ACL: The Snap That Changed My Life

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Back in 2000, before I’d discovered the joy of swimming, I was going to a gym.

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Sometimes we dressed up at RPM

Amongst other things, I was doing sweaty RPM classes (stationary cycling in a group).

Imagine eight people in a small glass cubicle, cycling like maniacs, with Donna Summers blaring out and huge fans blowing a cold gale onto us.

I don’t see the attraction now.

Time for a change

I tired of this (as you do) and it was taking 30 minutes to get from Cremorne to Willoughby Leisure Centre.

Trying gyms closer at hand seemed like a good idea. At the time there were three in Neutral Bay.

I visited all of them and obtained passes to try them out. The first gym was a fateful choice. I didn’t get to try the other two.

Not a good choice

Apart from RPM, I wasn’t really into gym classes, especially aerobic-style ones which seemed vaguely silly to me.

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A lot of us in a small sweaty space

Putting my prejudices aside, I arrived at an aerobics class.

I was on time but the instructor wasn’t. When she arrived, she was flustered and got straight into the class with no warm-up. I should have seen that as a warning. She didn’t even notice I was new to the group.

Uncharacteristically, I was being open-minded, so I dismissed this nagging thought.

The snap

Within 90 seconds of the start of the class, we were doing a move which I thought looked pretty silly.

It was called the grapevine; a crab-like, sideways lunging move. It looks like this.

(Oddly, all my life, my exercises had been in one plane (forward-backward) like walking or stationary cycling or rowing; nothing like this. That should have been a warning, too)

This is ‘The Grapevine

Within another 90 seconds, I felt something snap in my right knee. It felt like a piece of elastic had retreated somewhere deep inside.

Alarmed, I left the class and clambered onto a stationary bike. ‘Leaving so soon?’ the instructor asked without interest.

I wasn’t panicking at this point as I could still walk and cycle.

All not well

After about 30 minutes, I got off the bike and walked slowly and carefully to my car and then, negotiated the 48 steps to my top floor unit. The knee looked normal. All was well, so I thought.

But 5 minutes later, when I stepped out of the shower, I fell flat on my face.

My right leg had collapsed beneath me.

Panicking now, I called Kim.

He suggested I call one of the doctors I was working with in corporate health management, who said ‘I can’t tell from here but suggest you get off to a sports medicine clinic’. I did.

A few hours later, I was at North Sydney Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Centre. In hindsight, a far better choice than the gym.

My lucky day

I was lucky enough to see Dr Tom Cross.

He said I was the lucky one because I’d snapped an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and his father, Merv Cross the surgeon, was in that day. Better still, he could see me straight away. My lucky day.

Merv was nothing like his handsome, softly-spoken son. He seemed like a bit of a ruffian to me but, then, I had no idea who he was.

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Merv Cross (from his LinkedIn page).

He was the surgeon whom all the football players chose when they snapped their ACLs. (Think of how often you see footie players lunge to one side and then crumple into painful heaps. That’s the injury; mighty common in football and in netball, too).

Merv was also a former rugby league player (with Souths, Easts and Norths, if you’re interested; he was quite a player). When I gleaned all that, it all fell into place.

I can fix this up next Monday. I have a cancellation.

Merv Cross, Orthopaedic Surgeon

With a fatherly look on his face, Merv tapped me on the knee and said ‘I can fix this up next Monday. I have a cancellation’.

Not ready for this

It was Friday and I was in no way prepared for a decision like that, especially without talking to Kim.

Considering how long the recovery was and how much my life would change, it seemed I made the right decision, in one way, anyway.

In another, I made the wrong decision because I did more damage.

Weirdly, I felt Merv was just a greedy surgeon wanting to make money out of me. (Stupidly, I didn’t think that every Saturday night he’d have a huge new tranche of footie players with busted ACLs; he certainly didn’t need to make money out of little me).

So, I did nothing for 3 months. Nothing apart from falling over 3 times, including on a busy road from the driver’s side of the car.

Back to Merv

Despondent and bit sheepish, I went to see Merv again.

‘Of course you don’t need this operation, if you plan to walk in a straight line for the rest of your life’, he declared.

Ah! I clearly saw the point and hastily booked myself in. (If you look at the main pic above, it reveals all: you need both anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments to keep the knee stable. Otherwise you fall over).

Of course you don’t need this operation, if you plan to walk in a straight line for the rest of your life.

