“Don’t cry, don’t scream – it’s not that bad – just think of those crazy stories where some mountaineer drags himself back down the mountain with his femur sticking out of leg – that must have been hard, this isn’t that hard – it’s going to be ok, its going to be ok, its going to be ok – my god, what a shitty way to end my ski career – I cannot believe this is happening – I wasn’t even doing anything stupid, just trying to prevent some kid from getting hurt.”
These were some of the thoughts racing through my mind after my ski had wedged into a soft pile of snow, stopping me suddenly and violently while my body twisted and flipped over my left leg. Initially as I felt my leg twist, I thought “well, probably going to blow my knee out” but I kept twisting and my lower leg didn’t. As I flipped and landed onto my right side my feet somehow ended up in the air, I saw instantly that my left foot was pointed 180 degrees in the wrong direction. “F#*$, I hope my bone isn’t sticking out, please, please do not be compound.”
It was a terrible situation, simply come about by me slipping a training course for the athletes at the American Downhiller camp that I love coaching at. I was trying to smooth out a soft berm of spring snow so none of the athletes would get caught up in it. I was stunned with what had happened and how quickly the course of my life and career would be changed in the next months. I had decided prior to the camp that I would not be running any of the courses this year as it wasn’t worth the risk, I would go off the small jump for a few demos, talk about body position in the air, and give “course clear” for the athletes. I figured I could still teach the athletes a lot and not have to risk anything while doing it.
I sustained a transverse fracture of both my tibia and fibula but luckily my tibia was not sticking through my ski sock like I had so feared. That all seemed like good news! No spiral fractures or bones shattered into multiple pieces. Surgery included repairing the tibia with a tibial nail (rod) and doing the same to the fibula – two titanium rods. The surgeon in Mammoth told me that I had a very good chance at racing again this winter and that I would be walking in 2-3 weeks. Possibly ski in 5 months. I was on A LOT of drugs when he told me that and even then, I knew that timeline wasn’t realistic. It was still nice to try and believe that for a couple weeks though, and it gave me a lot of hope initially! My surgeon at home in Vail was a bit more conservative and realistic, bone healing in 3-4 months, possibly ski in 6 months. That put me on a return to snow timeline in November which felt doable at the time. All in all, although it was terrifying to see my foot pointed in the wrong direction the outlook was positive. It wasn’t an overly complex injury and it was anticipated that the recovery would go smoothly
The first six weeks post op seemed to be going ok, I started to put more weight through my leg at two weeks post op and was pretty much off crutches at three weeks. It didn’t feel awesome though, I would have sharp stabbing pains in my leg during certain movements, and I never felt that confident in steps I was taking. I shrugged it off, “hey my leg is broken, of course its gonna hurt.” At the six-week mark I looked at the x-rays with my Vail surgeon who was taking over my care and we saw essentially no bone healing. Dr. Sterett gave me two options, we wait another four weeks to see if it improves or we remove the locking screw from the upper portion of the tibial rod right away and “dyanamize” the fracture. The theory being that the locking screw was preventing the tibia from compressing on itself and creating the pressure and alignment needed to heal. I had the screw out a week later. “Ok, a little behind but no big deal” I thought.
Follow up in another six weeks, and we were still not seeing very much healing. For sure a bit more but not as much as you would like to see at almost three months post-op. So that was bad news. Not only that but I had begun to develop pain on the inside of my ankle and lower leg about 4-6 weeks after the injury, or when I really began walking again. By mid-August the pain was severe, and it was getting very uncomfortable to walk. I had sharp pain on the inside portion of my ankle and leg every step. I had to hold onto a chair or the wall when standing and taking my first few steps as it hurt too much to put my full weight through my leg. I tried to grit my teeth through it all and tell myself over and over “tomorrow will be better”, only when “tomorrow” came it felt worse and worse.
More doctors’ visits and MRI’s indicated that I had scaring around the fracture site that was locking down the tendons that control the flexion and extension of my foot when I was trying to walk. I tried a cortisone shot. That worked for about three hours and by the next day I was back in the gym crawling around on the floor between exercises as that was easier and less painful that walking.
I would say this was a low point…I kept thinking “it can’t get worse, if I just keep trying and keep training something good will happen, and “it’s gonna get better.”
After each doctor’s visit where I continued to receive news that I was looking at an ankle surgery I would go home and cry, which continued to make me feel even worse. So, I gave up the crying and would instead go to the gym, crush myself on the rowing machine, or whatever device was available and leave for home knowing that at least I was attempting to make progress.
Since I was at a breaking point, we decided to removed the lower locking screws from the tibial rod in hopes that some of ankle pain was being caused by the screws even though we knew the scarring was the real issue– we were grasping for straws at this point and I was hoping for miracle that would help me heal. The screw removal didn’t help with the ankle pain. Ten days after the screw removal I had ankle surgery where a different surgeon (ankle/foot specialist) cut a 6-inch incision into the side of my leg and cleared out all the scarring around my tendons.
