Have you ever wanted those five seconds back? Just those five seconds? Like the moment when you reverse into a pole because you weren’t looking, or when you stub your toe on the bath, or when you’re talking about someone and they walk up behind you?
Lyn knows how that feels. If she had been more careful, she wouldn’t have tripped. If she hadn’t tripped, she wouldn’t have fallen. If she hadn’t fallen, she wouldn’t have lain on the floor at the bottom of her stairs for two hours, calling out to a neighbor with a voice that grew weaker with each passing minute, waiting for her husband to come home.
In Australia in the 1980’s, there was a huge push towards awareness of domestic violence. This was a good thing, because it meant that healthcare workers (who are often the first people outside the family to see the results of such violence) felt more comfortable in asking the tough questions. It also meant, unfortunately, that sometimes they looked for something that just wasn’t there.
Lyn’s husband came home and he could barely see the digits on their phone through his tears. Lyn comforted him from where she lay on the floor, knowing that right now he needed her. “Come on baby, just focus. Just do this for me, and then I want you to go pick the kids up from soccer, they’ve been waiting.”
Lyn’s husband wanted to wait with her ‘til the ambulance arrived, but Lyn wouldn’t hear of it. She kept picturing her boys sitting on the curb in the darkening night; soccer ball under one arm, their tiny faces hopeful as each car drove by. She couldn’t bare it (it turned out that a kind mother had taken them home with her own boy; she knew Lyn wouldn’t be late to pick them up without a good reason). The husband nodded and kissed his wife. He made her more comfortable with a pillow and a blanket, and sped off to find his boys.
The ambulance arrived. Lyn was lying there, alone, bloodied and bruised. They couldn't believe that a husband would leave his wife for any reason when she looked like that. They decided that Lyn was the next poster girl of domestic violence. They refused to take her in until she admitted that her husband had done this to her. Lyn begged them, and it was only when her husband arrived home with her boys that one ambulance driver said to the other, “Come on mate. She needs help. Let’s just take her in.”
At the hospital, they inspected Lyn, searching her all over. Bruising covered her back, dried blood pooled on her forehead where she had smacked her head on the stairs. They looked at her; so tiny, so young; so obviously, in their eyes, a victim. “You need to tell us the truth. This is a safe place. Did he hurt you?”
They refused to scan her when Lyn didn’t give them the answer they were looking for. The husband took Lyn home, and the fresh-faced idealistic resident folded his arms across his chest, watching them. “I’ve just changed her life,” he thought, and he felt good about it.
Slowly, Lyn’s body healed, but not in the way it should have. Bones fused where they should never fuse, torn muscles never worked the same way again. She learned to live with the pain. She began to gain weight. She saw doctor after doctor, each looking at the initial report from that night in hospital, each seeing that the resident had written that there was no obvious injury, and therefore no need to scan the patient.
She was diagnosed with depression and subscribed painkillers and anti-anxiety medication. Sometimes, if Lyn took enough, the agony stopped for a little while. She saved the really good painkillers for special occasions, like when her sons graduated from high school, or when they got married. On those days, she was able to sit without pain and just be a mother. On those days, she cried because she was proud.
One day, her therapist moved away and referred Lyn to a friend for her continued treatment. Lyn was excited to meet him; he was a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist looked at her, looked at her records and decided to send her for some scans, just to see if this patient who had been labeled over the years as a hysterical liar who likely suffered from Munchhausen’s could possibly be telling the truth. Maybe, he thought, she hadn’t ever been given the benefit of the doubt.
Twenty-six years after Lyn fell down the stairs, Lyn got her scans. She was immediately referred to surgeon after surgeon, all of whom said she weighed too much for the surgery to be a success, until one surgeon said yes. He’d give it a go. He said she had one of the worst backs he’d ever seen, and after this he’d need to look at her neck, her hips, her knees and her ankles.
I met Lyn when she was recovering from her fifth surgery. I went in to take her blood pressure. She was happy. She was grateful. She told me her story. I had to leave the room to stop myself from crying in front of her. There was no place for how I felt about what she’d been through in her life. When a person is that vulnerable, bearing scars from surgery in places no-one should ever look, looking up at you with tearful eyes and matted hair and no make-up and hooked up to machines with tubes coming out of them every which way, telling you they’re grateful, you cannot fall into pieces. You suck it up. You hold back their hair, you wash them, you feed them, you take away their pain and you listen to them.
Later that night, I called my dad up and told him her story as best I could without bursting into tears. He’s a doctor, and he nearly vomited when he heard how she had been treated. I asked him how this could have happened, how it could be possible that here in a first world country with excellent healthcare and fantastic standards could this be possible.
“Oh love I don’t know. That’s…Some people just…slip through the system, I suppose. She was just one of them.”
Sometimes I think about Lyn, and wonder how she is now. I think about everything she’s gone through, and I hope her and her husband can do all the things they wanted to do together but couldn’t because Lyn was too damaged. Sometimes I think about her grandkids, and I hope she can lift them up without pain.
Sometimes I think about those five seconds, and how different everything could have been. Just those five seconds.
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