On January 8, 2016

What almost killed me made me stronger

To follow up on the post-injury introspective I wrote about in my past column, here is a comparative study with a different injury, more comprehensive but slightly less acutely catastrophic.

On Thursday March 22, 2012, I finished a contracting job at 3 a.m., got about four hours of sleep, and saddled up to catch a leftover powder day at Pico (there had been a nice little storm on Tuesday, and as we all know, powder that falls on Pico on Monday afternoon stays fresh until Thursday). I hadn’t been there in years, so I stuck to the basics, hitting the woods between Upper Pike and Upper Giant Killer, working my way down to Birch Woods. I don’t remember whether I was above  or below Charlie’s Highway, but I was having a nice time in 6-8 inches of light powder, taking it easy because I was tired. Heading out of the woods to hit Summit Express, I followed a set of tracks that led through a narrow gap between two trees.

Seeing this narrow gap, I made a fateful decision to turn skier’s right, cross hill, to a wider gap between trees. I estimate that I was moving between 25 and 30 mph, based on what I have since learned from my ski tracking app. The next series of events happened with the speed of a grenade explosion. I suddenly found myself flying through the air horizontally, still facing forward, completely puzzled at my position relative to the ground. This inquisitive state did not last long, due to my relative proximity to a tree. The tree in question was maybe four feet from me when I went horizontal, and I hit it with both knees and my left femur.

From the moment of collision, the accident proceeded in slow motion. The tree mashed my quad against my femur, and the weight of my skis and boots leveraged against my body weight on the other side of the tree (telemark skis don’t release), which caused my knees to dislocate (I am not absolutely certain that the left dislocated when it hyperextended, but I know for sure that the right one did.) I remember quite clearly the feeling and the sound, like a large turkey leg being pulled off a bird at thanksgiving.

As I bounced out onto the bottom of Upper Pike through the gap between trees, the tips of my skis stayed hung up on the tree that I hit with my knees, and the tails, miraculously as it turned out, caught the tree on the other side of the gap, simultaneously jerking me to a sudden stop, and resetting at least my right knee, if not both. The stop was sudden enough that it broke both of my bindings while leaving me attached to the skis. Alternately, I was losing consciousness and bellowing with pain.

I was very lucky. The president of Pico was overhead on the Summit Express with a radio, and called for a few sled dogs and a meat wagon, who were engaged in exercises at the top of the trail. Further, I popped out onto the trail, screaming, 50 feet from two retired NYC firemen  who unhooked me from my bindings (I was hanging from them on a downslope, stretching my battered knees). I had help in 30 seconds, and was fully involved with the sled dogs in underneath within five minutes. When asked what happened, I said that I must have hit some ice and then smacked a tree. Ski patrollers informed me that what I was doing when my skis explosively lost grip was edging uphill on top of a snowmaking pipe hidden under powder.

The ski patrollers helped me get into a more comfortable position, and determined that I had not broken my femur (I was able to pick up the leg with my hands and move it, which would have been too painful if broken). Once I was able to maintain consciousness, I was moved to the meat wagon and given my second lifetime ride in the sled.

With a ski patroller under each arm, I was able to walk into the patrol office, and after an hour or so, hobbled on crutches to my car, in which I then drove to Burlington to get a cellphone that I was buying from craigslist, and then to my acupuncturist to get anti-inflammatory herbs. The driving was nearly all highway (cruise control), and the leg position in the driver’s seat happened to be the only position where my legs were marginally comfortable. I could operate the pedals by using my ankle.

I went to the hospital the next day once I made sure that my insurance would cover me, and was informed that the entire length of my femur was badly contused and my knees were both extremely loose. On the plus side, I was informed that while every ligament and tendon in both of my knees was badly damaged (and both my calves torn for good measure), none of them were detached, a minor miracle. My sentence? Months of physical therapy.

That first week I did nothing but sit on my futon with a urinal. The first five nights, I took four ibuprofen so I could sleep, (the only painkillers I took). I had recently read that studies were showing that ice slowed healing, and that the body’s inflammation process had some use in the healing process, so I let my injuries’ inflammations run its course.

I told the therapist that I had no money, and I would need to do the PT on my own. Her orders were simple: Ride a stationary bike (with open patella foam braces), and walk in a pool. Between my first visit to the PT and the start of my actual PT, I notice that I was doing most things, especially reaching, lefthanded. Going stir crazy one day, I went over to my pull-up bar to do a few, and when settling weight onto my arms I noticed to my horror that my right shoulder simply flopped out of joint and then went back in when I let go of the bar. Back to the physical therapist.

Examination determined that it was likely dislocated and then reset while I was bouncing from tree to tree and did not notice due to the volume of the pain roar from my legs. When that subsided, my shoulder revealed itself. I got a new set of exercises involving a rubber band.

My first day of PT was pretty interesting: ten minutes of stationary bike and walking laps in the pool of the health club to which I belonged. It was initially excruciating, but the movement eventually felt good enough that I thought I was cured by the time I walked 20 laps. But when I walked out of the buoyancy of the water, I collapsed to the floor.

Within two weeks I was rehabbing three hours a day; 10 minutes on a rowing machine, 20 minutes on a bike, 1.5 hours walking laps. I was on a cane after a week and a half; by three and a half weeks I was walking; waiting tables at four weeks. I couldn’t run up stairs, but I could walk them.

At six weeks I started hiking every morning and doing my PT in the afternoon.. At eight weeks I was summiting daily. At ten weeks I summited twice, 13.5 miles and nearly 6,000 vertical in 4.5 hours. I kept doing the PT until then. At that point I was able to get almost all the way into child’s pose, and I was able to do eight pushups with my left hand in a normal position; my right arm had to have the elbow cocked all the way to the outside (excruciating).

Later in week no. 10, I started P90X, fully expecting to have to drop it. I had done P90X before, and found it to be the most effective exercise program I had ever engaged in. I did it to get in shape for my wedding, and when my mother-in-law hugged me she said it was like hugging a bulletproof vest. I had done the doubles workout. I went into this round with no illusions as to my capabilities.

I did not drop the P90X as expected. In fact, I switched to the doubles workout after four weeks (that’s week 14 from the injury), not only doing the full plyometric workouts (with knee braces), but getting myself up to 15 pullups and 85 normal pushups by the end of the program. My recovery was nothing short of miraculous.

The point of this exposition was to draw a stark comparison with the experience of my broken ankle. One path, advised by a doctor, led me to permanent restricted ability, addiction, and respiratory arrest on an operating table (read my previous installment if this statement puzzles you); the other, in which I violated most of the rules set out by those who would tell you what to do when injured, led to hard work, healing, and being stronger, more agile, and in better shape than when the injury occurred.

I ski harder, better, and faster now than I did back then. I’m not sure that I would do it again if offered the chance to, but I can’t exactly say I regret it. It didn’t kill me. It made me stronger.

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