Focus on healing and share your best practices with others.

#96 of the 111 stories from I am Compassionate Creativity by Kali Quinn

Baltimore to Providence, Rhode Island. 2013-2014.

“Oh shit,” said the orthopedic specialist looking at my MRI. “This is much worse that I thought. Have you ever hurt your knee before?”

“I wore a brace once after I got hurt playing soccer in junior high.”

“Well, I think your ACL has been tearing ever since and now it’s completely obliterated. Take a look…”

I tore my left ACL: the anterior cruciate ligament, a miraculous band of fibrous tissue that holds the top of your leg to the bottom of your leg, crisscrossing through your knee. The ligament that football players often tear when another huge dude sideswipes them. Me? I did it to myself while pulling a suitcase out of my car before a show I was doing in Maryland… or at least that is what you might read on a trail of medical charts from Baltimore to Providence.

If you had asked how my overall spirits were at the time of the injury, you would have heard the fuller story. It was not a coincidence that days before I tore my ACL I drove eight hours, took two planes, went to a blowout wedding of two people I didn’t know, broke up with the guy I had been dating long-distance, and began to create a new play with fifteen high-school students. And that was only the most recent momentum. But when I went to the orthopedic specialists, after the tear, no one asked me about those things; neither did my friends or family. We all focused on the task at hand, my knee, the place that was communicating the loudest that something, many things, were out of balance. Yes, a loud, clear message from the universe to slow down… if only I would listen.

The ongoing, underlying lessons that my injury brought forth day after day focused around learning to let people help me. Friends, family, strangers. Why can it be so difficult to accept assistance?

“How important is it to you that you carry all of that into the house yourself,” my colleague in Baltimore would joke as I fumbled with my purse and crutches and the ice cream we had just bought.

When I first hurt myself (isn’t that an interesting phrase?), he canceled our weekend plans to attend his favorite theater conference, and instead, we went on drives in the country and got oysters in Baltimore. At night we sat and talked about break-ups and breaking bones and making theater and teaching. Reconnecting is healing. I was, after all, the eighteen-year-old Buffalo girl who played violin in that same Shakespeare play that he was in so many summers ago. He played guitar and sang James Taylor songs all night – anthems that I continued to use through my recovery. Music is medicine.

When frustrated that a surgery would only be the beginning of a long learning process, with months or years of physical therapy and a new-found relationship to my body, I did everything I could to guide myself forward in gratitude. This was not a terminal illness but rather a fixable thing that I needed to commit to taking care of, and it would require effort and openness on all levels.

Although there were many options for “fixing” my knee, such as using part of my own hamstring or taking from the ligament on the front of my knee, I opted to replace my torn ACL with an allograft. I would undergo a surgery that would take out my ACL and then attach another person’s hamstring to my bones.

“The hamstring of a cadaver,” I would explain to students and co-workers, just as the doctors had been explaining to me. Their faces would go cold.

“A dead person?”

“Yes. Isn’t that amazing?”

The responses would range from gross to weird to a fear of infection, but I continued to see it as nothing short of a heroic miracle. Before dying, a person whom I’d never know made a decision to donate their body to someone like me. Their heart might now be beating in someone else, as their hamstring became the new connector for the top and bottom of my leg. If I asked for the code number on that ligament, I could even anonymously thank the donor’s family online.

I thought about returning to Baltimore or Durham for surgery. I considered Florida too. Anywhere would be better than having to relearn to walk on the ice of another Northeastern winter. And my mom, of course, wanted me to come home to Buffalo to do it. In the end, I decided to do it in Providence. This was my home now. I had spent two and a half years trying to settle there and was finally just beginning to do it. How could I leave now? But I wouldn’t be able to recover alone. This choice meant asking my mom to come help me. Family is medicine.

She agreed and drove in from Buffalo. By taking me to all of my doctor’s appointments and picking up all my prescriptions, she quickly found her way around Providence And she made me laugh the entire way through. Humor is medicine.

The night before my surgery, my friend and life coach encouraged me to write down all the things that I dreamed of and put them onto a big sheet of paper. “These are the things you have been moving toward, and that’s important to remember.” Something to look forward to is medicine.

My teacher/mentor from California, now colleague/friend in Providence, accompanied me and my mom to the hospital. When the nurse assumed that he was my dad and said he could stay until I was wheeled away, I didn’t correct her. We weren’t blood related, but over time we had become family. Kinship is medicine.

And on I went to surgery. Even though it was outpatient, it was scary. Any surgery is scary. We don’t quite know who we will be on the other side, what will be different or difficult. I came out with a huge brace on my left leg and unable to walk.

The night after my surgery I was feeling great. The drugs that were supposed to make me sleepy had the reverse effect. After 300 texts telling people all over the world how much I loved and appreciated them, my mom confiscated my phone and forced me to get some rest. Sharing my love is medicine.

My mom made soups and smoothies and pasta and changed my ice pack. Learning how to sit on a toilet keeping one leg absolutely straight and letting my mom choose my underwear were both hurdles within themselves. Redefining dignity. Other celebrated milestones included the regained ability to drive, take a bath, walk up stairs, hop on one foot, and do laundry. We don’t know something quite the same way until it’s taken away from us for a while, do we? Absence makes the heart grow grateful… with many thanks to my ever courageous, patient mom.

A neighbor called to let me know that there was a homemade quiche on my porch and brought me nightlights when I realized that they would make a difference. Another friend brought prune juice and laid in bed with me for the afternoon. People from the local Quaker Meeting House stopped by to talk and see if I needed anything. Presents and cards and flowers arrived by mail. Community is medicine.

People of all ages who did physical therapy next to me gave me the thumbs up. “You look much better today,” they would say as they struggled to do their latest exercise.

“You too,” I would say as counted another leg-lift. Compassion is medicine.

Friends who lived an hour away drove down with their dogs and taught me about herbal remedies. Animals are medicine. Learning is medicine.

New friends and old friends came from near and far to help me for a few days at a time. We went duckpin bowling, played games, drew pictures, and shared good food together. Creativity is medicine.

I had so much fun and laughed so hard with all of these people, that honestly, when I look back, I remember the fun more than the challenges of recovery. Remembering these moments continued to fuel me as I balanced returning to work with months of physical therapy. Remembering that I am loved is medicine.

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How do you pinpoint when you are out of balance?

What is your best medicine?

How did you originally discover these ways?

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