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Case Western Reserve University's independent student news source

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Lessons from a torn ACL


On July 21, 2012, I fell to the ground in pain. My knee popped in the air and stiffened when I hit the ground. As I lay there on the ground, moaning in agony, fear entrenched my mind. I was certain that I had just sustained a serious injury.

One month later, Aug. 16, the MRI results came back. Standing in a customer-service line, I listened as my stepmom delivered the diagnosis over the phone: my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) was almost completely torn. Tears ensued. Tearing your ACL is an athlete’s worst nightmare. However, I knew the opportunity for immense personal growth was before me. I bit my lip and committed to coming out of rehab a stronger person mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Since tearing that crucial ligament, I have experienced and learned lessons that have been humorous, expected, out of the blue, and insightful. Being a person who finds comfort in writing, I thought I would go ahead and share some of these lessons.

First off, let’s talk leg braces. These things suck. A lot. It is nearly impossible to sit or sleep while wearing a bionic piece of metal stretching from your ankle to hip. One of the worst things about a leg brace is the damage it does to your clothes. The metal contraption rubs against your leg, irritating your skin, or worse, tears apart your pants. All of my leggings have a gaping hole on the inseam and my jeans are now worn down. Honestly, insurance should pay up because I have to buy a whole new lower-body wardrobe.

The brace is a little prison for your leg. The straps, Velcro, and metal keep your leg from bending, twisting, or feeling free. Yes, the brace is a good thing and I commend the engineers who designed it, but after a while you start to feel like it’s not just your leg that is trapped. Your mind is also confined by that leg brace.

There is an upside to the brace, besides stabilizing my leg. It’s definitely a conversation starter. People find it hard not to notice a leg engulfed in black. There was rarely a dull moment during sorority recruitment as I discussed the surgery, my recovery, and best of all, how I tore my ACL.

On that fateful day, I was playing Australian Football: an insane hybrid of soccer and rugby. 99 percent of people have no idea what Australian Football is, so the need always arose for me to explain this peculiar sport. From here, the discussion usually prompted people to ask: where were you playing Australian Football? How did you get involved? This was one of my favorite questions to answer, as I was able to divulge some things about myself: the six months I spent living abroad in Australia, my dual American and Australian citizenship, and all of my experiences Down Under.

The greatest lesson I have learned is patience. ACL recovery is slow: full health and return to activity don’t come until nine months after surgery. I waited until winter break to have surgery, making my total time from injury to full recovery 14 months.

That’s more than a year spent waiting, watching, and wishing.

I have to wait for my body recover. I can push myself in physical therapy and hit the gym every morning as much as I want, being as proactive as possible, but my body, not my mind, dictates recovery. There is no magic wand that will stabilize my knee, erase scar tissue, and integrate my new ACL into my leg. The human body is mysterious, and no matter my sense of urgency to run or sit pretzel style, I have to let natural recovery run its course.

The worst part of recovery has been, by far, the watching. Seeing other athletes recovering from ACL surgery faster than me, watching someone sprint on the treadmill while you cautiously pedal a bike, or observing people throwing a football and kicking around a soccer ball as spring finally emerges has been torture. Every time I see one of the described events, an urge to be like them takes over me. How I wish I could play tennis in this beautiful weather or rack up miles on the treadmill.

Alas, not all wishes can come true. I have to stick to the plan and do as the physical therapist tells me. I perform the tedious stretches, rise early to build strength at the gym, and reserve myself from shooting a basketball. Patience and diligence will make my wishes come true.

I know what I have to do to have my own Adrian Peterson-esque recovery. Every time I stick to the plan and sideline my desires to rip off the brace or run across the street, I am certain I am doing my leg and myself a favor. By committing to making my leg stronger, I have made myself stronger. I am grateful for this. Through the ups and downs, I would never take back July 21. I am happy I tore my ACL because I am proud of the person my injury has made me become.

Heather O’Keeffe is a first year student studying biomedical engineering and sports medicine. Her ACL injury has peaked and solidified her interest in studying biomechanics.

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