Merv Cross, Orthopaedic Surgeon

I won’t bore you with details of his surgical approach (there are two quite different ones) or how painful it was to have my leg strapped to a moving cycle just hours after surgery, especially when the morphine ran out at 3am. (That was a care issue not a surgical one.)

Suffice to say, it was a memorable night.

Recuperating at Mots Resort

After discharge, I was trussed up in a leg brace with crutches, so Kim took me to stay at my mother’s farm in Kangaroo Valley. (We called her ‘Mot’)

Called ‘Patanga’, the family called it ‘Mot’s Resort’ because of how pampered we all were when we stayed there. The perfect place for the first week’s recuperation, especially with only one step in the whole house. Perfect!

Well maybe not.

Problem was, Patanga was a level 1,500-metre walk from the township and I felt I had to keep fit.

Back then, I had this crazy notion that if I stopped exercising feverishly for one week I’d pack on a pile of weight.

So, I made it my goal to get down to the village on crutches. By the end of week one, I was doing it twice a day (a mere 6 kilometres).

I was mighty pleased with myself.  Mot thought I was mad. It appears she was right.

All still not well

3 months later, life was getting back to normal.

Yet, I still couldn’t straighten my right leg or walk without a limp. Over the next 3 months, I tried everything, including hots baths with bags of sand pressing on my knee.

Having exhausted all options, I went back to see Merv.

Needless to say, I felt he must have made some mistake. He didn’t agree and suggested an arthroscopy, which I underwent. It revealed a pile of scar tissue which had built up around the knee. He thought that was odd, but removed it anyway.

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Ready for the walk down to the village. KV is freezing in Winter.

Did I see a link between the scar tissue and the 6-kilometres-a-day on a joint that was trying to heal?

Of course not, so I followed the same silly over-exercise regime on a wounded knee, for a second time.

12 months after the first surgery and first arthroscopy, I still couldn’t straighten my right leg.

How dumb could I be?

Analysing this dispassionately, Kim and I concluded that, by being plain stupid, I’d caused scar tissue to build up twice, incurring unnecessary pain and expense, and extending my return to normal movement by 9 months. Super dumb.

I booked in for a second arthroscopy with Merv with a warning from Kim: ‘In the next month, if I see or hear of you doing any exercises other than physiotherapy, you and I are finished!’

In the next month, if I see or hear of you doing any exercises other than physiotherapy, you and I are finished!

Kim Brebach

By the look in his eye, I knew he was serious.

Third time lucky

After the third surgery, I stayed at Kim’s. I guess he wanted to keep a close eye on me.

More steps at his house than at Mot’s, but there was a greater obstacle: a precipitous driveway even I wouldn’t attempt on crutches.

I couldn’t get out without Kim’s help. Clever thinking on his part.

I let myself be pampered and, a month later my knee was straight and I was walking without a limp. I also hadn’t gained a single kilo. What  a surprise!

Footnote

In this high octane, competitive world, it’s easy to see why some take risks to speed up recovery. Yet, mostly, they’re athletes whose careers depend on fast recovery. Even then it’s not smart.

Back in 2000, at 42 and in a sedentary job, I had no excuse to be so dumb. My crazy ideas about health, fitness and well-being added a whole 9 months of painful recovery; taking 15 months of my life instead of 6.

I’m reminded often of my wise brother Kit’s words over the years: ‘Listen to your body, Sis’. I didn’t listen to a sibling then, let alone to my own body.

Now, a boomer approaching 67, I certainly do.

More than that, I’ve realised that, when your body is recovering, you can’t flog it like some hapless slave, forcing it to do things it doesn’t want to do. You need to give the body rest so it can do its own thing: heal. That’s important at any age, and the earlier we learn this lesson, the fewer injuries we will have.

So, if you’re a boomer and you’re looking to take up a new activity, be gentle with your body. Respect it and listen to it.

I should have listened to my gut about the grapevine exercise and refused to do it. I should also have listened to my body and let it heal, gently.

By the way, 22 years on from surgery, Merv’s handiwork is holding up well. Apart from avoiding MRIs to the right leg (due to amount of metal therein) I’ve had no reason to treat my right leg any differently to the left. I have nothing but praise for Merv Cross, who is an impressive 82 years old and long-retired now!

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Kim Brebach

Tracey James

Hello, I’m Tracey James, boomer, former scientist, technical writer and Fixer of Things at M&M. In my spare time, I like to walk, swim and garden.   

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