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Misstepping in Amsterdam

I’m a reformed white knuckle flyer. I used to panic days before a flight, and would repeatedly count my little Xanax anxiety pills like Scrooge counting his coins, making certain I had them safely packed with me before we left. On a trip to Florence, Italy in 2006, my girls had to lead me by the hand like a zombie through Charles de Gaulle airport after a particularly harrowing flight over from the US. I’m told it was a sunny day and a smooth flight, so it was only harrowing for me. I don’t even know how many Xanax I popped on that flight. All I know is that I was certain that a fiery death was imminent. I’m also told it was a long walk through Charles de Gaulle, but I have no recollection of that either.

And then one day, I got over it. In 2007, I had to fly to a conference from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and it was the first time I was forced to fly alone, without Bruce, in many years. It was a stormy day, and I waited until every last soul had boarded, and I knew they would close that door soon, so I walked up to the gate, and I was Bawling. The gate agent looked at me, looked at her roster, and said, are you Lorie? Yes, I wailed. She asked if I wanted some Xanax (true story), and I said, No, I’d already had two. And then out walked the flight attendant to verify she could close the door. She was easily six foot tall, a stunningly beautiful and boisterous blond, who looked at me and said, “Come on Darling, I’ll take care of you!” So I followed her down the gangplank, and boarded the flight.

That was it for me, my catharsis, my moment. My favorite therapist once told me you can train your mind, and that’s what I did. I was done being afraid of flying. How ridiculous! I love to travel. I love to plan to travel. I memorize city layouts like a grid in my mind. I scout lovely places to rent, like finding needles in haystacks. I know how to use the public transportation before I arrive, I know which kinds of museum cards to buy, and I know which museums are the best. I spend hours and hours reading travel books, travel blogs, and just dreaming of travel. So that momentous flight was the last time I drugged myself to fly. Well, OK, except for one time in a really bad thunderstorm, but everyone on that flight was scared. I don’t particularly love to fly now, but I don’t panic anymore, and I certainly don’t let it stop me from traveling.

Our flight from Norway to Amsterdam was my sixth flight on our sabbatical, and we arrived safely on Sunday, after quite a lot of clear air turbulence, which, if I have to have turbulence, I guess clear air is my favorite kind. It should have been a sign though that something was amiss, an omen, something was tilting in my universe. I was more edgy than usual.

imageBut then I saw sunflowers outside the airport! Lovely, strong, tall sunflowers and I thought, this is a beautiful day. The sun was shining, which for rainy Amsterdam was a good sign, and the temperatures were in the 60’s. Things were looking grand!

We arrived at the Ambassade Hotel, which is situated along the canals in the heart of old Amsterdam, consisting of a series of beautiful old connected buildings, side by side, which make up the hotel. In the olden days, the city taxes were based on street-front real estate, so they built them narrow and tall. We had booked a suite with a canal view and I was very excited until we walked in and right there, in front of me, was a tight spiral staircase heading up to the loft bedroom and bathroom. Now, it’s not that I can’t climb stairs. In fact, I’ve climbed a bunch of them on our five week sojourn across Europe, which has me feeling more fit than I’ve felt in months.

The thing is, three years ago, I tore my left ACL, which is a tiny, little bitty tendon no bigger than your pinky finger that sits in the heart of your knee, and keeps the shin bone connected to the … leg bone. Or shall I say keeps one from sliding off the top of the other. That little tendon is enormously vital, and tearing that little guy is one of the most traumatic things I’ve been through, at least physically. I couldn’t walk in the beginning, as my knee would cave in, and I will never forget the day I crawled into our house because I couldn’t do stairs, and my husband had to dead lift my big sorry butt off the floor and onto the couch, while I cried.  For better or for worse.

That got me motivated, so I found a wizard of a surgeon who put a new little tendon back in there, and a merciless goddess of a physical therapist who made me balance on my wounded leg while she bounced basketballs at me, along with other tortures, which eventually led to my knee fully recovering to 100%. She is my most adored person on the planet. I owe her everything. It was a long and arduous year of hard work and recovery, and I’m very attached to my new ACL. So when I see things like spiral staircases just begging for me to fall down, I gulp, and I think, yikes, be careful.

