Them’s the…..

In Matt's Musings, Travel
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I think we knew her arm was broken a soon as we looked at it. The way she fell from the monkey bars mid swing so she was off balance landing hard on her bottom with an outstretched wrist and that gut churning thud. The fact it was over concrete. Then of course the fact that her wrist was misaligned and just looked sickeningly wrong.

I wrapped her arm in Mel’s scarf and we set off. China day 1 and we are running down the street, a wailing Zoe Grace in my arms frantically trying to find the hospital we had walked past earlier. Out and about in the Chinese border town of Hekou on a carefree dusk stroll, exploring. You could throw a stone across the river to Vietnam. Then suddenly we were in the middle of the travelling nightmare.

An angel of a woman saw us and pointed us back the other way. We didn’t understand but she kept pointing and talking in Chinese. She saw we didn’t understand so she hailed a taxi, gave the driver some money and instructions and hustled us in. We got out at the emergency and checked her arm again. She had calmed down a little and Zoe could wriggle her finger without pain. Maybe it was just a bad sprain? Maybe we had over reacted? Maybe this was like a waking nightmare where you are falling then realise that everything is fine.

We thought it safer to check so we carried her in and within minutes were sitting in front of an orthopaedic surgeon who then sent us off for X-Rays. In retrospect it was a marvel of efficiency. Without a word of common language we flowed seamlessly from triage nurse to doctor to X-rays back to the doctor.

Then the reality check that she had broken her arm. The classic “children’s break” high up near her wrist where she took the impact of the fall with an outstretched hand. I was taking iPad photos and sending them home to Dad and then getting his version of the diagnosis from Australia.

The staff were amazing. Within minutes they had organised an interpreter. Not a paid staff member but the daughter of an ex staff member who they knew could speak English well. She appeared like an angel before us and started translating.

Yes it’s broken. They will need to reset it. They want to do it right now. They don’t want to use anaesthetic.

I spent several agonising minutes in discussion about that last bit. They did not feel safe giving a six year old anaesthetic. If they did they would need to do hours of blood tests before hand. Their advice was do it now.

So we went. I won’t go through it or describe it but it was the most harrowing experience of our 10 years of parenting if not our lives. Mercifully the realignment brings instant relief from the pain so within minutes the heroic, stoic, warrior Zoe Grace was asking gingerly if the next bit (the splint) will hurt. Asking what that thing is, what this thing is. She was back.

One more x- ray and the smile on the doctors faces told it all. One even gave the other a little man-hug on the walk from the X-ray ward to the hospital ward. They seemed happy and relieved. As did our angel interpreter Shirly who had stood in the room at Zoe’s head and watched the whole affair. Just the unpaid daughter of a hospital staff member who hadn’t asked to go through this at 8pm on a weekday.

Then just like that we are back in the hotel, Zoe’s arm in plaster, all a little shaken up, adrenalin, anxiety….but this certain relief having faced something that I had quietly been waiting for since we boarded that plane for Dili.

I was convinced that it was going to be several days holed up in a hotel with someone vomiting, but not this. I am a scientific man and am not superstitious but I have always quietly pushed aside any creeping thoughts of “gee things are going smoothly”.

I remember as a youngster surfing with my brother and friends. The days when it was big and a little scary. When wild outside set waves would creep in and send you scrambling for the horizon. You weren’t allowed to say “we haven’t had a big wave for a while” because invariably you would then be pounded under a violent set that snuck in as you sat there all content.

The same has been happening recently. Most coincidences are a trick of the mind. You believe you had a premonition but in reality your mind selects events from the past to fit your supposed premonition. I believe this but I also can’t shake the feeling that for the past 4 weeks or so I HAVE been thinking “gee things are going well.”

But as soon as that thought crept in I would crush it. I would stop myself thinking it and quietly touch wood because I just didn’t want to face the travellers nightmare of a medical incident where the hospitals are foreign, where you can’t speak the language, where you daughters suffer.

But it has happened, Zoe can’t actually remember how bad it was (Mel and I have asked quiet questions of “so….Zoe….what do you remember from the  other night?” to see if we have caused permanent psychological scarring) and now Zoe is walking around with her little arm in plaster like it has always been normal.

And for every single stupid hindsight “what if….I hadn’t” that inevitably arises in my mind another one counter acts it. The “thank God… wasn’t…”

A head injury, a spinal injury or maybe just one simple day earlier so we had to face the crowded, festering chaotic Vietnamese hospitals we had seen.

