After the Fall

My friend Suzanne told me she has a woman friend here in San Miguel de Allende who’s keeping a Fall Log. Funny, I thought. But then, like most jokes, it’s also close to the not-so-funny truth. People – especially older people, and older women in particular – fall a lot here. There’s even a jokey name for this exclusive club: “The Fallen Women of San Miguel.”

You see, some of the things that make this charming, old, colonial city in the central mountains of Mexico so charming are the same things that make it somewhat treacherous for getting around on foot: the hilly terrain; the narrow, cobblestone streets; and the uneven, slender (and sometimes slippery) old stone sidewalks. Most visitors and all residents are aware of these pitfalls and dress their feet accordingly. Sturdy walking shoes are de rigueur. But spills still happen.

A taxi coming down Aldama, one of the most photographed streets in San Miguel, with the iconic Parroquia church in the background and the cobblestones in the foreground

In the three years I’ve lived here, I’ve been exceptionally careful about how and where I walk, not necessarily reducing my New York City pace, but always keeping my eyes on the path ahead of me. All I need, I’ve often said to myself, if not to friends, is a broken leg! Admiring the exquisite scenery in San Miguel is only safely done at a stand-still.

Still, this week – on New Year’s Day, no less — I fell. Not outside, which would have been a first for me, but inside my little apartment. In my bathroom.

After my fall, I learned a lot of things, and now that I’m on strong and effective pain medication and swaddled in what Mexicans refer to as a medical faja (girdle) lumbosacral, I can happily share what I’ve learned and what I’ve gained from this experience.

One of the many things I learned is that the bathroom (and not the kitchen, as many would guess — I guess because more people use bathrooms than kitchens) is the most dangerous room in the home. According to an article by Nicholas Bakalar in the New York Times last year, the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that about 235,000 people over the age of fifteen visit emergency rooms each year because of injuries they suffered in the bathroom.

The vast majority of injuries in the bathroom occur because of slips and falls, normally while getting into or out of the shower or bath. And most of these injured people are older women.

In my case, I wasn’t entering or exiting the shower. Oh, no. I was working on one of my ambitious little New Year’s fix-it projects, as though I were my old, nothing-stops-me self of thirty-three or forty-three, instead of my current cautious self of seventy-three. I climbed up onto a counter three feet off the bathroom floor, and, hammer in one hand and a big nail in the other, proceeded to hammer the nail into a wooden beam near the ceiling, with a view to hanging something from it.

And then I slipped – backward — falling three feet onto the bathroom’s tiled floor, flat on my back, breaking the fall somewhat with my left arm, smacking my head.

In less than a second, my brain zipped through a list of crucial questions: What just happened? How did it happen? Did I break a leg or a hip? Did I break my arm? Did I fracture my spine? Will I be able to walk again? Can I move? Can I bear this pain?

I screamed. But, this being winter, my doors and windows were closed. And, besides, my apartment is on the rooftop, away from most of the others in this apartment complex. No one could hear me.

So I yelled at myself: Get a grip! It’ll be OK! Just get yourself up! Put yourself to bed…

Longer story shortened considerably: Two days later I walked, slowly and gingerly, to the nearest consultorio medico (government-subsidized, walk-in-off-the-street-and-wait-your-turn clinic, manned by newly minted M.D.s) and asked the sweet, young, teddy-bear-like doctor (whom I would fall in love with if I were fifty years younger), Erick, (in Spanish) what I should do: Go to the hospital? Get x-rays done of my back (which was in the process of killing me)? Stay in bed until it’s “all better”? Continue to walk around as if nothing was broken?

Dr. Erick assured me that if I was able to walk to the consultorio, my back wasn’t broken. (Whew!) He prescribed pain med’s, including a patch to adhere to my lower back, and sent me for x-rays, which indeed revealed problemas – chronic issues, such as scoliosis, and degeneration of the lower vertebrae — but nothing due specifically to the fall. Just exacerbated by it. As I understood his explanation (he banged the knuckles of his two big fists together), I no longer have any cushions between those bones. My shock-absorbers are shot.

So back to my main points worth sharing and the lessons I learned after this fall:

If you’re going to fall, it seems to me, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, may be one of the best and most affordable places in the world to do so. I’ve just calculated the total costs involved in my New Year’s Day experience – including two visits to Dr. Erick at the consultorio medico, three prescriptions filled at the government-subsidized farmacia, the radiografias (x-rays), taxis to and from the x-ray clinic, plus the wonderful faja (lower-back-supporting girdle) I’m now wearing that seems to be making all the difference – and it comes to the equivalent of just $127.85 U.S. dollars. Most Americans I know will find this hard to believe.

Hard to believe, too, is the kindness of people here. When I reached out for help, my friend Helaine came right over. When I needed to take taxis to and from the x-ray clinic, and I explained to the drivers, “Me caí y me lastimé mi espalda y tengo mucho dolor” (I fell and hurt my back and have a lot of pain), they went out of their way to drive slowly over the cobblestone streets and the many topes (speed bumps), then rushed around to open my door for me and lift me gently out of the cab when we reached our destination. They must get lots of experience, I figured, aiding all The Fallen Women of San Miguel.

(I once saw an old woman stumble and fall while crossing a cobblestone street here, and instantly several young and able-bodied Mexican men came running from different directions to help her up. In this culture, it appears, men are raised to come to the aid of even old damsels in distress.)

Yesterday afternoon, when I was shopping for fresh fruit at the mercado, the tiny, white-haired Mexican woman who waited on me climbed up on a wooden crate to reach for the ripe papaya I’d requested. Worried, I held my hand by her back to prevent her from falling backward. Then I showed her my faja under my shirt, told her my story, and she told me her own, of a fall she took two years ago, in which she broke two ribs. As I was about to leave, she popped an orange into my bag as a free gift.

Strangely, this experience has brought me closer to the people on the ground here, and I deeply appreciate that. I’m finding, too, that I no longer (or, at least for the moment, can’t) walk at my old NYC pace. I’m walking like a Mexican now – more like a saunter than a foot race. Why race? I’m asking myself. I am here now.

Most of all — and this is my biggest takeaway — I’m grateful that I didn’t break my back, or my skull, or a hip or leg or arm or anything. This story could have been so much worse. Instead, it’s something of a miracle I’m really okay. (So please don’t worry about me!)

I told Dr. Erick he’s “my angel.” I think he thinks I’m kidding.