It was well after lunchtime once we’d settled the luggage, so we grabbed our jackets and walked down the canal on our street to a little restaurant that was serving simple cafe fair of salads, sandwiches, quiches and the like. Bruce and I both ordered spinach quiche and salad, which sounded so good. But then, much to our dismay, the quiche was filled with curry powder. Sigh. I’m just not a fan. When I’m getting curry, I want to know about it well in advance, and plan my way around it. Why they didn’t list spinach curry quiche, I don’t know. So we ate our food, and departed. That’s ok, I thought, we’re just getting started.

Oh the canals are pretty, especially when the sun is glinting off of them. So we decide it would be a perfect day for a canal boat tour. We found the one we wanted to take and headed in that direction. I wanted to leisurely stroll along taking it all in, but it was Sunday afternoon and the sun was out, and the narrow streets that run along the canals were mobbed with people walking, cars trying to navigate, and hundreds, and I do mean hundreds of bicycles flying at breakneck speed and coming at you from every direction. Holy Crap! I turned just slightly to avoid a car, and a bicycle glazed me as a woman flew past, her head down, and legs pumping. She was not stopping, so you’d dang well better get out of the way! There was to be no gawking on that day and you sure as heck better not be in the bicycle lane.

We passed through narrow alleys along the way, filled with cute shops, and I took note of ones to visit later while Bruce was conferencing. We passed “coffee shops” where a familiar, pungent, sweet scent of long ago came wafting out. Marijuana is legal here to smoke, although its illegal to grow it, so how they work those laws, I have no idea.

We arrived at our boat, which was to leave in 15 minutes, and I was so excited. Bruce paid, and they said we could board now if we wanted. I have relived the next few minutes over and over now. Had we waited to board, had I briefly delayed, looking in a shop window, had I stopped to actually look inside at the people smoking pot, things might have turned out differently.

A boat is a boat, and there’s only one way to board, which is down narrow, steep, nautical steps. Many years ago, I spent one of the best weeks of my life on a 125 year old schooner, the Stephen Tabor, sailing up the coast of Maine for the fall colors tour. My bunk was in the galley, which meant down a set of narrow steps, with a ladder. You go down backward we were told, quite emphatically, and you hold onto the ladder. You never take the steps forward facing! The nor’easter woman who ran the galley would have your head on a platter if she caught you taking those steps any other way.

Why then did I take those steps forward facing, I’ll never know. They were steep, and narrow, and no railing to speak of. And I looked up, for just a moment, a brief moment, and then I felt my left foot just glaze the next step, and down it went, and down I went, a cacophony of panic, reaching, grabbing, falling, left knee going up, canting in, sharply up, pain, feeling something give. I landed in a crumble on the bottom step. “Oh my God!! I’ve torn my ACL!!”, I screamed. And I knew I had. I felt it give.

I somehow got up and stumbled to the first seat. We were still alone on that damn boat, and we were both absolutely freaking out. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you’re about to die. Well, my year of surgery and recovery from ACL reconstruction was flashing before my eyes. All that work. All that pain. Poor Bruce. He was my nurse, my chauffeur, my comfort, my Boy Friday all through my recovery. And now I fall, halfway through our sabbatical, and one week before we move to a house in France, which has three levels, with steps, and 142 stone steps up into the town of Semur en Auxois, where there are warm croissants. I chose this town specifically because I knew we would stay fit, amidst the croissants and French sauces we will surely consume.