When I sustained the injury, as the bone twisted and fractured it had torn through some of the muscles in my lower leg. As those muscles tried to repair themselves the scarring became so severe that the tendons were eventually scarred down to my bone.
Weeks after the screw removal and ankle surgery I was again training in the gym. My hopes of skiing this winter were gone and I was hoping I would gain my ability to walk again without a limp. I was better after the ankle surgery but not healed. I was honestly very scared I wouldn’t ever walk normally again. I could not get my gait to normalize no matter how much work and focus I put into it. In addition, the x-rays of my tibia were not showing a ton of improvement. At four months with my tibia not being healed my fracture was classified as a “delayed union”. At that point we decided to give it one last chance over the following six weeks – I started doing pool plyometrics and mini jumping exercises on land hoping that with the increased force we could jumpstart the healing again. I wasn’t in that much pain at that point, the fracture didn’t hurt although my ankle still caused me discomfort. This was the actual lowest point – mentally I was so frustrated and beat down. I was crushing myself in the gym, sweating, crying, doing everything recommended to try and help myself heal. I went to doctor appointment after doctor appointment, more CT scans, MRI’s, blood tests, and searched out second opinions in New York City at the Hospital for Special Surgery all in hopes there was something else we could do or try that wouldn’t involve another surgery. In the end the consensus was that I needed to go ahead with another surgery. This time we would rip the rod out of my fibula and let the fibula heal on its own as typically prescribed, then rip the rod out of my tibia, ream the bone out – essentially making it bleed again to restart the healing process and then hammer in a thicker rod to stabilize the fracture once again.
My mind was so far away from skiing at this point, I didn’t care if I ever skied again let alone ski raced. I just wanted to walk normally again. Not be embarrassed if I caught people watching me walk down the stairs and not have to pretend, I was doing “ok”. If someone would have given me the option to quit right then and never race again if that would mean I could walk normally I would have done it. Ultimately, I didn’t have that option. If I indeed wanted to walk normally again, I would have to undergo another (the 5th) procedure and do the rod exchange.
So, we did that in the beginning of December in Vail. It wasn’t very fun... I was in much worse pain that I experienced post op from the actual injury which made sense as it was a much more invasive procedure.
Thankfully it appears this last procedure is working – my six-week post op x-rays showed the bones well on their way to healing fully and miraculously all my ankle and tendon pain is gone! I can train hard in the gym and have even begun plyometrics without any pain or soreness. It really feels like a miracle! I hope to get on snow sometime this spring and get back to ski racing this coming winter. I know there are still many obstacles ahead but I am confident I can make it. The struggle has been immense but once again the struggle has made me stronger.
As with any adversity in life it is hard to understand why it is happening – or why it is happening to you. Again. There really isn’t any explanation other than accidents happen…I guess? I always tell myself “It could be worse” and that is certainly true. It could have been much, much worse. Although I have endured a lot of discomfort over the past months, I am still grateful for where I am at. I am really starting to believe I am going to be “ok” and will have my chance at ski racing again! I am still finding myself giddy with excitement over every “new” activity I can do and that my body is adapting and accepting a new stimulus each day as I progress.
Aside from what feels like a season of surgeries, seven new incisions cut into my body and lots bleak moments physically and mentally I have many other exciting things that have happened in the last months – In June I got engaged to my love Pat and am so looking forward to getting married this May! My best friend, and a person that has lifted me up so much during the past months, I’m not sure where I would be without him… 😊
Family is something to also be grateful for, seeing my niece and nephew grow and truly become their “own people” is so fun and exciting to witness. My sister and my Dad for always being supportive no matter how much I know it hurts them to see me injured once again.
Thankful for all the hours of physical therapy and the people that dedicate their days to helping us crippled athletes heal. I don’t know how many hours I have spent wincing from their strong, claw like fingers (I mean that in the best way) but I can’t fathom how uncomfortable I’d still be without their help. Thank you, Winnie, Gillian, Matt, Anna and Sara. Your claws hurt me but I still like you! 😉
My coaches have been nothing but positive and supportive, even when I wanted to give up and give in they always have had a positive word and keep telling me how much they believe Ill be back and have my chance again.
My teammates have been great as always too! Training with the “cripple crew” in Park City brings it own relief, seeing your injured comrades sweat, wince and make progress alongside you is always motivating and inspiring. I miss being on the tour and its weird to see so few of US women on the start list…but I have a lot of faith for those of us remaining. There is so much potential in our group!
All in all, that is a succinct update of what my last months have entailed. I could go into more detail about the daily struggles and emotional roller coaster but I honestly don’t feel like reliving many of those moments, days, and weeks. I am putting those days behind me and looking ahead with optimism and the belief that anything is still possible! Onwards.