My Healing Journey (part 1)

I have experienced many injuries in my 43 years of life, including a broken foot, a stress fracture, calf strains, sprained ankles, inexplicable hip, knee and foot issues, Morton’s neuroma, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, ITB syndrome… And many more. But nothing comes close to the severity of a torn ACL.

On October 16th 2021, nearly 6 months ago, I fully tore my right ACL. After returning home from the hospital in a splint and on crutches, I quickly and surprisingly calmly resigned myself to the life of rehabilitation. Or as my physiotherapist called it, “prehab” – because essentially what the ER doctor, my orthopaedic surgeon, my physiotherapist, and Dr. Google were all saying is that ACL reconstructive surgery was the ONLY option moving forward if I had any hope of running trails again. Word on the street – and certainly in the medical community for that matter – is that the ACL cannot heal on its own. It is not possible.

Thus, “prehab” was simply to gain strength (which would help with post-surgery rehab) and heal as much of the meniscus and surrounding damage before going into surgery. Apparently there’s no real benefit in rushing into surgery – my orthopaedic surgeon said he wanted to see the swelling in my knee completely decrease and as much natural healing as possible occur before undergoing ACL reconstruction.

I must admit I didn’t love the idea of surgery. I have great faith in my body’s ability to heal naturally and prefer to turn to man made solutions only when necessary. The thought of going straight into having my knee cut open (arthroscopically that is – truthfully it’s known to be a fast and simple surgery with minimal incisions) and a piece of my own hamstring tendon used as the structure to create the new ligament – secured through holes drilled in my tibia and femur bones which would become my new ACL… Well, no, this thought didn’t thrill me. But I was willing if that was the ONLY way to be able to run trails again. And everywhere I turned, I was told surgery was the only way.

Yet something deep inside of me whispered there might be another way. This notion of the body not knowing how to heal its own ACL didn’t resonate with me in the least. I took to the internet again – this time going through PubMed studies, and finally uncovered what I knew I was going to find: Spontaneous healing in complete ACL ruptures: a clinical and MRI study, published April 2012.

Honestly, that was really all I needed to know I didn’t want surgery right away. I would prefer to wait and see if my body could heal itself, just like these 14 case studies had. Sure, spontaneous healing of the ACL isn’t common – BUT IT IS POSSIBLE. It’s possible. Of course it’s possible! The wisdom, beauty and mystery of the human body never fails to amaze me.

I just wasn’t sure how I was going to approach my orthopaedic surgeon in asking his support in seeing what my body could do on its own before resorting to surgery.

1 Month Post ACL-Tear

It turns out I didn’t even have to have that conversation. Mid-November I got the call that my MRI was booked for November 24th (after which my surgery would be scheduled). Around that time, I was feeling distinctly as though my body was very much going through some major shifts. For many reasons, it took me a while to figure this one out… But long story short, I did eventually catch on and confirmed suspicions with an actual test.

Apparently, the day I tumbled down that steep muddy hill and tore my ACL, I was 4 weeks pregnant. Surprise! A completely unexpected surprise, to say the least. But a rather exciting one too. On top of all else, I knew immediately I did not want to subject myself to either an MRI or surgery – especially not to elective surgery – whilst pregnant. With my orthopaedic surgeon in complete support, my MRI was rescheduled to August 2022 with surgery to follow, if still needed at that time.

At this point, 1 month post ACL-tear and just over 8 weeks pregnant, I wanted so very much so to run again ASAP as I wished to introduce my unborn baby to the adventuring of running and racing before she/he pops out into the world! Running without an ACL is possible – although somewhat risky. However, wearing a brace alleviates much of that risk.

I truly believed I would be able to run again very soon. My orthopaedic surgeon had prescribed me a fitted custom aluminum brace, which I went ahead with and picked up on December 1st. Wearing it would give me the support an ACL typically provides, thus allowing me to walk and run without fear a sudden pivot will cause my knee to twist (which without the support of my ACL would likely cause meniscal damage and any cartilage damage like this will increase my risk for osteoarthritis down the road, not to mention delayed healing).

2 Months Post ACL-Tear

A couple weeks later, 2 months post ACL-tear, upon returning home from one of my many appointments with my most invaluable physiotherapist, JR Justesen, I was full of hope. Often we are directed to or sent just the right person at just the right time – and in this case, I know this to be absolutely true. Back in October, when doing research to find the absolute BEST physio for me and my injury (I’d envisioned a female ultra runner PT who’d previously torn her ACL), none of those I ‘handpicked’ where available. So my husband encouraged me to visit the guy he’d been going to for his tennis elbow thingy. I initially resisted mostly because JR’s bio didn’t mention ACL tears. However hubby went off to his next appointment, chatted to JR about my injury and came back letting me know JR had actually torn both his ACL’s… Which was enough for me to request an appointment with him.

I received direction that day on what I must be able to accomplish before I could try running. With JR there’s never a simple answer, which I am very fond of. I know my questions don’t have simple answers, so to ever receive one would only result in distrust.

When I asked JR, “When can I run? Can I start running again now?”… He replied with giving me a series of single legged exercises I could in no way complete competently with my injured right leg. His answer was, “If you cannot do these exercises, I do not suggest you try running yet”.

I took on the challenge with gusto, doing my physio exercises daily and and adding in these new ones with the expectation I’d conquer them in a weeks time, maybe two. Alas, it was not to be. Three weeks later, just as I was seeing improvement, my knee was also giving me pain I didn’t like. Then my husband and I got sick with a really bad cold (my brothers and their partners tested positive for covid and having spent Christmas with them all, I’m guessing that’s what I also was suffering from). And I was out – completely out. Daily physio exercises weren’t even an option.

