Down and Out
Lying on my back, looking up at the stars and stadium lights and the sweaty faces circling me, the terrifying thought flashed through my mind: “I’ll never be the same again.”
Seconds before, a crossing pass came rolling slowly from the sideline toward our goalie box. As a defender, I instinctively broke for the ball. I also broke my self-preservation rule – avoid reckless collisions – but I couldn’t predict it soon enough. As I got to the ball, so did a strapping young opponent, coming full-speed. He swung his leg like a nine-iron, attempting to score. Players arriving for the next game said they heard the “thwwaaackk” a field away. I went down. I thought it might be bad, but didn’t know. Just a bad bruise? I was afraid to look.
Play stopped. Players gathered around me. “Probably a broken shin guard,” I heard. Someone helped take off my shin guard. It was fine. I peered haltingly at my lower right leg and knew I wasn’t. We had a surgeon on the team. All she could offer was, “I’m sorry, Adam.”
Another teammate gripped my hand. Others began asking me questions. “What’s your wife’s number?” “Which car is yours?” “Where’s your bag?” Within minutes, I was being wheeled by paramedics to an ambulance. “What’s your birthday?” they asked, the first of many times I would hear that question that night, to evaluate my alertness, I guess. That and, “What’s your pain level, 1 to 10?”
I stayed conscious and alert through the trip to the ER, surprising myself that I didn’t go into shock or even feel overwhelmed by pain. I had a broken tibia and fibula, two main bones of the leg – a “tib-fib” in orthopedic jargon. The next day I had surgery, a rod and screws inserted, and embarked on the greatest test of adversity in my life.
I had made it to 49 without ever being seriously injured or having surgery. In an instant, to go from sprinting to (pardon the political incorrectness) crippled, is an absolute shock. Prognosis: full recovery, 6 to 9 months. I would learn in the coming months that the injury and surgery didn’t just affect an isolated part of my leg, but distressed my toes, foot, ankle, Achilles, calf muscle, knee – the whole kinetic chain.
I had played in a high-caliber co-ed recreational soccer league for seven years, starting at age 42 – 30 years after last playing. I stuck with it long enough to become a decent defender, and eventually team captain when no one else wanted the job.
More than 120 games, with nothing more than the occasional pulled muscle or bruised rib. It became a point of pride to be perhaps the oldest player in the league, competing against former high school and college players in their 20s and 30s, but it was getting harder.
Maybe ego got in the way, or nostalgia, trying to recapture a vestige of youth. Maybe I should have quit. I almost did several times, but decided “just one more season.” Now, barely able to bend my knee or get off the couch without great pain, I punished myself mercilessly for that decision.
I was angry at the player who hurt me. Problem was, I had no idea who he was. I was told he stood behind me as I lied on the turf that night, looking concerned. But I never heard from him. With no external target, I turned my anger and blame inward.
I blamed myself for decisions I made from two seconds before the accident to months beforehand that could have changed the devastating outcome:
“I shouldn’t have gone for that 50-50 ball.”
“Why did I go back in the game as a sub in the second half?”
“If I had only registered for a Thursday night graduate school course instead of Wednesday, I would have missed the season.”
In the first month after my injury, I continually ruminated about these scenarios, often in the wee hours of the morning between restless bouts of sleep and groggy interludes of cable TV movies and cheesy mystery novels – but of course it changed nothing.
With a walker, just like the near-death seniors at the assisted living facility up our street, I struggled to make it to the end of our 50-yard row of townhouses, and needed my wife to bring a chair so I could rest for the trip back home. Going upstairs on my butt was a chore, so the living room became my bedroom. I didn’t take a real shower for weeks.
I missed three weeks of work, which was just as well because I couldn’t focus, and didn’t drive or wear a shoe for two months. Cooped up and growing depressed, the days became interminable, and I dreaded trying to sleep at night. I had in-home physical therapy – boring and sometimes painful leg exercises, with a lady who scolded me that I would have trouble growing old with my downbeat attitude. But I did the exercises religiously, structured my day around them, multiple sets per day, even strapping a dumbbell or a big flashlight to my heavy, protective knee-high boot to strengthen my leg. But it atrophied anyway.
I was miserable and wallowing in self-pity. If I kept it up, I wouldn’t have blamed my wife if she had walked out, “in sickness” be damned.
I had been athletic all my life — a collegiate tennis player who still played competitively – and now I was struggling to do a lap around our kitchen and living room on crutches without falling. I had the distinct feeling that the world was going on without me.
I started outpatient physical therapy with great trepidation. I imagined the therapists as heartless drill sergeants, pushing me to do masochistic exercises to see how much pain I could endure before collapsing in humiliation. Wrong. I soon embraced my sessions as part of my recovery.
In my early days of rehab, my favorite part of the day was just before bed, after a hot shower, when I lied on the bed and strapped an ultrasound bone-healing unit to my leg for 20 minutes and watched the NBA playoffs, forgetting about everything. I found myself empathizing deeply with players who suffered leg injuries – Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls and Baron Davis of the New York Knicks – now really knowing what an arduous road they faced.
I turned the corner and began rejoining life when I learned to use crutches more confidently. I would break up a work-from-home day with a laborious 1/5-mile walk to the neighborhood park about the speed of a kindergartner on 90-degree June days, sweating through my shirt and exhausting my arms, collapsing on the bench for a Gatorade break before the return trip. At night, I would take one of my kids with me until sunset.
I got stronger. I began going distances, about a mile along a path to the Lakefront in town for summer festivals and concerts, and just to sit on a bench with my son.
In late June, two months in, I mustered the courage to go to the neighborhood pool for laps. For the rest of the summer, I swam like my life depended on it, rarely missing a day, often closing down the pool after work. As the pools closed for the summer and healing progressed, I transitioned to cycling and gradually added tennis to the regimen in late fall, slowly increasing my lateral movement.
My new physical therapist told me recovery would be like a rollercoaster, and it has been. I went from two crutches, to one crutch, to no crutches, then back to one crutch as pain in my knee and swelling in my ankle made my gait uneven, then again to two crutches for a while, before finally weaning my way off. Pain and discomfort has flared and subsided regularly. But like the surgeon said, in my eighth month, I started feeling closer to normal, like this too shall pass.
Throughout my ordeal, I progressed from denial to acceptance to ownership. Ironically, the graduate course I was taking at the time of the injury was Theological Anthropology – an exploration of the influence and meaning of God and spirituality in our lives and the world. I came to view my injury as having deeper meaning – the response to adversity, nobility in suffering, a preparation for things to come. I didn’t even want to trade it away anymore, because then it wouldn’t even be my life, my unique experience, but someone else’s.
It was tremendously humbling. Who are you if you can’t do what you’ve always done? It gave me the perspective of living with a disability. I parked in “handicapped” spaces. Near-strangers asked what happened and offered their sympathy, welcomed or not. With my crutches and boot, I felt like a conversation piece.
It ate away at me that the player who injured me had never contacted me. I guess I just wanted to think it mattered…I mattered. Just after Thanksgiving, seven months after the injury, I e-mailed the player’s captain to say I was recovering and that I forgave his teammate. He responded that his teammate felt really bad about it, and it was his idea to send me the Get Well card with a $50 Amazon gift card way back when.
I still never heard directly from that player, and never will. But I never thought about it again. I guess that’s part of learning how to heal – physically, mentally, and spiritually.