AT Sobo Part 21 – X-Rays, agony and a shock departure from trail

I lay in my hospital cubicle listening to the clank and whirr of machines and gurneys around me, waiting impatiently to hear the outcome of the X-rays that had just been taken at my bedside. No one had given me a clear indication of what they thought was going on with my foot or how much finding out would cost me but they were all being very kind. A security guard had been tasked with bringing me as many snacks as he could find, because everyone could see I was ravenous from the mountain, and the nurses were sneaking me paper cups of their own herbal teas that they’d brought to work for break times. Finally someone approached. 

“No breaks.” She said with a smile. “Of course, we can’t be sure it’s not stress fractures as X rays don’t pick those up very well, but we think it’s overuse and that you need to rest it for a few days.” This made me ecstatic! I had been sure I’d get a diagnosis of a break and instructions to return home immediately, but this news was almost encouragement to continue! She wrote me a prescription for some anti-inflammatories and bandaged me up, then the administration lady from the front desk came and scooted herself on to the side of my bed with her hip and a warm smile; hmmmm, the bill was coming. I held my breath – surely no more than three or four hundred dollars for an x-ray and prescription? Nope. $1,200.

I paid using my card, desperately hoping I had enough money in my savings to cover it and simultaneously praying that my travel insurance would pay me back. How can healthcare be so expensive?! I was deeply shocked, and incredibly grateful for our amazing NHS back in the UK.  Hobbling out to a waiting car that the hiker hostel had sent, I texted my current trail family with the good news. They were super excited and all very glad my foot wasn’t broken. I had a plan: to rest for a few days and join them to do the Virginia Triple Crown: Tinker Cliffs, Mcafee Knob and Dragon’s Tooth. These are three utterly spectacular views, hikes and climbs that are iconic on the AT and I had been looking forward to doing them with friends. All I needed was a little breather, and then I was sure I’d be in the clear. 

I wasn’t in the clear. My foot pain receded slightly with medicine but I knew that it was masking the realities of the issue. I pretended not to hobble, and I elevated my foot and iced it as much as I could in the trailside motel I chose to rest at. Hambone came back on the scene and cheered my spirits, but I knew deep down that the healing I needed was not going to happen in a day or two. Still, I soldiered on and hiked the Virginia Triple over a few days with my friends.

It was spectacular and well worth the silent agony. Before leaving town I bought myself some new, sturdier shoes which helped slightly by limiting the flexion of my foot, and I made sure I hiked alone for most of the time during the day so no one could see me hobble and cry. There were still lots of things to be grateful for, such as a brilliant stay at 4 Pines Hostel (someone’s converted garage behind their house; rustic and wild in the Virginia backcountry) and driving out to dinner at a famous Southern restaurant called ‘The Home Place’ which serves an all-you-can-eat Southern meal; fried chicken, bbq, mashed potatoes and gravy, baked beans, collard greens, coleslaw and buttermilk biscuits. A hiker’s dream. 

My pretence could only last so long, and as I made my way to Pearisburg a few days later I knew that the jig was up and I was in too much pain to continue. On my last day I stumbled about wincing at rocks hidden under fallen leaves and cried to my Mum on the phone about having to make this difficult choice; trying to process what I perceived as failure. I passed a mama bear and her two cubs in the woods and spent an hour watching them play, accepting this as a beautiful parting gift from the trail. Then I slowly hiked down into town, biting my lip to keep from screaming against the agony creeping up my leg. In Pearisburg my trail family were upset at my decision but had seen me decline and knew it was the right thing. They all took the next day off trail (a zero) and we spent it together cooking, eating and watching movies in the hostel. Then, upon waking, they hugged me goodbye in the cool of the still-dark morning and we knew it would be a long time, if ever, until we’d see each other again. I stepped into the car that would start my long journey home through Virginia Tech, Washington DC and New York, and my friends disappeared into the dawn-dusked woods.

Returning home was very hard; I felt full of grief and displacement but was determined to get back to trail asap – so much so that I booked myself a flight back in one month’s time, scheduled for just after my upcoming trip to the Himalayas with brilliant breast cancer charity Coppafeel. So in reality I only had a few weeks and not a month to get better, because there was no way I was missing that expedition either. My doctor told me I had tendinitis or tenosynovitis and would need to rest properly for healing to happen, so I diligently sat with my foot up for two and a half weeks. At the end of this period I packed two bags; one for India and the Himalayan trip, and the other to collect on my way back through London nine days later, as my plan was to pivot off one plane and jump onto another – back to my home in the woods and to finish what I’d started. Even if I had to drag myself to the end of the AT on crutches and streaming with tears, I was determined to finish. 

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