How to Break Your Ankle Abroad

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There is no ‘good time’ to break a bone. Breaking one’s ankle abroad might be the most inopportune timing. Unfortunately, it happened to me! I don’t get to have the fun story of saying I was zip lining or cliff rappelling, because I broke my ankle while walking down a hill during a school field trip one month into my program.

At the time, it seemed like the end of the world, or at least the end of my time studying abroad.

Luckily, with the help of the amazing IFSA staff, a dedicated medical care team, and a very patient host mom I’ve been able to stay in Costa Rica and am making the best of it. I’ve gone from bedridden, to scootering, to crutching, to now just walking with my boot. Soon I’ll be able to walk without support! Below are some lessons I’ve learned from this experience:

Trust program staff to have your back.

From the moment I broke my ankle, IFSA has been there for me. One of the first things I did was call my Resident Director, Rodney, who advised me on which hospital to go to and how to get there. Once I got to the hospital, he was already there waiting for me with all my documentation and I was able to go straight into the emergency room, without having to worry about triage or insurance payments. Rodney had even checked me in and given them my relevant medical information.

While hospitalized, staff visited me every day to make sure I was ok and communicate with the doctors. They made sure I had everything I needed to make my homestay accessible– a shower chair, a scooter, crutches, etc. – by the time I left the hospital. During my recovery, Rodney and the rest of the staff continued to check in on me. I am accompanied to all my doctor’s appointments, and know that they are in constant contact with medical providers, insurance, and my home institution. I haven’t had to worry about any of the logistical issues, all thanks to the staff on the ground here and back in the states.

The medical care in Costa Rica is fantastic, and super patient oriented.

Since entering the emergency room, my experience within the medical system in Costa Rica has been incredible. I was attended to almost immediately, and it was only about an hour from coming in that I first spoke to the orthopedist. My surgeon was incredibly kind, thoughtful, and patient with me – beyond what would be expected in the US. In spending time on the phone with my mom to explain what was happening with her, I felt secure that I was in good hands. While I was hospitalized, my surgeon continued to be extremely kind, spending up to an hour with me discussing my concerns and my rehab plan. He also took it upon himself to coordinate my home care – nurses and a physical therapist – so that I didn’t have to do any planning. Days after being discharged, my surgeon even made a home visit to see my progress.

For the first several weeks after my break, I was babysat by nurses for 10 hours a day. The nurses were incredibly kind, gracious, and fun to be around. Additionally, I have physical therapy several times a week with a very funny PT who also comes to my home, gives great massages, and advises my host family on their back issues as well. Overall, I’ve found that the ‘bedside manner’ of medical professionals in Costa Rica is much nicer than in the US. People have gone out of their way to spend extra time with me, to reassure me, and to ensure I get the highest quality of care.

Relearn the city.

Walking around campus and exploring town is much, much different when you can’t actually walk. I’ve had to re-learn my way around, using varying levels of accessible routes. For the first month, accessible meant fully smoothly paved and without any steps, since I was on a scooter. This was practically impossible to find in Heredia, as many of the streets and sidewalks have broken pavement and potholes. Campus, where the study portion of study abroad happens, was luckily much more accessible.

Administrators at UNA, the local university where I study, went above and beyond in preparing the campus to be even more accessible, by opening ramps, moving classes, and being on call to help me at any moment. On campus, I worked with staff to find new routes to class. For my biology courses, which were on the second floor on top of a steep hill, this involved driving up to a newly opened (for me) ramp.  My main challenge was getting past the guards every day in an uber, but the big cast on my foot usually assures them that I’m the student with the broken foot they’ve heard about.

My professors have also been very keen on making class accessible to me. When I was stuck behind a gate next to the ramp in the bio building, my professor stayed with me on the other side of the gate while yelling on the phone to get a security guard to let me through. For my Spanish class in a building with no ramp and no elevator, my class was moved from the second floor to the first.

Now that I’m off the scooter and onto crutches, I’m able to get out into the city again. I have to walk slow, and always keep my head down for irregularities in the pavement, but it’s much more doable. I’m definitely taking a lot more ubers to and from places, and often only for several blocks, but I’m still out an about town. I’ve had to relearn routes to my favorite spots, finding the paths that have the least hills and the smoothest road.

Patience is a virtue.

Breaking a bone is often a waiting game of counting down the days until it heals, which is the process I’m in right now. I’ve had to learn to be extremely patient after a whole week of bedrest, plus several more weeks of only leaving my house for classes. I’m counting this experience as a deeper dive into cultural immersion, as the Tico “Pura Vida” way of life is one of extreme tranquility and patience. Even though I’m counting down the days till my boot comes off, I know that being patient and giving my body the time it needs is the most important. On a different note, I am extremely grateful for all of my friends’ patience with me. From those who visited me while I was stuck at home, to the friends who walk slowly with me as I hobble along behind the rest of the group, the patience that they have exhibited has made this whole process go by much easier.

Gabriela Rossner is a student at George Washington University and studied abroad with IFSA at Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica in Heredia, Costa Rica in Fall 2018.

Article by Gabriela Rossner