As if there weren’t enough curveballs from the year 2020…
We’ve all figuratively had our legs knocked out from under us this year.
Last Thursday it happened to me literally.
So there I was in taekwondo class, minding my own business and enjoying kicking a hanging bag. I was feeling strong and happy. I was getting my calluses on my feet back from finally getting to slide around unabated on the mats and starting to get my strength back after three months of modified home workouts. It was two days after my forty-first birthday, and I was feeling fit, strong, and hopeful.
After a warm up, another black belt and I started kicking the hanging bags with regular roundhouse kicks, then defensive back kicks. No problem. Then we moved on to a combination: 360 roundhouse kick followed by a “double kick,” which is a roundhouse kick followed immediately by a roundhouse on the other leg, which requires a little hop. It’s seen in modern Olympic style taekwondo sparring. This is not the same as the more old school “double roundhouse,” which is kicking a low then high roundhouse with the same leg, usually coming from the back foot.
We started on the right side, which is usually my worse side for 360, but I actually did a pretty good job. I felt good, strong, and confident. It was fun and something I’d never tried before on a bag.
After five rounds of the 360-double kick combination, we switched to the left side (360 with the left foot, followed by a right-then-left double kick). Cool, this was going to be good. My left foot 360, like most of my jumping kicks, is better than the right because my left leg is much stronger for launching into jumps. I was excited to try out the new combination on my better side.
Plop. Thwunk. Ugh.
My first attempt sucked. What a terrible 360! My hip wasn’t even turned. Maybe it was just a fluke.
I can’t remember if it was the second or third attempt when my evening went awry. One moment I was staring glumly at my left foot, which was weakly tapping the bag at an incorrect angle from a poorly executed 360, and the next I was on the floor screaming after feeling a horrible pop on the side of my right knee and involuntarily collapsing to the ground.
“Are you OK?” one of my instructors asked.
“No.” Breathing hard through my mask (required right now), I clutched my injured right leg and delicately bent it back and forth to try to straighten it, which it did not want to do.
It’s very rare for me to say I’m not okay in taekwondo. I’m pretty tough when it comes to injuries (they’re par for the course, even without sparring) and pretty stubborn (and sometimes ignorant) about seeking professional treatment. Maybe I could just ice this and take ibuprofen for a few days. I’d be fine.
I wasn’t fine.
The initial pain, as sickeningly dreadful as it was, lessened fairly quickly, and I was able to finally straighten my leg and hobble around. Once the immediate crisis was over and I was sitting on a mat, icing my knee, and debating whether to go to the ER or not, I was annoyed. I was just getting good at 360, especially on my left side. Not only was it a poorly executed kick on my favored side, but it was so wispy and weak that the dramatic and very painful result was an even bigger insult. It wasn’t like my right leg twisted at an unnatural angle or I landed too hard or anything. I basically took a step. A freaking step.
Why couldn’t my one bad blowout have happened during something cool, like a double flying snap kick board break or jump spin kicking a tall sparring partner in the face? (I have done one of those things, and my knee was just fine.)
Nope—here’s what happened. Turn, tiny plod of a hop—AAAHHHH!!!
This is some bullsh…
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry that it happened so quickly after my forty-first birthday.
The night of my injury I was able to drive myself to a nearby free-standing ER (like an urgent care clinic, but you get a hospital ER-sized bill). There I was gently examined, X-rayed, given a tight brace, some high dosed ibuprofen, and a referral to an orthopedic doctor who happened to be in the same clinic where I’d been treated for my hamstring problem a few years ago. There wasn’t much they could do beyond that. The X-ray showed no problems.
A few days later I was being examined by the said referred orthopedic doctor who seemed to have quite a lot of experience in sports medicine and injuries like mine. (Once again, their X-ray, that I’m sure I’ll be billed for separately, showed no problems.) He gently kneaded my leg like he was prepping a piece of chicken for dinner. He suspected an ACL tear (tear to the anterior cruciate ligament of the knee) and patted my foot when my eyes widened (over my hospital-issued mask) with concern. He kindly assured me we would come up with a “game plan” as soon as he knew what was going on.
Then he ordered a “STAT” MRI, and I was hobbling to my car in my new heavier but more mobile brace, and driving a mile or two from the hospital to a small outpatient imaging center. STAT? Yikes!
I’ve never had an MRI before and have been too scared in the past to do it with previous (and much less serious) injuries. This time I wanted to know what was going on and was wiling to do whatever it took to get an answer and a “game plan.” But MRI machines are still intimidating and creepy.
