Half a year on parental leave with a broken ankle
For me, 2021 was about one major life event that was made considerably trickier by another event.
Either one of these happening in isolation would have made for an extraordinary moment of my life. But they interwove to make my parental leave a lot more complicated than planned.
Matters were complicated even further by the fact that my recovery was hindered by a bad wound infection. Ultimately, I had to have a second operation. Thereafter, my wound took a very long time to properly heal. I was only discharged by the orthopaedics department in January, having originally been injured in July.
Physiotherapy is ongoing. This month, my physiotherapist has said I can start running again, building myself up gradually. I have tentatively begun the Couch to 5k programme, marking the end of the beginning of my recovery.
Facing up to parental leave with a broken ankle
Thanks to the generous shared parental leave policy of my employer, the University of Edinburgh, I had 16 weeks of parental leave planned from August onwards. It promised to be four months of fun with my baby at an interesting stage. She was developing a personality and becoming funnier. Parenting was supposed to be becoming less like relentless hard work.
With a broken ankle, fun and laughter with my baby was still to be had. But the work became so much harder, and the scope of what I could do with my daughter became severely limited. I was forced to face up to the fact that I couldn’t have the parental leave I wanted.
It was bad enough when I knew I’d broken my ankle and I thought it would take 6–8 weeks for me to recover. In my first blog post about my ankle break, I sounded an optimistic note about my recovery. What I hadn’t appreciated was that recovery from an injury like this is less about waiting for the fracture to heal, and more about dealing with swelling and stiffness of soft tissue — which takes much longer. What I certainly didn’t bank on was dealing with an infection.
The first hurdle: infection
The infection alone was its own rollercoaster journey. Concerns were first raised a few days after my surgery. After an 8am phone call with my GP, I was asked to send photos. After the photos were seen, I was asked to go in so that the nurse could look at it. From there, I was sent straight to A&E.
Recently, A&E departments have been overstretched. I found myself waiting for hours on end sitting in a wheelchair in a corridor, surrounded by other sick people. I was too exhausted to even read anything on my phone. I just stared into middle distance for hours as medics rushed around me trying to help other sick people. At about 7pm I was finally given an hour’s worth of intravenous antibiotics, then given some tablets to take home.
Getting by with a little help from our friends
That A&E trip meant that Alex had to forego part of the hen party that was the counterpart to the stag party that I broke my ankle at. Alex was a bridesmaid, and it was important to her — and to me — that she was able to carry out that role.
With me safely home, Alex joined the hen party on Saturday morning. But of course, I was still unable to look after Izzy by myself. I was still in a huge amount of pain. I was physically unable to do very much with her apart from feed her milk and put her to sleep.
So we called in an army of friends to help me look after Izzy until Alex’s return on Sunday afternoon. We’re very lucky to have such a wonderful group of friends that were generous enough to help us at the most difficult point.
Going to a wedding
The following weekend, we went to the wedding. We stayed in a hostel along with many other wedding guests, and our room was on the second floor — up a narrow and winding set of stairs. I was very tentative climbing up them at first, but I persevered on the understanding that it was good physiotherapy for me. By the end of the weekend I felt like a pro at climbing the stairs.
While Alex was at the ceremony rehearsal, it was my job to try and feed Izzy her lunch alone. I was set up in the dining area of the hostel. When Alex left I was all by myself, unable to move, and Izzy wasn’t really playing ball.
Thankfully that morning my brother Gordon and his wife Laura arrived. They did an amazing job helping out with Izzy while Alex carried out her bridesmaid duties. The rest of the wedding was delightful, though physically painful for me.
The infection cleared up.
Going on holiday
At the end of August, we took our first family holiday with Izzy. We went to Madeira, with our friends Louise and Jamie and their then-nearly-2-year-old daughter Elena.
Madeira is hilly. Very hilly. Walking up and down steep hills with my crutches and moon boot wasn’t easy, though it was good physiotherapy. I was worried about my slow walking hindering the group. Although with a toddler and a baby things aren’t necessarily quick anyway.
Getting out of the moon boot
The week after our return, I had my final clinic appointment. For the first time, I attempted to weight bear without wearing the moon boot. It felt fine. I was discharged, and sent along the corridor to start my physiotherapy.
Strangely, the physiotherapist seemed to be a lot more concerned about my wound than the orthopaedic consultant was. She said that for that reason, as well as my personal circumstances, it would be wise for me to attend regular physiotherapy appointments at the hospital rather than the phone appointments that are normally offered to people in my area.
A couple of weeks later, at the first of those physiotherapy appointments, I was sent straight back to A&E. They suspected my wound was showing signs of infection again.
I knew at this stage it was probably bad news. I’d hoped that because I was there at 9am I’d be seen more quickly than at my previous trip. Sadly, it still took a long time to find out that I would need to go back on antibiotics.
I still had to wait in the corridor for hours on end, but for a period I was on a bed. However, soon enough I was thrown off the bed because someone else needed it and I was “the fittest patient in here”. Which, despite my situation, was probably true.
When I was finally seen, it was confirmed that I’d probably need to have surgery to have the metalwork from my leg removed. The infection re-emerging after a number of weeks was an indication that the metalwork had become infected. Once the infection reaches the metalwork, the only route out is to have the metalwork removed.
A second surgery to have the metalwork removed
A week or so later, I turned up bright and early, at 7am on a Saturday morning, to have the surgery. The waiting room was quiet — just me and maybe three other people.
At one point, a nurse came in, switched on the TV and walked away again. I have no idea if someone asked for the TV to be switched on. But I thought it was particularly cruel to be showing James Martin’s Saturday Morning cookery show to a room of people who were fasting.
