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Lightning Sparks Recovery
We do not remember days; we remember moments, details, and overall impressions. We do not remember specific thunderstorms, but we will never forget the lightning that took out our childhood tree, or the winds that destroyed the roof or the siding on our home. Our life is made up of many small moments. In the grand scheme of things, most of these are insignificant. However, some are exponentially magnificent.
There is one moment in my life that serves as a turning point. This was the strike of lightning that began a long, seemingly endless storm. It was the moment I tore the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in my right knee. Suffering through and rehabilitating from a serious injury challenges not only the body, but the psyche as well.
I have played ice hockey for over ten years. It is the sun in my life. Inspired by my father, an avid hockey player in his youth, I started skating when I was nine. It was tricky at first. Gliding on a blade that is one quarter of an inch thick proved quite the challenge. However, over many years of exposure to the ice, I gained speed and skill. Aside from the physical aspect, hockey allowed me to improve on my then rugged social skills. I played for a multitude of teams and made friends from each one that I still talk to every now and then as an adult. I even met my first boyfriend through the sport. To me, hockey has always been so much more than just shooting and scoring. Unfortunately, lightning is bound to strike somewhere.
My storm began during my senior year, on the 26th of October in 2017. I was participating in my high school’s annual flag football Powderpuff Game. During a play in the third quarter, I was blocked. My body twisted while my foot stayed planted in the turf. I felt a sickening pop in my right knee and collapsed to the ground. I cried out. The pain was so excruciating that I thought my leg had snapped in half. A trainer helped me off the field. I did not yet know the extent of my injury. This moment would change my life forever.
Following the painful incident, I experienced only swelling and the inability to fully bend or straighten my leg. I was still able to walk and run and had even driven myself home from the Powderpuff Game. My mother and I visited my family practitioner and, erring on the cautionary side, she redirected me to get an MRI. My hopes were high. “It’s probably just a strained tendon,” I thought, forcing my mind to focus on the positive. I did everything in my power to convince myself that my knee was going to be fine. To say I was wrong is an understatement.
My mother received the MRI results while I was at school. I remember driving home under gray skies. I walked through the front door and cast my eyes on her somber facial expression. Her spare words still resonate in my nightmares.
“They called. It’s a torn ACL. We’ll need to make an appointment with the surgeon,” she said. I paused, frozen into a state of utter denial.
“No, that’s not right,” I answered. “If that were right, I would have to get surgery and I couldn’t play hockey and…,” I trailed off. I sobbed uncontrollably. Dark clouds flooded my brain. I felt lost and hopeless. I stumbled upstairs to my bedroom, unaware of how I was able to perform any sort of function outside my broken state of mind. For hours, I lay in bed under the sound of rain pelting the roof, searching desperately for a sign that would reveal this as just a bad dream. This certainly couldn’t be happening to me. But it was.
The only aspect of a storm that you can “control” is your reaction to it. If it’s raining, you bring an umbrella or a rain jacket. I decided I wasn’t going to let an injury of this magnitude interfere with my long-term goals. I wanted to play hockey in college. To be able to do that would require an abundance of determination and hard work. I got my surgery on the first day of December in 2017, about a month after I’d hurt my knee. Nine to twelve months of recovery loomed ahead. From that day forward, it seemed I was walking with the wind at my face.
For the first week or so following my surgery, everything hurt. I was either in pain, or, at the very least, uncomfortable. I was forced to sleep on my back, a position I do not normally doze off in. The first time I tried to shower following the surgery, I had to sit in a chair and my mother had to help me. I took one look at my unwrapped knee and felt faint. It was the size of a bowling ball. My entire body went numb, and I started to shake. I could not move my fingers or feel my arms. The struggle felt endless. I have never seen my mother more frightened. Everything was foggy to me. How could this possibly get any better?
The first time I began to regain some hope was when we left the house for my first physical therapy session. I would finally be able to begin healing and making improvements! I was quickly discouraged. For the first couple weeks of therapy, the only thing I could do was work the flexion and extension of my leg, aka my range of motion. Over these sessions, all I did was slowly bend my knee and look at my physical therapist while he took an angle measurement to watch progress. I grew drastically impatient.
Small victories kept me going. Four weeks after the surgery, I no longer needed crutches. After six weeks, I broke a sweat for the first time by operating a stationary bike. This was huge. I finally began to feel athletic again. My motivation began to rise. I began to frequent the gym and doubled my weekly physical therapy sessions. I never took my eyes off my college hockey dream. Small rays of sunshine started to peek through the gray clouds.
Six months after my surgery, I was cleared to skate. I thought stepping onto the ice for the first time would bring some sort of revelation. Instead, it terrified me. Hockey had not injured me, yet I was beside myself at the thought of getting hurt again and being forced to repeat the dreadful recovery process. I took a couple of cautious laps around the ice and quickly got off. The sparse gray clouds continued to loom.
Shortly before I left for college, I had one last appointment with my surgeon. We were practically friends at this point. He said, “If you and your coaches believe you are ready, then you are absolutely ready to return to full contact activity on the ice.”
My eyes brimmed with tears. The clouds split, revealing a beautiful, bright sun. It was a moment I will never forget. I was whole again.
College hockey has proved to be the best experience of my entire life. About a month into my freshman season, I was named captain. I lead the group in points and goals. Because of this program, I have been interviewed by Cronkite Sports Live, received a shout out on national television during a Pittsburgh Penguins broadcast, and visited parts of the country I had never seen before, like Colorado and Las Vegas. During our final home game weekend, we were tied at zero going into overtime. I scored the goal that secured us a win. The sunlight I felt in my heart, the joy my teammates and coaches radiated, and the pride my family bestowed on me—all served to remind me why my long recovery was worth it. I am forever grateful, and forever proud of myself too. Sometimes I stop and think, “Look at yourself, Katharine. Look at what you’ve done.”
Certain people may wonder how this occurrence can be so life-altering. I was once told to “Stop being so dramatic.” Seeing your hard work pay off, however, is comparable to the first warm, sunny day after months of gray skies and cold air. That feeling defines who I am and what I stand for. Storms always come to an end. Even after the darkest of nights, the sun is bound to rise again.