Achilles Surgery Update

Hi folks! Since many of you were kind enough to express your sympathy and well-wishes on my recent injury and surgery, I decided to take the time to explain what happened, both for myself and anyone else who might be interested.

The Injury:

I ruptured my Achilles tendon playing basketball on Sunday, something that I have done for the vast majority of my Sundays since 1996. In other words, I’ve devoted 23 years of my Sundays to basketball. During that time, I suffered few injuries; when my friends had knee trouble or ankle sprains, I thought to myself that I must just be lucky.

I didn’t do anything differently on Sunday than I had for the past 23 years. My rupture didn’t even happen during a game; we were practicing various moves, and I simply landed funny on my right foot. The irony is that we must have spent about 10 minutes discussing Kevin Durant’s Achilles injury, and agreeing that surely a ruptured Achilles was pretty much the worst injury you could suffer playing basketball.

I knew instantly that something was horribly wrong; while I wasn’t in horrible pain, my ankle felt completely different than anything I’d ever felt–I described it later as a general, intense, cold burning sensation. My friends John and Mon Ping were incredibly helpful, and were just the first of many who had to help me.

You see, the timing of the injury was pretty much as bad as possible. I had taken my wife and daughter to the airport on Friday morning; my daughter was competing in the fencing national championships, so they were in Ohio for the entire week. That mean that I was alone at home with my son, and his summer school was starting on Monday. We also have a long-scheduled and expensive family vacation to Japan on July 20. All of these facts flashed through my head as I was hopping around on my remaining good leg at right around Noon that Sunday.

That day, John and Mon Ping helped me get home (John drove my car; Mon Ping drove his) and to urgent care at PAMF (Palo Alto Medical Foundation). Mon Ping drove John back to his car since he had family activities scheduled that day, and then drove back to PAMF to take me home from my urgent care visit.

The instant the doctor saw my foot, she agreed with my diagnosis of an Achilles rupture, and had me put in a splint to immobilize my foot and leg until I could be seen by a specialist on Monday.

I got home around 3:30 PM, and immediately called my wife to share the bad news (certainly not a distraction either of them needed, given that the competition lasted all week) and let her know that I would keep her notified as I learned more. Then, I called my parents to break the bad news to them, and ask for their help.

As they always have, my parents immediately turned their attention to helping me. They started packing, and my father requested the week off from work as they drove up. Thanks to a tanker fire on the 5, they were stuck in traffic for an extra two hours, and didn’t make it to my house until 2 AM. My parents are both hale and hearty, but they are over 75 years old. That didn’t stop them from acting quickly and decisively, and I am incredibly lucky and grateful that they did.

The Sunday between my return home and my parents’ arrival was a blur of cancellations and explanatory emails. I had stuffed my schedule full of meetings and calls to take advantage of most of the family being out of town, and I had to cancel all of them. I held off on cancelling the many planned speaking engagements until I heard more from the doctors.

On Monday, I called PAMF as soon as it opened to request an appointment. Since they weren’t able to reach the podiatry team immediately, they took a message and said they’d call back. But being desperate/determined, I called back 90 minutes later to check in, and got a same day appointment to see Dr. Brad Naylor in PAMF’s San Carlos facility. The appointment was for 11:30, but PAMF called back a few minutes later and asked me to come early, so by 10:45, my parents were driving me to San Carlos.

When Dr. Naylor examined me, he confirmed the diagnosis of a complete rupture, and recommended surgery. He suggested that the nature of my injury and the fact that I had come in right away would hopefully allow him to perform a percutaneous repair. Having done my research the night before, I knew that the newer percutsneous technique involved a number of much smaller incisions, and greatly reduced the chances of surgical complications. Dr. Naylor confirmed what I’d read, and asked me to authorize a percutaneous surgery, with a back-up of conventional surgery if percutaneous repair wasn’t possible. He also promised to try to get my surgery scheduled as soon as possible. PAMF replaced my splint with a boot and sent me home.

Later that afternoon, after returning home, PAMF called to confirm my surgery for 10:30 AM on Tuesday morning. I had to avoid any food or drink after midnight, and give myself an antibiotic scrub prior to heading in to surgery. I spent most of the afternoon and evening fretting.

You see, until Tuesday, I had never even had an IV in my life. I had certainly never had surgery, and my only trips to the hospital had been to witness the births of our children (which I also found terrifying).

