2017, injury, learning, recovery, soccer, teamwork

The One Thing That Nobody Tells You About Recovering From A Sports Injury

“Okay, when the whistle blows, I want you to fly down the sidelines. You’re way faster than their midfielder. We’ll send it to you from the middle, then send it back across the goal.”

I was standing on the sidelines during one of our final high school soccer games for the season, and my coach was walking me through plays before putting me back in. As I listened, I felt a sense of pride. Not a pride that comes with self-importance, but a pride that comes with being a part of something bigger. It wasn’t all up to me, but I was an important piece in the 11-person tapestry that represented our school on the field.

Having started playing at age 5, I always considered soccer one of my favorite activities—despite the fact that it was probably the one that I was worst at (and I had a lot of extracurricular activities). Regardless of my mediocre skill, I couldn’t let it go from my life—even after graduating the world of mandatory physical activity.

Me as goalie for the Orange Tigers (circa 1997)

After college, I continued to find ways to keep soccer in my life, often begging coworkers to play pickup with me after work, and eventually joining a Sunday morning rec league that became a defining part of my identity (or well, my Saturday-night-I-can’t-drink-I-have-soccer-tomorrow identity). I felt a sense of responsibility to my team. Despite whatever stressors or lows were in my personal or professional life, the Sunday soccer field was always there to give me perspective beyond the bounds of my life. 

The new daily routine

When I tore my ACL during an unforgettable game last spring, I was concerned about how drastically my day-to-day would change, and how difficult the journey ahead was going to be. Not being able to play soccer for at least eighteen months was an obvious consideration, but at that point it was only because a significant part of my routine would be stripped.

For the first ten months after Surgery 1 of 2, my journey was long but unlonely. Family kept me alive immediately after; friends showered me with love soon after, and physical therapists motivated me to build strength for many months that followed. But after that, once I was visibly fine and mostly strong, there were no more check-ins with family, friends, or physical therapists on the matter. All that was left was the cold monotony of a leg press machine at the gym.

The longtail of gym selfies

Running has always been my solo sanity. My nerves and mind run wild while my body does. So at Month-3 after Surgery 1 of 2, I was elated to start running again. And with my sidelines full of cheerleaders, I felt well-supported.

Two months ago, seven months after Surgery 2 of 2, I started to feel light again—life was back to “normal.”

Sharing solo runs

As I went through my day-to-day, slowly embracing the pieces of my routine that had been cast away during recovery, I was happier. But still, something felt off. And it wasn’t just the occasional knee pain. It was a deeper, empty pain.

The most common advice I received on ACL surgery was to keep up with physical therapy. And I had done that. But none of the advice had mentioned this darker pain.

On a Sunday morning at the end of October, I went for a run. I passed by a group playing pickup basketball and some people clad in similarly-colored athletic gear. That was the moment it hit me—I was a part that was missing its whole. I needed a team again.

After in-depth internet research, I found and joined a running group. Our first run was the following Tuesday along the Embarcadero. We were told the route, and everyone started at the same time. One veteran of the group took me under her wing and ran with me for the entire time. Somewhere down the line, I was surprised at how much I was enjoying the company during my historically solitary activity.

Shared runs

When we got back to the starting line, we stretched and waited for the rest of the group. When everyone had made it back, we went inside to drink water and eat strawberries. It took me back to the post-soccer-game celebrations with orange wedges and Capri Suns. I mingled for a bit before going home.

One month later I saw a familiar face standing behind me in line to board a plane from Toronto to San Francisco. “Did I meet you in a running club?” I asked with uncertain certainty. It was him, and we bonded over the small-worldness.

We talked as we boarded the plane. As I wrapped my knee before takeoff, I felt something I hadn’t since before my injury. Finally, I felt like I was part of a pack again.

I always knew there was no “I” in “team” but through my injury and recovery, I’ve learned that unexpectedly, there is also no I without a team.

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2017, adulthood, birthdays, celebrations, injury, writing

Why 29 Will Be My Most Unbalanced Year Yet

I’ve always used my birthday as a time to stop and think about where I’ve been and where I’m going. The annual tradition is one way I try to build self-awareness and achieve balance. This year in particular, however, I didn’t want to stop. In some ways, I had been stopped all year and I wanted to celebrate my renewed ability to go-go-go. Last year, I had knee surgery four days after my birthday. I spent the next six months rebuilding my strength, and the six months after that rebuilding my strength again after a second surgery. I spent all twelve months chasing literal and metaphoric balance.

Literally, the muscles in my right leg atrophied and stopped working after surgery, and required both electric stimulation and intensive isolated exercises to get them back in shape. In the early days, this meant spending most of the day lying down with my leg elevated, slowly trying to bend it every couple of hours. In the later days, this meant dedicating an entire morning to rehab, then doing mini stretches throughout the day.

