Friday, February 26, 2016

What It's Really Like To Break Your Ankle, And Return To Doing The Things You Love

            I knew the severity of my injury by the hesitation in the surgeon’s voice. When they cut the temporary cast off of my ankle, he breathed in all the air in the room before he spoke a word. That’s how I found out how badly I’d broken my ankle.

            I had broken bones before. Honestly, more than I’d like to admit. The doctors maintained an upbeat tone when I’d come in for other injuries. But as Doctor Stewart looked in shock at the size and bruising on my ankle after two weeks, I could feel the anxiety in the vibration of his voice as he told me we needed an MRI to know what was wrong exactly.  Here are some photos of my foot that day at the appointment. The next morning after my MRI, I received a call saying my surgery would be tomorrow at 1pm. 

      I showed up unaware of the procedure about to be performed. The doctor asked if I had any final questions, and I asked what he was going to do exactly...
            As it turns out, I fractured my talus bone in my ankle. (Which I would not recommend to readers at home.) To repair the crack, I would need two pins in the center of my ankle.  The Doctor told me that it would take a year to heal. I didn’t believe him then, but he would be right. I tried to run away from what he told me, but you can’t run away from a broken ankle.

Here is a photo after the surgery.

            My grandparents and my mom took great care of me after my surgery. I was in and out of sleep often and fairly medicated, so those few days are a little blurry following my procedure. The earliest thing I can remember after my ankle surgery was pain in the night. I don’t mean to whine here, but if you’re reading this and you want to know what it felt like, it fucking hurt. It would wake me in the dead of night like I was being stabbed from the inside, and the injection point for the nerve block in my thigh ached like a deep itch that it hurt to scratch.

            I opted out of the crutches quickly after falling once or twice in the ice that winter. I moved up to a stylish knee-scooter instead, which sounds way cooler than it feels to ride. I couldn’t put any weight on my leg for a good month or so after surgery, so the knee scooter saved my life. If you get one, make sure it has brakes. I rode that thing to class, practice, and even to Daytona Beach for NCA College Nationals. Here’s me on my knee scooter after surgery.

(Please don't be offended by the caption; not my snapchat photo)

So I haven't told you what I do. 

I’m a college cheerleader. I broke my ankle doing a tumbling pass. (For those of y’all who know tumbling terms, it was a round off whip through to full on spring floor.) The floor is put together with carpet-like pieces fitted together with velcro strips. Where I landed my tumbling pass, there was no Velcro, and thus, I dislocated my ankle so far that it snapped in half, essentially. That was February 27th, 2015.

My team still competed at Nationals, overcoming some incredible difficulties. Not only did we compete at Nationals, we won 1st place. And as great as that was for me to witness, I didn’t get to compete. I had to learn how to give constructive criticism and be a sideline supporter in order to feel involved in the routine. Changing roles from leading by example to leading through my corrections and comments was extremely difficult for me, but it taught me to be a better teammate and a better friend. I needed a lot of help still, and they made me feel like I was a part of it all from the sidelines. Thanks, UTA. <3

When we returned, I had to start walking around my house, and that felt like such a foreign concept when they told me I could walk. To think that, I really believed I couldn’t walk 6 months ago is mind-blowing to me, now. Soon after that, the Doctor placed me in a walking boot. I didn’t push myself the way I should have right then. I told myself that it hurt too badly, and that I could do it later. And I was wrong. If you have had surgery and are timid about using your limb again, do it now to spare the pain later.
Physical therapy started slowly and painfully. I recall the first time she told me to walk across the room without my boot, I was embarrassed to try. My teammate was there that day, also in physical therapy for an injury, and I had to pretend that I wasn’t about to cry as I walked across the room. It felt like I would scoot my foot out as far in front of me as I could and then I’d quickly shift to it. That shift was painful.  I should have made myself walk more without the boot, but I didn’t and this prolonged my recovery I think.
That was about May 2015. By July, I was walking in the brace with a crutch. I coached cheerleading camps and had to hobble around leading children through a gym, and it was hard. I’d leave my crutch somewhere thinking I’d be fine, and have to send a kid to go fetch it for me. Walking was difficult for a long time for me. I got a handicap pass that made the walks to college classes easier.
Then came the really tough part, getting back to normal activities. For most people, normal is being able to skip, or maybe go on a jog. For a college cheerleader, that’s being able to do standing backs again, and more. I needed to be able to jump up, flip, and land on this ankle again, and that- at the time- was a far-off dream. 
Physical therapy continued to become more difficult, and my ankle grew stronger every day. I relied on inspirational quotes on Instagram and watching old videos of my own tumbling to keep myself motivated. Even if I couldn’t flip, I had to stay in shape. I gained more than a few pounds after surgery, anyway. I struggled to find a workout that challenged me and raised my heart rate at first. I did a ton of pushups, curls, and handstand exercises on the wall for a while.

