Lessons From the Ninth Grade

I was woken this morning by the sound of hard rain on the tin roof and my daughter Sequoia screaming with joy. She loves to investigate and play in the seasonal creeks surrounding our house, and the bigger the storm, the more fun she has. For the eleventh week in a row, I have to swallow the reality of being unable to walk and crutch it to the rental recliner in our living room. I saw my daughter excitedly put on her rubber boots, and I heard her stomping puddles as she scurried into the woods. The dogs were in tow, barking and equally jazzed. The house instantly went silent, and here I sit, fighting back tears, feeling like a bystander in life after a staph infection invaded my knee joint following ACL reconstruction surgery.

The infection required a second surgery and an eighteen-day stay in a hospital. The bacteria ravaged my body; I lost thirty pounds of an original 167, and I became anemic and unable to get myself out of bed. During my normal life as an action sports trainer, climbing instructor/guide, and an adventure correspondent, I was rarely indoors and sedentary. I woke up energized because of the day’s planned outdoor activities or departure to the wilds. But for nearly three months, I have had to adjust my mind to being limited to physical therapy and sitting in the damn chair.

I have been doing physical therapy for no less than two hours a day, and have only taken two days off in the eleven weeks. And I still cannot walk. I have given myself bone bruises from going hard in therapy, the pain of extreme efforts not even eliciting a change of facial expression. I was finally told by a consulting surgeon to back off. And that was the straw that broke my back. More effort wasn’t going to make me walk, and that’s the only thing I had to give. For the first time in my life, a physical limitation wasn’t going to be overcome by will and execution. I suddenly felt lost, and depression dug its heels into my psyche.

I will need a third surgery this week in as many months, the fate of my function mostly lying out of my control. The surgeon will make decisions during the procedure regarding how aggressively to attack the motion-stifling scar tissue. Doing less surgically will result in less inflammation, but might mean subsequent operations down the road if therapy doesn’t restore full range of motion. I am paranoid about infection; that’s what got me here in the first place. But more aggressive tissue removal causes more trauma, and the original two surgeries, which happened in a two-week span, gave me symptoms of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. Go ahead, look it up. The potential outcome is gruesome, and I know I would have asked for an amputation if it had gotten to that point. So, a severe conundrum in which I will have zero say; I will only be able to process the decisions made by the surgeons upon waking in the recovery room. These realities add to my depression and anxieties.

Yesterday, a high school friend sent me a picture of my ninth-grade basketball team. I thought he sent it to me cheer me up, via the advice I had given him when signing his yearbook: “don’t smoke pot, don’t crash cars, don’t pay hookers….” But that night, I recalled what making that team took. The coach originally cut from the team during the last stage of tryouts. For some reason, I kept practicing, regardless of my disappointment. There was a recreation center in the same parking lot as the school, and I would stay there for 4-5 hours, practicing longer than the team. I would go until I could hardly walk. I didn’t know it at the, but the coach would stick his head in the recreation center and watch me for a bit before going home. He asked me to join the team two weeks later. I only played a few minutes per game, and I never scored a point, but I went “to the death” at every practice, and for the few minutes I was substituted into the games. I ran into him a few years later and asked him why he put me on the team. He told me he had plenty of talent but was short on heart. I was there to show the others what it looked like to have less ability but more heart. We won the City Championships that year; I still can recall the last ten seconds of the championship game like it was yesterday. We won by one point, by a backside assist stemming from a jump ball, scoring as the buzzer sounded. I was on the bench, but it didn’t matter. All my effort and pain worth it for that moment in time.

And it occurred to me; I have to approach this injury the same way. I have to have heart, to keep going where others might quit, to keep doing therapy despite not seeing gains, to keep my faith in the surgeons, therapists, and my body. I have to outlast this injury and do whatever it takes, even if that means more surgeries. If I can do what I did as a ninth grader to make the basketball team, I can apply the same grit today. Lessons learned on the court at such a young age, coming full circle. Turns out that ninth grader had something to show me, thirty-five years later. Onward.

Originally published on www.upventur.com.