Monday, August 12, 2013

My Achilles Heel

Four years ago this month, I was feeling good.  I was riding my bike for miles and miles in preparation for a 108-mile ride that I was planning for September.  I was playing softball in an intramural church league for the first time in many years.  I was gaining on my fitness goals; getting stronger and thinner and more fit by the day.

In September of 2009, I rode that 108-mile bike ride on the Cardinal Greenway near Muncie, Indiana by riding from Losantville to Gaston and back…twice…in one day.  I rode it alone.  My wife drove from point to point to provide me with food, water, and moral support, but I rode the whole distance by myself.  It was an all-day adventure.  No pun intended, but I was riding high.  I had never ridden that far in a single day before.

I was not yet at my ideal weight, but I was doing so very well.  My cholesterol was ideal.  My blood pressure was great.  I was losing weight.

A couple of weeks later, my world snapped.

I was playing in a softball game on the last day of our league.  My team was in the championship game, but I was filling in at second base for a team playing in a consolation game.  Someone hit a pop up just over first base, and as the second baseman, I had the best angle, so I took off to snag it.  I was nearly there when someone through another ball and hit me in my lower right leg and I fell.  At least, that’s what it felt like.  That’s what went through my mind.  For a brief moment, I really thought that someone had been messing with me and hit me with another ball in the middle of my play.

The pain was intense for a minute or so as I lie there on the ground holding my right leg.  Soon, though, it settled into a dull ache, but I could barely walk.  With help, I hobbled over to the sidelines and watched the rest of that game… and my team’s championship game… from the sidelines.

A few days later, I learned the prognosis.  I had torn my right Achilles Tendon.  It wasn’t torn completely through, but it was nearly 90%!  Now, if you’ve never had an Achilles injury, you may not realize the significance of this injury.  I certainly did not.  I used to hear about athletes who had torn one, and they were out of the game for their season.  In my mind, it was in the same category as a strained ankle or a fractured arm.  Frankly, after living through the whole ordeal, I would have rather broken my leg.

The reality is that if you tear your Achilles, you cannot use your foot.  This tendon connects the foot to the calf muscle.  Without it, you cannot put any pressure downward at all.  You cannot walk.  You cannot run.  You cannot push the gas pedal on your car.

First, I went to see my family doctor, and his Physician’s Assistant wasn’t sure of the extent of my injury.  He referred me to a foot specialist:  Dr. Wendy Winckelbach and the Southside Foot Clinic in Greenwood, Indiana.  Soon, I had an MRI, was on crutches, and had a surgery planned.  I was ordered to absolutely put zero weight on that foot!  None.  Period.  My injury occurred on Sunday…my surgery happened on Friday.

Surgery on Friday…then a week in a soft cast…then stitches out…then six weeks in a hard cast…then another four weeks in a walking boot…then several sessions of physical therapy.

I got my real shoe back in January, and I figured that with a few physical therapy sessions, I’d be back on the bike in the spring and playing softball in the summer.  I’d be back to normal in no time.

I’m afraid it didn’t quite happen that way.

I had lost all my strength in the injured leg.  My right calf that had been strong and quite toned from all of those miles on the bike was flat as pancake.  On top of that, my left Achilles had begun to get very sore from being overworked during the recovery of the right.

It might be useful for you to understand just what was happening with my tendons.  As it was explained to me, the Achilles Tendon is similar to a rubber band.  It is flexible, but as a person ages, it becomes more thin and brittle.  Often, when a man enters his late forties and early fifties, when he thinks he can still do everything he was doing in his twenties, but now only does on occasional weekends, that brittle and thin tendon breaks.  When it does, the tendon retracts up into the calf.  The doctor has to slice into the back of the leg, reach up into the calf to grab the tendon, then pull it down and reattach it to the remnant at the heel.  Obviously, this is a significant procedure.

So, while my right tendon was torn, my left was also getting brittle and thin.  When I was rehabilitating the right, I was also straining the already tender left tendon.  It became so painful that I became very afraid to push it too hard out of concern for tearing it too.  In fact, I did try to play some softball during my recovery, but in the second season following the initial injury, I “tweaked” the left one.  I took off for first base and something sort of popped in my left calf.  Of course, they overthrew second, so I had to advance to that base…then, they overthrew it again, and I had to run to third. 

That was the last softball game that I have ever played.

After that game, my left was so sore that I was totally sure that I was going to tear it and have to go through the whole surgery/recovery process again.  Plus, my right leg was still weak and recovering.  Between the weak right leg and the sore left one, I became nearly completely inactive.  I couldn’t run.  I didn’t get on my bike.  All I did was occasionally mow the yard, and the drought last summer made that mostly unnecessary.

