Gaining Compassion Through Surgery

American Fitness 1/14.

Before I tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in my knee, I was invincible. Nothing could stop me from pushing myself and the students in my fitness classes to new levels of achievement. I did sprint triathlons through rough ocean waves, and regularly biked 50-plus miles. I drove the older ladies beyond their comfort zones in water aerobics, and rolled my eyes as I led menopausal housewives on power walks.

Then I skied into a challenging mogul field, and wound up watching riders on the chairlift pass over me as I lay in the ski patrol sled.

Nothing prepared me for the pain of a dangling ACL. I couldn’t focus on the emergency room doctor’s X-ray explanation, but I knew surgery was in my future.

A nurse encouraged me to get on a stationary bike and keep my knee moving immediately to prevent scar tissue, but all I could manage was my vial of Vicodin and a permanent position on my couch. By the time I was seen by the orthopedic surgeon, my leg was as stiff as a utility pole, and depression from the pain and immobility had taken hold.

Post-surgery the pain increased, and I couldn’t get through the therapy exercises. The weeks of estimated recovery stretched into months. My boyfriend accepted a promotion. While still on crutches, I moved with him to a new city.

My new doctor got me off the painkillers and the crutches, and suggested I try massage, swimming, or whatever I could tolerate in addition to physical therapy, or a second surgery would be guaranteed.

My injured leg was an inch smaller in diameter than the other, and I had gained so much weight my workout clothes no longer fit. I had a good cry over my downward slide from fitness professional to deconditioned basket case—then bought myself a new bathing suit and joined a gym.

I found a personal trainer to help strengthen the muscles around my knee, and a massage therapist who applied deep work on the scar tissue. I tried acupuncture, Feldenkrais, and finally charted range of motion improvement.

Slowly, I got back into teaching. Only this time, having been the overweight, unfit participant, I offered a multi-level class to ensure everyone’s success. I knew to ask if anyone had injuries or other issues, and I was surprised by how many raised their hands.
So, I signed up for continuing education in muscle imbalances, arthritis and rehab. I now teach a variety of pool classes, and incorporated stretching and balance work into my land classes.

My own surgery and recovery offered insight into ways to help others struggling with injury and illness. But most importantly it taught me that when clients want to talk about their plantar fasciitis, their C-section, or even their divorce, instead of rolling my eyes, I look down at the scar on my knee and ask, “How can I help?”

4 comments on “Gaining Compassion Through Surgery

  1. This is such a valuable post, Ellen! Those of us who practice any fitness activities are bound to have injuries sooner or later. I’ve had my share, and it seems I’m always trying to navigate the terrain between fitness and some sort of injury rehab. But it’s better than just sitting on the couch–whether in the living room or at the therapist’s! ;-D

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