by Prissy Elrod | March 12, 2020

How a Rolled Ankle Led Me to Free Diving

Sometimes, we have no choice but to face our deepest fears

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I’ve lived in Florida all my life and am amazed how much I don’t know about it. This comes from someone who professes to know everything about anything even when I know nothing about something. Sometimes I believe myself. Thankfully, I’m a good person and not some con artist.

Like Oprah, there’s one thing I know for sure. A tireless debate ensues over Florida’s most iconic food. Is it our scrumptious Key lime pie or the slurpy Apalachicola oysters? Would it be Florida’s orange juice or the infamous Gatorade? None of the above. It’s conch chowder, baby. 

Truth be told writing for this magazine has opened my eyes to things I’ve missed—The Ringling Museum of Art, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West and Naples Botanical Garden—so much to see.

One of the very first stories that caught my attention way back in 2016 was about freediving. Similar to scuba diving in terms of gear: wetsuit, mask and fins—minus the tank. Free divers hold their breath. Say what? No silver tank—hell no! 

For me, depths, diving and motion—forget it. I get seasick on shore watching waves. Open glass elevators? No way. Railings near edges? Nope. Narrow mountain roads, bridges, ski slopes? No. No. No. Heights—hate. My high heels are the only exception. I want to be taller. Diving. You’d never catch me doing that—who in their right mind would? 

WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS

Last fall I wrote a column for Flamingo titled “French Lemonade.” It was about the unexpected happenings in life, based on my broken ankle. I addressed the upside of positivity through peril. At the time, I was confident I was on the mend, three months post-surgery. 

The universe decided to wrestle with my view and knock me down. 

Take that you optimistic piece of pathetic!

To say I had no idea what awaited me is an understatement. My journey to Never Say Never Land.

As Flamingo’s fall issue hit newsstands, I was hitting a pain management clinic for spinal injections. They had diagnosed me with chronic regional pain syndrome. They tried to block the nerve going to my ankle with no success. I became allergic to the metal plates and screws holding my shattered ankle together. A second surgery was performed to remove the metal. Two weeks after surgery I was cleared by my surgeon for a work trip to New York. I booked my flight and hotel two hours later. The day before departure my ankle looked like E.T.’s baby. I was rushed by ambulance to the hospital. Was it staph, cellulitis or septicemia? I was admitted.

A third surgery was performed to clean out the infection from the second surgery two weeks earlier. Cultures were taken to determine what took up residence in my bloodstream. And an infectious disease team was called in. They infused me with various antibiotics—none worked—while awaiting the results of the culture reading: methicillin-susceptible Staphylococcus aureus (or MSSA) was the winner for this loser. A PICC line came aboard and was inserted from my bicep to my heart, and then invited to go home with me, along with home health care. Renee, the nurse, would teach my traumatized husband how to become an unqualified nurse. I was discharged after a week.

“You’ll have three syringes for each daily infusion: saline, Rocephin, heparin. Be sure and remove any air bubbles from each syringe. One bubble will stop her heart.” 

My heart heard her say that and skipped three beats. I watched the color drain from my husband’s face. That made me feel better. The man had three chances a day to kill me—a perfect crime. 

By then it was late October, and six months had passed since my ankle rolled in a wedge shoe. This bears repeating. A lovely Gentle Soul wedge caused three breaks, three surgeries, three months plus of nonweight bearing, three months of spinal injections, a week of hospitalization, six weeks with a PICC line injecting 2000 milligrams a day of an antibiotic into my holistic body. Enough? Not even close. 

Thanksgiving came and went as Christmas peeked around the corner.

MY GOLDEN TICKET

“Prissy, you need HBO,” the text read. It was from Alex, a retired physician and dear friend. The very one I wrote about in my first book, Far Outside the Ordinary

“I have HBO already,” I texted. 

“No oxygen,” he texted.

“Oxygen TV?” I texted. My cell phone rang. 

“Not TV—oxygen therapy.” I half-listened to whatever he was going on about. He called the next day and the next. 

“I’m telling you it may help.” He was relentless.