Metaphorically, the recovery process and pain inhibited my ability to practice or enjoy much of what typically keeps me emotionally balanced—writing, exercising, cooking, socializing, working, and sleeping. Even if I could occasionally do one or the other, my notion of balance necessitated my ability to do all of it at once.

In some ways, I felt like I was stuck in another person’s body (for better or for worse).

April, 2000

This lack of balance was a stark opposition from the life I have always known. As a child, I was involved in countless activities simultaneously: Multiple styles of dance class, singing lessons, choir, soccer, writing contests, piano, swim team, volunteer work, oil painting, yoga, and I’m probably forgetting a few (school). Despite the occasional overwhelm, I never wished any of them away. I enjoyed what I defined to be a “well-rounded” life, and more importantly, I prided myself in being able to balance everything. The pace I set (or that was set for me) in my childhood is the one I brought forward into my adulthood. Whether or not it’s right, I equated “balance” with “doing many things” and “imbalance” with “failure.”

About six months after my surgery, as I regained my physical balance, I attempted to test my mental balance as well. I outlined an idea for a new book and considered ways I might start to realize my dream of owning a coffee shop. Both of these endeavors required extensive time and energy, which, admittedly, were sparse given how much of my limited time and energy were drained by the recovery process. I set both aside and considered that perhaps I was incapable of the balance I once knew.

Around this time, I learned that I needed to have another surgery. It was as if someone was tugging the rug underneath me as I was trying to stand up. But somehow, I held my ground. I didn’t let it throw me off. I was surprised to find that through the initial months of recovery, I had found a sense of balance amidst the imbalance. I was more adept at riding life’s waves.

Last week, The New York Times published a piece in its Well section about achieving balance. Shockingly, the article isn’t in praise of it. Instead it argues that sometimes, imbalance is a good thing. To get fully consumed by some one aspect of your life (“Falling in love. Writing a book. Trekking in the Himalayas. Training to set a personal record in a triathlon.”) is rewarding  in a way that balance sometimes is not. It allows you to fully acknowledge, experience, and appreciate this one thing. With self-awareness, it enables you to excel.

The article summarized my past year in a way that I couldn’t on my own. It made me see the imbalance in my last year not as my destroyer, but as my healer. There is undeniable benefit in giving one person or thing your undistracted attention.

As I look back on my year of imbalance, one thing is true: I was happy. My injury gave me an excuse to slow down and wholly focus. It allowed me to work toward, and achieve, small and big milestones. It reminded me to appreciate the marvels of the human body—my human body. It proved to me the humanity in strangers. It filled me with the care of loved ones.

So in entering another year of my life (this time with more physical balance than last year), I am, for the first time doing so with an eye for healthy and meaningful imbalance. And I’m pretty happy about it.

 


Read More

Birthday reflections

Why 28 Is The Year I Need To Do What I Want
What Amy Winehouse Taught Me About Turning 27
4 Things I Couldn’t Admit To Myself Until Turning 25
Ten Thoughts On Turning 25

Inspiration  

You’re Doing Your Weekend Wrong
Maybe We All Need a Little Less Balance

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2017, appreciation, doctors, empathy, injury, personal connection

Why The World Needs More People Like My Surgeon

I was ten years old when I made my first career decision. “I don’t want to be a doctor,” I told my parents one night at dinner. Both entertained and disappointed (they are Indian parents, after all), they asked me why. “Do you know doctors have to look at people’s pee? That’s gross! No way!” During a visit to the doctor earlier that day, I peed in a cup for the first time. Nuh-uh. No thanks.

Though I always respected (and slightly feared) my doctors, it is only recently that I could truly appreciate their impact on my well-being.

ACL as drawn by my surgeon

I met my orthopedic surgeon last summer after twisting my knee playing soccer. In our second meeting, he delivered the devastating news that I had torn my ACL and medial meniscus and would need surgery. “And, I have to warn you,” he added, “this is going to be a long journey. You’re young, healthy, and diligent so I’m not worried, but I just want to make sure I set your expectations.” The surgery went well, and I went in for a check-up every month following. “You’re my superstar patient!” he told me at the five-month mark.

But at month six, things didn’t look so super. Though I was diligent with physical therapy, I was regressing in my recovery—unable to fully bend or straighten my knee—and in significant pain. My surgeon diagnosed my condition as a cyclops lesion (localized anterior anthrofibrosis), a rare complication of ACL surgery. “It looks like you could use some help in the surgical setting,” he said.

At my request, we followed up on his diagnosis with a MRI. That evening, my surgeon called me as I was entering the subway. As his words entered my brain, I found myself walking backwards until I hit a wall, where I lowered myself to the ground. In addition to the cyclops lesion he predicted, “the MRI also shows edema—swelling—around your ACL. For whatever reason, the graft is unhappy.” The MRI report said my ACL was torn again. This was a difficult pill to swallow when I still wasn’t fully recovered from the initial tear.