All I did was get bigger…and weaker.  I ballooned up to where I was beginning to outgrow my XXL shirts.  Late last summer, I started having an ache in my chest.  It wasn’t much, just a dull ache.  It was nothing severe, but I would find myself rubbing at my upper right Pectoral Muscle.  Eventually, I became concerned and ended up in the emergency room with wires connect to various locations.

Ultimately, they never found anything really wrong with my heart.  My conclusion is my chest pain really was muscular from having pushed around my lawnmower after not having to for months during the drought.  However, my once great blood pressure had become elevated and my under control cholesterol was now too high also.  Suddenly, I went from just taking a daily vitamin to being prescribed a blood pressure pill and a cholesterol pill.  Plus, I was told to start taking a low-dose aspirin tablet everyday too.

I was on a collision course with a health disaster, and I was put on that course when I snapped that tendon in 2009.

My legs hurt, so I stopped doing things to make them hurt.  When I stopped doing things to make them hurt, I got even weaker than I was before.  The weaker I became, the more sedentary I became.  The more sedentary I became, the heavier I became.  The heavier I became, the less I wanted to do anything.  I hesitate to call it a cycle because I was just headed down hill and picking up steam.

I had to change course!

In December of 2012, I went back to see Dr. Winckelbach.  I asked her if there was anything that could be done to repair my left Achilles Tendon PRIOR to it actually tearing.  I had to get it fixed so that I could confidently become active again and get on a healthier course.  My repaired right Achilles was fine, and it gave me no issues, but the left was a royal pain!  I wanted to know if there was a preemptive procedure that could be done so I could get my life back.

She said: “Yes!”

So, last December I had another surgery.  Dr. Winckelback went into my leg through two small holes up by my calf and basically clipped the top of my Achilles Tendon where it attaches to the calf.  She did this so that it would relax, lengthen, and take the pressure off of it.  She then put a whole series of tiny holes through the tendon in order to convert the existing tenderness from a chronic injury to an acute injury.  I then had to wear my walking boot again for several weeks and go through some more physical therapy.

Coming out of that, when I took the boot off and tried to walk and recover, I have to admit that I was unsure if I’d done the right thing.  The left Achilles was hurting a great deal.  It was sore.  And, that leg was now weak too.  I still had not regained any semblance of strength in the right leg, and now my left was almost as weak.  It hurt to walk, forget running.  The spring of 2013 was similar to the previous few years.  I was still gaining weight.  I was still inactive and in pain.  Did I do the right thing?  Was it enough? 

Then, I got back on a bike.

With some money I earned in a bonus, I went out and purchased a new hybrid road bike.  I knew I couldn’t ride very far to start off, and I didn’t want to get all geared up with the special clothes and special bike shoes to ride my real road bike, so I got this cheap little Trek hybrid to see if I could put some activity back in my life, get some strength back in my legs, and maybe get back on the road to fitness.

Now, remember, before I tore the tendon to begin with, I had just ridden 108 miles in single day.

So, I brought the bike home, and then took it out for a one-mile intro ride just to get the feel of it.  Just to the end of my road and back.  Oh, man!  My legs literally felt like spaghetti!  One mile!  I remember thinking:  Oh, how the mighty have fallen!  I couldn’t believe how weak I really was.

That was mid-June.  It is now mid-August.  I have been riding for nearly two months, and I want to report that I’m feeling great!  I haven’t lost a bundle of weight yet, and my metabolism is being stubborn about speeding up.  However, my clothes are fitting much better, my legs are feeling great, and I’m gaining confidence by the day.  My longest ride was this last Thursday with over 23 miles on a greenway in Owensboro, Kentucky, and I’m averaging nearly 50 miles per week.  Overall, I have ridden about 400 miles since I got that new bike.  I reached down a few minutes ago and felt a new bit of definition in my once pancake-flat calves.  And, probably the best thing is that the more I ride, the less my Achilles Tendons hurt!  Now, my goal is to drop this weight and get off these stupid pills!

The point of this article is to share that if you have some physical injury that has held you back…particularly a torn Achilles Tendon…don’t give up!  Keep working your way out of the pain.  Do what I did and get on a bike, or maybe an elliptical machine, or swim…but don’t stop…don’t sit down and quit.  Don’t let that downward course get the best of you.

There is hope on the far side of your Achilles Heel. 

1 comment:

  1. Glad you are seeing improvementnt after a vey difficult ordeal. I am eating on the Diabetic Diet and drinking only water and I'm starting to feel somewhat human again. Now I need to follow your example and get involved in physical activity. I'm finishing up my physical therapy from a car wreck in Decdmber and hopefully will be able to do something like swimming to accelerate my weight loss. I have so much to lose, but I've never been more determined than I am now. I will pray for you and I hope you'll do the same for me, your WV gal pal. We can do anything thru Christ who strengthens us!