During this time, I’d also started hearing from friends and friends of friends who had also ruptured their Achilles. It turns out that this injury is becoming increasingly common, possibly because middle-aged people are more physically active than before. In fact, 48% of Achilles tendon ruptures occur in middle-aged men playing basketball. I spoke with a number of friends who had gone through this, ranging from over 20 years ago, to injuries this year. I’m very grateful to them for sharing so much about their experiences, especially Cary and Taz, who underwent their own surgeries this year. Their stories gave me a much better idea of what to expect, and supported my belief that my best bet for a rapid and near-complete recovery would be immediate percutaneous surgery. I was also grateful for a final pre-surgery call from Dr. Naylor. “You seemed like you were very anxious and had a lot of questions,” he told me, “so I thought I’d better call and give you a chance to ask any final questions.” After about 10 minutes of questions, we finished up, and the doctor told me not to worry.

The next morning, after Jason went to summer school, I focused on getting ready for the surgery. Ironically enough, this was one of the most physically challenging aspects of my experience to date. Taking a shower on a bath chair while trying to keep my injured foot from bearing any weight was incredibly strenuous, and I was glad when I was done. Then it was time to go.

I was very nervous before the surgery, as I expected. When my nurse measured my vitals, I asked her what my pulse was. “It was around 90, but now it’s up over 100. Relax.” I kept my eyes closed when the nurse put the IV in. Then I spoke with my anesthesiologist and Dr. Naylor as well. Dr. Naylor reassured me that he was very confident, and wrote a note on my right leg, “Just so that you’re absolutely sure we’ll operate on the correct leg.” I was doing my best to stay loose as they wheeled me into the operating room, noting that they should get some strong folks to flip me over for the surgery, since, “muscle weighs more than fast.” I also complimented one of the nurses on his impressive biceps. My final note was for the anesthesiologist.

“Will I remember this part?”

“Probably.”

“Well just to be sure, when I wake up, have someone give me a secret word.”

“All right, what word?”

“Let’s go with battleship. That’s easy to remember.”

And then I fell asleep.

I woke up in the recovery room, with the sore throat I expected from being intubated. A nurse looked down at me and said, “I’m not sure why, but I’ve been told to tell you, ‘battleship.'”

So as it turns out, I did remember. Dr. Naylor told me that the surgery had gone well, and before long, my parents, I, and our rented cryotherapy machine were on our way home.

Since then, my universe has contracted to cover the 25 feet between my bed and the bathroom. I spend the vast majority of my time lying in my bed, either lying down, or propped up, with my heavily splinted leg elevated on a set of pillows, and a cryotherapy machine running ice water through a set of cooling bladders hidden inside my splint. My excitement comes when I crutch my way across the hallway to the bathroom.

As my fellow injury-recoverers warned me, the first few days were the hardest. I slept much of the afternoon after my surgery. The next day (Wednesday), the nerve block wore off, and my foot really began to hurt. I was taking my prescription pain medications every four hours, and wishing I didn’t have to wait that long. But my condition continued to improve on Thursday and Friday, and by Friday, I was able to go the entire day without taking any prescription paid medication.

This is not to say that everything has been smooth. I am definitely going a little stir-crazy. It didn’t help that during much of that time, I was tuning into ESPN or checking ESPN.com every hour to see if Kahwi Leonard was going to join the Lakers (spoiler alert: he didn’t). At first, I was able to distract myself by binge-watching a variety of television and movies that included by was not limited to: The new DuckTales (woo-oo!), Forged in Fire, Parks and Recreation, NBA Summer League Basketball, South Park, and an assortment of Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars movies (hmmm, maybe this Disney+ streaming service will work). I think I watched most of Ghostbusters (the original) twice. But as I’ve regained energy, watching television becomes less and less satisfying, and I am desperately looking forward to the day when I can stop elevating my leg and go back to sitting at a desk and working!

As of tonight, my parents have returned home for a well-deserved rest, and the rest of my nuclear family is now on duty. My daughter even cooked dinner (normally I do all the cooking). This injury has been a huge pain already, and will continue to negatively impact my life for weeks and months (but hopefully not years), but now I can start looking forward to the stages of recovery. It will be arduous, but since each stage will return some of my freedom, I’ll work hard and savor each thing I’m able to do again.

Like writing a blog post, for example.

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