When the Physical Therapist Becomes a Patient

Start Where You Are.

Click here to donate towards Jen’s medical expenses accrued from surgery and post-operative care!

This past Tuesday (9/26) marked two weeks since surgery day!  I think most surgical patients would admit that this block of time is the worst part of the whole surgery process, so I sure am glad that I’m finally over the hump!  Frankly, to say that these last two weeks have been a rocking roller coaster of both physical and emotional manifestations is quite the understatement.  I remember my last 2 ACL reconstructions having their ups and downs, but I don’t remember the beginning being so rocky.  Some say that the brain blocks out painful experiences.  I think there may be some truth to this!

For the past two weeks, I’ve had the luxury and convenience of staying at home with my wonderfully loving and caring parents who have catered to my every need and put aside their own priorities and self-care to make sure my needs are met first.  For this, there are no real words that truly and accurately express my gratitude.  One of my sisters, who is a Registered Nurse, also flew in from North Carolina for a few days (not specifically to help me) and spent a very large part of her vacation making sure that I was comfortable, that my leg was positioned in precisely the right way to allow for optimal healing and pain relief, that I was being nourished, that I was taking my pain medications on time, that I could make it to the bathroom safely and in a timely manner to relieve myself, that I could take a shower and wash days worth of filth from sitting and sleeping in the same clothes, that I knew I was loved and that she would go to the ends of this earth to make me feel safe and cared for.  I have a wonderfully supportive roommate who sat in Boston traffic 30-40 minutes each way traveling 5 miles to pick me up from physical therapy.  I have a physical therapist who makes it her mission to put a smile on my face before I leave her each day.  I’ve had so many people–family, friends, acquaintances, patients–reach out to me and wish me a smooth and speedy recovery or let me know that they are here for me when I need them and they would love to know how they can assist me to help my post-op journey be as stress-free as possible.  Yes, these past two weeks have felt like one of those really old wooden roller coasters that knock you from side to side and bring you to great heights only to drop you back to an equidistant low.  But these past two weeks certainly have been filled with more love and support than I could have ever imagined.  **See later post for importance of social support during the recovery process.

My Momma and Me
Me and my loving sis 9 days post-op!

As mentioned in my previous post, my first few days after surgery went relatively smoothly, as I was pumped up with lots of nerve blocks and therefore could feel nothing at all in my leg–not even my toes.  I was tired from a really long day of surgery and the anesthesia was taking it’s sweet, slow time moving through my petite body.  I was sleeping a lot.  Well, my eyes were closed at least.  Getting truly restful sleep after surgery  is somewhat magical and rather rare.  Sleeping positions are extremely limited and frequent and intermittent waves of pain don’t make for ideal sleeping conditions.  But when you’re so sleepy from the anesthesia, the pain meds, and from the body being in overdrive after being assaulted by surgical tools, sleep finds a way to take up most of the day.  Long story short, I was pumped with meds, had minimal pain, and was feeling like a rockstar.  I even was feeling well enough to eat whole foods and full meals.  Life was good.  Then the nerve blocks started to wear off, and the pain came at me full throttle like a freight train.  Rockstar spirits effectively squashed.  Floodgates effectively lifted.  Bring on the tears. I pushed through some of the worst pain I’ve endured in my entire life the second day after surgery.  I’m not-so-secretly hoping that childbirth will be slightly better than this post-surgical pain, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