Prissy Positive was in a slump from the everyday infusions and a nurse sucking out vials of blood, checking my white blood cell counts to see if the antibiotic was even working. I was told my PICC line would be removed on Dec. 6. I marked the days off inside my empty calendar. 

For whatever reason, I called the wound center for information on the oxygen jargon, maybe to appease my friend. Maybe a God wink. Either way, enter HBO … hyperbaric oxygen therapy, aka dry diving. It sent shivers up my spine. Remember, I’m the person who hates depth and motion, not to mention closed spaces. Even so, I agreed to a three-hour MRI for screening. I told myself if insurance pays … maybe. I thought this with knocking knees.

Infection must have ransacked my body, since I did qualify. Thirty dives, two hours a day, five days a week for six weeks was recommended. The cost: $4,200 for one dive. $126,000 for 30. If insurance agreed to pay that, I knew I was in trouble. 

Inhaling the gold oxygen might be a golden ticket. The only way to get my life back.

Take the chance, Prissy. I signed on the dotted line.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

The next day I met Frank, the gentleman in charge of the chamber. It was orientation day: instructions, method and rules, lots of rules. It went something like this:

You will be on a stretcher enclosed inside a chamber at greater than normal atmospheric pressure and breathing pure oxygen. It will saturate your blood plasma allowing it to carry from 15 to 20 times the normal amount of healing oxygen to your body’s tissues. The chamber is clear. You can see through it but will be sealed inside for two hours each treatment. A band is placed around your wrist grounding you to the power lines running below the building, should we have a power outage or electrical storm. We take vitals before and after your dive. 

He went on: If you weren’t born with it, then it isn’t allowed inside this chamber. That means no iPods, earphones, cellphones, reading material, hair products, jewelry, clips, nail polish, lotion, makeup … zip, zero, nothing. 

One of my favorite poets, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote, “What we fear of doing most is usually what we most need to do.” 

My first dive was scheduled for the following Monday. But only a few feet down my eardrum ruptured, blood filling my ear canal. Hours later an ENT physician inserted tubes inside both my eardrums. A procedure just like the one my 2-year-old daughter underwent decades earlier. I’m disciplined and fearless when I make up my mind about something. I’d decided to become a diver.

The next day, tenacity and determination escorted me back to the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, and I never missed a day, except when they removed my PICC line. Only two hours after it was trashed, we boarded a plane for New York to celebrate. 

Humor joined my regimen to help me cope. I would paint one toenail red for every dive completed. The team laughed over my toe calendar. The “what if” scenarios lessened as days went by (what if they forget me, what if a terrorist strikes Tallahassee … what if, what if).

Locked inside a chamber, you learn to discipline the brain to control such thoughts. I kept reminding myself I was diving 25 feet down. Okay, maybe I was naked under my blue scrubs and not wearing some cool wetsuit with shiny fins, but I was still down there. Not a scuba or free diver. But in my own way, I was diving in Florida, the dive capital of the world. I felt bionic, even iconic, the heroine of my own self. 

PRISSY FOUND

The most amazing thing about life is the mystery of living it. All those lessons we learn without knowing we’re being taught. What we don’t know but think we do. Life is our teacher and realizing, dissecting and accepting a life event is how we learn. We grow by relishing the joy, avowing dismay, seeking courage and defying fear. We don’t know how resilient we are until we challenge ourselves.

I sat with impoverished, despairing and wounded people suffering from cancer, diabetes and vascular disease every morning. I witnessed pain, suffering and the atrocity of life’s hardships. I was humbled and reminded how fortunate I was to have a foot. Many had no legs.

I believe all the mystical unknowns can be attached to one profound and powerful word. It’s undefinable and unsolvable, has two consonants and a vowel. It threads the good, bad and ugly in life but gives no rhyme, reason or rational answers. That word is why. 

The answer is because.

I broke my ankle in April, and it’s now the middle of January as I write this. Nine months. My last dive completed two days ago. I’ve been released from the team of everyone who surrounded and helped me get back on my feet … literally. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson also wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” 

Indeed, that truth is in the knowing.

I know the truth. 

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