Friday, May 19, 2006
A week ago I was already getting those pre-race anticipation jitters. It’s a feeling that is thrilling and unsettling at the same time, somewhat like teenage angst over the one you have a crush on, who is now sitting right next to you. Your palms get sweaty and your heart quickens, and you hope you don’t do anything stupid... this is how racing is for me.
My race this weekend, 3000 miles away in NJ, necessitates three large pieces of luggage, including a bike box that I can send for free using my nifty United Airlines / USA Cycling travel voucher. I suddenly love United Airlines.
I sat in the departure lounge at the San Diego airport awaiting the red-eye to Philadelphia, thinking that check-in was almost too easy. It turns out the whole trip has been mostly pain-free. So smooth, in fact, that I suspect Higher Powers are at work on my behalf. Once again I’ll have to call my parents and thank them for praying for me.
In fact, with three races in the next three weeks, they better step it up.
If February was the month of inconvenience and depression living with a cast from my thumb to my armpit, March was the month of self-inflicted pain, forcing my wrist to stretch and rotate like it did before the break. I am forbidden to get on a bike, unless it is a stationary bike (where's the fun in that??).
I am assigned to Occupational Therapy at Balboa Medical, under the care of one Lt C., all-around good guy and self-appointed resident ogre of rehab. At first glance he seems stern and cool, but he reminds me too much of my Uncle Bailey, who used to take delight in frightening us as small children so that we would behave. In return, I used to take delight in crawling up into Uncle Bailey's lap or sitting quietly next to him, just to provoke his warm and fuzzy side, and watch his stern facade melt away. A quiet and kind man by nature, he simply preferred order to chaos (which children seem to create). I see this in Lt C., and immediately decide he is warm-hearted and mostly harmless.
I come in one day to see "Lt C's Mood Monitor" written on the white board with a smiley face in some degree of joy or distress. It is medium-happy at the time.
Another day I realize they are playing Christmas music in the rehab area (it is March). When I ask about it, one of the girls tells me with a grin, "We put it on because it annoys the Leiutennant."
I like these people.
In our initial interview, he asks what limitations I have due to the injury. I respond that I have trouble doing push-ups, washing my hair, and crossing myself (it's Lent). This gets just a beat of silence before he resumes typing the data into my medical record. I don’t think he ever had quite that response before - at least not from a civilian woman.
The other individual I work with is Alma, who reminds me of Glenda the Good Witch of the North from the Wizard of Oz. Always warm and pleasant, she will tell me that I work hard enough on my own, and that she will just take the next 20 minutes and massage my wrist and hand. I love her for this. Then suddenly the spell is broken and for good measure, she has me do stretching and mobility exercises on "the wrist rack".
I know that with the Navy, often you get whatever they have. But I have to say that I had the best Orthopedic and Rehab team a person could ask for. They are the kind of people you want to know all your life.
Reluctantly I begin going to spin class, wondering why anyone in San Diego would be going to spin class when it was so easy to ride outside, but grateful that spin classes are popular so that injured people like me can attend them. Big shout out to Heather “The Machine” Spin Instructor at MCRD.
By the beginning of April, just 2 months after the surgery and one month out of the cast, I am ahead of schedule and almost at 100% mobility. Lt C. discharges me from occupational therapy, saying that I am doing fine on my own, and should come back only if I want a check-up.
Three days later, Dr P. sees me and says that I may get back on the ROAD bike, as long as it is a smooth road and I will not be enduring much vibration.
I'm cleared to ride!!!
I am ecstatic. This means I'm six weeks ahead of schedule and on the bike much sooner than I imagined.
Since I am so ahead of schedule, I suggest, perhaps I would be ready for a race the beginning of May? I had totally written this one off when I was told I would be off the bike till May 20. Dr P. tells me to come see him just before the race.