Finally I was sent through to surgery at about 1pm. For whatever reason, waking up from this surgery I felt awful.
First time round I just felt a bit numb. In fact I quite enjoyed it, and the care I was getting, and the painkillers worked a treat.
This time round, I felt like I was going to be sick (or perhaps I had been sick) and the pain in my ankle felt awful. I had a dreadful headache and felt dehydrated. The morphine didn’t seem to work its magic, and I just felt rotten all afternoon.
My expectations for the outcome of this surgery were too high. I’d brought my moon boot back just in case it was found I couldn’t weight bear. That wasn’t a problem, but my ankle felt terrible when I tried to walk on it. I felt like my skin was ripping back open as I walked, and I avoided putting any weight on my foot again for a day.
Things just seemed to go very slowly that day, and I didn’t have the time to get discharged. So I stayed overnight, and got discharged in the middle of the following morning.
The next day things seemed a little better, and by the Wednesday I was ready to ditch the crutches again. The recovery continued in earnest.
Slow healing wound
A couple of weeks later, the consultant wasn’t too happy with how my wound was healing. I was kept on the antibiotics, and I was now being asked to see the nurses at the GP surgery twice a week to keep an eye on the wound until it healed. This was the situation until December.
I’ve seen a lot of medical professionals over the past several months. Almost all of them have expressed surprise at what’s happened to me. It seems like I’ve been very unlucky. Firstly, to break my ankle at all. Then to get an infection. Then for it to infect the metalwork, and for me to need it removed (one physiotherapist said: “It must have been really bad, they normally wait at least a year to remove the metalwork”). And then for the wound to take so long to heal.
One time I turned up at the hospital for a clinic appointment where they were no doubt expecting to discharge me. They couldn’t hide their shock at the fact that I still had a wound.
The fun bits
Despite all the difficulties my injury threw at me during my parental leave, there was still plenty of fun to be had.
At times, it has felt like I have been in a competition with Izzy to see who could start walking first. Izzy’s trajectory has been slow, though rather more constant than mine.
She went to regular classes for baby sensory, music and swimming — all of which I was gradually able to take her to from September onwards.
This period saw us having great fun picking pumpkins, hosting lots of visitors, and our flatmate Ana returning from Portugal. We attended other babies’ first birthday parties, Izzy had her own birthday party with lots of friends, she got her first shoes, and she experienced her first Christmas not as a newborn.
There have also been lots of fun trips to the park. Izzy likes going as high on the swings as she can. She doesn’t crawl because she never likes being on her tummy, but her bumshuffle is incredible.
Through the course of my parental leave I somehow landed myself the job of holding Izzy’s hands everywhere to help her to walk. That’s amazing considering I couldn’t walk for a lot of it! She is now just about on the verge of walking by herself. So I ended up beating her at walking by a few months.
Stepping back from work
In truth, I probably needed the opportunity to step back from work for a bit. Parental leave isn’t meant to be a break anyway. With everything that happened to me it was certainly hard work. But it made a change to be able to put work into perspective and focus my efforts on bringing up my daughter.
Also, I thought it was important as a father to maximise my parental leave as far as it financially made sense for us. Society may be changing, but mothers are still overwhelmingly expected to take on the majority of parenting responsibilities. In many of the classes I have taken Izzy to, I have been the only man in the room. It needn’t be that way. I’m pleased to have been able to play such an active role in my daughter’s earliest stages.
My ankle break forced me to stop working two weeks sooner than planned. Handover activities that I had planned were left incomplete. I worked keeping in touch days as planned. These were meant to be roughly once every two weeks. But in reality they ended up being more sporadic due to my complicated recovery.
It was a strange feeling, planning to leave work for 16 weeks. But I ended up being away for 25 weeks, thanks to my ankle injury, building up time off in lieu of my keeping in touch days, and the Christmas break.
Leaving work for the best part of half a year felt all the more strange since I am a manager. I was leaving a small team that is working on some massive, important projects.
I’m lucky to work with a creative and supportive team who figured out how to make things work in my absence, even though I didn’t get the chance to do the handover I wanted.
Returning to work
But the result of all this is that on returning to work in January I felt like I was up to date on some things, and totally out of the loop on others. Some things stayed the same, other things were completely different.
I have been given a nice little project to rebuild our team’s website as a way of gradually getting back into the team’s work. (It was a nice idea, but I have ended up getting swept up in the serious business of our projects nonetheless.)
Best of all, thanks again to the flexibility of the University of Edinburgh as an employer, and the support of my team, I have been able to adopt a flexible working pattern despite being a manager.
I now work 32 hours a week, taking Thursdays off so that I can spend that day with my daughter. What a privilege it is to be able to adopt this flexible pattern so that I can spend more time with my child as she grows up.
The continuing recovery
My recovery from my ankle injury continues. I have started the Couch to 5k programme again, as a way of building my fitness back up following nine months of reduced physical activity.
I’m a huge fan of Couch to 5k. These NHS podcasts are what got me into running in the first place. Now there is an app developed in collaboration with the BBC. This means you can choose to have a celebrity giving you the instructions and encouragement (no thank you, I’m sticking with the NHS podcast’s Laura!). But more importantly, you can now listen to your own music instead of the cheesy royalty-free music the original podcast used. It’s all very slick.
Unfortunately, after the first run I have been struck for the first time by Covid-19, meaning I have to self isolate. So I can’t escape for a run at the moment.
But I’m hopeful. That first run went much better than I expected. I actually planned only to do half of the first run in the programme, but I ended up doing the whole thing with little difficulty. So fingers crossed when I can get back out there I can pick up the momentum.
Once again, I feel optimistic about my recovery. Let’s hope this time that optimism is well founded.