KneeHab: ACL injuries and a club I never wanted to join
KneeHab 101 series
Knee injuries are a part of sporting life in the mountains. Over the next few weeks, the High Life Health section will print weekly articles about ACL/MCL injury, surgery, rehab, recovery and prevention, featuring interviews with doctors, physical therapists and pro athletes. They’re the only knees you’ve got — show them some love.
Week 1 — “A club I never wanted to join,” injury column
Week 2 — Anatomy of an ACL/MCL injury
Week 3 — Yoga for ACL/MCL recovery, video
Week 3 — ACL surgery 101
Week 4 — “Slice, dice, make it nice,” pre-surgery thoughts and fears column
Week 5 — Myth-busting for knee injuries
Week 6 — Post-surgery recovery, rehab and physical therapy
Week 7 — Man on the street: Summit locals talk knee injuries, video
Week 8 — “Long, hard road,” recovery column
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a weekly series from Summit Daily reporter Phil Lindeman about ACL, MCL and other knee injuries, featuring professional and first-hand information on surgery, rehab, recovery and prevention. See the High Life Health section on Tuesdays for the rest of the series.
funny how the first time you put yourself in the hospital it’s scary, and the second time it’s basically kind of annoying.
I can’t take credit for that one. It came from a good friend who’s long past his second traumatic injury and well onto his fourth, or maybe even fifth. He rang me a day or two after I suffered my second major trauma injury, a blown ACL at Beaver Creek in late February, and the two of us started talking about the ins and outs of injury, rehab, recovery and everything else that comes with it, like physical therapy, cabin fever, restless nights and (hopefully) a full return to normal in six to eight (or 10 to 12) months.
He asked me if I needed any new video games and even though I’m not much of a gamer, those first few weeks after an injury tend to pull me back into the worlds of “Mass Effect” and “Duke Nukem.” They’re brainless, mindless fun — the sort of distractions that suck you in and gently spit you back out after a few hours — and there’s something to be said for the cathartic escape of fantasyland. Netflix and Playstations are a laid-up snowboarder’s best digital friends. Snowboard videos and Instagram, not so much.
This is my first blown ACL, but it’s the second time I have faced nearly a full year of knee rehab thanks to snowboarding. In 2014, I broke my lower right leg clean in half and didn’t stop while I was ahead, adding a broken right ulna and serious traumatic brain injury in the same accident. That one happened in mid-March, and by November the next season I was back on a snowboard with one 5-inch metal rod in my leg and another 3.5-inch metal plate in my arm. To insert the rod, the doc moved my kneecap to the side and slid it between my bones. It doesn’t set off metal detectors, bummer, but it came with several months of serious ankle and knee rehab.
That first time was definitely the scary one. This time is a cakewalk (pun intended) compared to that: no head injury, no broken bones, no serious or complicated damage — simply an ACL, the old standby of mountain-town athletes.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy, and I’d be kidding myself if I said it’s not stressful that I’ll soon have two-of-two reconstructed legs, but I absolutely agree with my buddy: this time is the annoying time. Annoying and claustrophobic, like the cabin fever I felt before, because no matter how many video games and episodes of “South Park” or “Weeds” or “Top Chef” I watch, I keep thinking about the snow right outside my window. That first time was almost completely internal until the home stretch — this time is all about getting back to the norm, fast.
At least it all happened near the tail end of a sometimes good, sometimes incredible season. January was out of this world — some of the best mid-winter riding in decades, I’ve heard (and agree) — and December wasn’t bad either. Neither was February, including that stunning, surprise bluebird powder day at the Beav’ when I broke myself off. Fun fact: both of my major traumas have been at that mountain, what I’d call my favorite of the big-name Colorado resorts, and both even happened within 500 yards of each other. There’s something about that exact latitude that wants me on crutches, and I don’t know whether to laugh or scream at some great cosmic joke.
Finding the luck
As I’ve been talking with torn ACLers past and present — and there are many in these towns — I’ve come to realize how lucky I am, busted knee or not. I’m young, which is always a plus when a doctor is mending and reassembling your parts (like they’ll do with my quadricep tendon come operation day). I’m also pretty healthy, which is another plus for anyone facing a few months of post-op physical therapy. And I have pretty decent insurance, which I’m now finding is even better than I thought since I’m on a PPO plan and not a high-deductible one. To think: I was toying with the idea of dropping to the $19 per month high-deductible plan in January to save a buck or two on the $54 per month PPO plan. I’ll dig into insurance and health care numbers for ACL recovery later this season, but let’s say that one decision is saving me at least $10,000 by the time this is all done. Lucky again.
Also, as I’ve been talking with torn ACLers, I’ve realized how prevalent this injury is with die-hard skiers. Almost everyone I know has either been through reconstruction or is good friends with someone who has, ranging from teenage alpine racers to diehard ski bums with 100-plus days per season. It’s almost like you need to blow an ACL (or have some other serious trauma) to really, truly, honestly be a local.
But is a torn ACL really a badge of honor, the sort of thing that makes me feel more a part of this wild and sometimes reckless mountain community? Have I joined the club? Does it come with bragging rights and bada**ery, nods of approval and legitimacy?
Hell no. An ACL injury isn’t a badge of honor, but more of a patchwork quilt, the kind made with stitches of grafted ligament and patches of surgery, PT and rehab, all spread through nearly a full year of getting back to normal. And the materials aren’t cheap, PPO or not. I wouldn’t gift that expensive quilt to anyone — not a friend, not a foe, not Lindsey Vonn, not anyone.
Thing is, the friend who called me to talk about scary and annoying has been a diehard skier and snowboarder longer than almost anyone I know in person. But, throughout the years of injury and recovery, he’s slowly lost touch with both sports and now only rides a handful of times per season. I’m not sure if it’s because of his injuries or much more than that, but I can’t help to wonder: Will I do the same? Are the accumulated aches and pains of past injuries enough to scare me away from the sports I love?
I don’t have an answer — not yet — but I do know I’m not scared. I simply hope that annoyed doesn’t become the norm.