by Hans van Someren Gréve
This is a story about recovery.
December 9, 2017 was one of those days where all of Wenatchee was solidly overcast and yet the webcam at Mission Ridge showed sunny skies. As a retiree, I usually avoid the weekends but the resort had just opened for the season on mostly man-made snow and there wouldn’t be a crowd yet. We had seen grey skies in Wenatchee for days and it was mostly the prospect of the sun that lured me to the slopes. Arriving at the top of Chair 2, I stopped to take a picture — Mount Rainier was clearly visible above a blanket of clouds. “Glorious day,” I thought. “I will be posting this picture on FB for sure.”
Upon reaching the top of the lifts for the second time, I ran into my nephew, West Mathison. He was alone and we decided to ski together for a few runs. West had been a competitive snowboarder during his college years but had to give that up due to shoulder injuries. He is an accomplished skier now. I usually ski by myself so I welcomed the company.
Not much was open, mainly just the slopes that had been augmented by snow making, so there were no long deliberations about where to descend. With just groomers to ski on, I took off and skied to the bottom and waited for West. This was going to be one of those days where you take maybe a half dozen runs and call it quits. After all, how many times can you ski Sunspot and Tumwater? Well, I found out exactly how many times on the next run. This time West had taken off first and I followed him. As usual, where Sunspot hits Tumwater I stayed to the left and the steeper incline here spit me out ahead of West. I was down low, leaning forward on my skis, and going fast.
What happened next is somewhat of a blur. The tips of my skis crossed and before I could correct, I was in the air. West later told me it looked like I made a pirouette in the air. All I know is that at some point in the air I felt a strong snap and a flash of (green) light in my brain. I tumbled down and came to rest. As I examined myself, it was clear that my right leg was broken — I could not raise it by itself and as I held my knee up, I noticed my foot dangling.
I was extremely alert and felt no pain — which was probably some combination of adrenaline, survival instinct, and shock. West reached me shortly afterward with both my skis and poles. The skis had come off but one had, obviously, not released soon enough. I showed West my dangling foot, making it clear that my only way down would be in a sled. This is roughly where the professionalism of Mission Ridge Ski Patrol kicked in. It took very little time for a sled to arrive and for the Patrol to get me down the mountain to the first-aid station. There, at my request and with great skill, the Patrollers removed my ski boot without destroying it. We all have our priorities!
An ambulance took me to the hospital. The guys from the ambulance stayed around long enough to get a glimpse of my X-ray. Medical personnel that they were, they probably had wagers on just how shattered my leg was. When one of them said ‘Wow he’s got a floater!’, I knew my ski season was over. I had booked a trip to Zermatt with my daughter and to Aspen with a bunch of friends. “Not this ski season,” I surmised.
Dr. Karr, a trauma surgeon and a member of the Mission Ridge Ski Patrol, was my operating surgeon. Dr. Karr and his team worked on my leg for 3 ½ hours. I ended up having 11 fractures and indeed a fist-sized fragment of my tibia, right above my boot, had been broken through on both ends. My fibula was also broken. They put a titanium rod through my tibia from ankle to knee to put all the pieces together with plates and screws on both ends. This is when the pain started.
For the next eight weeks, I spent most of my days and nights in a luxurious recliner bought for the occasion by my wife, who over the course of my recovery proved to be my best mate and nurse at the same time. After five weeks, it was time to kick the narcotics and just rely on the moderate relief from Tylenol. During my first visit, ten days after the operation, Dr. Karr had told me that I should not put any weight on my leg for four months and that skiing the next season was a no-go.
This did not coincide with what I discovered by googling the recovery of a ‘intramedullary nailing, what my condition was officially called. We purchased a stationary bike and after seven weeks, I started pedaling at low resistance. Dr. Karr had left Wenatchee shortly after my first post-operative care visit. He had worked hard for 17 years to become a trauma surgeon and Wenatchee did not offer him enough trauma work. He transferred to Anchorage where he was going to be the only trauma surgeon and where he was promised lots of gore. Therefore, my second post-operative visit was with a different doctor. He confirmed my Google knowledge and I started putting weight on my leg after eight weeks. This doctor also did not mind me skiing the following year. When I asked him why Dr. Karr had told me I could not ski the next season, he said, “If I had worked 3 ½ hours putting that mess back together, I probably would have told you, you should never ski again.”
That settled it, I was going to get ready for next season. I needed therapy as I could still only walk with a walker and could put about 10 percent of my weight on my right foot. I had seen online that aqua therapy (walking in water) was in order. Fortunately, Biosports here in Wenatchee had just such a unit. It felt great, being somewhat weightless, walking on the underwater treadmill, making the first steps towards recovery. After a few sessions, I ‘grew out’ of the aqua therapy and had to start doing the real work. While the bone heals mostly by itself, it is the ankle and knee that need the work. Both were very stiff and, under the care of Lyle, we worked on bringing back flexibility and strength. Over the next three months, Biosports became my second home. I went from a walker to crutches to a cane. At times it felt like I would have that cane and a limp forever. I had planned a trip to Holland by the end of April and I was not going to take a cane. Two weeks before departure, I was able to walk unassisted. With a slight limp I went on my trip, walking an average of two hours a day.
When I came back home, I continued with a few more sessions at Biosports but now it was more a matter of getting my strength back. Atrophy had set in during the first couple of months and my right leg had shrunk severely in size. So I moved next door and Worx (a gym) became the second home I visited four or five times a week.
There was nothing new about this. After I retired, I considered time in the gym as the ‘work’ that allowed me to do the fun stuff I now had time to enjoy. I combined morning gym work-outs with afternoon stationary bicycling sessions. Apart from the longer-term goal of skiing again in December, my short-term goal was to attend the wedding party of my daughter and her husband in Lisbon, Portugal in June and to dance to their disco-themed music. It all worked out and when the time arrived I could even walk up and down all the steep hills of Lisbon.
On December 7, 2018, I went skiing again at Mission Ridge. It hadn’t been quite a year but I could not wait any longer. I took it slow that first day, not completely sure if my legs and skis would do what I demanded of them. As the season went on, my love for skiing was only confirmed. I did make it to Aspen and skied hard for six days. I also made it to Whistler, where a lot of new snow and sunny skies provided four great days of spring skiing.
So did I learn anything from all this? Maybe I learned that at my age I don’t have to be (try to be) the fastest guy on the hill anymore. It is actually fun making more turns. I also learned that even a somewhat old body is amazingly resilient; I was able to fully recover from a major injury at age 65.