A year ago, I had a ski accident that left me in the most pain I have ever been in. The fall itself is sort of a blur and honestly, I am not a huge fan of reliving it in my head. But to put it simply, I caught an edge on an icy spot on the mountain as I was coming through a turn. My left ski got caught in the snow and my binding didn’t release, so as the rest of my body twisted, and flipped down the mountain, my left leg stayed put. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just torn my ACL, MCL, medial meniscus, lateral meniscus, LCL, popliteus tendon, popliteofibular ligament, and posterolateral capsule (PLC) all at once. Everything that happened in the moments after that is fuzzy in my memory. I can remember a man that saw the fall yell out that he was calling ski patrol. My boyfriend, Jack, and a good friend of ours got over to me and stuck their skis in an “X” in the snow above me, signaling other skiers to stay clear. Soon about 6 ski patrollers showed up and attempted to figure out what happened. I was in so much pain I could hardly get a word out and I had a hard time not passing out. The patrollers cut through my ski pants to try to get an idea of what kind of injury we were dealing with. Something I laugh about now. Those were brand new ski pants… what a bummer. Every touch, adjustment, and maneuver felt worse than the last. In what felt like days, the patrol team put me into a thermal wrap, loaded me into a sled, pulled me down the mountain and transferred me to a bed in the emergency room all in about 30 minutes. If any members of that ski patrol team are reading this, thank you for your well-executed rescue and I am sorry for swearing so much…
After a long afternoon of manual tests, X-rays, and phone calls, I was sent home from the ER with an order to get an MRI and see an orthopedic surgeon ASAP. There are some things that were so stressful at the time that we laugh about now. It was my dad’s birthday. I was way too nervous to call my parents and tell them what happened because I knew they would worry. Jack convinced me that we needed to let them know what was happening. He called my dad from the emergency room, “Uhh hey John… well first, Happy Birthday! Also… we’re in the ER. Emily took a fall today and it’s not looking so good.” My dad told Jack, “okay just DONT call her mom yet… let me do that part.” This year my biggest gift to my dad will be calling him on his birthday from literally any other location than the Emergency room 1,000 miles away from him.
The appointment where we initially reviewed the MRI results left me a bit speechless. Hearing how serious the injury was just didn’t make sense to me at first. I had just finished a collegiate soccer career and ran my first half-marathon months before. The concept of my body not functioning that way ever again was terrifying. I didn’t even know that half the tendons/ligaments I had torn even existed in the first place. There was practically nothing holding the top and bottom of my leg together. I sat at that appointment wide-eyed and incredibly overwhelmed, but at least I had some answers.
The surgery and recovery process would be too intense for me to stay in Breckenridge, where I was living at the time. I was going to need 24/7 care for an extended amount of time. In the next week, I packed my bags and my parents drove out to Colorado to pick me up and take me back home to the Chicago area. The day after I got home, I went to meet with knee surgeon Dr. Jorge Chahla and his medical team. Dr. Chahla met with my parents and I, reviewed my MRI results, took X-rays, and did manual testing. It was a long morning. But at the end of the appointment, he sat us down and spoke calmly, professionally, and positively about what the surgical plan would be. Cadaver parts, screws, tunnels, cut this here, pin it back here, remove these, replace them with those… It sounded like a foreign language to me, but he sure seamed to know what he was talking about. He explained it, reexplained it, answered every one of our many questions. On the way out of that appointment I felt some hope. Dr. Chahla gave us confidence that no matter how hard this was going to be, I was going to eventually come out on the other side, even if I didn’t feel it yet. I still think about the conversation that he and I had on the way out of his office. “Hey Em, you and me. Mostly you. I’ll do my part and get in there to fix this. To pay me back, you do your part. You are going to have to work at this recovery every single day for a long time. We got this. ” That small interaction gave me the motivation I needed to move forward.
A week later I got surgery that lasted many hours with multiple surgeons operating at once. 8-10 medical professionals in the OR and… me. I didn’t sleep too well the night before and I woke up that morning feeling a bit anxious. But 10+ people woke up that morning with intent to take part in a procedure that would enable some girl they didn’t know to eventually walk again. And for that, for my team, I am forever grateful. After surgery Dr. Chahla facetimed me regularly to check in and make sure I was okay. Sharing this journey with him has been a great experience. I am proud of my work, he’s proud of his work, and we are both proud of each other. I don’t know where I would be without his dedication to my success.