“This is highly unlikely,” my surgeon insisted. MRIs tend to overstate matters of the ACL. “But unfortunately, we aren’t going to have the whole story until we’re actually in there.”

“So…How do we move forward?” In our expensive, complicated, and stressful world of healthcare, his response blew me away.

“I will do whatever is best for your knee.”

What followed was a week of sleepless nights and stress-filled days. And maybe an email or two to my surgeon from his “worrier patient.” I couldn’t eat or focus.

In the minutes before the surgery, my surgeon came to talk to me. “We’re completely prepared for any situation. We have an Achilles tendon if you need something bigger, a hamstring if we need something smaller, and regardless, when you wake up, everything will be taken care of.” In that vulnerable pre-operative moment, this white-coated professional who uses words like “edema” suddenly felt like a dependable friend. Someone I could unequivocally trust.

As a walker, runner, dancer, and soccer-player, my knee is my life.

What felt like minutes later (thank you anesthetics), I was waking up in the recovery room. My surgeon entered. “Things are looking good now,” he said. “You’ll be back to physical therapy in no time.” I had so many questions. He knew I would. “I also got some good photos and videos during the process,” he said with a smile. “That will help you understand what was going on and we can talk more about it when I see you later this week.”

Watching the videos for the first time, I couldn’t believe the care my surgeon had taken to ensure that I felt informed and confident about my knee health. “Doctors don’t usually do this,” my physical therapist told me. I’ve watched the videos almost every day since (sometimes forcing reluctant parties to join me).

My favorite snippet from the videos. It’s not gross I promise!

Each time, I am struck by my surgeon’s empathy throughout this journey. His way of connecting with me at a human level. Though he has seen hundreds of cases like mine, he recognizes the uniqueness of this situation from my point of view. He feels the toll my injury, treatment, and recovery have taken on my life over the past year, and continually goes out of his way to lessen the emotional and physical strain where possible. He never lets me believe that I am “just another patient.”

No, I will never be a doctor, but my surgeon inspires me to be a better human — to constantly remind myself that everyone I interact with is another person, with emotions, needs, and expectations. To be someone that others can trust and depend on, as a friend and as a colleague.

The world needs more people like that.

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2016, 2017, balance, determination, injury, new year, optimism, pain

Why We Should Embrace The “Worsts” of 2016

“Worsts” Help Us Find Our “Bests”

Like many of you, today I am pausing to reflect on the year behind me and the year ahead. Swirling in my head are moments from the last twelve months, some of which are so beautiful I can’t believe they happened, and others of which are so ugly I won’t allow myself to dwell too long. Some are unique to me, and some are those that we shared as a society, as a generation, and as humans.

I faced profound personal challenges in 2016. After injuring my knee in May, only receiving the correct diagnosis in July, and undergoing surgery in August, I have spent the last seven months rebuilding my strength. Beyond the physical pain of incisions in my bones, beyond the focused persistence required to regain muscles and movement, the most difficult part was finding emotional wherewithal  to embrace the challenge and remain optimistic.

I know I wasn’t alone. 

Our world, like me, is currently hobbling around with one weak leg. Things feel topsy-turvy, or to use Merriam-Webster’s word of the year, things feel surreal. 

But maybe unlike many of you, and definitely unlike The Internet, I am not “so over” 2016. While it certainly has its shortcomings, I don’t know that it was the “worst year ever.” It certainly wasn’t my worst.

I experienced my share of challenges in the years leading up to this one—being mugged in 2013, my dog’s death in 2014, and family struggles in 2015 to name a few. While each felt like rock bottom at the time, I always managed to find a way to climb back up (even if it sometimes meant falling again, and harder). However, now with perspective, none feels any less or more challenging than any other. 

The only difference between prior years and this one is that I am looking back differently. The patterns show me that there are going to be highs and lows in every year. The lows don’t necessarily mark a bad year, but only the continual ebb and flow of life.  The absence of this pulse, rather than being a good sign, may instead be a sign that I am not living. It is with this recognition that I’m entering 2017. 

If I search for them, there are streams of light in each of those significantly challenging years—publishing a book in 2013, adventures with a best friend in 2014, and getting a long-desired job offer in 2015— that are just as momentous as the dark patches.

This year’s challenge is as dark as it was light. Injury was good for me. It taught me how to listen to my body, how to reject routine in a healthy fashion, and how to manage my stress in new ways. It reminded me of the strong support I have in my family and friends. It pushed me to go deeper with my writing and to explore new activities.

Essentially, it taught me to accept the unexpected and embrace the act of regaining balance. 

Whether we are responding to acts of terror, democratic outcomes, personal health issues, or one of life’s many other obstacles, we always have two choices: to rebuild weak muscles or to commiserate over inevitable atrophy. This year, I felt first-hand the benefits of the former. The latter leaves us to fester in unproductive masses of incredulity and hyperbole.

Join me. Let’s go forward by accepting that highs don’t exist without lows, and to achieve balance amidst it all.

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