The coin flipped through the air — heads meant I would go in for the surgery, tails meant I would not. The coin landed on heads.
“Damn,” I thought. Maybe, I’ll do best two out of three. I flipped it again. Heads. “Damnit.” I thought maybe I should flip it one more time, just to be sure. The quarter made that high-pitched zipping sound after it left my hand, cutting its way through the air. It hit its apex and then descended into my palm. Heads. “DAMNIT!”
I brushed my teeth, put my shorts on, and headed to the hospital. I had just flipped a coin to help me decide if I would have surgery on my meniscus. It’s hard to say if that was a good choice, since I’m still recovering, but I’ll know in a few weeks. I mean, I’m not dead, so there’s at least that.
My knees aren’t in the best shape. This is my good one:
And the good news about my good knee is that it belongs to my good (dominant: right) leg. The bad news about my bad knee is that it belongs to my bad left leg. Right now, this is my bad knee on my bad leg:
Over the last 15 years, my left leg has been through some shit. It all started in 2000 when I dropped into a half-pipe and traveled up the wall for the first hit: 3-2-1 lift-off. I dropped my shoulder and head to start the rotation — the trick to be performed was a backflip-180. As I made my way around, I was expecting my skis to meet with the hard snow of the half-pipe’s wall within the second, but the sound and feeling didn’t come. What?
And finally, I crashed hard on the tails of my skis in the bottom of the pipe. The impact from the crash was so powerful that I broke my left leg’s tibia and fibula clean through.
BAM! POW! WHAM!
The surgery for that was, well, gnarly. The results left me with a titanium rod extending knee-to-ankle, and three screw (two in ankle, one in knee area) implants. This is the nicest video I could find of the procedure, which still gives me the chills, even though it’s just drawings/cartoons:
And if you’re really looking for some bloody stuff, you can watch this one:
A year after that surgery, I was playing soccer for my high school team. The season had just started, and we were in our second or third game. I was blazing down the right wing with the ball and a defender came in cleats up from a frontal/side angle. He smashed right into my shin guard and missed the ball, from what I recall. But for what he missed in ball, he made up for by fracturing my shin.
One might say that that kind of damage/trauma to a leg leaves a lasting impression. Physically, I had a shin that protruded near the site of the break, and it would change colors (get black and blue-ish) when I ran around for a long time. Naturally, I kept skiing and playing soccer, because it takes more than broken legs to stop this guy!
Fast forward about 10 years to February of 2015. I skied about 15 days, and everything was just dandy for my knees — at least I thought so. Then, in March, I was playing an indoor soccer game (super important playoff game, obviously) on a hard court.
It was late in the second half and I was backpedaling to get in a good offensive position, when, all of a sudden, my left leg just kinda gave out.
It felt weak and uncontrollable, like someone kicked all the mojo out of it. There were only two minutes left in the game, so I kept playing with my newly acquired hobble-run.
We lost the game, and afterward, I remember thinking that my leg felt weird, maybe a little shocked; I was also limping around like a feeble old man. When I got home, I got a good look at my knee; it was completely swollen. “Shit,” I thought. “Did I tear something? Shit! Shit! Shit!” I started icing it, took Alleve, grabbed a shower and went to bed.
The next day, I tried to get out of bed and couldn’t put weight on it; I wanted to cry.
I probably did. I had been in this position twice in my life already, with the same leg — “always this goddamned left leg,” I said, likely in a more impressive combination of four-letter words. But I tried to stay hopeful. I had my brother get me a pair of crutches from Craigslist and I set up a doctor appointment.
After getting a MRI, it was clear: my meniscus was torn.
The physician recommended that I do physical therapy for 4-6 weeks before thinking about surgery, because for a meniscus, it’s usually not something that is “repaired.” More often, he told me, the torn/frayed part of the meniscus is scooped out, which is analogous to removing a hangnail that bothers you. (One little difference between a hangnail and a frayed meniscus is that fixing one requires some clippers, and fixing the other one requires anesthesia, and, uh, knives and shit.)
I stopped playing soccer for a couple months and switched to running. Eventually, the pain I felt while traveling up and down stairs subsided and I could run a few miles pain free. A couple more months and I was playing soccer again, mostly without pain. Then one day, I kicked the ball in a weird way and it hurt so much I had to stop playing. Again, I stopped soccer and turned only to running. In June, I decided to schedule my surgery for September so I could enjoy some sweat-like-you’re-gonna-water-California’s-plants summer runs and the great outdoors.
Well, as it turns out, time turns (with the hands on the clock, duh), and it was September, and my surgery was in five days. To be certain about the decision for surgery, I went out to play soccer and gave it a good romping. To my dismay, I could elicit no pain. This is when I started to freak out and think, “Maybe I don’t need the surgery? Maybe I can just keep using it like this? This is fine. I like using it like this. Nothing to see here, folks.” This couldn’t be true — where had the pain gone?
To add to my predicament, I knew I would be skiing this winter, and had no idea how my knee would react to skiing and more specifically, skiing moguls (my favorite). To guarantee that I would be skiing pain-free this season, I had to decide if I would:
- A) use the lack of pain I felt while playing soccer as a predictor for what I would feel while skiing and not get surgery (but risk making the tear worse), OR,
- B) just get the surgery and settle with the fact that I’d have less meniscus to help protect my knee from arthritis in the future, but probably prevent future tearing, and probably be pain-free.
By the way, these options suck.
I slept on it, and the next day (Wednesday), I played soccer again. I hammered on it with lateral movement, twists and turns, but I couldn’t get much pain out of it. And that made my decision even more difficult. I was hoping that two days of soccer would bring some real pain to it. But instead, I felt like the 14-year-old boy I once was.
Surgery was scheduled for Friday, and I had all of Thursday to decide.
I called my doctor and my old physical therapist — one said to do it, and the other said not to. Perfect.
So, I slept on it again. And when I woke up on Friday, I was really hoping to have a definitive answer, but I didn’t have one. I was standing in the kitchen when I decided I’d flip a coin. I walked into my room to grab a quarter. And then…
…The coin flipped through the air and landed on heads.
I woke up in the post-operation room and I looked down at my leg; it was all bandaged up. Time had passed, and events had occurred while my consciousness was away. Now that it had returned, I took stock of the situation and was relieved that it was over. A nurse came by and I stated: “thirsty,” for which I was awarded a small styrofoam cup of ice chips.
It was time to go home.
- I don’t recommend flipping coins to determine whether you are going to do a surgery or not. You should be certain about your decision. In the end, if I really did’t want to get the surgery, I wouldn’t have shown up at the hospital. I think my brain calculated the odds and determined I was more likely to be pain-free this ski season if I went with the surgery. But, it really felt like a bet. And I hate betting.
- A meniscectomy (the procedure) is a quick recovery compared to other things, like tearing/repairing your labrum (https://sweet-as-tandy.com/2014/07/30/what-its-like-to-have-surgery-on-your-labrum/). If the procedure involves scooping, and not stitching, you shouldn’t need crutches, and you’ll walk out of the hospital the same day of your surgery. Your knee will be swollen though (GET SWOLL, YO).
- Your throat can hurt post-operation. Oh, you didn’t know? That’s usually because they stick a endotracheal tube (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_anaesthesia) down that guy.