“Christine! Are you ok?!” echoed around me.
It all happened so fast, within a split second. My body came crashing down knocking the wind out of my lungs. I slowly transitioned from my newly acquired horizontal position back to vertical still trying to make sense of what had just happened. A growing wave of panic began to wash over me as I performed a full body scan for any additional injuries. My right knee was definitely talking to me. A tornado of thoughts began swirling in my head…Can I bend and straighten it? Yes. Can I put weight on it? Mostly. Any bleeding? Not so much. OK, I think I’m OK…right? Yeah, I just slammed my knee into a rock. Of course it’s not going to feel great. I think I can still hike the five miles we have left back to the car. I got this…hopefully. If not, how will I get out of here?…Truthfully, a helicopter is probably my best exit strategy off this remote trail and that’s only IF we can get cell reception. So I have to be able to hike back out. Be cool, you’re cool. Don’t show that you’re panicking…poker face.
“I’m ok everyone,” I try to announce confidently, even though I’m terrified I may not be able to make it, “I just need to walk a little slower on the way back, that’s all.”
We still had a quarter of a mile to our halfway point. A quarter of a mile from the magnificent waterfall we had committed to seeing up close in all of its mistful glory. I haven’t come this far not to at least try, I thought. Just keep putting one foot in front the other. Walk it off. That should help…I made it to the waterfall. Sadly, I was so distracted by all the what ifs being generated inside my head that I couldn’t focus on the beauty in front of me. All I could think about was can I make the five-mile journey home?
Every step along our return route was nerve wracking. We were traversing what felt like a choose-your-own-adventure Indiana Jones style route. One that under most circumstances I’m totally down for and get a thrill out of exploring. I enjoy taking the road less traveled option. However, in my current state of unease a nicely manicured trail without any obstacles or treacherous mud that created a surprisingly strong suction cup to the bottom of my shoe would have made me feel more comfortable. I was trying not to overanalyze and diagnose the laundry list of possible injuries I had just sustained. I knew it was still too soon to tell, but logic wasn’t loud enough to drown out the medical professional voice that was booming inside my head. With every step I was waiting for my knee to say – game over – and buckle underneath me. Fortunately, after three hours of cautious maneuvering and four river crossings, I was relieved to find myself sitting in the back seat of our car on the way home.
Fast forward six weeks later and my knee still wasn’t feeling 100%. I had been rehabbing myself, one of the many perks of being a physical therapist, slowly reintroducing myself back to higher level activities as tolerated. I had made good progress, pain was minimal, but I still presented with suspicious swelling after impact activities. That was a red flag I was no longer willing to ignore. I decided it was time to get a second opinion and scheduled an appointment with my orthopedist. We shared our respective hypotheses based on my mechanism of injury and residual symptoms. My x-rays were negative. An MRI would be needed in order to better understand my current condition.
A week later, I had finished my MRI by noon, was back at work by 1pm, and was surprised to have received a voicemail from my doctor’s office by 3pm.
“Hi Christine, we received your MRI results. Please give us a call when you get a chance. We’d like to see if you can come in sooner than next week to discuss the results with Dr. Yau.”
On the one hand I was excited to hear that my results were already back. On the other hand, I was anxious and suspicious that something more serious was probably detected based on the fact that they wanted to move up my appointment. I immediately called back.
“Hi, it’s Christine returning your call.”
“Hi Christine, what’s your schedule like tomorrow or Monday? Dr. Yau would like to see you as soon as possible.”
“Let’s do Monday. Are you able to tell me my results by chance?”
There was a long pause…“Well, technically….I….I wish I had better news…It looks like you have a torn ACL. I’m so sorry.”
The shock of this unforeseen news paralyzed me. My vision changed from crystal clear to an overwhelming fog in an instant. I felt like I had been punched so hard in the stomach that I was brought to my knees all over again. How could this be? But I don’t present like a typical torn ACL? The bigger more difficult question looming over me…How will I ever be able to manage taking that much time off from work to recover from surgery? I so badly wanted to time travel home in that very instant to wallow in privacy. Poker face, I told myself…you still have two more patients to see.
