Fracture Friday: Recovering in mind and body

The beginning of an unexpectedly difficult path to recovery.
Carolyn Paletta / Vail Daily

The injury

Heading into the senior season of my Division I collegiate lacrosse career, I considered myself one of the luckiest athletes I knew. I had managed to play four years of a varsity sport without having incurred a single injury. All around me, I had watched teammates tear ACLs, suffer chronic and worsening back injuries, put in extra hours before and after practice every day just to maintain a functional level of pain and mobility.

Meanwhile, the worst pain that I had suffered on the field was a series of regular, but minor, ankle sprains. By senior year, they were just an annoying but expected nuisance, largely mitigated by the thick support braces I wore on each ankle and never requiring more than a few days of recovery to return to full strength.

This was the status quo, until a tough game on a stormy day against one of the best teams in the league. I had slightly sprained my left ankle at practice earlier in the week, and knew that it was weak, but my ankles were always weak – I’d grown used to ignoring the discomfort and trusting the ankle braces. Cutting hard to my right in an attempt to dodge a defender, I felt a sharp pain that was unlike any I’d experienced before. Walking off the field, I noticed that the mobility in my left ankle was completely wonky. It felt like something had come loose inside my ankle, like it couldn’t hold itself up.



Oddly enough, the pain subsided quickly, and I was left with this slippery, unfamiliar ankle. Walking up and down the side of the field, I noticed that there was a tendon moving back and forth over my bone, like it had broken free from the normal ankle structure and was just floating around, not doing its job.

A few feet away, the game continued, and though I knew this was no regular sprained ankle, with the pain subsiding I decided that whatever damage had been done couldn’t get much worse. So I had the trainer secure the wayward tendon to the bone with the most intricate tape job you’ve ever seen, got back on the field, and finished the game.



A few X-rays and MRIs later, I learned that I had torn my superior peroneal reticulum, which secures the peroneal tendons behind the fibula. In essence, the tendons had lost their anchor and were now free to move up and around my fibula without resistance. The doctor told me that the only way to fix it was surgery, and that if I proceeded with repairing it, I was done for the rest of the season – pass. Instead, my trainer perfected a monster of a tape job, I got stronger ankle braces, and I finished out my senior year on the field.

Showing off my ever present ankle braces on Senior Day.
Carolyn Paletta / Vail Daily

The recovery

It was nearly a year after graduating that I finally scheduled my surgery. My mobility had been limited due to the injury, but I was able to do most things by taping down the tendon like my trainer had, and building up the muscles around the weakness through yoga. Part of me wanted to just accept this as a new reality and move on, but I knew that compensating for my ankle could compromise other elements of my physical health over time. I needed to take care of it now.

I had surgery on March 19, 2019, at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. During the procedure, the surgeon found that the tendon was not only detached, but it had ripped down the middle. If I had continued walking on it without repair, it likely would have severed over time. I felt very good about my decision to get the surgery after that.

I was relieved to hear that the reattachment had been successful, and I looked ahead to the next two months on crutches without any trepidation. Little did I know, the most difficult part of this whole ordeal was about to hit me like a ton of bricks.

I have struggled with mental health issues since high school, but have developed a number of routines and coping mechanisms over the years to keep depressive episodes at bay. I’d learned to expect and accept the ebbs and flows that come with dysthymia, and by age 23 – the year I had my ankle surgery – I was confident in my ability to navigate my mood patterns and lead a healthy, happy and productive lifestyle .

I didn’t realize how essential activity and exercise were for managing my mental health until I was stuck on a couch, foot in the air, day in and day out for over two months straight. The first week or two were no big deal. The crutches were a new and interesting challenge, and getting to sit around on the couch all day had a sense of novelty.

But the novelty wore off fast, and the inability to move not only stayed, but worsened. When the stitches were removed about a month in, my skin had not fully sutured together, and within a day, was starting to split apart at the seams. Within a week, the wound was oozing, and I panicked about infection and headed to an urgent care facility, where I paid too much money for too little information.

A text exchange with my surgeon assured me that the wound was not infected, but it was recommended that I walk as little as possible until the scar closed up. Now almost a month and a half in, I was barely moving and constantly stressing about the gaping scar on my ankle, willing it to heal every day and scared to do anything that might rip it open again and start my waiting game from the beginning.

It was at this time that I felt the depression set in. The daily anxiety about my wound faded into exhaustion, then resentment, and ultimately hopelessness. Typically, when I sense a depressive episode coming on, I make it a priority to do the things that I know bring me joy and flood my body with much-needed endorphins: yoga, rock climbing, hiking, running. Unfortunately, all of these options were off the table, and as my depression deepened, my ability to come up with creative alternatives or ideas of any kind grew dimmer and dimmer.

My productivity at work dropped to the bare minimum. I spoke to as few people as possible, and I holed up in my room feeling time pass unbearably slowly. When my scar finally closed up and I was instructed to start physical therapy, I was too foggy and disoriented to remember my appointments. I missed three, which resulted in the PT provider kicking me out of the program, as was their policy. This led to more panic that my ankle would never fully heal, but I didn’t have the mental capacity to do anything proactive about it.

My first job out of college was a one-year fellowship, which ended on June 30. I crawled to that finish line with very little energy, outlook or self-respect left, and when it ended, I moved back to my parents’ house , completely depleted.

The redemption

Looking back, it is this injury that brought me to where I am today, living my best and healthiest life in the mountains of Colorado. That first fellowship was intended to be a stepping stone into a relatively straight career path, guided by prestige and resume building rather than by my own internal compass. Having a major depressive episode cloud the final four months of that job made it impossible for me to think about, never mind apply for, the next step in my career ladder, and forced me to abandon all pride to simply focus on getting better.

That summer, I started physical therapy again in my hometown, and with my parents’ support was able to gradually build back my physical and mental strength. Once I was mobile again, I decided to go live with my grandmother in the Bahamas for four months, a time that dramatically altered my perspective of the world and made me who I am today. I returned to the states in 2020 completely restored, with a scarred but fully functional ankle, just in time to face the craziest year of my (and many others’) adult life.

This experience also led me to diversify my coping mechanisms for depression. I took a virtual course on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), where I learned how to use mindfulness and meditation to regulate my mood and gain greater control of my thought patterns. Meditation has now become an essential tool in my mental health toolbox, and one that cannot be taken away from me, no matter the injury or circumstance.

My injury has made me more resilient than I ever realized I could be prior to that ankle tear, and it has made me extremely grateful for the freedom of motion that I am blessed to take advantage of every day in the mountains and beyond. I would never want to go back to that place of darkness in 2019, but having come out the other side, I know it was all meant to be, and I am stronger forever because of it.


TELL US YOUR STORY

Injuries are a common topic in mountain communities. We tend to push ourselves to the point of having them. If you have an on-mountain or sports-related injury, we want you to share the story of your injury, recovery and redemption (and if you’re currently injured, we want to hear your plans for the last two).

To read more Fracture Friday stories and to share yours, visit VailDaily.com/FractureFridays. And be sure to check the paper every Friday for the latest Fracture Friday.

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