Getting off Lightly

It was a beautiful Sunday morning, cold, calm, sunny, and with a cloudless blue sky – perfect for skating. At 10 in the morning, there weren’t many skaters at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square rink, and as my brother and I skated and talked I observed a few of them: the couple on a date, the father with his young son, and the man in rubber boots, dropping a puck on the ice and picking it up.

Without warning, I felt a hard body check to my right side. I landed heavily on my left hip and elbow. The wind knocked out of me, I struggled to catch my breath and keep from blacking out, as my brother and a rink attendant helped me to a bench beside the rink. I remember the man in boots mumbling something to me, and my brother remembered seeing him high-tail it outtathere.

I resumed skating, just to prove I could, but we quickly headed home. Driving home, I felt my left elbow growing painful and stiff. I put the car in garage, with a premonition that it would remain there for a long time.

Rolling up my sleeve, I noticed the elbow had dramatically swollen. I went to the Emerg at nearby Sunnybrook. I was x-rayed quickly and the young physician called me to look at his computer screen. “Mr. Borins, I’m afraid you have a badly broken arm near the elbow, requiring surgery.” He put my left arm in a cast that immobilized the elbow, and booked me for a visit to the fracture clinic the next day.

The fracture clinic confirmed the diagnosis, and I had my surgery a few days later. My left arm is still in a heavy cast. Bathing and sleeping are awkward and, as a leftie, writing and eating are particularly difficult.

The surgeon told me the operation was successful, and with more time in the cast, and then physiotherapy, most of the mobility in my elbow will be restored. I should be able to take my car out of the garage in a month or two.

With a period of enforced rest as my arm heals, I’ve begun to reflect on this experience, especially from my professional perspective as a teacher of public management.

Thinking back to the incident itself, I was blind-sided. The man in rubber boots had stepped onto the ice from the side of the rink, and I didn’t see him at all. Wearing skates, I had the momentum. Wearing boots, he had traction and stability. He stayed on his feet, and I went down.

I wasn’t wearing a helmet. The only helmets that morning were being worn by children. What if I had struck my head on the ice with the same force that shattered my elbow? Perhaps a severe concussion, perhaps worse. The demise of actress Natasha Richardson four years ago haunts my mind.

What can be learned from my experience, as a matter of the safe management of public rinks and arenas? Put more starkly, had the worst occurred, what would the coroner have recommended?

On the ice, people wearing boots are infinitely more stable than those wearing skates. In any collision between the two, the skater will go flying. As I understand it, rinks and arenas attempt to ensure that only people wearing skates go on the ice, but this is often not enforced.

An open rink like that at Nathan Phillips Square can be accessed at any point, unlike a hockey arena, where the boards restrict access and egress. With restricted access, skaters know where to anticipate people entering the ice surface. It’s very unlikely anyone will be blind-sided as I was.

The effect of Natasha Richardson’s death is evident on any ski hill in Canada. Everyone, regardless of age, is wearing a helmet. Similarly, many jurisdictions require children to wear bicycle helmets, and most adults are also wearing them.

Ice-skating, not so much. But combine open and unrestricted access to the ice surface, and no requirement to wear helmets, and there is the potential for a tragedy. This could have been my tragedy, my permanent disability, my sudden senseless death.

If we wanted to make the Nathan Phillips Square rink safe, we would erect a barrier around the ice surface so there would be a few, limited points of access. The rink monitors would ensure that there are no clowns who walk onto the ice in their boots. And everyone would be required to wear a helmet.

Will I ever go skating again? Perhaps, but I will be wearing a helmet and a pad on my left elbow. I’ll never skate on an open access rink like Nathan Phillips Square again.

I’ve occasionally skated on the Rideau Canal in the past, and would love to do it again – with a helmet.

The broken arm is a major disruption to my life right now. I’m confident I will heal, but as a person of middle age, not sanguine that it will be “good as new.” But I am hopeful that I’ll keyboard with as much facility as in the past, and that my fingers will keep up with my thoughts. All things considered, I got off lightly.


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