I hardly remember the rest of my workday. I made it home, laid down on my yoga mat and burst into tears. I didn’t know where to begin processing. Was it the actual diagnosis that was upsetting me? Was it the fact that my diagnosis was so unexpected that it made it that much more difficult to receive? Was it the fact that I knew I would have to take multiple weeks off from work, and how was I going to do that with all of my responsibilities? What about my patients? Surgery would require me to be in a straight leg brace, on crutches, unable to hardly do anything by myself for the first two weeks. I also injured my right leg, which meant driving wasn’t going to be happening for a while. F*%k! The list went on and on, so did my tears. Overwhelmed doesn’t even begin scratch the surface of how I felt in those moments. My injury had happened within a split second and now I was faced with a lot of difficult decisions to make that would impact me over the next several months. Why wasn’t I more careful on that trail?!
The first 48hrs after receiving the news were the hardest. My mind felt like a song stuck on repeat, unable to move forward. By Sunday my partner, Alex, looked at me and said:
“I think you’re making this into a bigger deal than it is. You’re strong and healthy and will come back just as strong after surgery. It’s going to be ok. Continuing to be upset about it isn’t going to help you feel any better.”
He was right. He was completely right, but I still wanted to punch him in the face when he said it. I couldn’t help but feel pushed by him to accept my new fate before I had said I was ready. It also upset me how nonchalant he seemed about the whole situation. My waterworks show was in full force at this point. With tears streaming down my face I said:
“You don’t understand the extensive rehab process that this type of injury entails. I do. The fact that you’re downplaying this whole situation makes me feel like my feelings aren’t valid, and on top of that I feel professionally undermined seeing as you don’t think the rehab process will be that big of a deal either. I rehab people for a living, many of which have been ACL injuries. This is a big deal!”
It took the rest of Sunday for me to fully digest where I was in my grieving process; to acknowledge what I was feeling, what was still upsetting me, and how I was going to move forward. Like Alex had pointed out, I was strong and healthy. I also had the fortune to work with a great surgeon locally and amazing PT friends that offered to treat me at home for the first few weeks while I couldn’t drive. I had an incredible medical team behind me in addition my own expertise. Another bonus? I had opted for the better healthcare plan at the start of the year. Thank goodness for that! As I wiped away the remaining tears from my eyes, my perspective began to shift. I noticed that I had a lot to be grateful for in this once seemingly dark and unfortunate situation. Then why was I still feeling so anxious?
As I continued to sit privately with my new truth, I began to realize the anxiety I was feeling was rooted in the fact that this whole process would require me to ask others for help. That’s not a comfortable place for me. To be perfectly honest, it’s terrifying. I’m usually the caretaker; that’s my job and I think I do it well. Being cared for? That’s definitely not one of my strengths. It makes me feel vulnerable. It makes me feel like I’m a burden to others. It also means that I have to depend on others…OK, yeah, no all of those feelings are way to uncomfortable for me to sit with so back to my usual strategy… Whatever responsibilities I take on should be mine to fulfill on my own, otherwise I shouldn’t have committed to them in the first place. Same goes for my surgery, right?…Deep down I knew that wasn’t true. I also knew my default strategy wasn’t going to work in this case even though I didn’t have the courage to say it out loud just yet. How am I going learn to ask others for help? Where do I even start? It’s as if the freaking universe knew it would have to put me in a straight leg brace in order for me to fully grasp this concept…
Being vulnerable is hard; it’s messy and scary because it’s where we present the most genuine unedited versions of ourselves to the world. It brings to light the places within us that we usually prefer to keep hidden, invisible to others. In certain cases, it’s important to keep ourselves shielded and protected. However, there are other situations where we have to find the strength to set aside our protective armor (and ego) and let ourselves be seen in our truest form. For me, choosing to let myself be seen in my truest form, albeit terrifying, means learning to ask others for help, experiencing what it’s like to be a patient, and becoming more comfortable with what usually makes me feel uncomfortable. Yikes! Insert deep breath here…
Brené Brown says, “vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.” I have a feeling this is going to be my mantra through this process. Here’s to sharing my truth and finding my courage along my road to recovery. Follow along in future posts of my PT Turned Patient series. I promise it’s going to be a real, vulnerable and a truth filled ride.