When it was finally my turn to get in the big tube, I felt like a doll wrapped in protective packaging. My right knee was gently locked into a thick white padded circle, and I had a pillow at my head and feet. Get your Melanie action figure! Knee brace and sparkly iPhone not included! I’m not what one would classify as “claustrophobic,” but I was very pleased they left my little head sticking out of the machine. The tech put headphones over my ears after I requested classic rock to listen to during the procedure. Seconds later, “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival romped into my ears.
“Looks like we’re in for nasty weather…one eye is taken for an eye..”
Nasty weather, indeed. This entire bizarre, awful year has been a bad moon rising.
I smirked, settled in for some good music when—
I felt my chest jerk with a start and whispered “OH SH-T!” at the first blarings from the MRI machine. That sucker was loud. I chuckled silently, screwed my eyes shut, and tried to breathe deeply and hold still while my heart was pounding, and sweat was starting to form under my back. I kept my hand resting lightly on the little ball they gave me to squeeze if I started freaking out.
Ah. A moment of silence. Breathe…More music…
“You can’t hiiiide your lyin‘—“
Ugh, it was so unsettling and loud. Maybe I could pretend I was listening to the world’s loudest tattoo machine. I like tattoos. Getting a tattoo is oddly relaxing, like going to the dentist. I could find some way to chillax in this terrifying 2001 Space Odyssey monstrosity.
Oh good, more music.
“Lovin’ you isnt the riiight thing to—“
After about ten to fifteen minutes of a few enjoyable snippets of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac amid the bullet-fast F5 wailing of the MRI, I was done. I carefully drove home and poured a giant glass of Chardonnay.
Three days later I was back in the orthopedic clinic looking at myself on the big screen…no, not me starring in the movie adaptation of my memoir, but rather black and white images of my legs. On the right, a pristine X-ray of my femurs, patellas, and dainty tibias. On the left, a mish-mash of different MRI images that looked like a sliced spiral ham.
The doctor came in and explained as he clicked through the images that I had (as he suspected) a partial ACL tear, a bone bruise where the femur and tibia smacked together (lovely), and another random sprained (but not torn) ligament that was causing some fluid buildup and achy swelling in my knee. He grabbed a plastic model of the knee and showed me exactly what was going on. The other ligament would heal on its own.
The anterior cruciate ligament wouldn’t.
“I’m not surprised. Taekwondo’s hard on the body,” I said with a chuckle.
The the doctor squatted low on a stool, his pants riding up over his cowboy boots (it was casual Friday in the office), and looked me straight in the eyes while we had a long talk about treatment options. I’ve gotten used to doctors flitting in and out of exam rooms so I was actually a little unnerved by this guy being so courtly and leisurely, as if he had all day to chat with me.
After a long talk and questions from both sides, we agreed on ACL repair and aggressive physical therapy for about six to eight months following surgery. He was familiar with taekwondo injuries, having treated my people in the past (and treating people at my same activity level and age in the past), and I was happy that, despite my “age,” he treated me like an athlete who wants to get back into activity and fitness, not an old lady with a bum knee.
After a flurry of phone calls, I was scheduled for a lower extremity assessment (motion-capturing done for athletes so the doctor can assess initial mobility and monitor over time), the surgery itself, and my first physical therapy appointment. Meanwhile I was back at home hacking away furiously on my work laptop trying to take care of business and prepare for being out for a week.
How I Feel About It…
Not getting surgery was not an option for me. I have been walking, jumping, running, and kicking on an injured knee for the last three years, and living with a now-really-bad injury that would become more and more debilitating over time is not acceptable. I’m not afraid of surgery. I’m actually looking forward to having a fully functioning knee again.
I’m willing to do the hard work to heal and get my strength back, and once again, I’ll be paired with “Cody,” my wise-cracking physical therapist from past injuries who was so good and so funny he got two full chapters of “airtime” in my upcoming memoir. I look at it as high-quality personal training that my health insurance is paying for…partially.
As for taekwondo…it hasn’t quite hit me that I may not be able to participate in a taekwondo class for several months, maybe even up to a year. Once that reality hits me, my heart is going to hurt. I might even cry a little. I can practice at home in very careful, limited ways. There will still have to be a lot of re-building and re-training before I can even think about testing for third dan, which I’d hoped to do at the end of this year.
Taekwondo is what helped me turn my life around and find happiness. I can’t lose it.
Stay tuned for my upcoming book– “Kicking and Screaming: a Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts” published by She Writes Press. Coming to a bookseller near you April 20, 2021!
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