You know it is a strange phenomenon having your best friend live in a different country, for years now, my friend Tom has lived & worked in San Diego (the lucky winner of a green card lottery), I have known Tom since I was 11 and besides some time when he went to college in Cork and I in Tralee, we have pretty much spoken every day in some format.
A friendship that blossomed over shared academic laziness, sausage rolls from Hanley’s, Manchester United and absolute love of the escapism of sport. For a lot of our 20’s, we would spend hours every week on pitches/halls playing soccer with various groups around Kerry, culminating in about 4 hours straight every Friday evening in Listowel, Tom looking to score goals while my job is to stop them.
We would have happily repeated that until the day we died with each of us eager to be better than the other (none of us giving an inch & still have not to this day, even though Tom knows he lives in my pocket), of course, this could not last forever with Tom emigrating to San Diego and Avalanche taking over more of my social hours.
Both of us have continued to play soccer/GAA with Tom successfully winning titles with Setanta GAA in San Diego while I was lucky enough to win a couple of league titles with my local team, the mighty Rattoo Rovers. We have continued to swap notes/jerseys on each, but the bodies have started to catch up with us, as they tend to once you hit the 30 mark. It hit both of us hard as it does with anyone who has spent a lifetime playing sport.
From going to eternally fit a few years ago, now, between us, we have probably one good knee left.
Our conversations have turned into comparing medical care in Ireland & the US for knee surgeries & rehab, for those interested, level of care probably shades it in America, but the costs compared to Ireland are astronomical, more on that later. For now, I will give you a quick history of why you should look after your knees.
Personally speaking, I have never had any major injuries besides my left knee buckling in 2014 when I planted it to sprint to close down a lateral pass, at the time, it was diagnosed as a minor ligament tear after an MRI but to be honest, I thought it was the ACL right away, anyone who has been unfortunate enough to experience that pain knows, but for me, it is the sound that has stuck with me, I can still hear it today and is enough to make me shiver.
I did some minor rehab work and was back to it in about 12 weeks, but the issues were only beginning through a combination of things. I fell into a pattern of playing for months or so at a time, then the left knee would buckle under me again, I would rehab, and this went on for years, I told myself, that is just the way it is, and my entire sport/gym life revolved around minding that knee at any cost.
Fast forward to 2019 and everything seemed to be rosy in the garden, I had not had any hassle for a year or so and was feeling the best I ever have, sprint speeds at an all-time high and Rattoo had just won the league title, Avalanche was the main sponsor and I was loving life at centre back (even if I am still waiting for a goal) in a very exciting time for Rattoo as we expanded with a very exciting crop of young talent breaking through alongside us in our mid-to-late 20's.
The 2020 season and first game back, my knee went from under me as I defended a simple ball under some pressure from someone half my size.
The pain was horrific. There was the sickening pop followed by a blinding, burning pain in every nerve-ending. It sucked away my breath and sent my body into an all too familiar state of shock.
I was absolutely devastated & I immediately resigned to getting the best possible care that I could this time around, this cannot continue. I was going to focus on getting healthy and strong as opposed to just being able to play again after so many false starts. I had spent years swallowing anti-inflammatory tablets like smarties, trying everything, and being patched together to try and play soccer as long as I could.
I had gotten to the stage where I could not walk up the stairs without pain and was wilfully putting my body through this to do something that I love. It is a sobering thought to realise that you may not even be able to kick a ball around the yard with your kid (if that happens) someday if you do not do something about it.
It took me years to discover for myself so hopefully, it will help others to skip a few years of torment.
Remarkably similar to business, long term thinking has to usurp the short term goals.
My mindset shifted from getting back for the next match to being able to function in normal life, like going on hikes with my friends & mentally it has been the best route for recovery and what I would recommend to all reading who experience any injury.
Injuries are not just about the physical. There is a very real emotional and psychological trauma that sits alongside the obvious symptoms of you hobbling around on crutches that everyone else can see.
So many of us make our hobbies and sporting pursuits part of our identities. If you have played soccer every day or ridden horses every weekend since you were a child, any threat to that routine is a very threat to who you are as a person and that is scary, explaining why so many of us become irritable and lash out during the process.
That is why ligament injuries are so strange and confusing, you can wake up some days and feel like you could run a marathon, others, the walk to the kitchen seems too far. That is why a lot of people make the mistake of rushing back too soon (myself included in a 5 a side game for example).
Your mind is just as susceptible to injury as your bones, muscles, and ligaments, and it is only when you start to heal both elements that you will get back to your best.
