Sunday, March 9, 2014

Have You Fallen On A Slideout And Played It Off? The Middle Flipper's Response

A few days ago, there was some Facebook discussion about trainers falling on slideouts in front of the public and making it seem like it was all part of the plan.   The question was of the "Have You Ever" ilk, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while I've fallen down/up/across/into/over a lot, I haven't done a single show where the habitat has a slideout.

Of course, that's because I've only worked at two show facilities.  Of the rare times I was in a show at one of those places (my first paid job), it was in a supportive role.   What's a supportive role for an apprentice trainer?  Well, for me it involved getting a gate in between really awful attempts at dancing in sync with the show trainers.  I do not dance.  I don't like it, because I am really, really bad at it.  Let me take this time to apologize to anyone visiting Miami between June 2006 and September 2007 who might have seen me "dance" in the dolphin show.  My dancing "skills" could potentially be used as a psychological weapon against major enemies such as Terrorists.

I'd never want to scare a baby orangutan!

Anyways, when it comes to the topic of falling on the job, I'd say I've reached the level of Master.  Whether or not I can make it look like part of the plan is open for interpretation.  Just the other day, I lost my footing during a sea lion show.   With some Matrix moves assisted by my arch nemesis Gravity, my flailing arms and pretzling legs were able to prevent what would've been a loud crash.   However, there was no way to play this off.  The noise of my boots desperately attempting to find purchase on the floor and the supernatural movement my arms and torso took on to remain head up/feet down attracted the attention of enough people in the audience that when they gasped, it was audible over "OH &#%*!" thoughts loudly playing in my head.

Sea Lion: You almost fell right down there
Me: I am so embarrassed you had to see that.

But there was a time I had a pretty bad wipe-out on a slideout and continued on with the session.  It happened at my first job.

On the first dolphin interaction of the day, I was scheduled to be the A-B point.  For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, the A-B person in an interactive setting is usually an extra trainer who can provide a place for the dolphins to go that is away from the guests as well as serve as a sort of lifeguard role: you can see everything happening in the interaction.  For example, f you have a guest who isn't following the rules, you can ask your dolphin to swim to the A-B point so that he/she doesn't need to sit there and listen to you do the Mom Voice thing to your unruly participant. 

My inner mom voice

In addition, the A-B station is another way to provide variability for the animals via toys, fish, rub-downs, and learning new behaviors.   And also, the A-B person Keeps Time.  

When this story took place, I had about a year of paid training experience under my belt.  I wasn't as frantically trying to prove myself as a brand new trainer, but I still took my job very seriously (well, I still do).   What I mean to say is I was comfortable with my assigned responsibilities, but I still wanted to prove myself so, you know, I could gain more responsibilities.  I wanted to show how dedicated I was.

As the guests were getting their educational/safety briefing before the interaction began, I was hanging out with some of the trainers by the medical pool which is adjacent to the habitat in which the interaction was scheduled to happen.  For some unknown reason, I decided to pretend I was some kind of Olympian gymnast and chose to walk around a raised (albeit flattened) lip around the edge of the med pool's slideout area.  This was an extremely dumb idea.  Why? Let us circle back to the whole topic of dancing in shows wherein I could barely do the basic moves in a graceful manner with both of my feet planted on a flat, secure surface.  I'm not sure why I thought walking on a ledge was going to end in success.

Here I am on a balance beam.  I've grown my hair out since.   

I carefully put one foot in front of the other and walked along the edge, back and forth, as we made small talk (our training plan had already been discussed at length).  I even remember thinking, "See? You're not that clumsy."  Oh, the cosmic joke that is my pathological denial.

Eventually, the trainers actually doing the interaction made their way over to the small group of guests waiting eagerly to do their program.  I stayed back, waiting for the opportune time to go to my A-B station and ask all of the dolphins to hang out with me until the trainers and guests got into the water.   

I balance-beam-walked a few steps, looked up to the habitat to see if it was time for me to head out there, then balance-beam-walked a few steps more.  I repeated this pattern countless times, carefully finding my footing.  All the while thinking, "I am SO GOOD AT BALANCE!!!!!"


I placed my left foot in front of the right, transferring the weight to my left leg.  In that small moment, some kind of conversation must've occurred between my feet and gravity, although I was never part of the discussion.  I'm relatively positive that my left foot said, "I CAN'T TAKE THIS ANYMORE" and gravity said, "You've put up a good fight, it's time to let it go" and my foot said, "I try so hard to dance but I'm too uncoordinated, and now this endless balance beam crap!" and gravity said, "Just give in, you'll feel much better".

So my left foot shifted my body weight to its inner edge, where my forward momentum took over and buckled the ankle at roughly 90 degrees on the med pool lip.  The ligaments found themselves stretching beyond their (and my!) comfort zone.   And I began to fall.  You'd think I would've fallen towards the left, since it was my left foot rolling to the left.  But I fell to the right, while my ankle turned supernaturally in the opposite direction.  I was felled like a giant monster, plummeting at 9.8 m/s2** onto the watery slideout.  

I'd love to have the MST3K crew watch my next wipeout.

Despite the throbbing in my ankle, the pain of a destroyed ego was greater and I prioritized my next set of actions:

1) Look around to make sure no one saw WTF just happened

2) Look to see if I need to be A-Bs yet 

3) Try to stand up 

4) Look at my ankle and wonder why I can't stand up

No one else had heard the splash or seen my fall.   I was in a wetsuit, so it wasn't really that weird that I was wet because it was a hot day, and we often jumped into the med pool to cool off before doing any dry aspect of a dolphin interaction.   