The next several months after the procedure were a huge battle. To make matters worse, during one of my first days in physical therapy, a driver lost control and drove through the front window and all the way into the back wall of the building. I felt so many emotions during that. Obviously, I was terrified, but I remember feeling broken. I was already trying to mentally recover from the trauma of my own accident and now I have to process this trauma too? My aunt was with me that day and I thank God that no one got hurt. I sat in the arms of my aunt and my physical therapist as I hit one of my lowest points. I think it was just an overload of input in a small amount of time. I started uncontrollably weeping. An older patient in the clinic came over to us and prayed over me. On the hardest of days, there are people around us who still create beautiful moments.
Moving forward, to keep my spirits up and my motivation high I kept a list of every one of my accomplishments. My first accomplishment? Bending my big toe. As I sit on my couch back in Colorado, after a regular day of working, going to the gym, grocery shopping, etc, I can’t help but think about how far I have come. And although I am not done yet, going through something like this really puts things into perspective. Here are a few of the lessons I have learned along the way.
- Never take your ability for granted. In 2019 I ran my first half marathon and in less than 6 months’ time I couldn’t walk. Today, I am thankful that I can put my shoes on by myself again, brush my teeth without needing someone to hold me up anymore, and bend my toes without having to use every ounce of brain power to do the simplest of tasks. Before this injury, I never thought about doing any of those things. Now, each day I think about how lucky I am.
- Gratitude is the attitude: I get emotional when I think about the army of people who have rallied behind me during this journey. I had people from all over the country reach out to me sending texts, emails, letters, phone calls, facetimes, food, gifts, and endless encouragement. My best friend flew out from Pittsburgh. My Aunt came up from Southern Indiana for nearly a month to take care of me when my parents were at work. My parents dropped everything to come pick me up, getting stuck in a terrible snowstorm and sleeping on the cement floor of a shelter on their way. And every day after that my parents did whatever it took to help me. My boyfriend found a way to make me smile every day, no matter how discouraged I was. My physical therapists continue to spend endless hours pushing me and supporting me. Jack and my family saw me at my lowest of lows and never stopped cheering me on. They never stopped loving me even when I found it so hard to love myself. It takes an army, and I have a damn good one. My people are incredible and without them, I don’t know how I would have made it this far.
- Acceptance isn’t failure: As someone who lived a very active life, perhaps the hardest part of this whole thing was accepting my new reality. When it first happened, I was in denial for a while. I had no idea what was coming. As I started the recovery process I really struggled mentally trying to figure out if I was pushing myself too hard, if I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough, if I was on the right track, etc. I lost 25 pounds at one point. Looking in the mirror was terrifying. I didn’t really have 25 pounds to lose in the first place and after pain meds, muscle loss, and no appetite, I hardly recognized myself. I felt weak and hopeless for a while there. I felt like no matter what I did, I wasn’t getting better. I refused to accept myself for where I was in those moments. I felt like if I just accepted it then I was giving up. Looking back now, I wish I would’ve loved myself a little harder during those times. Accepting a struggle doesn’t mean that you stop fighting it. Accepting your reality doesn’t mean failing to want more.
- Progress is progress: One day at a time is something I really hold on to. Any time that I found myself looking forward too far, I would get discouraged. 3 days post-op I felt like the road recovery was going to be impossible. What I found to be helpful was just thinking about the next milestone. My first milestones: bending my toe, lifting my leg independently, sleeping through the night. My most recent milestones: Light jogging and walking down the stairs without using the railing. My future milestone and the thing I want the most: Complete a Colorado 14er-a strenuous multiple hour hike to the top of a mountain. Ill get there eventually, but one day at a time. And on that day, whenever it may be, I will get to the top, crack open a beer, and probably cry a little bit. Ive learned the value of celebrating small victories. Without the small progress, there is no big progress.
- 5 year plans are a waste of time: Before the accident I had all these thoughts about what my next few years would look like. I laugh at myself now. What was I thinking? Who was I to feel like I could just plan it out and it would all happen just as I had imagined it. Long story short, I am not where I thought I would be right now. But I love where I am. I have grown immensely in this last year, learning things about myself that I otherwise wouldn’t have. I have experienced accomplishments and failures that gave me a huge wake up call about what my priorities were and what they should be. Today, I feel more aware, more appreciative, and more present than I did before. What do I plan on doing next? Eating dinner, lets start there.
Oddly enough, when I look back on what this journey has been, I can’t help but smile. I am surrounded by people that lift me up and challenge me to be my best and that is a wonderful thing.