I am so excited, I go home and submit a post on a mountain bike forum that I had not browsed since my accident. I was a semi-regular poster, and dropped off the boards when I broke my wrist. If I couldn't ride, I didn't want to hear about anyone else who was out there on the bike having fun. But now I was back! I post my x-rays and invite discussion, then send the link to Dr P. in an email: "Your handiwork in a bike forum". His response: I love it!
It is Lent all thorough my recovery. I have no red meat, which I later find out is a good thing recovery-wise. And while I lament not being able to race the Winter Series at Fontana, I find myself truly benefiting from being in church those Saturday nights and Sunday mornings when I might otherwise have dashed off to make it up north for a 1pm Sunday race start. I am forced to slow down. In the Orthodox Church, we say that the Church is a hospital and we are all in need of a physician. My time off the bike was therefore not wasted, but well spent, seeking healing for my soul and body.
I continue the weight training, the stretching exercises, and taking every bone-strengthening supplement know to the western world. The last week of April, Eastern Orthodox Holy Week, we hold the service of Holy Unction at church, in which we are all anointed, for healing and restoration. I receive the standard anointing on my forehead and hands, and hold out my wrist for Father Alexander to anoint it too.
On May 3, Dr P. looks at my x-rays and proclaims me healed. I ask if it is any more dangerous for me to race now than it was the day before my fracture. "No. You are cleared to resume all physical activities," he says with a smile.
“All??” I asked.
“Go race, and stay on your bike!" he smiles.
Bring it on. The next day, I pull on the body armor and head up to the top of the expert downhill course at the National Championship Series race in Fontana, CA.
Going for a practice run on the expert course as your re-introduction to the fat tire after 3 months off the bike was a bit frightening at first, especially since I've just moved up from sport to expert, and I've only ridden this bike twice before. But I stayed on my bike and raced well, placing 2nd in Expert Women's Downhill.
My confidence is up, my goals are realistic, and I’m ready for the next challenge.
A couple days after surgery (x-ray 1, 2) when they cast me, my surgeon, Dr P., gives me the option of a half-cast that will only go from my hand to my elbow. He cautions that I will have to be very careful, though, not to twist my arm, lest I re-injure the wrist.
With an audible sigh, I indicate the bluish lump on my forehead. "See this? I can't even go to the bathroom without running into a towel rack. I'm a walking disaster. No. Gimmie the full-body cast. It will be much better," I say with disgust.
He laughs and comments that at least I'm honest.
I get a cast from my thumb to my armpit. I make sure to bring the grip again, so they can mold the cast around it. It will make an interesting conversation point at least.
For the entire month of February I'm in the cast. From the beginning, I am never really clear on the concept of "you will be off the bike until the end of May." At the time of surgery I hear "four weeks" and think I'll be riding again in March. No, that would be four weeks in a cast...
For the first week after surgery, I awaken every two hours in pain, even though I'm eating Percocet like it's candy. I'm ready to chew the cast off like a wolverine, convinced that it's too tight and that's why I can't feel my fingers... Truth is, I can't feel my fingers because of the anesthetic block they used. Sensation will take more than a week to return to minimal, and more than a month to return completely.
Within 10 days of inactivity, depression begins to set in, and I start losing interest in many of the things that usually make me happy. I have to force myself to eat and to bathe, because I would rather not. It's too much trouble. After two weeks, I decide I've had enough and I go for a jog, telling myself that people in Arizona have casts and they manage to put up with the itchy and sweaty, so by golley, so can I. I have a glorious 30 minute jog in the damp February morning.
As it happens, itchy and sweaty don't bother me. My cast gets damp from sweat and now I cannot get the arm warm. It's cold all day until I crawl under the covers that night. The next day, no matter what coat I wear, my arm stays cold again. At 2pm, I break down and call Dr P.
His nurse Susan reads me the Riot Act when she hears that I've gone jogging, and reminds me that I am 2 weeks out of major bone surgery. She proceeds to describe how sub-Saharan Africa is now potentially growing inside my cast and infecting my open incision, and says I should come down immediately for a new cast.
