Jean Shields Fleming
On My Knee
Updated: Mar 25, 2021
What my knee has taught me about fear, pain, and potential.
I tore my anterior cruciate ligament a few years ago. Me and Lebron James – we have this in common. The ACL sits inside the knee and holds things together in there, along with the meniscus and medial cruciate ligament. I’m no doctor (obviously) so don’t hold me to that.
It happened at Alta, a ski resort in Utah. I was on the last run of the morning on a beautiful blue bird day. The lodge was in sight. But on a turn, I caught an edge and fell. The binding didn’t release, so the ski went one way and my leg went another. Then I heard the pop. Every ACL tear includes this tell tale sound. When the pain exploded, a few minutes later, I swore like a trucker. The ski patrol took me down in the toboggan and dropped me off at the clinic.
For six months after the injury, I logged endless miles to nowhere on the stationary bike and did “pre-hab” exercises, trying to determine if I needed surgery. My knee stabilized. But an ACL tear does not heal. Once it’s torn, it’s for keeps. The impact isn’t life threatening, and people go for years without issues, moving with more caution through the world, but still moving. With time, I resumed yoga and other activities I enjoy, but I didn’t think I’d be able to ski again unless I had the surgery. I just wouldn’t trust it. Not that skiing is a big part of my life – I hate to be cold so winter and I don’t get along – but it became symbolic. I was 55 at the time, and the doctor was encouraging me to take the easy way out. “At your age,” he kept saying. His recommendation? Skip surgery, give up activities that put me at risk – skiing, running and maybe even hiking – and live out the rest of my days relatively pain free.
I considered his reasoning and my own desires. Needless to say, I had the surgery.
They put a cadaver’s ligament into my knee. I wonder if medical people know how creepy that sounds. When rehab started, I was in it to win it. My physical therapist joked that I was beating all her other 50+ ACL patients and this just made me work harder. Balance, quad strength, glute activation – on it. I got acupuncture and electrical stimulation to the incision sites. I researched the optimal diet for recovering from surgery and building strength, and that’s what I ate (green leafies and collagen for the win).
The great gift of this experience is that it taught me to love my body. Not at some mythical future time when it became “perfect,” but just as it was and is. Imperfect, injured – and alive. Our bodies are healing machines. Every system in engineered to recover. It’s amazing, really. All I had to do was enable this process and be patient with it. That turned out to be the hardest part. I looked forward to when I couldn’t remember which knee it was, a day that other ACL patients assured me would come.
That day hasn’t happened yet. I still know which knee is part cadaver because every time I challenge myself, it’s the one that aches.
And this pain scares me. It activates the voice in my head that says take it easy. Instead of taking up trail running, as I recently did, maybe adopt a cat?
But prudently, slowly, I’m going ahead anyway. Here’s why.
Though I don’t want to injure myself or have surgery again, I do want to pursue my potential. I want to discover what I’m capable of. To do that, I need the pain to tell me its secrets, and to work with it to get stronger. It has been liberating to move this way. Not because I want a particular outcome – to lose weight, to get “in shape,” whatever that means. Those would be great, but this isn’t about an end state.
The question that motivates me is this: What’s possible? Given my strengths and weaknesses, given my history and inclinations, what can I do with my one and only glorious body?
I’ll keep you posted.