Twenty years ago, my Russian friend Liuda fractured her hip on an icy pavement in Moscow near the end of December. The break had been in the neck of the thigh bone, the place where the long bone fits into the socket. It had not been a horizontal break. The doctor in the hospital who saw the first X-ray joked—couldn’t you have fallen down in a different way? Liuda took this to mean that a break on an incline was harder to fix.
The goal of post-operative care with hip fracture is to get the patient up and moving as soon as possible after surgery. Liuda, then sixty, remained in hospital for a month: surgery was postponed an unimaginable twenty days because of various Russian New Year’s Eve holidays and delays. For months after the operation, she was homebound and chair bound in her small apartment.
I wrote about Liuda in my book Strength Training on the Ball, and about the exercises we did together around four months after her surgery. A hip fracture can mean a downward spiral. Liuda didn’t need me to tell her that without doing specialized exercises of the hips and core, her life could only go in one direction: into loss of independence, and even early death. She told me she did not want to be a statistic. Her dream was to travel outside Russia, something denied to her in Soviet times.
The neck of Liuda’s thigh bone suffered two traumas: the break, and then the twenty-day forced immobilization before surgery. When she left the hospital, she was not supplied with a physiotherapist or a sheet with recommended exercises. In fact she was told not to put any weight whatsoever on the affected side. She had to pay in US dollars for an X-ray technician to bring his machine to her place to make sure the break was healed. Then a doctor arrived a few weeks later to study the X-ray and announce ‘all was in order.’
Liuda had been an indefatigable hostess to me on a previous trip to Moscow. Now it was my turn to give back. We began with small exercises of the hip and abs. The three meagre sessions we did together got her started but would have been useless if she hadn’t maintained the routine afterwards. And she did so by keeping her goal in mind. ‘My goal is to travel,’ she told me in her lovely accent. ‘Paris, Amsterdam and London.’
In 2019, I had the opportunity to visit Luida again and I wanted to know how she had fared in the twenty years since her hip fracture. Moscow had changed since I’d last been there. The subway I took to visit her was the same mob scene, but this time I did not have to count the stops on my fingers. Since the World Cup in 2018 signs were now in English, and a particularly clear and British recorded voice announced the Russian subway names.
I squeezed out at Liuda’s metro stop. Her stop didn’t have the marble and gold trim found in the inner-city stations, but showed improvements. Outside, a gauntlet of street vendors showed their wares in newly painted kiosks. I almost got lost finding Liuda’s apartment as I threaded my way between the almost identical Khrushchev-era buildings. She had told me that the entire complex was slated to be torn down, but it was still standing. The outer metal door of her building was the same: green tin and dented, yet now fitted with security; and there was a code to open it.
I felt touched to see that Liuda, who was now a few months past her eightieth birthday, still had the small blue ball and resistance band that we used together all those years ago. I replaced the band with a new one I’d brought along. Hot tea was served with colourful marmelades: jellied cubes frosted with sugar. As we ate, I watched Liuda move around her apartment and noticed she had a limp. I wanted to know how the quality of her life had changed because of her fracture. Was she able to travel as she had dreamed?
She reminded me that she was not very “athletic”. I nodded. Between my physiotherapy inexperience and her lack of relationship with lifting weights and band exercises, working with her had not been easy. Yet, she told me, she worked at recovery “like a job”. Her hip was not perfect but she was able to do long walks and manage stairs.
I only saw the full extent of her resilience two days later when we had an outing together in the center of Moscow. We met near the last subway car on the platform of a crowded metro station, Kitay Gorod. Like many subways in downtown Moscow, Kitay Gorod has more than a dozen different exits. Liuda led me confidently (albeit more slowly) through the long tunnel. She wanted to take me to the famous Red Square and past the 16th century churches that line the nearby streets, but first we had to go up the steep Moscow subway exit stairs to get into the open air.
What I had forgotten about Moscow is the tremendous distances between places. Squares in this city, ceremonial or not, go on forever, and in the historic center where we were walking, it was not unusual to find uneven cobblestone pavements and even holes covered by wide planks designed for pedestrian use. To get from Red Square to the front of the Bolshoi theatre, Liuda and I had to cross a broad boulevard; the only way to do this was down one set of a steep stairs, across a vast darkened tunnel, and then up more cement stairs to the other side. There were seldom escalators, though I noticed the stairs were lined with long inclines used to push up carts or bikes. Luida (with her limp and cane) led me through crowds, up and down stairs, past the luxury hotels and historic theatres.
A couple of hours later we negotiated the various slopes of the brand new Zaryadye Park built for the World Cup. By now I was begging for a break and she suggested a tea in the café beside the Old English Court church. More stairs, more traversing – and this new park was not a flat one, but more of a gigantic mound of earth with a park circling up and down around it. I collapsed with relief at a corner table of the cool and quiet white interior of the tea room. I was exhausted and my feet ached. I was too soft for Moscow. How did Liuda manage?
After we had ordered some apple pirogis I dumped two, three spoons of sugar into my tea to revive myself while Liuda chatted about her latest travels which included France, the Netherlands and Belgium. She told me of the disaster that almost happened on her last trip. On the way to the train station, she was stuck in Moscow traffic for three hours and almost missed the train to Paris. She described how she and her 85-year-old traveling companion had to dash through the massive station, with the kind taxi driver at their side carrying their luggage. They reached the train compartment with only ten minutes to spare.
That’s when I suddenly remembered: twenty years ago when I visited Liuda after her surgery, she had shown me how she’d devised a way to maneuver from one end of her small apartment to the other without putting weight on the injuried side. At the time I didn’t understand her and she demonstrated for me. In astonishment I had watched her hoist a wooden chair into the air and move it across her body to the other side. Then, using upper-body strength, she scooted herself across one chair seat to the other. This was resilience and fitness, Russian style.
I dug into my apple pie. The tea room’s cellar-like ceiling was low and dim, yet sunlight flooded in through a small gated window. Luida’s eyes twinkled green, then blue, and her pretty auburn hair shone. She told me she had only one dream left. Going to England was the ultimate goal, but for the first time she wasn’t sure she could fulfill it.
‘You can do it,’ I told her. ‘Look at how you managed today, for hours on end.’ Physically she could do it, she agreed, but the distance scared her. She was terrified to fly, so the only way she could go there was to take a train from Moscow and then the Eurostar train.
Sunlight flickered on the fuzzy green leaves of the African violets set out on each table. She turned her face to mine. ‘I will try,’ she said. ‘I could choose to stroll the streets of London or I could not. I was once cut off by politics,’ she added. ‘I will not allow my life to be limited by injury.’
I am happy to report that the following year Liuda fulfilled a lifelong dream and travelled to England. Below is a photo of Liuda in Oxford.