A month and two days following my ACL reconstruction surgery, I had a follow-up appointment with my orthopedic surgeon. Two weeks earlier I’d seen one of his assistants to have my sutures and bandages removed and to get a play-by-play, complete with three pages of color photos, of the surgery.
I was hoping for some good news after a month of hard work at home and in physical therapy. I’d been cranky and depressed for the past week because a nasty case of topical dermatitis flared up around my incisions. The incisions themselves are fine, but the skin around it was red, itchy, and full of little bumps that give my skin the appearance and feel of a very tightly inflated (i.e., one Tom Brady might allegedly avoid) football.
Perfectionist, people pleaser, and harsh self critic that I unfortunately still am, I was embarrassed and a little ashamed about the dermatitis. My doctor, however, brushed it off as unfortunate but normal and gave me some instructions for clearing it up on top of the antibiotics I was already taking.
He was more concerned that I was a bit “behind” in how far my leg was (or in my case, wasn’t) flexing and straightening at this point in my recovery. He said he could “breathe easy” when my leg could fully straighten, and right now he’s still holding his breath.
What the hell? I’ve been doing painful rehab from the moment I got home from the hospital! It’s been difficult, but I feel like I have bounced back fairly quickly. I’ve done everything “right.” I deserve to be ahead of the game and get accolades for it, and I always get what I want and demand perfection all the…oh wait.
See what happened there?
Sometimes I forget I’m a human being, and things don’t always go perfectly. (Yes even in 2020 that is sometimes still my default expectation.) Oops.
Hope isn’t lost though. My doctor jumped on the phone with my physical therapist, who will I’m sure have new ways to torment me the next time I see him, and in the meantime sent in a staff athletic trainer to show me some exercises.
The trainer was tall and amiable, and chuckled with me when I said I felt a tension-releiving pop in my leg as he was pressing down on it. (I also felt like my leg was going to snap in two like a branch, but I kept that to myself). He showed me some things I could do at home to get my leg to fully straighten and helped me into my new smaller “functional” brace.
We both outstretched our arms in the “ta-daa!” pose as I modeled my new brace. I could move much more easily and faster without the larger brace that was locked from my thigh to my ankle for the past month.
“You feel like an athlete again!” he said cheerfully. He said it as a statement rather than a question, and that was encouraging and even a bit jarring. I haven’t felt like an athlete lately much less identified as one. Oddly enough, I’ve barely thought about taekwondo since I tore my ACL in July. Amid the logistical whirlwind of balancing working full-time with planning for and going through surgery, the intensity of the first two weeks of post-operative recovery, and ongoing home and hospital-based physical therapy, I haven’t had the time or mental energy to let my mind drift much back to what got me here in the first place.
Sure, I’ve tried a few forms and can even do some kicking with my left leg as I tentatively balance on my right leg, but I’m still pretty far removed from what has consumed me and lifted me up for the past seven years. I haven’t been ready to look at the big goals while I’ve worked on the smaller but very significant milestones: getting through the two required weeks with the continuous passive motion machine, controlling my quadriceps muscle (right after surgery I couldn’t even flex the mush that was left), walking with just a brace, getting up and down the stairs without a crutch or a cane.
It’s surprisingly easy to get used to moving much more slowly. It’s been surprisingly easy to shrug off my identity as a taekwondo athlete when I’ve been sidelined by healing and recovery.
I don’t know if I quite feel like an athlete yet in the sense that the trainer meant, but he’s right. I am athlete. I’m still fit and strong and muscular in every other body part that’s not my right leg, and for a post-surgical patient, I’m fairly swift and agile. I can’t do taekwondo right now, but I’m still living in the body taekwondo built, and I have a responsibility to maintain it whether it’s “perfect” or not or whether I’m exactly on track with my surgeon’s recovery expectations.
This is the body taekwondo built. And it’s going to be re-built.
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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