I eventually made it to my feet.  There wasn't any swelling that I could see.  And I figured since I could stand, I could limp over to the A-B station, do the program, then get some ice.  

The senior person on site looked at me then, indicating that they were ready for me to ask the dolphins to station so the program could begin.  I grabbed my cooler and tucked a basketball under my arm and began the limp.   Pain seared through my ankle and leg.  My ankle yelled to me, "THE LIMP IS IMPOSSIBLE AND I REFUSE TO COOPERATE."  So I resorted to a  sort of Igor/Zombie dead leg where I dragged my foot behind me.  

This is not the Igor to whom I am referring.  But this one's nicer to look at.

"Are you okay?" one of the trainers mouthed to me as I Igored my way down the catwalk to my station.

"Yeah, I just twisted my ankle a little," I said.  The trainer probably thought the contorted look on my face was a smile* and nodded in understanding.  

This will go away, I told myself.  Just focus on the program.  

But I couldn't stand.   I didn't need to stand for that particular A-B spot as I could see everything very well from where I was.  So I tried to kneel on the catwalk, but the moment my left foot tried to tuck underneath me, the incredible pain returned.  I reset back to the Igor position, wondering how I was going to be comfortable enough to get through the program.  So I did what any normal person with such an injury would do.  I sat on the basketball I'd brought out and experienced sweet, sweet relief.

What? What's that you say? That a normal person would've told the senior trainer he/she was injured and could he/she please be excused?  Never.  I had to prove my work ethic.  As long as I could perform my duties to criteria (and I could), I would perform them.  Besides, it was just a rolled ankle.

The trainer who expressed concern looked at me with a questioning expression.  I thought she was puzzled by my bizarre seating arrangement.  I smiled and mouthed to her, "It's comfortable."

She did not smile back.  Her eyes widened and she pointed at my foot.  My eyes followed her gaze down my calf towards my ankle, which had disappeared behind a softball-sized swollen area turning angry reddish purple. 

OH MY GOD, my brain said.  YOUR ANKLE IS BROKEN.
YES, my racing heart agreed. YES IT IS SURELY BROKEN.
My ankle provided no comment beyond unintelligible sounds of pain.

I had several minutes left to continue A-Bs.  I had to do something.  I had to get the swelling down.  But how?  All I knew to do was ice and elevate.  I couldn't elevate, but ice! I had plenty of that!  I opened the cooler and took out a few ice cubes.  I touched them to my ankle, thinking perhaps it would miraculously alleviate the pain and/or the problem.  But in the 100 degree Miami heat, the ice cubes melted or shot out from my fingers, then melted in the warm water.

By the time the program was done, the swelling had doubled in size.  I Igored my way back to the place where I had fallen and sat down.  The trainers knew at this point something wasn't right.

"Why didn't you tell us?!" they said.

I wanted to say, "Because I have Great Work Ethic."  But instead I told the truth and said, "Because I am really stupid and now I think I need to go to the doctor."

I was driven to the doctor by my boyfriend at the time (he gave in and married me later) who was a trainer at the same place.  And I found out that luckily, my ankle hadn't broken.  But I had significantly increase the length of the ligaments and tore a little bit of muscle, just to be awesome.   And luckily, all I need was time to heal and not surgery.   The doc put me on crutches, which was really annoying because those things are hard and I felt at any moment I'd fall down again and be right back to the walk-in clinic.  The good news was it got me to the front of the line later that night at PF Changs, which far out-weighed the cons of arm-pit chafing and other fun things that crutches do while in use.

Where you can eat all your woes away.

For several weeks, I had to stay out of the water and had to do a lot of cleaning and office work.  But most of my time was spent scrubbing buckets.  Some people might say that sounds bad, but I liked it.  I got to know the interns and newer trainers better, and it really made me appreciate what it's like to be able to walk pain free which hey, let's face it, not every one is that lucky.

In time, my ankle was healed enough for me to do all of my job responsibilities.  And since then, I haven't had any falls that really hurt anything other than my pride (which at this point, in terms of maintaining a meaningful and upward posture while in motion, is almost nonexistent).  I take all the falls in stride, but perhaps next time I actually hurt myself, I should cut my losses and get to a medical professional right away.   

"...And so now I get in the front of the line at PF Changs."

I want to hear from all of you zookeepers/animal trainers!  My wipe-out story is relatively vanilla to others I've heard.  What are your greatest comedic falls?

* If you know me at all, you know I don't have a normal smile

I was really trying!

** The speed of gravity.  I know my enemy well.

1 comment:

  1. I remember that you were injured but not HOW it happened! At least your words are eloquent. I can't really say the same about your balancing abilities... ;-) Anyhoo, when you started off saying your fall took place during A to Bs, it reminded me of a fall I took while doing the same. It had been raining off and on that day, so for this particular session I was wearing one of those oversized yellow raincoats. All was going well until a point where I had sent the last of my dolphins out and kneeled down to dip my hands in the water to rid them of fish scales, when unbeknownst to me, the heel of one of my Tevas had gotten caught on the back hem of the raincoat. As my fingers touched the water, I tumbled in after them; blue shirt, khakis, visor, raincoat and all. I will say that I don't think I have ever turned around and hauled myself out of the water so fast as I did that time!!