The first day I tried to walk on the crutches, I fell down. Not only fell down, though-- fell down a flight of stairs, in front of a teeming mass of people during rush hour. The floor was slick with some kind of liquid, and I could find no traction. The rubber ends of the crutches skidded uselessly across the wet tile and I tumbled down the stairs. The subway was crowded, but no one looked my way; I was invisible and hidden to the general public, and no one wanted to watch or help.
It was the first time I fell down on the crutches, but it certainly was not the last. I had dislocated my patella and torn the tendon meant to lash the patella in place, so instead of floating above my knee as a patella is meant to do, it took a vacation around the side of my leg, causing immense pain and a tearing sensation. I’m an active person by nature, but when I felt the pain, I knew I had done some damage to my knee. That was the scariest part of the injury-- understanding that I was hurt, but not understanding how badly or how intense the recovery period would be.
As it turns out, recovery in a major metropolitan city is difficult. Getting anywhere on public transport requires stairs and walking, something that is difficult when the entire leg is encased in a brace, from hip to ankle. The brace seemed to be specially designed to thwart my every attempt at normalcy; I could bend my knee twenty-seven degrees in the brace, which is just enough to be able to trip going down the stairs. At first, I was walking on the brace without crutches, at the instruction of my doctor, but after the third time I fell down the stairs (and fractured a wrist) I was ordered to take the crutches and use them for the duration of my time in the brace.
As I sat in a heap at the bottom of the stairs after slipping and falling on the crutches, I felt defeated. There was no other word for it; although my time on the crutches and in the brace was limited, I knew that the wait would be difficult and long. I am, to this day, a very active person; without any ability to move around and exercise, I quickly began to devolve into depression and sadness.
After four weeks in the brace, I went back to the doctor.
“You look sad,” he said to me, and I told him I was.
“I’m an athlete,” I explained, “and with the brace it’s hard to go out and see anyone, because I can’t use the public transportation very easily.”
The doctor recommended that I swim. Not real swimming, because the ligaments in my knee weren’t quite healed, but swimming with a “pull buoy,” which allowed me to float without kicking. I swam and swam and swam-- every day, I was at the pool in the morning and in the evening. Swimming became an obsession, but I still couldn’t really swim properly. I was restricted to swimming with only my arms, but that was enough. I leaned down, and my upper body became strong and solid. My hours sitting and healing were no longer painful and miserable, because I could feel physical exhaustion in my body.
Six weeks after I was put into the brace, the doctor allowed me to stop using the crutches. I was down to one crutch anyway-- it’s nearly impossible to use two with a fractured wrist-- but I was ecstatic. My knee was healing well, the doctor told me, and it was unlikely that I would need surgery. Hearing that news was some of the most relieving and happiest news that I had ever received. Having surgery terrified me, especially when the surgery concerns something as delicate as a knee. I’ve known many athletes who have knee surgery and never recover properly from the procedure. Having my patella and patellar tendons and ligaments fail to heal properly was one of the biggest fears I faced when I injured my knee. Hearing that I was not going to have to go under the knife to repair the damage done to my knee was relief beyond anything I had felt before.
Slowly, my doctor gave me permission to walk, then to run; once I could run, I realized that all my swimming had not been in vain. My lung capacity was far greater than the capacity of my legs, but I knew that with time, my leg strength would increase and I would be able to run distances that I had not before. It was in that moment when I realized that I had the capacity for triathlons. I bought a bike and began working towards my first sprint-distance triathlon; the experience was exhilarating and exhausting.
Without the injury to my knee, I never would have had the drive to try something bigger than my previous experiences. The difficult situation forced me into a corner; I had the choice of curling up into a ball and feeling sorry for myself, or overcoming the pain and the difficulty of the injury. I chose the latter.