The first 2 weeks of January were full of lessons on learning to surrender to what is. Surrounding to the necessity of slowing down that had to happen while I was sick. Surrendering to the process of my body healing on its timeline. Surrendering to my changing body and the life growing inside of me as it is meant to. Surrendering to my body’s request for more non-doing.

To stop. Be still. Listen to my inner compass.

3 Months Post ACL-Tear

So at 16 weeks pregnant, 3 months post ACL-tear and doing very little cardio of any type (save for the smallest bit of very easy indoor cycling I’d been doing the past 2 months), I took up hiking – if you can call it that – it was more like huffing and puffing, struggling to move forward in the trails with the pups.

It felt hard. So hard! My cardiovascular fitness needed to be rebuilt from what felt like square one. My heart rate spiked at what felt like the smallest effort. My RHR (resting heart rate) was up 12-14 beats above my normal (of course some of that was due to pregnancy, but only about 5 beats or so – the rest truly was my declining fitness level).

But I took on the challenge. And wouldn’t you know it, within only a few weeks I was able to give running a cautious try… And found that it was okay! I documented my return to running here on YouTube for 5 weeks (until I realized I was needing to devote my time and energy places other than compiling video clips – for a time anyway, as I do plan on doing more of this in the future).

4½ Months Post ACL-Tear

These video logs actually brought me all the way to running both Run Ridge Run 13K trail race and then WestVanRun 10k road race at 4½ months post ACL-tear.

At Run Ridge Run, it was so awesome to be racing in the trails again. I finished in last place, with the most lovely sweepers keeping a respectful distance behind me & my husband who accompanied me the whole way. It comforted me to know they were there for any ‘just in case’. And hubby enjoyed telling all the course marshals and aid station volunteers I was in first place in the 5 months pregnant with a torn ACL category!

In WestVanRun I logged a PW (personal worst) 10K time – ironically the very same course my PB (personal best) sits on. However I honestly couldn’t have been happier – I actually managed to run the whole way without stopping and had ZERO knee pain.

To say I was thrilled with completing these races is an understatement. I was truly on top of the world!!

In the past 5 weeks since crossing the finish line of WestVanRun, I’ve done some running and a lot of power walking. After WestVanRun I found it quite painful to wear my brace for running if I went out multiple days in a row (it was bruising my shin) – so I decided it was time to build up strength to be able to run without it. This led to more power walking without the brace and less running with the brace on.

Finally, nearly 2 weeks ago, I was able to incorporate brace-free running (on flat pavement) into my power walking. Last Saturday, incorporated into my 11km power walk, I ran nearly 3 consecutive kilometres no brace!

6 Months Post ACL-Tear

So here I am, now almost 6 months post ACL-tear and nearly 30 weeks pregnant. I do not know what the rest of my healing journey will look like or how long it will take. I do know it will involve bringing a new life into this world – and honestly, nurturing and nourishing this process of growing and birthing a tiny human is my priority right now. But as I focus on nourishment through food, movement, rest and relationships as my primary goal, I know this is also supporting the healing of my ACL. I still believe it can fully heal on its own without surgery. Of course, only time will tell.

I trust that in the future I will be running brace-free again on my beloved trails for miles upon miles. I have many ultras in me that have yet to be run. I do believe they are still in my future – although I cannot predict the timeline. If I am wrong (and I could always be wrong), then something equally exciting that I cannot even fathom at the moment is in store for me.

That said, I am signed up to run an 18 km trail race in 6½ weeks (Survival of the Fittest in Squamish end of May – yes, I’m going back to Squamish where I tore my ACL!!). I’ll be in my aluminum brace for that one, 7½ months post ACL-tear with a 36-week baby bump. I’m ready for an adventure, while also appreciating that I have no idea what May 28th will bring me. I’m slowly learning how to let go of my need for control while firmly remaining in the drivers seat.

This ability ‘to surrender to what is’ while simultaneously ‘standing in my power’ is a gift this injury has given me, although I can only recently name it as such. If I’m honest, it was a growth opportunity that began with Sparkle’s death 3½ years ago… Intensified with Covid lockdowns and mandates… Peaked 1½ years ago with moving, intense marital relationship challenges and loss of friendships… And finally, was solidified with my ACL tear and pregnancy.

In the past, I don’t know that I’ve always been able to utilize each growth opportunity I’ve been presented with in life (or maybe I did in exactly the way I was meant to). But I certainly took these ones on, sometimes out of desperation and sometimes in earnest. For them all – having been torn down and now subsequently well into the process of being built back up – I’m humbled and truly grateful.

With respect to my ACL-tear, I’m not out ‘on the other side’ yet – my physical healing story is not yet complete. But I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. While I remain committed to staying present and connected to myself (to my true authentic self), I’m so very excited to see what all my tomorrows will bring! And so thus, my healing journey continues…

One thought on “My Healing Journey (part 1)

  1. Gah, as a grappler, having knee blowouts are one of the scariest things among the trainees, and we know how bummed out you must’ve felt on the day of your injury. As I understand from the other post, was it a misstep downhill that caused it?

    Anyway, glad that you’re on the mend, and that you’re on 10k without pain! Sometimes life isn’t about achieving our goals but about overcoming the danged things that are preventing us from them—and it seems like you’re kicking ass on both fronts. Onwards and upwards, Sarah. Thanks for sharing!

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