Awww, man! I have some really cool signatures on this cast! Duncan Riffle, Eric Carter, Mike Miranda... oh, well.
I speed to Balboa Medical Center, certain that seconds count in my race against bacteria. Thoughts of chewing the cast off like a wolverine again enter my brain, but I push them aside. I arrive at Balboa, they remove the cast, and find mild skin irritation, but nothing more. So much for sub-Saharan Africa... I'm recast and released on my own recognisance.
Before I leave, I ask the attending physician what to do about the depression. He has no answers, but suggests I set up an appointment with psychiatric. Tears fill my eyes. This is why I began riding in the first place... so I wouldn't have to go to psych. Extreme physical exertion is my panacea. It keeps me sane. Inactivity is my enemy... and slowly I am being overcome.
Thankfully the next day my co-worker points out that I'm more than half-way there, and that in only two weeks I'll be getting the cast off. Thanks Juan. I needed that. I resolve to grit through the last two weeks as if they are another endurance event.
March 3, 2006
Finally on March 3, my cast is removed and I animatedly talk about "riding soon." Dr P. looks at me and cocks his head. "You know you won't be riding until the end of May," he says.
"What??!" I exclaim. "But, I have a race," I say emphatically (he finds this amusing and tries to surpress a grin). "No, really. I have a race. A big one. I have to be ready."
"When is it?" he asks.
"May 27th weekend," I tell him.
"Hmmm... you can probably race it, but you'll be doing indoor training only until then."
"No way..." I protest.
"Way." He points to the day planner I am holding in my hands. "Can I see that?" he asks.
"Umm... sure," and I hand it to him. He takes out his pen and writes "Indoor training only!!" drawing arrows through the 20th of May, smiles, and hands it back to me.
I laugh and shake my head, reading, "Indoor training only!!"
Then he says, "Look, you have only one right wrist. People get debilitating arthritis for much less than you have done. I know it seems like a long time off the bike, but it is a small slice out of your life, and you are barely half-way through it. It's your choice."
I sit for a moment, remembering a conversation I had the week after I got the cast. I showed up to the 3rd Winter Series Downhill Race at Fontana, CA, and ran into pro racer Eric Carter, who noticed that the cast was molded around a handlebar grip. I laughed and said, "Yeah, it's kinda funny. But I told my doctor I wouldn't ride."
He looked at me with that easy smile he has, then in all seriousness he said, "Then don't be a liar."
The words stung as if he'd slapped me. "No! No, I'm not riding," I protested.
"Good. Let it heal. There's no need to push too soon," he said. This from EC, who was injured for over half the season last year.
This brief conversation I will carry with me and remember for a long time. I didn't really need to be told to listen to my doctor, but I'm glad Eric reminded me how vital it is.
Back in Orthopedics, as I talk to Dr P., reality sets in and I accept that I will be off the bike unitl the end of May.
Slowly, he and I develop trust in our doctor-patient relationship. By the end of March, it seems he knows I will not lie to him about my activity, nor will I go against his recommendations. In return, he will be totally straight with me on my progress, putting me ahead of schedule when he believes I am strong enough.
I begin occupational therapy (rehab) the first week of March.
"But I had a great race! There's no way it could be broken!" I protest to the physician. He then points out the floating piece of bone in the x-ray and it dawns on me that he might be right.
I groan and head to Orthopedics as instructed.
I'm at Balboa Medical Center in San Diego. By a stroke of grace I am classified among the sports medicine cases, and most all my medical team are athletes to some degree. They understand what it means for an athlete to be told to rest. In my case, it means hog-tying.
I'm sure my poor surgeon didn't know quite what to do with me, but I think at some point hog-tying came to mind.
First of all, I come in three days after the fracture, convinced that it is just a bad sprain. I did it Saturday afternoon while at downhill mountain bike race practice (don't get excited, I was in the staging area). I knew after I fell that it was bad. It hurt a lot, but I had mobility. I wrapped it in ice, took Ibuprofen, and returned to race two races the following day (pics 1, 2, 3 - pics of me racing on the fractured wrist, courtesy of JodyGomez.com).
