“Farmers and footballers. They’re the worst for it,” says the nurse as she wraps the velcro strap around Jack’s arm. She presses a button and waits for the beep.
When Jack proposed in December, he didn’t go down on one knee. Not because he’s not romantic –he has his moments– but because he couldn’t. At 37 years of age, Jack was unable to swing a leg over a fence, or even climb in and out of a tractor without experiencing pain. His years of playing GAA and farming had taken their toll.
According to the consultant, a full hip replacement was the only solution. A drastic measure for such a young man, some might say. But gone are the days when this surgery was limited to aul fellas and your grandmother. And, as the nurse told us, due to the stress they place on their joints, GAA players and farmers are some of the most common candidates for it.
Of course, no sooner was the operation scheduled, than we were hearing the stories of “so-and-so’s brother” who “had the hip done and was back driving the tractor the following day.” More power to him, I thought, but when it comes to husbands-to-be, I prefer mine upright and on two feet. Jack would be taking no shortcuts.
In truth, major surgery and the three-month recovery period that would follow seemed a small price to pay for an ultimate return to pain-free days and nights. And so it was at the end of February then that we found ourselves checking into a Waterford clinic ahead of Jack’s operation.
The timing wasn’t ideal. With lambing and calving already underway, Jack’s presence would be missed on the farm. However, his father, brother, a new farm hand, and one reluctant-but-able sister would ensure that things kept ticking over.
The surgery went well, and I headed back up to Kildare on Tuesday. There were rumblings of a so-called, ‘beast from the east’ arriving later that week, bringing with it wind and snow the likes of which the country hadn’t seen in thirty years. I, myself, was inclined to take this warning with a generous pinch of salt. North Kildare had battened down the hatches for Storm Ophelia, but if we were perfectly honest with ourselves, in our part of the world at least, it was somewhat anti-climactic. A few trees down and the odd wheelie bin upended. Jack was scheduled to be discharged on Thursday, so both he and I focused on that, putting said beast to the back of our minds.
On Wednesday morning, I awoke in a bedroom eerily lit. The muffled silence led me to suspect that the beast had made good on its promise. Sure enough, I opened the curtains to snow several inches deep. And there was more to come. Having not heeded previous warnings to stock up on supplies, I pulled on boots and warm clothes and ventured out for porridge, milk, and, of course, the obligatory bread.
Jack text later that morning; if he didn’t get home that day, there was talk of him being kept in through the weekend. And so began a race against the weather; my own little car was too small to transport a strapping 6 foot 2 inch farmer with a new hip anyway, and with many roads in and around Kildare already impassable, I spent the day contacting friends, family, and appealing to the masses on social; could anyone with a 4×4 vehicle help us get him home?
On Wednesday evening, with the weather worsening, Jack was advised that he would be in hospital until Saturday at the earliest. It seems the combination of cabin fever and heavy-duty pain killers will do strange things to a man, because he rang me then, threatening to sign himself out and head for the nearest hotel. With visions of him hobbling through the snow on his crutches and likely doing in the other hip in the process, I decided, if you can’t beat’em, join em. After all, what is being engaged if not a promise to weather all storms together?
The perfect storm
The next morning, I rose early, tucked my jeans into my socks, pulled on the waterproofs and walked through snow several inches deep to the train station in Maynooth. Before Irish rail shut up shop like the rest of the country, I took the train to Connolly, the Luas to Heuston, and caught the last train to Waterford.
Despite his protestations about me travelling in such weather, Jack was happy to see me. We had our hospital sandwiches and tea, he did some physio, and I headed to the hotel just down the road, in truth, not before the 4pm curfew, but certainly before the worst of the weather hit the South East Coast. Because when the beast finally bore down, it certainly made its presence felt.
First thing on Friday morning, I was in the hotel when my phone buzzed with a text from Jack: “I’m in agony. I think I’ve dislocated the hip.”
He must be overreacting, I thought. Surely such a thing couldn’t possibly happen. Nonetheless, despite my skepticism and suspicions that whatever he was experiencing was probably the orthopaedic equivalent of man-flu, I pulled on my coat and left the cosy confines of the hotel to be by the side of my ailing fiancé.
Knee deep in snow, my head bent low against the biting wind, I picked my way slowly up the main Cork Road. Two abandoned cars lay at haphazard angles at the bottom of a hill, snow piled up around them. There wasn’t a soul in sight, and the only sound was that of my own feet crunching through the snow which muffled all else. If the zombie apocalypse was ever to hit Waterford, I imagined it might be something like this.
Finally, I made it to the hospital where I found Jack, his face as white as the snow outside and doped up to the eyeballs on morphine. A muscle spasm and involuntary reaction in bed the previous night had, indeed, dislodged the new hip. A revision was needed, and urgently, and a call was made to the coast guard to bring in the surgeon and his team.
However, as luck would have, the clinic’s resident anaesthetist was also a farmer. Like so many others across the country that week, he didn’t hesitate to volunteer his horsepower, and so, in a strangely perfect twist of fate, it was a tractor that ended up delivering in the surgeon and staff.
Just before Jack went down to the operating room, his Mam rang. I got her up to speed before handing him the phone. Sore hips and snow fell to the wayside as, through his morphine and sedative-induced haze, he found the strength to utter those three important words . . . “any cows calving?”
I could only sigh. By now, I had well and truly had enough of all things “beastly.”
We tend not to fully appreciate our own health and mobility, or that of our loved ones, until it becomes compromised. And when it does, it can be tough –both physically and mentally– for all involved.
Far from being a paradigm of patience and understanding, I found myself being unfairly moody and abrupt with Jack during first few weeks back home. Looking back, my frustration was less to do with his inability to help with even the most basic of tasks around the house , and everything to do with the fact that as a result of his being out of commission, those tasks, and all others, fell to me. Bending down to fill or empty the dishwasher, load laundry, even picking up the post or making a cup of tea are nigh on impossible when you’re on two crutches with a brand new hip to contend with. Reason told me it wasn’t his fault, but after an 8 hour work day with 3 hours of a round-trip commute factored in, reason was often pipped to the post by irritability and irrationality.
In reality, and with the benefit of hindsight, we know how fortunate we are. Jack’s immobility was temporary, and his surgery a “necessary evil” on the road to a better quality of life for him as a young man, a farmer, and for us as a couple soon-to-be wed.
Two months later, and Jack is making good progress, thank God. One of our biggest concerns post-op was how he would occupy his time with any sort of physical work off the cards for a minimum of 10 weeks. However, farm admin builds up, and the paperwork, phone-calls, and daily exercises to rehabilitate and strengthen weakened muscles have kept him busy.
Like the rest of the country, we weathered our storm and, much like Ireland itself, thankfully we are now enjoying calmer waters and more temperate climes. With Winter, dare I say it, finally behind us, here’s to more of that; to clear and sunny skies, to good health, and good fortune. God knows, the farmers of Ireland could do with a break . . . one that doesn’t necessitate a visit to the orthopaedic surgeon, just so we’re clear.