Vail health: Road to recovery
VAIL CO, Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY – For skier Hayden Thompson, the toughest part of tearing his ACL wasn’t the initial landing that tore his ligament.
It wasn’t skiing down the mountain on a busted knee, nor was it the surgery to repair the damage that followed. The hardest part is that now, more than a year later, he’s still working to recover from the injury.
“You get a few months out (from the surgery) and you think you should be better, but your body’s telling you ‘No, you still need to recover,'” Thompson said. “Especially for people who are active and used to doing athletic things, that’s really hard. You’re spending time sitting around and nursing a knee when you would rather be doing so many other things that are a lot more fun. That’s by far the most difficult.”
For people such as Thompson, a big injury not only means some serious discomfort and maybe some expensive medical bills, but it means the end of the season – and for many, especially those who live in the mountains for outdoor sports and an active lifestyle, that can be a crushing blow.
Elena Georgouses, a Vail-based counselor who has worked with many athletes, said most active people dealing with an injury struggle during the recovery period. Not only are they not able to do what they love, but they are not getting the physiological, mood-boosting benefits of exercise, she said.
“Usually there’s some grief, which can turn into a mild-to-severe depression,” she said. “People become so identified with the sport and activity that there’s almost an identity crisis that goes with it, bringing lot of fear, panic and anxiety. People think, ‘I’m not a skier right now. That’s why I moved here. What am I going to do?'”
One of the greatest difficulties for athletes is to resist the temptation to jump back into too much activity too soon, said Georgouses.
Most people think of a recovery period from surgery as about 6 weeks, but in reality, recovery can take one or two years, said professional XTERRA triathlete Josiah Middaugh.
He knows firsthand, having dealt with multiple injuries, including an IT (iliotibial) band injury that required surgery in late 2009.
“You recover very quickly the first few weeks, but then it happens very slowly after that,” he said. “For me, I’m still dealing with (the recovery.) I still need to manage it, and the truth is, it’s never going to be the same.”
Thompson couldn’t wait to get back out to the sports he loved – skiing, as well as basketball – however, the reality was that even a year after the surgery, his knee wasn’t ready for those high impact, knee-pivoting sports.
“I tried to ski once this season, but it wasn’t good,” he said. “It just wasn’t ready. I’ll try next season.”
Middaugh said it was frustrating not to be able to train as hard or as long as he wanted to, but he tried to focus on the positive.
“I’d focus on what I could do,” he said. “Sometimes that was swimming. Sometimes it was just pushups. I couldn’t just not do anything, so I’d find what I was able to do.”
Georgouses said she’s seen many people use their competitive and motivated mindset to recover. She suggests creating structure and identifying a plan of action with a physical therapist or doctor.
“That helps alleviate the anxiety,” she said. “The other part is figuring out what to do with all your free time. Those who do best are those who are able to access other pieces of their identity in a way that serves them well. Some people might pursue an interest in cooking, or others volunteer in their kids’ classes or do other things they didn’t have time for before.”
Skier Luke Wegner’s season came to an end after breaking his leg in two places in a ski accident. He had surgery, spent several days in bed at home, and almost two months after that on crutches. The process was humbling and a time he could not have made it through without the help of his family and friends, he said.
He remembers the time following his surgery and accident as a shower of support from his wife, friends and co-workers. Friends visited him constantly, his church cooked meals for him weekly, and he said many people were praying for him.
“It was the best and worst time of my life,” he laughed. “But truly I was covered in a lot of prayer, and I realized I couldn’t do much on my own to recover.”
That support is crucial to recovery, said Georgouses, although she points out that it is sometimes difficult for the independent mountain enthusiast to reach out for that help.
“When you’re injured there’s a certain vulnerability,” she said. “But if someone is willing to put themselves out there, we live in a supportive community, and often people will rally around you in whatever way you need.”
Wegner said he looks back on the tough time as a time of learning and advises others to put it in perspective.
“You are not the same after you injure yourself and you now have to deal with your injury but you are still alive,” he said. “Learn from your injury and grow wiser.”