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On-the-job injury and “What if . . .?”

The injury happened in an instant and just a second after that I felt embarrassed, silly, and dumb. I’d dropped the mail into the post box by the door, up one reasonable step from the sidewalk leading to the stoop. Pivoting around on my left foot, I straightened myself out and stepped down with my right foot.

My leg turned to spaghetti. I felt a whoosh in my knee and knew the knee was strained. The pain wasn’t sharp but almost numbing. It took a second for me to get my bearings and set my head back on straight. I checked the mail to make sure that my stumble had not disordered it. Then, I took a deep breath.

I stopped for a second. The day was glorious. Wispy clouds floated in the blue. The rains of the previous days were mere memories. A breeze wafted down from the west. It promised to be a good day carrying the mail.

And I looked forward to it. Everyday, I have a moment vestigial from my time as an assistant. Dread fills me in the minutes before I clock in. From my traumatic experience as a hapless assistant, I set my mind into the worst possible scenario—a foot of magazines on my arm, more letters than I can carry in my left hand, more small packages than will fit in my satchel, tons of larger packages I will have to drop off separately. It’s always there, this thought. Post-traumatic stress, perhaps, from those times when my skill wasn’t so developed, when I looked at the contents of the loaded truck and thought, “How am I going to deliver all this mail?”

But then I clock in and the work begins. The dread disappears. The day becomes a series of pieces, each of which I can bite off and swallow. So what if I encounter the worst my mind can conjure? It will all fall before me one relay at a time. About the time I get the truck loaded, I’m looking forward to a good day, regardless the weather, the mail, the package volume.

And there I was on Tuesday morning. I had completed my business deliveries and was on my first walking relay that would lead to a series and then to the end of my day. It started well. We had grocery ads but the mail was manageable and the packages mercifully light.

After springing my knee, I contemplated what kind of a day I had been looking forward to. Then, I marched on—the whole series of thoughts racing through my brain in just a couple of seconds. “Yeah, all right,” I said to myself out loud. “We can walk this one off.” After any misstep, the first few footfalls feel off, not right, almost out of sync. It’d be just a while, I thought, to get back into my rhythm.

But a few houses on, it was apparent that I had done something serious. My step did not steady as I moved forward. The pain did not yield to movement. It was like a dull thud, a severe thud, that snapped into sharp pain as I moved up and down steps. The slightest incline produced severe knife-like stabs in the right side and back of my right knee.

Still, I moved forward, piking the mail, grabbing the grocery ads out of the satchel, stuffing it all into mail slots and sliding it into boxes. I was determined. This wasn’t going to get me.

That first relay—delivering from the truck, up the street, and back to the truck—is a little over a half mile long. By the time I made it to the end, I had to accept the inevitable. The knee was injured. It was serious. It wasn’t going to be “walked off.” Sitting in the open sliding door on the side of the van/truck, I dialed the supervisor.

“Sorry to do this to you, boss,” I said. “I just twisted my knee. It’s pretty bad and I think it needs to be looked at.” He said he was on his way.

As I sat in the open door of the truck, my mind went over the uncertainty before me. As much as I try to stay in the present, my ability to do that escapes me. What about the missed paychecks? What if this means surgery? How will I ever pay the bills? What if I can’t pay the insurance premiums? What if . . .? What if . . .? After a few moments of this, I put it all aside. I breathed in the fresh air and looked at the sky. It really was going to be a great day, weatherwise. And I was going to learn something. I didn’t know what yet. But there was a lesson in this somewhere.

As the day wore on, I drove—I could drive—from the office to the urgent care, where a fantastically gentle man from Ethiopia looked after me. He poked. He prodded. He asked questions in an accent that was soft and comfortable. We looked at the x-rays together. While a radiologist would have to interpret what the x-rays revealed, at first glance it looked like everything was in place and doing what it was supposed to.

The urgent care staff moved me right into physical therapy, where a man with strong but gentle hands manipulated my joints to find out what he could. He moved my leg this way and that, tested the joint’s resilience and compared it to my left knee, and measured my range of motion. At each step, he would try a movement or would apply pressure until the pain began. At that point, he let my leg down gently and moved on to another manipulation.

Now, several days and another physical therapy session in, the “what ifs” have faded from my concern for several reasons. I have discovered since the injury that having career status at my federal job means that I have a position. I’d have to go out of my way to get fired, and I don’t plan on going out of my way. Due to the union, I have a sure paycheck and good representation when it comes to any aspect of my injury, its management, my recovery. Time off for the injury doesn’t affect my pay or seniority.

That’s only right and just. And I know that I’m lucky compared to many other workers, whose job security and paychecks are not so certain, aren’t ever very certain. I paid dues, underwater for a year and a half with 65- to 70-hour weeks. I no longer have to work 12- and 14-hour days. My insurance is expensive but good and with a steady paycheck, I don’t have to worry about paying the premiums.

So, as I sit here and think about it, I’m in a pretty good position. Sure, I was injured on the job. I have to rely on this knee longer than I will have to rely on the Postal Service. So, getting it right the first time is of utmost importance. And I have the means and tools to make sure we get it right.

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