Vail’s Chris Anthony: Road to recovery
Special to the Daily
Vail CO Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts. The first part was in Saturday’s Vail Daily and is at http://www.vaildaily.com.
VAIL, Colorado – I’m not saying that doctors are miracle workers. But the good ones are able to understand you as a person while analyzing your injury.
As an athlete who looks at his body as a highly tuned machine, having a doctor on the same page is beyond important. He sees the emotional battle from the perspective that this is also your livelihood.
Dr. Millett’s team was like having a Formula One pit crew in my corner. We pulled up the calendar in November 2010 and plotted out a game plan to keep me in the game until the season was over and I could go under the knife if needed.
I was hoping my insurance would approve it. The steps begin with X-rays and then, a couple of days later, the very expensive but necessary MRIs. The X-rays picked out damage and something interesting on the left knee. Something that looked like a bone spur in approximately the area of one of my old screws was causing a problem. One issue already answered – it’s a bone, not hardware.
It wouldn’t be till the MRI was back that I actually sat in a room with Millett and heard what his team had to say: “Wow, this must be painful. You need surgery.”
Whatever it was in the left knee needed to come out. But his words, “Interesting – I might have to make incision through the back of the knee,” stuck out in the conversation.
It would be a challenge.
In the meantime, injections of cortisone and Synvisc-One let me stay on skis, if I could bear it, and got me through the season. I planned for surgery the moment my last physical obligation was completed. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it needed to be done if possible.
A game plan for surgery
The season was one of Colorado’s best. Ironically, it was horrible when I was in Europe and the hardest conditions I had ever experienced while guiding in Alaska. The snow conditions in Alaska resembled frozen reef. Every vibration rattled through my body and struck my knee joints like a sharp knife. By the end of every run, I was shaking and fighting off the tears from the pain.
The injections of cortisone and Synvisc-One had completely worn off, and the pain was crushing me into submission. I just couldn’t wait to get home and have them open me up. Anything had to be better than this. Even surgery. Of course, the day I left, it started dumping in Alaska and guide Kip Garre went out with Seth Wescott and cameraman Tom Day to shoot one of the best Warren Miller Points North segments ever. Amazing how it changes up there.
Back in Vail, Millett and his team went into my right leg, cleaned out the floating debris and discovered the cartilage damage along with a few other issues. The feedback was not that positive when I woke up in the recovery room but was not all bad. It sounded like he was flushing out the radiator of a car that had never had any maintenance. They also took a look at my left knee, where the larger problem existed, and devised a game plan for going into that one from the front of the knee as well as through the back.
Originally, we had planned to do the second surgery three weeks later, leaving me two months to recover and be back on snow by the end of August. A day after the first surgery and after one session with my physical therapist, Meredith Mueller, I decided to do the second surgery the next day for a couple of reasons – my insurance only covered 12 physical-therapy sessions per year, and I was feeling pretty good on the pain front. Millett and physician’s assistant Heather Gilman rallied around the decision and scheduled the second surgery.
I woke up from the second surgery screaming, and I was put back under. After the second awakening, I was in tons of pain but not screaming, and I had no movement in my lower left foot. I was in and out of it for the next several hours while the doctors came in and checked on me. Eventually, they showed me a photo of what they took out of my knee. It was shocking and amazing to see. It was also a relief to know that it was not my imagination – I actually had something wrong, and I was not being a wimp. After a few hours, my toes started to move, and I saw the relief on the doctors’ faces, which then woke me up to the fact that it was a little bit of a worry.
The nugget that was removed from my knee was tangled in nerves that ran down the front of my shin. This explained the severe pain I was having all winter long down the front of my leg, which I was blaming on my boots. I passed out for the next few hours and then went into rehab for the next couple of months at Howard Head with my physical therapist Meredith. We had a game plan, but the realization came that my life had changed on the training front a bit. High impact was not going to be an option for a while, and adaptation to these changes needed to be conveyed into my training and sport. I bought a road bike and lived on it.
The biggest battle would be with the mental confidence to pound through it and get back to a place where I could be strong again.
By August, I was standing on an untracked 40-degree pitch looking down at the Portillo Hotel in Chile. Between where I was standing and the bottom, it was powder, and I was going to make my first turns since limping off the slope in Colorado. I dropped in and quickly realized I was back and, at least in powder, I once again would feel the freedom of movement for some time to come – and slipping that radio into my pocket a few thousand more times.
Longtime Vail resident Chris Anthony is a former Alaskan extreme-skiing champion and veteran of nine World Extreme Skiing Championships and 22 Warren Miller films. The latest Warren Miller movie, “Like There’s No Tomorrow,” comes to Beaver Creek’s Vilar Center on Thursday and Friday.