That is something I had to learn the hard way with years of issues on my left knee being healed in August 2020 with a successful surgery on what turned out to be a long-standing ACL rupture (misread by the MRI all those years ago) alongside a bucket handle tear of the medial meniscus.
I am not going to downplay the aftermath of serious surgery, it is horrendous, even if you are lucky enough like me that it does not impact your professional life too much, although I did bleed all over my office floor as I went back to work 30 minutes after arriving home from the Bons Secours hospital in Tralee. My leg was so numb, I did not even notice the pool of blood that was gathering around my feet. Safe to say, I was banned from the office for a few days after that to rest!
Of course, the getting cut open and having someone put your knee back together again is the easy part, you almost want the stitches to stay in as long as possible as you know the tedious torture that is about to begin with the dreaded rehab programme.
I am not going to paint a romantic picture of it and say it allowed me to grow, it was shit, I hated every second of it. Constant painful stretching, repetitive strength exercises, getting continually rubbed down, poked and prodded by physios, long runs & morning sprints at 6 am in December until you puke (sidenote, throwing up in sub zero temperatures is a next level horror). It is not pretty but I was getting through it. Slowly but surely, my left knee was beginning to feel like it did almost 10 years earlier. I had the hard work done and a few more months of strength work with weights and I would be a new man.
I finally allowed myself to think I am ready.
Unfortunately, my body had other ideas. After some painful rehab sessions, I had to stop and get another MRI, turns out I had torn a tendon in my right knee due to the intensive rehab I was undertaking for the left. Gas craic.
I have learned enough about myself at 30 years of age that I cannot just tackle a setback effectively right away, I need a day.
A day to just wallow, eat shit food, watch Netflix and just to be left alone with my PS5. I will hate the world for this day but once it is over, it is time to go to work on the problem, but I have found this day essential to my process. I use it during the endless rehab to drive me on, this day allows me to process and get ready.
Thankfully, I just needed a PRP injection (Used by Tiger Woods a lot) in my right knee from the Santry Sports Clinic (which is an amazing facility by the way) and a non-surgical plan was drawn up for my right knee. For those who do not know what PRP injections are, Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy uses injections of a concentration of a patient’s own platelets to accelerate the healing of injured tendons, ligaments, muscles and joints. In this way, PRP injections use each individual patient's own healing system to improve musculoskeletal problems.
It was injected directly into the tear in the tendon and even with all the years of degenerative knee distress, it is the most painful thing I have ever experienced but it seems to be doing the trick alongside an extensive rehab programme tailored for the right knee while also working for the left.
The tricky thing is I now need to re-learn how to run, as I have not been engaging my hips at all and putting too much strain on my knees for years, I am also doing enough glute work that I may release my own line of resistance bands from China.
With the current pandemic, the only saving grace I have is I am not missing anything, I do not think I would be putting as much into my rehab if I had to watch matches from the sideline, I just am not built to watch. Selfish I know, but I think you have to be in an extensive rehab, whatever it takes.
It is now February 2021 and I am happy to report that both knees are on the home straight, I am still working each morning on them but there is finally light at the end of the tunnel, I can actually run without any pain for the first time in 7 years. I have a 5K loop I walk most days and friends of mine live at Lacca cross that is about halfway, so I have even begun treating that as a mini-finish line upping my sprints on that 100 yards (1 of 100 little scenarios I have dreamed up for myself to get through the process) and I am moving well & I am genuinely enjoying the final stages of the process.
Overall, I have been pleasantly surprised with the cost of basically putting two knees back together, barring my ACL surgery which was €4000 or so (covered by insurance), the overall costs of Santry, physio sessions etc is about €1500. Pennies for the release & pure joy I get out of sport & competing, even if all I can do is my weekly 5 a side game for the next 20 years. Comparing this to costs in the USA for Tom and his ongoing knee issues and I count my lucky stars I am still in Ireland, as disastrous as our healthcare seems to be.
“I’m not glad I went through it, but I am glad I went through it.” - Adam Whiting.
It is a cliché to be grateful for your body these days & I know being able to play sport is not the most important thing in the world, particularly right now but it is a big part of who I am, sport instilled a desire to win in me from a young age, I have since applied the same discipline to my professional life so I aim to do everything I can to play as long as I can.
I am far from the only person to have such an ordeal with injury, nearly everyone will have something that has let them down physically and your body learns to adjust, it is far from the worst story you will read on dealing with injury but hopefully it can help someone, even if that someone is me in the final weeks to come in my rehab as I look to the finish line.
If nothing else, to aim for the Friday night lights in Tanavalla with the Ballyheigue yank once again.
Hopefully, there are a few more years left in us yet.