First, I was cleared by the doctor to stunt again. This was my first day back at stunting.

I started to workout harder as I was cleared for more activity. I would ride the elliptical for an hour at the gym, and then do arms. It took a long while before I was cleared to use the treadmill. I felt ridiculous going to workout in a boot, but you have to do what you have to do.
My therapist started doing exercises with higher impact, and I had to re-teach my ankle how to push off the ground, how to land and how to bend past its point of comfort. After what seemed like forever, in November 2015, the Doctor cleared me to tumble and jump.

At first, it still really hurt. I thought that maybe he was wrong about it being healed. I had to learn to push through the pain, and that with repetition, each time I tried would hurt a slight bit less. I’m still having to face the reality that this isn’t going to feel like it did before.
It feels as if someone put some foreign object in the center of my ankle, and I guess they kind of did. Some days I wake up, and it hurts to step forward for the first hour or so. But if I push through and don’t let it hold me back, it stops. I try to remember how badly it hurt at the beginning when it bothers me now. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t.
The tumbling progressed much slower than I anticipated. I always hated running, but I realized that I needed to start running to build my ankle’s strength and endurance back up. If I couldn’t run, how could I expect to flip?
I would run just up to a mile and then stick my ankle directly into a bucket of ice water every day I was able to. Slowly, this got less and less painful. It was a strange feeling to know that I had the endurance to complete my run, but not the physical capability some days.
My doctors weren’t optimistic, at all. They told me that it might be time to hang up my cheer shoes and retire to a lower impact hobby. I refused to take no for an answer, and that made all the difference.

Here are some of my better days of tumbling after surgery and physical therapy.

Disclaimer: I do not own this song or any rights to it. However, Spose is a very talented rapper from Wells, Maine and this is his song, Nobody featuring Watsky. 

            Practice was much harder once I started tumbling. We don’t compete on spring floor, so practices are on dead mat. I wouldn’t recommend flips on a dead mat on a freshly healed ankle, either. I had to push myself past both the fear of doing what I’d hurt myself doing and the pain of doing it. I couldn’t have done that alone. Thank you to my teammates who pushed me to find in myself what I’d lost.
            I thought that this was the end of my battle, but the real battle came up out of nowhere for me. One day, they said we would practice on spring floor. This meant that I had to tumble on my new ankle on the same exact floor that I had broken it on. In retrospect, I let those words get to me far too much. Thoughts of the next practice circled my head like vultures, and I spent the majority of that morning freaking out about it.
            I know that I was making a mountain out of a mole hill, but this really was the most mentally stressful part of my recovery. I had dealt with the consequences of what happened that day for almost a year.  I broke my ankle February the year before, and here we were again. Déjà vu. My teammates could tell that I was stressed out, and the only ones who really understood were the people who were there when I broke it.
            It’s weird how emotional memories stick with you. That break struck my life like a wrecking ball, and reeked emotional havoc on me. I can recall the entire thing:

            I remember being late for practice that day and it was iced over and when I came into practice, my coach wasn’t mad, but I did have to tumble like the others already had. So we ran through the routine, and my toe-touch-back-tuck was great, my toe-touch-two-to-a-layout was great, and I went to the corner for my last pass-the whip through to full. I remember looking at the group of people supposed to be lining the diagonal and thinking they seemed a little off... but I had to go anyway. It was a great pass, if I do say so myself. I remember setting for my full and spinning with ease and the floating feeling on the way down to the-FUCK THAT HURT.

            And this practice in February 2016, it all came back to me like a rush and I finally knew how to end this story. My teammates cheered from the corner and around all the edges of the floor. I was crying, I’ll admit it. I was terrified, but determined. I had our choreographer stand there so I felt safe, and I ran at that corner like I wanted to smash it.
            That first full felt off, but I did it. And then I did it again, and it felt weird but better. And every time I do it, it feels more natural and like it used to. It is still a fight every day, but the fight is so worth it to get to do what I love surrounded by the people who believe that I can.

            I don’t expect that you will have a journey like mine. I’d be surprised if anyone did. But when I broke my ankle and turned to the internet for someone’s story, I didn’t find one to relate to. I hope someone, somewhere finds this and is inspired to keep going even when everything else in the world tells you that you can’t.

Your body can endure almost anything;

It’s your mind you have to convince.

Shelby Z Currie

If you have a story to share about your injury, please comment below. I'd love to hear about it.
Thanks for reading

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