“It’s Like a Death”

When a gymnast has a life-changing injury…I would have to empathize with them when they say, “It’s like a death.”

I felt the same way when I blew my knee.  I had just been around real death.  My uncle (my mom’s only brother) was 33 when he died of leukemia and I was 15.  It was a hard time.  I helped my mom care for him.  Just a few months before, another uncle died (my mom’s brother-in-law) and he was only 40 something.  Then my great-grandma.  Then my dog.  All on the 24th day of various months (and I noticed that today is the 24th).   

I had a strong belief system, but all of these deaths happened within a year or so.  I know that there are stages of death that the remaining loved ones go through and I’m not sure that I went through them correctly.

So when I blew my knee a few years later, it was like a death to me.  No one explained it to me like this.  My parents had no way of knowing the extent of my ACL injury back then, no one told me to exercise a certain way or to eat a certain, different, way, so I gained weight and started my period.  My face ballooned up and I didn’t recognize my body.  My three teenage brothers made fun of my new fat body.  I really didn’t know many people at my highschool and the best gym in town was so far away, so I really can’t remember how much time I was spending at a gym.  It was basically a lonely time, I think.

But when I’ve tried to complain about my knee and how it was like a death, it’s hard for me to justify it.  I know what my uncle with cancer went through.  I know what my five cousins, whose father died, went through.  I witnessed a guy gymnast break his neck and I know, personally, a teenage girl who broke her neck.  As a physical therapist now, I can somehow empathize and understand just how awful it must be to be paralyzed.

So fast-forward to now.  I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but just a former gymnast turned physical therapist, with a bum knee (and ankles, and neck, back, shoulder, wrists, fingers and toes). 

I guess I would have some advice for a gymnast.  “Don’t feel bad if your injury feels like a death.  There are stages that you might have to go through.  Everyone probably has to go through them at their own rate.  You might think you are over it, but then it hits you and you’re not.  The sadness might last 26 years, like mine has.  It might never go away.  But you can move on – stronger, somehow.  More feeling somehow.  It sucks though.  But I think that you can be helpful to other people.  They will be able to sense it and see it in your eyes.  Move along, but know that it’s OK to mourn.  It’s OK to be sad.  Get help if it gets too bad.  Stay fit and avoid eating disorders.  Smile often and know that it’s all in the cards.”

My strength, in part, has come from meeting people along the journey.  Some people prior to the injury were helpful – because of the things that they said to me or the ways that they behaved.  So I thought of those strong people.  Some people were now in my life simply because I did get hurt.  They probably wouldn’t have been if I didn’t.  And a lot of people, who had far worse injuries or illnesses than I, became examples of strength and courage.

My friend, Max, comes to mind.  He was a great long distance runner in college, but then had a tragic summer between freshman and sophomore year (around 1985).  He was working a job, laying tar on the highways, or something like that.  Got hot.  Decided to dive off a bridge into a creek that looked about 15 feet deep.  Well, it was only a foot and a half deep.  (Thus, the education he now does about “FEET FIRST, FIRST TIME.”)  He broke C3,4,5,6 and is paralyzed (C5 quadraplegia).  What an inspirational guy.  Hard to complain to him about anything.  He went on to help me coach Adapted Gymnastics and he went on to become an attorney.  How could I complain to him?  He did give me one of the greatest quotes that I could hold onto.  When I wanted to complain about my knee injury and what a life changer it was and how it felt like a death, he told me to go ahead and feel that I had the right to complain.  He said, “Everybody Has Their Own Wheelchair.”  He gave me the courage to go ahead and complain about it.  That it was OK.  That that knee injury was my wheelchair and that I needed to just talk it out.  He lended an ear.  Thanks Max.  

I hope this blog entry helps somebody help someone.


Future author of “Everybody Has Their Own Wheelchair”   


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