Learnin' to Walk Again
There are thousands of sounds ricocheting around a rugby pitch, signaling the ebbs and flows of match play, communicating strategy as it unfolds between two teams, reassuring teammates that you're in support of their every move. Teams and individual players communicate in many different ways, no matter how long you play the game. But even among the myriad noises you hear, some stand way out, especially when the sound comes from one of your joints.
That POP. It's a sound I won't forget, though it's difficult to describe. I know this because I haven't forgotten the snap, the buckle, from when my clavicle crumpled into two separate pieces during my senior year of high school (I'm still sorry, Coach Todd and the Clay High School Scuba Squad) when a much larger man landed on my pseudo-adolescent frame. It's the first sign that something is very wrong, and you're about to be very uncomfortable.
This experience was different, however. Anyone who has ever broken a bone, torn a muscle, or ruptured a ligament can probably attest to the stages of grief that follow an injury. First there is the sound or initial awkward movement or brutal collision that causes the injury. In my case, it was the circumferential torsion of my knee while attempting my best Fijian goose step at full speed. All of a sudden, POP and I was on the ground. The brief moment between the motion and coming to a full stop sprawled on the ground literally doesn't exist in my memory.
Sometimes there is a visual cue. I rolled over, expecting my kneecap to be shifted to some unnatural location, or my lower leg to display a jaunty new angle that they don't teach in anatomy class. Only… my leg looked fine.
Then there is the agonizing and seemingly eternal delay as you wait for the oncoming pain. You hold your breath. You bargain with yourself. You try to negotiate a graceful way to portray the pain to earn dismissal from the field without making a reputation-scarring scene. There was a dull ache and some stiffness, but nothing unbearable. "Help me off the field so you guys can keep playing."
At some point, you can expect swelling, bruising, sensitivity, instability, soreness. I gingerly tested my ability to bear weight on the sideline. Shifting to my right leg was almost relieving. It was as if the joint was telling me, That's it, just rub some dirt (in this case those obnoxious black, rubber pellets beneath artificial turf that plague your laundry and every nook and cranny of your home for years to come) in it.
I had driven to the pre-season training and conditioning session – did I mention this injury occurred during a voluntary, off-season, non-contact exercise? - but opted for an Indian buffet lunch with teammates instead of seeking medical attention. The allure of team-building and the camaraderie among fellow ruggers is often undeniable… but in case I'm injured, I'll pass on the beer this time. Besides, the RICE method never fails.
The days that followed were routine. I went about my daily proceedings with some stiffness and discomfort at first, but that gave way to normal functionality. Yet something wasn’t right. I called one of my best friends, the soon-to-be-Dr. Sean Mitchell, and described my symptoms. Mild soreness. Perceived instability, though my leg never gave out. Dr. Sean’s prognosis: Sounds like a mild sprain. Take a week off from strenuous exercise and you’ll be good to go.
Unfortunately, about two weeks after the initial injury, I learned the actual diagnosis via MRI. Torn ACL. Torn MCL. Partially torn meniscus. Bruised femur. Allegedly, each successive injury was a typical side-effect of the last. A textbook blow out. In other words, my knee was wrecked.
I can't overstate how compassionate, forgiving, and doting Rachael was throughout this months-long episode. Almost exactly a month after the injury, the day after we returned from a weekend in the Outer Banks celebrating ten years together, Rachael drove me to the surgery center and I went under the knife for the first time ever. The procedure was a 90 minute affair, during which my surgeon harvested a graft from my hamstring to string across my knee joint to become my new ACL. I unconsciously cooperated with my surgeon during the procedure, and then proceeded to terrorize the gracious nurses in my post-op unit. The surgery was out patient, which meant I was homebound on the same day, but only after demonstrating to the medical staff that my vitals were stable. In my mind, that involved breaking into a slow and soulful rendition of Creed's "With Arms Wide Open" the second I regained consciousness.
Rather than cooperating and earning a swift discharge, I found it amusing to use my ninja focus to intentionally lower my heart rate by slowing my breathing and restricting my movements. The heart rate monitor sounded an alarm, summoning a nurse to action. She arrived ready to spring into action to save my life, but instead found me cackling in amusement, oblivious to Rachael’s slaps and scolding.
I'm not sure that I ever checked all of the boxes before the staff finally booted me, but eventually the nurses sent me on my way. Rachael profusely apologized for my behavior, while I repeatedly thanked the women for the bag of homemade animal crackers - you know, those ubiquitous and decidedly not homemade animal crackers that come in the blue bag with yellow font.
Karma came down hard on me. The next few hours were torturous. As the general anesthesia from surgery wore off, I became acutely aware of the trauma in my knee. Swollen to the size of a milk steak, and sensitive to every miniscule movement, my knee radiated and throbbed. What’s worse was the prolonged reaction I had to the anesthesia. I was unable to regulate my blood pressure and spent the next 18 or so hours fighting off nausea and oscillating from profuse sweating to cold shivers. Fellow writer Mike was a saint when he showed up in the afternoon with my prescribed pain medication and a handful of books to take my mind off the pain.
Irrational as it was, I began to doubt that I’d ever return to normal. During one of the consultations with my surgeons prior to the procedure, I had told him that I wanted to be put on the Adrian Peterson plan. I wanted to come back just as strong or stronger than before. I wanted to view the injury as an opportunity to refresh some healthy habits. At that moment though, I couldn’t remember what it felt like to walk comfortably, let alone run.
Yet after those first few unpleasant days, I began to notice improvement each and every day. It started with light weight bearing on the third day, progressed to ditching my crutches and hobbling from bed to couch on day five, eventually leaving the house donning my sturdy metal leg brace and relearning how to ascend the five stairs outside the front door. Then the physical therapy began, where electrically-assisted quad flexing gave way to balancing drills, lunges, and squats. As I gradually rebuilt my severely atrophied leg, my confidence and faith returned as well. Today, I attended a November Project workout complete with walking lunges, laps through Blagden Alley near the Convention Center, squats, and short sprints.
Weathering this challenge, I’m amazed at how quickly sensations, experiences, and confidence or doubt can fade from memory. Days after surgery, I effectively forgot how it felt to take the dog for a run around the neighborhood or walk comfortably from home to the metro. Heck, I would have traded my kingdom for the ability to comfortably maneuver our narrow bathroom. Now that I’m five and a half months post-op, roughly half way to full recover and clearance, I find it hard to lucidly recall the pain, weakness, and despair that I felt in early February.
At this point, I’ve come to terms with the reality that I won’t achieve an Adrian Peterson-esque comeback. My right knee is forever altered, and my livelihood is not dependent on my physical fitness. It may take a while, but I feel stronger and more capable every week. Every prolonged stroll through Northeast DC I can complete with my wife, every fraction of a mile I can muster running alongside Duncan, and every set of stairs I can descend stably is appreciated.
I won’t soon forget the sound of my ACL snapping, and only time will tell how comfortably I can participate in activities like rugby. What’s certain is that those weakest days are well behind me (knock on wood), replaced by the enthusiasm for my gradually growing strength and stability. I’m excited to continue pursuing my recovery goal at full speed, and I’m hopeful that I’ll chase it down soon… as long as it doesn’t require me to change directions suddenly in the near future.