Recovery Process

I am currently a year and 8 months out from a major injury that has put me off the mats and out of training for the majority of that time. Each phase has been difficult for different reasons and I have gone through all stages of grief multiple times!

Immediate Aftermath:

Lots of denial here. I at first just tried to shake it off and was going to ride my bicycle home and “rub some dirt in it”. I am used to getting banged up after 10 years of training. I have dealt with chronic pain my entire life and honestly the pain from the injury was less than what I’m used to feeling on a daily basis of just existing. What was different this time was the joint instability.

Admitting I needed outside help was a big step for me. With no health insurance I had always just played the “let’s give it some time to see how it does” approach and was lucky up until this point. Even at the doctor’s office I was talking myself down, telling myself I was overreacting and would regret the money I was wasting on the visit.

After the MRI, I went back to see the doctor and he said he needed to put me in a brace and re-evaluate in a few weeks. I’ve worn knee braces before so I figured it would be no big deal – next thing I know I have two nurses strapping me into a full length leg splint that I was to wear at all times to keep me from bending my knee… It started to feel a little serious at that point.

I was still able to hobble around with a cane, and made it a point to put a positive face forward for the students. I kept telling myself: “I heal fast, this is probably overkill but it’ll be fine.”

The Wind Down:

So began my cycle of physical therapy twice a week with a dr check in every 4-6 weeks. I had no concrete recovery timetable because my pre-existing hypermobility condition made it difficult to determine how much of the joint instability was from the injury and how much of it was my functional instability. I continued improving each week with physical therapy and doctor check ins. He said my recovery would plateau at a point and that is when we determine if I was functional enough to train again, or if surgery was needed to get me back on the mats.

This was the depressed/frustrated/angry zone. People would wish me “speedy recovery” and I had to bite my tongue to keep from snapping at the platitude. Being around Jiu Jitsu gave me no joy and in fact made it worse after months of just watching as everyone moved on and left me behind. There are blue/purple belts who have never known me at my peak potential, and that was frustrating since I don’t want to be an instructor who just yells from the sidelines. I want to lead by example and have not been capable of doing that for a long time. What kept me sane in this time was the students who gave me a reason to keep going when I didn’t even want to get out of bed.

The Light at the End:

After 8 months of being in “surgery or no surgery” limbo, the surgeon assessed that I had stopped improving significantly between checkups and would need to do the reconstruction. At that point I was unable to walk down stairs unassisted so it was still a significant impairment just for daily life. It was a relief honestly! I wasn’t nervous at the thought of my first (and hopefully only) surgical procedure. I knew I had done everything possible up until that point, and knew I had the best possible surgical team to put my knee back together again. Apparently once I was knocked out my knee was as stable as warm jello without my muscle tonicity to keep it in place.

Post-Op Struggle:

Post op has been a new challenge. It was such a massive reconstruction job that I had to learn how to walk all over again. I had so much nerve damage that I couldn’t feel my foot for weeks afterwards and whole muscle groups were unable to activate and even now almost a year later there are still patches of numbness that probably will not recover sensation. It was still easier than those 8 months pre-op because there was no more “surgery or no surgery” limbo, just a forward momentum of improvement.

Improvement with strength came fairly quickly: what was/is hardest for me is mobility. The surgeon knows what I do for training and told me specifically that he wants me to heal more on the stiff side with more scar tissue to help stabilize everything. We ticked that box and then some – for a while I was on the watchlist for a second procedure to remove some of the excess scar tissue. Every PT session I would cry and whimper while they tried to passively force flexion back into my joint. I had multiple injections of different things in attempt to reduce inflammation and pain.

This was another low point as I started to wonder “is this just gonna be my life now? Is this as good as it gets? Have I gone through all that and still find myself unable to train?”

Current Day:

I’ve been training in classes at my new academy (with my old coach) on a regular basis again and man it feels so good! I am of course everyone’s rest round, and there are a lot of movements that I have to re-learn how to do. The hard part right now is trusting that my knee is okay. The surgeon told me a couple of months ago that he is okay with me doing whatever I want for training, so long as I am careful with new movements. I see him next week for my final 1 year post op check up and release to compete again.