My next thought was, I have to get out of this boat, and I’m sure my knee won’t work. When your ACL is gone, your knee caves in. So I tentatively stood, and my knee held. It was already swelling, but it held. That’s a good sign, I thought. So I hobbled up the steps, and there was a frantic blur of getting a taxi back to the hotel, and Bruce negotiating a new room without steps, a fabulous room in fact, right by the elevator, with a broad set of windows looking out onto the canal, and a bathroom with a walk in shower. Golly, I thought as I hobbled in, what luck to get this room. That’s how my mind thinks. Even in the midst of chaos, I’m analyzing the room amenities.

imageSo the amazing thing is that while in the lobby, the desk clerk asked if he should call the doctor. Well … sure, that sounds good. Within two minutes, they called Bruce over to the phone, and he described what had happened, and the doctor said, “Well, I guess I’d better come take a look.” They make house calls? To your room?? Bruce thanked the clerk upon hanging up and said in the US, we’d have to head to the emergency room. Everyone behind the counter was shocked.

So within 30 minutes of propping up my knee on three pillows and applying ice, in comes a doctor, a kind, burly man wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, and speaking perfect English. After describing the whole sordid mess to him, he said, well, your ACL is probably fine because a new one is stronger than the old one. He then did the manipulations on my knee that I’m all too familiar with, to see if the ACL was sound, and said he thought it was ok, but he could see about an MRI, maybe by tomorrow. I tentatively asked if he’d had a lot of experience with ACL’s. It turns out, he’s the chief sports medicine doctor for the Netherlands national hockey team. What?! NO! WAY!  Well, he said, I was just on call today, and I said, well, if anybody knows about ACL’s than it’s you. Yes, he said, the skates used to be less tight, but now, they’re very tight, and the only thing left to give is the knee.

imageHe then proceeded to wrap my knee with elasto-wrap he’d thought to bring, and then he asked if I’d taken any medicine. I have some anti-inflammatory I’d taken, and he said, Oh, I have better stuff, and he pulls out a push pack of five pills. You only need one a day, he said. I looked it up later, and currently, it’s not approved in the US, but I took it anyway. So he patted my knee, and said he would be back tomorrow morning between 9 and 10 for another look. I was flabbergasted! Yes, we had to pay 150 euro for his 15 minute visit, but that’s a whole lot less than if we’d landed in the ER! AND, his fees just went on our hotel room bill, like a nice bottle of wine.

So he came back the next morning, to our hotel room, right on schedule, did more manipulations of my painful, swollen knee, and declared me fine, with a contusion, which translates to badly bruised. Not even a sprain and no MRI needed, in his opinion. He said he would write a prescription for more wrappings, which the hotel would pick up and deliver for us, and he would see about crutches. Well I never! I realize this was just a glance at socialized medicine, but in the end, my experience was a lot less expensive, and a lot less hassle than finding a hospital, and waiting in an ER, and a host of people checking me in and taking my vitals. I’m not trying to make a political statement here, and as Bruce noted, there are broader implications to socialized medicine, including fitness levels, and these people are fit here, riding bikes like the wind. There are 600,000 people in Amsterdam, and 600,000 bikes.  But this was my experience, in a really stressful time, and it was great.

So although I spent my first two days in Amsterdam laid up, I would say I’ve gotten off really lucky. That 48 hours was spent worrying we would have to cash in our chips and go home. Bruce pulling out and reading cancellations policies, which at this late stage, would be a total loss. And me laying there feeling sorry for myself until my sister Jackie said, my advice to you is snap out of it. You can’t let this overshadow the trip of a lifetime. Sound advice from a sage woman! As of this morning, I was walking with a cane, and the swelling was way down. Bruce headed off to his conference and I got myself showered and dressed.

imageSo what did we do this afternoon? We went back for a canal cruise. Crazy, right? Well, I wanted to see some of Amsterdam, and found a boat that has a little handicap accessible elevator. So we took a lovely hour long cruise through the canals. After that, I was feeling good enough that we slowly walked over to the Van Gogh Museum, to see the Sunflower and Iris paintings!

Bruce has a little more conference tomorrow morning, and I may get out and finally walk the canals just around our hotel, just a little, being very careful of steps, cars, bicycles and other hazards. Tomorrow afternoon, we pick up our car and head for Belgium.

And if I ever climb into a boat again, you can darn well bet I’ll be going in backwards!


Lorie McMillin, Amsterdam, Netherlands, September 2013