Saturday, April 8, 2017

Things you should not say to people on crutches

Crutches are an interesting mobility aide. For most people, crutches symbolize a temporary disability. Many of us have been on crutches at one point or another - whether it was a broken ankle in high school or a knee replacement at age 65, many can relate to the crutches, and assume that the person on crutches is in the process of being "fixed."

When we see someone in a wheelchair, on the other hand, we may sympathize, wondering if the person was in a tragic accident and unable to walk again. When we see a woman with a bald head peeking out from beneath a scarf, we may sympathize, wondering if she is undergoing cancer treatments. It's human nature. Certain aides or accessories cue our brains to experience more sympathy, to view a situation as more serious than another.

Now I'm not inferring that no one has sympathy for people on crutches; however, based on 5 years of consistent crutching experience, I will say that there is often a different reaction to a person on crutches verses other visible injuries/ailments. My situation is unique, in that, I have a degenerative cartilage disease. I don't mind explaining this to people, but I do notice that when they ask, "What happened?" many are surprised and slightly uncomfortable with my response. People appear to struggle to process the information about my condition. It's not expected. They would prefer to hear that I tore my ACL in a skiing accident because that makes sense to them. They can relate to that injury. Everyone knows someone who tore their ACL! It confuses people when I use 1 crutch one week, 2 crutches the next, and no crutches the following week. They don't understand that my pain varies from day-to-day. They expect to see progress. They expect to see recovery in a neat and linear way consistent with the average person who is recovering from a knee injury. So I think that sometimes people say and do inappropriate things because they just don't understand my disease and my explanation does not match their expectations.

I've noticed quite a few list-type articles out there: "10 things NOT to say to a pregnant woman," "5 things NOT to say to someone with depression," "7 things you should NEVER say to someone who has just gotten divorced," etc. So, I thought I'd add to the mix and create my own list. Behold:

Things You Should NOT Say To People On Crutches

1. "What did you do to yourself now?"

As I crutched across the school yard, sweat dripping down my face, pain radiating down my knee, I looked up as a fellow "professional," hands placed sternly on her hips bellowed, "And what did you do to yourself now?" I clenched my teeth as my inside voice replied, "Oh I just acquired a rare cartilage disease you dumb &*%$" Being a professional in my place of work, I filtered my inappropriate thoughts, smiled through my gritted teeth, and replied, "Just had another knee surgery." 

Why would one assume that I "did this to myself"? Given that I've been on and off crutches for the entire time I've worked on island, do people assume that I am injuring myself every weekend at international beer pong tournaments? (How badass would that be?) Anyway, don't say it. Just don't.

Crutches need support too sometimes

2. God will heal you

Now don't get me wrong. I'm pro God. If God wants to heal me, I'm all for it! I really do appreciate it when people say that they are praying for me. Regardless of your religious beliefs, when someone states that they are praying for you, it indicates that they are thinking about you, hoping and wishing for the best. It's a lovely gesture that I greatly appreciate. But I'm afraid God ain't putting my cartilage back together. Dr Carey from the Penn Cartilage Centre is putting my cartilage back together. When I explain to you that I have a specialized surgeon who is planning my treatment, please don't diminish my trust in the medical system by saying, "Don't worry, God will heal you."

3. That doesn't look fun!

Picture this: a sweaty woman, donning 2 large knee braces, leaning on a crutch, and painfully rolling a suitcase across a gravel path. Yelling, "That doesn't look like fun!" from across the gravel road is NOT helpful. Please help me. Please take 3 minutes out of your day and give me a hand. Some days I may not need your help. Some days I am stubborn and want to prove something to myself. If you ask, I will reply, "Thanks for asking but I got this today." Some days I will thankfully hand over my goods and direct you to my destination. It sure doesn't hurt to offer!

My crutches have many useful purposes, from bottle opener... a microphone! This crutch knows how to party

4. I know exactly how you feel. This one time....

Okay. I want to be clear about this one. I think that it's human nature to try to relate to someone when he/she isn't well. It's a technique that we've incorporated to help us form connections with others: "Oh the same thing happened to a friend of mine and he's all better now," etc. I get it. I also understand that people want to help, and sometimes that involves sharing articles they've read on the internet about stem cell treatment, miracle cartilage gel, etc. The gesture is nice. However, this can quickly turn into a long-ass boring story about "you." I thought you were trying to empathize with me, but now I've been leaning on my crutch in the hot sun for 10 minutes listening to a long ass story about the one time that you broke your ankle. One acquaintance skipped the empathy all together and commented, "My knees are killing me too!"  A simple, "I was on crutches too and I know that it's not fun. Hope you feel better," would totally suffice!

5. When are you getting off the "sticks"?

This is another interesting human response. When someone is sick, whether it be suffering from a cold or recovering from brain surgery, we just want to hear that they are "getting better." It's uncomfortable when we ask someone, "How are you feeling?" and the response is, "Actually, I'm not feeling better." What do we do with that information? Often, especially if it's not someone I'm particularly close to, I will respond, "coming along," regardless if I just discovered that I will require another surgery due to my degenerating cartilage. 

So when someone asks, "How much longer do you need the crutches?" I'm unsure of how to respond. The truth is, I will probably need then off and on for my entire life, but no one wants to hear that. That's not an expected response and it's typically followed by awkward silence. So my reply is typically, "Any day now." Unfortunately, I feel like people are disappointed, when 2 months later, they see me back on the crutches. And that's when I hear, "What did you do to yourself now?" (See  #1) It's a vicious cycle!

My crutches can jump at Batabano

So now that I've disclosed all the things NOT to say to people on crutches, let's end on a positive note. So many students, friends, colleagues, and strangers step up and say and do some very helpful things/gestures when I am on crutches. These caring gestures/words restore my faith in humanity and often make my day. Here are just a few examples of the awesome acts of "CaymanKind" thoughtfulness that I've experienced on crutches:

"Miss, that looks like it hurts. I feel sad for you." (5 year old student with a language delay)

"You always keep going with a smile on your face. That must not be easy for you some days." (co-worker)

"Whoa! Stop. I'll carry that for you. Where are we going?" (security guard at school parking lot)

"Hang in there. I can see that you're in pain today." (co-worker)

"You need a hug!" (7 year old student with a language delay)

"Let this woman to the front of the line." (stranger in a long line at the police station)

"Do!" (5 year old severely language delayed student as he independently brought a chair for me to sit down and motioned, "sit" with the word, "Do!" This was such an incredible gesture of compassion from a little boy who has shown remarkable progress)

"I got it!" (Uttered by each and every one of my office-mates as I pack up my materials to leave for the day. My office-mates ROCK!)

"Miss, come with me. I can help you in the office where you can sit." (Bank Teller who noticed me waiting in line)

"We're your island family. If you need anything, we are here for you." (My island besties)

My crutches can even SCUBA (with the help of good friends!)


  1. Hi Kirstie,

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I have been a part-time crutch/scooter user for the past 5 years, and am learning that this might not change. I get frustrated with these very comments from people around me. I was wondering, how do you usually respond? I am struggling to learn the right response that displays honesty but doesn't launch into my story (because I'm sick of it), and also doesn't pretend that this is temporary, because it's not.