Learning to trust again is the struggle at the moment. I have been super conscious about my knee for close to 2 years now, so just letting go mentally is really difficult. I panic anytime my knee is compressed, whether it hurts or not, which then makes my training partner nervous and unwilling to put the pressure on me that I need in order to actually improve. It will take time, but I’m fast tracking myself by signing up to compete at the European Championship tournament at the end of January. Meaning I have about 8 weeks to push myself and I work best under that kind of pressure!

Post-Op Update – All Clear!

I saw my surgeon 3 weeks ago for my 7 month post-op visit. To me, best case scenario I was hoping for was that he would say I don’t need a follow up procedure and can go ahead and start drilling lightly again on the mats.

To recap: I dislocated my knee sideways while playing single leg x-guard – 4/17/2021. Freak accident. Tore my PCL, LCL, Popliteal tendon, and several other things (basically blew out the outside of my knee joint along with the PCL inside the joint, Dr could rotate my fibula behind the back of my knee). Tried for 8 months to rehab without surgery but no dice and had reconstruction surgery 12/16/2021 (my mom’s bday!). 4 screws, several donor ligaments, and a staple later I have a zombie terminator knee with a rad 8 inch scar up the side.

He did me one better! I have a full release to train again! His words: “I’m okay with you doing whatever you want to do for training, it’s not going to hurt it”. Since he works on pro football players and a good number of the Jiu Jitsu folks in town, I figure I can trust that and go for it! I will see him again one more time at the beginning of December for my 1 year post-op visit – that’s where he gives me a final check and then clears me to compete again.

What Does That Mean?

I still have to regain a lot of functionality. The reconstruction is solid but I still have some muscle fiber areas that don’t engage properly, and my range of motion is around 125 degrees flexion. The Dr said it would continue improving slowly over the next 6 months – and the more I move the better it will be for the joint recovery.

I have not been allowed to actively engage my hamstring muscles in almost a year and a half – so you should see my pathetic attempts at hamstring curls! I have a lot of work to do in the next 6 months to get myself back up to 100%. The strength will come back slowly so my primary focus is mobility and getting to where I can touch my heel to my butt comfortably again (kind of a necessary function for Jiu Jitsu). I’m slowly building endurance on my bicycle again as well.

My PT had me drop to 1 day a week after meeting with the surgeon. At my session last week, she told me that we are mainly working on strengthening now and she can trust me to know how to do that safely on my own. She sees no reason that I have to continue coming in for what is basically a personal training session, so I’m going to do 2 more sessions with her and then just work on it on my own.

Jiu Jitsu Training

As of right now I am still in limbo land for training locations (read my last few blog posts if you’re nosey enough to know why) but I like the direction things are moving. Thankfully I work in an office with several other people who train (including my boss). We have really nice roll out mats that I can use after hours and on weekends – so we’ve been hosting small group training sessions and people pop in randomly to drill or roll. I’m still teaching my Saturday open training session and have started drilling with that group as well.

It’s probably good for me since it forces me to ease back into it instead of going full throttle when my body isn’t used to it. That’s a recipe for winding up back in the Dr’s office with something else injured!

Return to Competition

I’ve got my eye on the AJP Tour Grand Slam events for next year! They are now holding two events back-to-back – Masters on day 1 and Pro on day 2. This means two good sized events for one trip! My must-do list is; London, Miami, and Tokyo – then circling back to the World Pro Championship in Abu Dhabi in November. I’ll try to fit in the Rio Grand Slam as well if possible.

I know my coach wants me to do the IBJJF Master Worlds and Pans, and if I can fit it into my travel schedule, I’ll plan to do Worlds as well. I’ll likely also do the IBJJF Nashville and Atlanta opens as they pop up (schedule permitting).

I get about 3 weeks of PTO (15 days) per year from my job. I’ll be doing most of these events quickly so I can save the PTO to linger longer in Japan and at the World Pro (may try to pop over to visit Israel from the UAE).

Altogether, I’m trying to be patient with the process. I still have a long way to go but at least the worst is over finally!