Life Interrupted

Mary Rowland

I HAVE SPENT MY career writing about personal finance and investing—in other words, how to make the most of your money. But when I was downed by an accident that resulted in nearly five years in and out of hospitals, and the amputation of most of my left side, I was left a financially devastated invalid.

How could I have avoided this? What did I learn? I knew the rules. I had good health insurance and I had put away some money—but, of course, not enough. Could it ever be enough?

I want to pass on what happened and what I did right and wrong. It started when a street person attacked me when I was running with the family dog on a New York City street. He shoved me down. I shattered my left hip, had it patched up and continued on with my life.

Before long, we moved to the country and the patch became loose. The first—and worst—mistake I made was having it repaired locally, rather than returning to New York City, where I could get an expert surgeon to repair it. I had the hip replaced again and again—four times in all—before a serious infection set in. I lost three years of my life visiting orthopedic surgeons, infectious disease doctors and submitting to daily doses of intravenous antibiotics, before the doctors decided that the only way to get rid of the infection was amputation.

At that point, there were few choices left. I did seek the advice of a premier health care consulting firm, which confirmed the decision to amputate. The consultation was an important rung in the ladder. It has saved me from looking back and rethinking the decision. Two years ago, I had the amputation. I initially thought that we were talking about my left leg, but it turned out to be most of my left side.

My life had centered on my writing and on being an athlete. I ran the New York Marathon regularly, participated in 100-mile bike rides and enjoyed working in the garden, as well as hiking, skiing and regular visits to the gym to work out. Now, I can do none of that.

So that is a second thing I learned: Diversifying your financial portfolio is not enough. You must also diversify your personal portfolio, by which I mean physical pursuits and leisure activities. Once I became an invalid, there was little left for me to do—and, in any case, I was too weak to do much of anything.

Diversification is not exactly new advice. We hear it all the time. I did. But I ignored it. Or perhaps I was just too busy. So my advice is this: Follow the standard personal finance advice. Protect yourself, your heirs and your property with insurance. Set aside savings, including in and outside retirement accounts.

But also consider your personal portfolio. Cultivate leisure activities and learning experiences. And follow—and safeguard—your dreams.

Mary Rowland has been a journalist for more than three decades, writing for top publications like BusinessWeek, Fortune, The New York Times and USA Today.

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