Sitting in bed, I have a bag of ice on top of my left ankle: the new center of life. For someone like me, studying abroad is an opportunity to live the life. I started learning French in seventh grade so that one day I would be able to live in Paris. The language, the people, the food, the history and the energy of this city is like nothing else. There is always something to do and as my program told me at the beginning on doit profiter; you have to take advantage of it. But what happens when suddenly you have to start looking for the disability sign everywhere you go?
During my school break, I went to visit my friend in Germany and he asked me if I wanted to go on a one-hour hike up the Austrian Alps: TOTALLY! Though I hated hiking, the study abroad mentality motivates us to try new things and get out of our comfort zone.
I got to the peak of the mountain and felt like I was on top of the world: I had started to feel more comfortable in the old continent, my French was improving, I was visiting friends from all over the world and, apparently, this Costa Rican was strong enough to hike for an hour in the wintered Alps. To finish, my friend suggested we take the sled to go down. On one curve, my left foot slipped out of the sled and I heard a crack.
At the emergency room, the doctor said my ankle was broken. “Ok, I kind of figured that.” He then said I also needed surgery. “WHAT?!” Back in Paris, I was awake to hear the surgery that would put a 20-centimeter pin in my leg so that I could start restoring my ankle’s mobility. The entire time I was crying and could not stop. The doctors asked me constantly what was wrong but I couldn’t find the words in French to express how lonely I felt. I couldn’t stop thinking about my mom and my family in lovely Costa Rica. I would come back to the hospital room after this traumatic experience and there would be no one there to hug me or to talk to.
Past experiences had trained me how to stay mentally healthy, but when unsympathetic doctors offered little guidance and my family was far away, things became much harder. Needless to say, there was a lot of Googling on what happens when you have a cast. WebMD started to show up in my favorites page, and my saint of a mother heard my fear every single day on the phone.
If I do nothing for too long, my mind gets troubling thoughts, so only three days after the surgery, I went back to class. Moving required crutches, and every 10 steps left me sweating and without breath. I spent endless hours in my home-stay where they made me feel like I took up way too much space. I couldn’t go out with friends because I got tired so fast. I couldn’t make the photographs for my class. Most importantly, my body was changing so fast that every morning I feared waking up because I didn’t know what it was going to feel and look like. I was physically and mentally weak.
Nonetheless, I tried to stay positive in order to make the most out of the situation. I went to the movies, the opera and cafés. I watched all of the series I always felt too guilty to watch, and my lovely friends, Sarah, Austin and Bee were incredibly patient and came to visit me often. Even though I would have never imagined my time in Paris to be like this, to some degree I am somehow glad it happened. With my version of therapy – talking to my mom every single day on the phone – I learned a lot about how important patience is, how amazing bodies are, how helpful strangers can be, how much God loves us and how grateful I am to be where I am, who I am and with the body I have.
Although I still limp a little when I walk and have to rest for several hours with a bag of ice, I have never been prouder to take a step. My experience is nothing compared to those of people with more serious and/or more permanent disabilities. But as a result, my most sincere admiration goes out to every single one of you, for the strength that it takes to wake up every day in a world that constantly puts you at a disadvantage.
This is what study abroad means to me now: a time when, for once, I was forced to take a couple of deep breaths, think about nothing else but this one bone in my body and experience the world with a disability. I didn’t expect to learn this; it certainly wasn’t advertised in the programs’ brochures. However, I now have a scar on my leg that will remind me everyday about the time, in Paris, when the most important phrase became j’ai une cheville cassée; I have a broken ankle.
Daniela Hernandez ’18 is a political economy major from Heredia, Costa Rica. She is currently studying away in Paris, France.