The moment I jabbed my foot hard to the right was the moment I felt my right knee buckle. I collapsed down on the court, watching the hot-handed 18-year-old kid I was defending rise high above me, rhythmically settling into perfect shooting form as he swished a game-ending 25 foot three-pointer. The perfect shot that I was doing everything in my power to disrupt, deny, and dismantle. My infamous, confident last words to my teammates moments before the shot was taken: “I got this guy!”
This was a noon time pick-up game at our local Activity Center. There was no game clock, no fans, and no refs. Just ten guys out to work up a sweat, and each one of us detesting the taste of losing. Down I went to the hardwood, and once I made my way off the court, a substitute player was hollered in from the hallway to make me history. That’s how we roll. The game must go on.
And off I went, hobbling out into the parking lot with what I was certain was a strained knee. Within an hour it swelled like a prized water balloon. Within two hours I could barely bend it, as if concrete had been injected. Within three hours I pretty much surmised that this was something more than just a strained knee. Within four hours I was wondering if how I was feeling could be diagnosed as acute, irreversible, clinical depression. Luckily for me, I put my knee through a battery of self-diagnosis tests: a little jump here, a little side step there, and some hands-on massage to gauge joint stabilization. My findings: I had dodged the bullet. I had not torn my ACL.
* * *
“You tore your ACL,” said Dr. Ivy, after contorting my leg at various uncomfortable angles. “This joint is pretty loose. Of course there’s the off chance that it’s a partial tear. The MRI will tell all.”
Dr. Ivy is a highly respected orthopedic surgeon in our town. It was only natural that I tried to push her initial diagnosis a different direction. “But is it possible that it’s just a really bad strain?”
“I doubt it. I think it’s torn. But yes it’s possible.”
Later that day I had my MRI. I saw Dr. Ivy the following morning.
“You didn’t tear your ACL.”
Just as I was about to do a one-legged jump off the table and ecstatically jump into Dr. Ivy’s arms, she added, “You shredded it. It’s totally obliterated.”
Due to my scheduled out-of-state travel plans, the surgery was performed a month later. Two days after the operation, I asked Dr. Ivy about my most pressing concern: “When can I start jogging?” That’s all I cared about. I’ve been a runner and basketball player since I was ten years old. I competed in the state track meet in five events my junior and senior years in high school. When I was 50, I ran a 4:45 mile. At age 53 I could still dunk a basketball. Many of the greatest moments of my life have pivoted around my knees. And then, I made the decision to show the world how to stop a punk, hot-handed teenage three-point sharp shooter.
“You can start light jogging around four months as long as you do exactly as you’re instructed.” Dr. Ivy looked me straight into the eyes, “Do not overdo it. Listen to your body.”
I listened to my body and progressed exactly as planned. I was slow jogging at four months. I was picking up speed at six months. Nine months post-op, I was performing introductory lateral movements. At a year I was at full linear speed. Everything was back to normal except for one small detail: I was unsure of myself being able to move laterally on the basketball court. Or, to be more specific: I was unsure of my knee.
As that one year mark arrived, I recalled Dr. Ivy telling me about a one-legged hop test. She said it was a test that actually entailed measuring more than just the distance you could hop on one leg from a static position. It also measured hesitancy, which indicated how confident you were about landing on the involved leg. The test was administered to patients who were released to full activity. “Your reconstructed ACL is strong and stable,” she said, “the question is how stable is your confidence? How hesitant are you about landing on the healed leg? You’d be surprised how many people just stand there, not wanting to perform the exercise for fear of blowing the knee out again. At some point, you have to completely trust yourself.”
The day Dr. Ivy released me to full activity, I put on my workout clothes and stood on one leg on my back deck. For the longest time, I stood as motionless as a flamingo. Then I hopped for what I think was the distance of maybe three inches. I had the confidence of a mouse entering a rattlesnake den. I firmly planted both feet onto the deck, turned around, and went into the house to eat ice cream. What was it going to take to trust that my knee wasn’t going to collapse beneath me?
* * *
About a week after I chickened-out performing the one-legged flamingo test, I let our rat terrier, Domino, outside to take care of his morning business. It was a cool, foggy morning with plenty of dew blanketing the lawn. Typically, Domino will take about five strides in the yard, hike up the leg, and then immediately make his way back to the house. On this particular morning, Domino stayed out longer. I had not yet put in my contact lenses, but I noticed movement as I looked through the kitchen door window. (Without my contacts my distance vision is a blur. Stand out there in the yard 20 meters from me, and ask me how many fingers you are holding up. I can practically guarantee I’ll say you aren’t holding up any but, instead, what appears to be a pitcher of lemonade or something just as incorrectly obscure.) My nebulous farsightedness detected a small black and white figure speeding along the backyard fence line. The figure then made an abrupt change of direction and went back from where it came. Then it reversed its direction again. I squinted my eyes to sharpen my view and noticed that Domino was chasing a rabbit. I quickly opened the door and, in only my underwear, sprinted barefoot out into the wet yard. The only sounds were that of his rapid footsteps and collar tags jingling. There was no barking or growling, for in the heat of the chase his internal hunting mechanism was locked in for the kill. And my Save-the-Rabbit mechanism (otherwise known as a soft heart) was locked in on Domino. Staying as low to the ground and as agile as possible, my feet jabbed to the left and then, a few strides later, back to the right, quickly pushing off after planting firmly into the dewy turf. Frightened by me now entering the pursuit, the rabbit relentlessly darted back and forth, staying close to the fence in hopes of finding an escape route. It was doing everything in its power to out maneuver us, but Domino was gaining, and within seconds had his mouth clamped around the rabbit’s tail. And that’s when I bolted from a low angle, laying myself out into the air, tackling Domino. I kept him in my grasp, as the two of us slid across the wet grass and careened into the fence. I knew he wasn’t happy with me. I had spoiled the hunt by being a rescuer instead of a spectator. During the short time frame of the tackle, the rabbit broke free from Domino’s jaws and found an exit point at the bottom of the fence. With grass stains from shins to chest, I laid in my underwear with my dog panting heavily in my arms while his lips smacked bunny fur. And amongst that wet, dirty mess, a revelation hit me: I had taken my reconstructed knee out onto the proving grounds and pushed myself beyond hesitancy. As the sun hit the horizon, it quickly dawned on me how many sharp lateral moves I had just performed on slippery wet grass. This was more than a one-legged hop. This was everything Dr. Ivy had told me I needed. I stood up and realized how stable my knee was. It was raw instinct in my quest to save the rabbit, and in the process I had discovered confidence.
I went back into the house and gave Domino a dog biscuit as a consolation prize for not getting his rabbit. I swear there was a moment of disgust and reluctance as he beamed his eyes at me and slowly opened his mouth to accept it. I cleaned myself up before putting on my socks, running shoes, workout shorts and, of course, my contact lenses. Walking back out to the deck, I positioned myself only on the leg with the repaired ACL. And then, in a moment of no second thoughts, I flexed my knee and single-leg jumped up and out, airborne for the longest and happiest one second of my life.
Copyright Ros Hill 2015