It is amazing what pain can do to the body–how it can affect emotions, appetite, sleep cycles, desire to be social, and overall well-being.  As I worked through each day from 2nd day post-op forward, the pain was real.  Even while taking pain medications regularly and on time, my knee was still finding ways to tell me how angry it was.  Sometimes I was wiggling every which way on the couch in unsuccessful attempts to find even just one position that slightly reduced my pain.  Other times I successfully found a little bit of a happy place, at which point it became my mission to not move a hair so that maybe, just maybe, I might be able to squeeze in a 20-minute power nap before my knee demanded a change in position.  Most of my pain was the throbbing and aching kind–the kind where my knee felt like it developed it’s own heartbeat and grew to be the size of a small bowling ball because of the swelling.  My surgeon requested that I avoid taking anti-inflammatory medications because they interfere with the body’s natural healing process.  Logically, this makes complete sense.  But when the strong pain medication you’re prescribed helps minimally with pain as a result of swelling and inflammation, NSAIDS sound like the best thing on this planet.  No worries–I remained obedient with the surgeon’s orders.  But the pain–boy was the pain really something special.


As the pain began to slowly improve, I started to do more for myself.  I walked upstairs in attempt to make breakfast or lunch with the overall intention of lightening the burden on my parents.  I was feeling pretty good after a few days, but my body once again had a way of telling me that I was moving too quickly.  While attempting to make a smoothie for breakfast 6 days after surgery, my leg was throbbing like crazy, making sure to let me know that I needed to tend to it.  Instead, I was on a mission to make this smoothie and demonstrate my independence.  I made smoothies for the past 2 days.  I could certainly do it today.  The throbbing got worse, my ears began to ring, my hearing and vision started to get a little fuzzy, and my heart started racing.  From past experience, these were all tell-tale signs that I was just about to pass out.  I made my way to a chair, made sure my leg was propped up and taken care of, let my mom know that I wasn’t feeling good, and then indeed passed out.  I awoke to my mom holding and ice pack on my head and my dad holding my leg, making sure it wasn’t going anywhere.  Jen’s knee = 1.  Jen (and her pride) = 0.  Just when I thought I was on the up-and-up, my body had other plans–plans that differed from the ones I had.  Under these circumstances, it is so easy to become frustrated and discouraged.  It’s so easy to think poorly and begin to fall into the emotional ditch.  Admittedly I did, but only for a short time.  Fortunately I have amazing people surrounding me who were there to pull me out.  Instead of being mad at my knee, my body, or the circumstances, I learned to accept the situation and practice positive self-talk.  Instead, I learned to tell my knee that it’s okay.  It’s been a tough journey.  We’ve had a lot thrown our way.  But we made a good effort and we’ll try again next time.

There is something to be said about the emotional part of this whole process, how sometimes you feel things and you don’t even know why.  For instance, one day when I was doing well with accepting my limitations, I asked my dad if he could make a smoothie for me for breakfast.  He did a great job the previous days feeding me bone broth and crackers and making me a berry smoothie.  But that day I wanted a different smoothie–one with greens, chia, and flax seeds to help with my GI mobility.  After I asked, my dad responded by requesting that we stick with the simple berry smoothie.  Maybe we could try the green smoothie tomorrow.  I suggested that I could go upstairs to make it myself, letting him know that I had successfully made a smoothie earlier that morning.  He was still hesitant, though, and he suggested that he make it (now recognizing that this was for my own safety).  Out of respect for his effort in helping me, I compromised with the berry smoothie.  But as soon as he left the room, I started crying.  I couldn’t make any sense of this while it was happening, but looking back on it, I think I was dealing with overwhelming feelings of helplessness, frustration and anger (not towards my dad but towards the circumstances), and pure defeat.  All I wanted to do was make a smoothie by myself.  I wanted to stop being a burden.  I wanted to stop having to ask for help.  A note to parents caring for a child after surgery, meet him/her where he/she is.  And a note to children working with parents who care for them after surgery, meet them where they are.  Nobody knows how to be a patient or a caring parent perfectly.  Work as a team and make compromises.  After all, we’re all in this together.

