn the wristband off in frustration, desperate to banish all proof of the injury from existence.

No, it wasn’t the break I’d imagined—but it was a great winter break nonetheless.

And now, I was ready to remember.

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