As a college athlete, especially a female soccer player, ACL tears are a very real fear that could sideline you for an entire season or end your career all together. Starting my senior season, I almost thought I had lucked out. I’d never had any catastrophic injuries; nothing that ended my seasons early or left me helpless for long periods of time. Like any other athlete that is “all in” to her sport, I had the occasional concussion or sprained ankle but nothing that made me feel hopeless about my physical state or my ability to get back to playing my sport. On October 13, 2018 that would all change. This is the story of my ACL tear and the first 36 hours that came after. I am writing this for me; to help me work through this career ending injury but also for you because this injury can make you feel terribly helpless, but you aren’t alone.
In the Fall 2018 season, I was the starting right wing for my college soccer team. We were in our last game of a week-long stretch in which we played five games (which is a lot of playing time in a short time span). It had been a rough game; a lot of hard tackles and fast paced plays involving many all-out sprints to the ball. I was playing against two girls (the opposing team’s right wing and right full back) who, by all means, were my athletic equals. We battled hard in every play. In about the 40th minute of the first half, there was 50–50 ball I lunged into, hoping my all-out effort would deter the opposing player from throwing her body into the play as well… I was wrong. The other player also threw her entire body into the tackle, but I was the unlucky one. Because my leg had been outstretched with the majority of my body weight on it, I went down… hard. Immediately I felt a pop in my right knee that sent a lightning bolt of pain from my toes all the way up my leg. Pops were bad, no matter where they came from or what joint they were in. My pain was sharp and in the back of my knee, almost where my hamstring met my joint. I knew this was bad. I was curled in the fetal position crying as I frantically rack my brain of the play; what I had done, what the injury could possibly have been, and what that would mean for the rest of my season. The pain slowly started to dissipate but my tears had not. The few seconds I laid there by myself felt like an eternity. Through my teary eyes, I looked up and saw my parents and family less than five feet away. My mother looked horrified and like she was ready to run onto the field to me. My father looked more upset than I think I have ever seen him; almost like he had to keep himself from crying as well. They both knew I wouldn’t give up my time on the field unless I was in an immeasurable amount of pain. I could not move my leg, I felt paralyzed physically and mentally. I knew my season was over and so were my plans on running in the coming holiday season with friends and family which I had been so excited to do. In the 15 seconds it took my athletic trainer to run across the field to where I was laying, I had already realized this injury was bad…worse than anything I had experienced. He attempted to straighten out my leg and with a fair amount of pain he did. He calmed me down enough for me to stand up and get off the field. After about 10 minutes on the sideline, I had calmed down and was no longer crying so he did a full evaluation on my leg. Initially, he thought I had torn my LCL based on where the swelling and bruising had begun to start. I tried to walk on it and could put virtually no weight on my leg without my knee giving out. I sat the rest of the game on the sideline and my emotions swung between crying for my ended season and ended career and being extremely angry. After the game I was given a knee stabilizer and crutches. I was told to rest my knee, ice and that I would get a call from the team doctor first thing Monday morning to make an appointment for an MRI.
That Night (1–4 hours post-injury)
Hoping that the injury wasn’t as bad as I had initially though or maybe I had just overreacted in the moment, I agreed to go out to dinner with my family. It was a mistake. We went to a pizza restaurant out of the city that we drove to. Getting in and out of the vehicle was hard enough by itself but then the daunting task of crutching around a crowded restaurant made me uneasy. The swelling and mild pain continued through the entire meal and for the most part, I made it through without any issues. When it was time to leave, I stood up, attempting to put equal weight on my legs, and my right knee completely gave out. If my father had not been there to catch me, I would have eaten it, in front of the entire restaurant. Throughout the rest of the night, my leg continued to give out a or lock in place when the joint was fully extended. Sleeping was a bit of a struggle but once I propped my leg up and found a comfy position, I fell asleep quickly.
The Next Day (12–24 hours post-injury)
The next day was a Sunday and I had zero plans to do anything other than lay in bed with an ice pack on my knee. I tried to learn how to use the crutches a little bit better, but I was horribly uncoordinated on them. My knee had already begun to develop dark blue and purple bruises around my knee cap. The swelling was severe, and I had little to no range of motion. Again, anytime I attempted to bear equal weight on my legs, I would collapse. I wasn’t really in any more physical pain other than the discomfort of having a swollen knee.
Monday (48 hours post-injury)
At my university, we do an internship in the fall of our senior year so for me, Monday morning meant I had to get ready to go to my full-time job. I knew it would take me longer to get ready in the morning since I would be moving significantly slower and I wouldn’t be able to walk to the T on crutches, so I would need to pay for an Uber. I woke up about 30 minutes earlier than I usually would have for work and for the most part, got to work without much trouble. I was still learning how to use the crutches properly so I tripped and hurt myself more than I would ever like to admit. The bruising on my knee seemed to be getting worse which I expected but the pain and discomfort stayed the same (until I tripped and then it would throb like nobody’s business). I made it through my eight-hour workday without much trouble, but I got many questions and even more looks of pity from concerned coworkers. I wasn’t a fan of being the injured girl, but who is? After I made it home, I immediately stopped at the Athletic Trainers office. They re-evaluated me and I knew the prognoses was worse than before because no one would give me an answer other than “We’ll see what the doctor says tomorrow.” I received Game Ready (ice and compression machine which is a God send and is my holy grail through all of this). I attended practice and then received Game Ready again. After both sessions of Game Ready, my swelling went down significantly.
Tuesday (72 hours post-injury)
I woke up feeling great (relatively speaking of course). My pain was basically non-existent, the swelling had stayed down from the night before AND I had way more range of motion back. I definitely credit this overnight improvement to Game Ready (if you don’t know what it is, I definitely recommend giving it a Goggle. I love it with all of my heart). My dad picked me up from work at lunch time and we chatted for a bit before my appointment with the team doctor. He wanted to prepare me for anything the doctor could say to me and what could possibly come after. Even though, I had been injured and in pain for about three days at this point, it still hadn’t really hit me yet. I was still talking and thinking about my season as if I was going to jump right back in. My dad being my biggest supporter, realized this and tried to ease me into the idea that my injury may be worse than I think. At the doctors, I received an x-ray and waited a bit for it to be analyze. After speaking for a bit about my symptoms and the tackle in which I got injured, he felt cautiously optimistic. Nothing serious showed up on the x-ray so he sent me for an MRI. My next appointment would be on Friday to hear the results and figure out what would be my next steps.
Friday (144 hours post-injury)
By the end of the week, I felt pretty good. My swelling had completely gone down, I was able to put partial pressure on my leg. I had virtually no pain until I twisted my leg in any direction and then my knee felt very unstable. My bruising was getting darker but clearly healing. I felt optimistic going into my doctor’s appointment and was ready to move on with my life, in one way or another. Based off the title of this post, you can assume what I was told. I had a total rupture of my ACL, a minor tear in my meniscus and severe bone contusions on both my femur and tibia. The doctor gave me a run down of my options as well as giving me some opportunities to join clinical trials for ACL tears. I surprised myself with how well I handled the news. There were some tears (obviously) but for the most part, I kept myself together and was capable of holding a conversation about how I wanted to proceed with my injury. It was a weird day for sure. It didn’t really hit me what I had been told. I was like I was in the room, but I wasn’t the person who was speaking or being spoken to. I spent the rest of my day researching my options for surgery and recovery time. I knew I wanted to come back as quickly as possible from this injury without too many negative side effects. **
**After spending the weekend thinking, I decided to join a clinical trial called the Bridge-Enhanced ACL Repair (BEAR). I plan on writing another post about my experience with that. Stay tuned.