Second case in point was when my sister brought me back to Boston after my two-week stay at home with my parents.  The entire 90-minute car ride there, I could feel something boiling in my gut.  A sense of fear, anxiety, and perhaps some sadness.  This was the first time in all of my surgical recoveries that I felt like I wasn’t ready to do this by myself.  I was surrounded by my family who took such great care of me and showed me how much they loved me for the past two weeks.  Once I got to Boston, I would pretty much be on my own.  Me, my kitty, and the bare white walls of my apartment.  I’m not ready for this.  My sister spent the night with me and left the next morning to go back to Charlotte. She asked me what was wrong, and I said, “Nothing, I’m just tired.”  Inside, though, my heart was screaming, “I’m scared.  I’m not ready to do this by myself.  I’m not ready to be lonely.  I don’t want you to leave.  Thank you.  I love you.  I miss you already.  Don’t leave.  Can you please stay?”  As she dropped me off at the nearest Starbucks so that I could spend a little bit of time outside of the apartment, I cried when she hugged me goodbye.  And then I kept crying as I sat in the middle of Starbucks, wondering and worrying about what the rest of this process is going to look like.  I sat and wrote thank-you notes to many of the people who have supported me thus far.  I sat, and I wrote, and I cried.  There were certainly tears of fear, but mostly (I think), there were tears of gratitude.  So what to do when your emotions creep up behind you and engulf you like quicksand? Start where you are.  Acknowledge them.  Feel them.  Honor them.  And then keep moving forward.

As I did my exercises at home and started physical therapy, I continued to encounter achievements and also setbacks.  At my first follow-up appointment with my surgeon, his Physician Assistant was excited about my progress and suggested that I could finally unlock my brace to allow movement in my knee.  Yay for better sleep!  He also wanted me to ditch my crutches.  Woo hoo!  Independence here we come!  However, my physical therapist wanted to make sure we were taking this rehab process slowly and carefully to ensure optimal healing given that this was my second ACL reconstruction on the same knee.  She preferred me to keep the crutches and walk with a locked brace.  Womp womp.  Goodbye feel-good feelings.  Welcome defeat, discouragement, and frustration.  Some people have a tough time recovering from these setbacks.  I personally use them as greater motivation to do my exercises exactly as instructed and to give them my best effort each and every time.  Every. Single. Day.  They say that hard work pays off, right?  As a Physical Therapist myself, I know the recovery journey is never a straight line.  It moves up, down, forwards, backwards, sideways, diagonally, in circles, and every which way you don’t want it to go sometimes.  But even the littlest bit of progress is progress.  And progress means moving forward.  And moving forward means gaining one more step to the overall goal.  This week I gained 14 more degrees of knee flexion than I had last week.  My swelling has gone down considerably and I’m walking more and more like non-injured Jen every day.  I’m moving forward, and that is a wonderful thing.

In all surgeries, there are unique nuances and frustrations.  No two surgeries and recovery processes are the same, whether it’s two different people having the same surgery or one person having the same surgery two different times.  This time around for me, a particular nerve in my low leg, foot, and toes, seems to be acting up.  My toes don’t have their full sensation and I experience intermittent twinges of pain along the nerve pathway.  Additionally, my kneecap has a mind of its own and continues to make it difficult for me to bend my knee without pain.  If bending my knee hurts, then walking and performing some of my exercises also hurts.  Focusing on nuances like these makes it really easy to see setbacks and frustrations before progress.  Somedays the body feels good, and other days the body might need more time to heal.  With each day that passes, I know that it’s important to meet myself where I am–to start where I am.  I can only move forward if I start where and when I’m ready.  Nothing more, nothing less.  That’s one thing I’m more confident about after #aclsurgerytake3.  I only have this one body, as broken and beautiful as it is.  If I start where I am, I give myself the best chance to move forward in the healthiest, most loving and most successful way possible.

I’m excited to see what comes of this #littlekneebigstory!  Thank you for continuing to follow me during my recovery process.  I appreciate every bit of love and support that comes my way, of which there has certainly been no shortage.  If you are interested in donating towards my upcoming medical expenses while I am out of work, click here.  Thank you in advance!



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