I always thought being on crutches in New York City was the worst-case scenario. A true nightmare realized. After undergoing not one, but two surgeries (for a hip injury and a foot issue) over the past year, I can tell you it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. The more shocking takeaway was how friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike reacted to my injuries.
Last September, I had to have a Morton’s neuroma—an irritated nerve that often gets pinched between the third and fourth toes—removed from my left foot, which temporarily earned me a cane. The second procedure involved repairing a labral tear in my left hip in April, along with bone shaving to prevent future impingement (which is when the bone catches on the hip cartilage) and/or a new tear down the road. Nope, the surgeries were not related. Excessive heel wearing could possibly explain my foot issues, and a post-surgery diagnosis of hip dysplasia, which is when the hip socket doesn't cover the ball of the upper thigh bone all the way, later explained my hip injury.
A few takeaways from my month on crutches: People still cat call you—on the street, out their car windows, legitimately all the time—and it’s nearly impossible to get pants on. As a healthy and active 20-something woman, these surgeries were certainly setbacks. My routine went from running at least 10 miles a week with regular yoga classes to doing nothing. Everything hurt. It sucked.
But the biggest thing I realized was that many of the comments from people I interacted with in the days before and after surgery made things worse, even if they had good intentions.
Unless you’ve been injured or have had to undergo medical treatment yourself, there's a chance you're saying the wrong thing and sending a message you don’t mean to relay. These are real things that friends, loved ones, even strangers said to me—over, and over, and over again that didn't sit well or help me—and what I wish they would have said instead.
Don’t say: “You’re falling apart.”
This was by far the most common response I got from people, which was frustrating, disheartening, and definitely not encouraging. I was injured, but my injuries didn’t define me, and it didn’t make me any more confident that they would heal and I would regain my same physical abilities as before.
Yes, I had two surgeries in one year, but am I actually falling apart? Hardly. The way I see it, I am fortunate enough to be dealing with injuries that will likely heal relatively normally, while there are people in situations who are working around other temporary or permanent disabilities every single day. It’s incredibly problematic to identify anyone who is living with a temporary or permanent disability as “falling apart,” even if it’s meant as a lighthearted joke.
What to say instead: “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.”
This comment shows empathy and expresses concern in a concise way, without dwelling on it and making the person feel worse. Most injured people I’ve come across don’t want to be injured and didn’t put themselves in seriously risky situations to earn their injury. A little sympathy goes far when you’re feeling frustrated with your diagnosis.
Don’t say: “That’s an old person problem.”
Yes, hip problems and replacements are issues typically associated with older people. I get it, I understand, I’m right there with you. But at the ripe age of 26, it’s not cool to repeatedly be told your body is failing you faster than it should be, because in reality, it’s not.
Labral tears also have nothing to do with old age. Structural abnormalities (like my hip dysplasia) can speed up the wear and tear of the joint, so it’s not abnormal for someone younger to face an issue like this. (These tears are also common in athletes who repeat specific motions over and over, eventually wearing down the joint.) I personally know a handful of others my age who have undergone similar hip surgeries. Aging someone based on an injury isn’t cool.
What to say instead: “Good for you for taking care of yourself.”
Ignoring health-related issues and putting off treatment or surgery isn’t good for you. Sure, crutches and canes and endless doctors appointments aren’t fun, but leaving issues untreated can end up being far worse down the line.
I knew I wanted to be able to be physically active, and as pain free as possible, in my adult years, so I opted to get these surgeries out of the way as soon as possible. This statement validates my chosen course of treatment in a reassuring way. It almost feels like a pat on the back for doing something I (of course) didn’t really want to be doing.
Don’t say: “I’ll come visit you!” …and then never follow through.
When you’re trapped in your home, contact with the outside world is important. Seeing friends who are intent on cheering you up is imperative. But if you’re going to offer a visit, show up. I need two hands to count the number of people who casually mentioned they would stop by to keep me company, only to never make a plan with me.
What to say instead: “My schedule is super crazy, but I want to support you.”
Friends located across the country called, Facetimed, DMed, you get the picture. These days, it’s easy to reach out—so if you’re really busy, you can even set a reminder in your phone to just send a quick “thinking of you” text.
If you don’t intend on stopping by, there are other things you can do to be a good friend, too. While tangible gifts aren’t necessary, I received a few things that were really thoughtful (a delivery of my favorite cookies) and useful (a gift card to Seamless, since grocery shopping wasn’t feasible for a while) for me. No sentiment is too small.
Don’t say: "Hey, you still look great—that's all that matters!"
Really? Again, I understand it’s good to see your injured friend doing better than you thought they would be. (Some of my friends thought I’d be lying in bed for weeks, which fortunately wasn’t the case.) I was more mobile during my recovery than anticipated, but I certainly didn’t look or feel great. I was alive and occasionally outside, but in a giant brace and was generally uncomfortable. And while minute, the emphasis on looks isn’t the best sentiment to share.
What to say instead: “I’m happy to see you’re doing well.”
Or, “Happy to see you out and about” also comes off in a nice way. These lines acknowledge that you feel good enough to leave your house. Once I started walking without crutches or a cane and began sharing my recent ordeals, I got a few “Congratulations!”, which, to be honest, was exhilarating. I did think to myself several times, You had these surgeries, and now you’re feeling better. You can walk again—you did it. Knowing my loved ones saw this as a big accomplishment worth celebrating felt good.
When all else fails, just put yourself in your their shoes.
Think for a few extra seconds before you open your mouth. Definitely don’t complain about that workout class you signed up for but don’t want to go to. Try to be sensitive to the fact that they are most likely on a health journey they never intended to be on. And when all else fails, look for kind words over quick judgements.