Secondly, although I'm at Balboa Navy Medical Hospital, I'm not military - my husband is. I'm probably a bit more... casual than they're used to. So when my surgeon, Dr P., introduces me to the Chief Resident (easily a Lt Cdr) and I don't catch his name, I ask if I can just call him "Chief." He is the Chief Resident, after all. The guys standing around him react to this with bulging eyes and suppressed smiles. Good naturedly, Dr D. (the Chief Resident) thinks it's funny that I call him Chief, probably because nobody ever did before.
These guys become my team. I will trust them to put me back together, and fix the things I have broken. Years and years from now, when I am a little old mountain biker, I will remember them. Today, I try to find out their names so that I can pray for them. Partly because they will need guidence and wisdom in the surgery, and partly because they have to deal with me, and I' somewhat, ah, strong-willed.
As the Orthopedic team confers, one of them sits down in front of me with a clipboard and a number of forms for me to sign. He quietly and calmly describes the anesthesia procedure they will use (a block), tells me about the risks, and then reassuringly adds that I should regain full use of my hand and full sensation in my fingers. I look at him with a pleading and hopeful look.
"Will I be able to play the violin?" I ask.
He smiles gently and says, "Yes, if everything goes as we anticipate, you should be able to play the violin."
"Wow. You guys are great," I gush. "I never played the violin before."
Our eyes lock for an expressionless moment, and then I blink and grin slightly. He sighs, knowing he totally took the bait on that one, nods and says, "OK, so if you would just sign here?"
I take the clipboard and bite my lip, try not to burst into laughter. I've been waiting to use that line all my life.
Right. So the next day they wheel me in for surgery. I have done as instructed and removed all clothing to don their little peek-a-boo smock, but I keep my socks on... my black Surly cycling socks with the words "SMELL HERE" written clearly across the toes. I'm finding little ways to amuse myself, and intend to enjoy my surgical experience the best that I can.
The instructions for surgery say that all children should have a "comfort item" with them. Before coming to the hospital, I remove the handlebar grip off my bike and bring it with me. In pre-op, they are getting me ready to go in for anesthesia when I pull out the grip, tell them it's my comfort item, and that I want them to mold the cast around the grip. When the Chief Resident sees this, he breaks into laughter.
"Has [your surgeon] seen that?"
"No, not yet," I tell him with an impish grin.
A few moments later, my surgeon, Dr P., appears and I produce the grip, telling him that I brought it as my comfort item and that I want him to mold the cast around it. He looks positively shocked and scandalized. "You can't be serious..."
(continued in “Wrist Recovery and Rehab”)
Monday, May 15, 2006
The guys listen to me narrate my tale of the weekend mountain bike race as we sit in the Chinese restaurant down the street from the bike shop. I had been a spectator, and seen my mechainc crash hard in one of his races. As I come to that part of the tale, he listens in silence, drops his head to the table with a sigh, then suddenly sits bolt upright.
"How come you have to tell about me crashing?"
"Because it's part of the story, " I say.
"Well, do you write about your own crashes?" he asks.
"Ummm, no. It hadn't really occurred to me," I mutter. But I crash a lot and they're some pretty spectacular crashes. I just began mountain biking some 3 months ago, and in that time have managed to lodge my bike in a sapling, fly (I kid you not) into a tree and simultaneously bruise my eyebrow, shoulder and hip, and crash hard enough on one trail ride to necessitate a trip to the ER. I was questioned about domestic abuse.
"Oh, I see how it is. Write about other people's crashes, but not your own," he smiles. "That's not really fair..."
"So, what... I should be writing about my own crashes?"
Suddenly the third guy in our party pipes in, "Yeah, the Bruise Chronicles. Tonight on Fox."
They both errupt with laughter.
And thus began the Bruise Chronicles.