Instead it is a bone that is already healing, she can still walk and explore and the border town hospital was probably quicker, smoother and more efficient than what we would have got in Melbourne. Plus the whole thing cost about $80…..

So we are back on the road. Kunming, then tomorrow onto Chengdu and a taste of the Tibetan Plateau before moving north to Xiian and Bejing. Long trains, big distances and hopefully – or the girls will kill me – snow and big mountains.







  1. Arghh!!!! Poor Zoe, brave Zoe… Chinese minstrels will sing of her tale 😉
    Glad all is well. Travel safe – as you have been and will continue to do.
    Stuff happens in streets and backyards across the world.
    Praise the universe for wonderful new and kind Chinese friends and medical experts (and some useful technology to double check with your own medical team at home 😉

  2. Wow! Harrowing stuff for you guys to experience. Love how the locals helped out. We found that in China too, someone on a bus got off with is to show us the way, just so he could practice his English. What happens next, do you just wander into an Er x weeks down the line to remove cast? Are you taking her X-rays? Or are your ipad pics good enough. We’ll done Zoe!

  3. All my love to brave Zoe and for a speedy recovery!! Now we can be matching- but yours with a much more exciting story than falling off a couch… Miss you all! Xx

    • Thanks Luc. Now we just have to try and keep her from wrestling her sisters and jumping off the beds! Miss you too x

  4. So sorry to hear about Zoe. Not much fun as a parent ever to have an unwell or injured child, let alone in a foreign country. Zoe’s stoicism a chip off the old block from both parents no doubt! Here’s to a speedy recovery for all the Shanahans (physical/ emotional…) and safe travels. Much love to you all xxx

  5. Phew! Thank God it wasn’t.
    Memories & images of a Matthew unconscious on the cement floor of our house in a very primitive country at the age of 4 1/2
    we are saying thank you in our nightly novena. XXxxx

  6. Sick to the stomach reading that let alone experiencing it! Wishing you a quick recovery. Don’t miss Qixian (7 Sages) Youth Hostel in Xi’an.

  7. Wishing Zoe a full and smooth recovery and sending love and well wishes to your whole family. I must admit I did say to my 6 year old daughter “next time you break your arm can you please do it in China?!” – we are very fortunate with our medical system here in Australia but I think perhaps I would have found it less traumatic to see her having the treatment you described rather than going under general anaesthetic to have bones reset…..parenting is full of surprises and challenges that teach us all so much. Thank you for sharing your stories. Our family love reading your blog and following your journey – so much of what you write resonates deeply with us and we truly appreciate that you are taking the time to blog your travels, share your insights and provide us with many thought provoking questions.

  8. Oh no! I felt for all of you as I read the update, don’t you just love the resilience of kids!? … They can teach us so much.
    Happy travels, sarah x

  9. Well done brave Zoe. Tully also broke his arm in October and had it set twice, once under and if is still not straight. Chinese doctors sound great! Enjoying your posts. How is you quilt going Mel?

  10. Hey Matty and Smiley
    Just saw your record of your trip. Absolutely awesome! Good on you guys.
    Fantastic writing too!
    Can’t wait for the next instalment.
    Happy travels. Jon and Fi Brock ( insanely jealous)

  11. Hi Matty. What a brave girl! Harrowing to say the least.
    Now the medical stuff. You should try to get an Xray in about 10 days to make sure the fracture hasn’t slipped (about 10%) or moved. Also, they may have put a half cast on (slab at the front and the back with a gap in-between) to account for any swelling; at the 10 day mark after another Xray to make sure nothing has moved, we would usually change the cast to a full cast and leave that on for about another 4 weeks. A fibreglass cast would be ideal but not sure if you’ll be able to get one (as this means Zoe can get it wet). Happy to get the follow-up Xray looked at by one of my Orthopaedic hand surgeon mates to make sure that they’d be happy with it. Email it through if you want (but Dr Shannahan may already have someone on notice). Anyway, hope this helps. Always happy to give medical second opinion (after your dad) especially on the boney/ surgical matters. But you won’t have anymore of those though…

  12. Holy…… I held my breath reading that!! Especially the part about the “no anaesthetic!!” Brave, brave Zoe, and you two… I can’t begin to imagine!
    Love to you all xx

  13. Hi Matt,

    Happy New year!! A little late I know. Got onto your website this morning, where I haven’t been for weeks ( months?) & wanted to let you know that I loved your story & the spirit of your adventure! Go well,

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