Why I’m Glad I Tore My Achilles
In November of 2020, I tore my Achilles tendon. I’m actually glad that happened to me. Please allow me to explain…
I’ll never forget the date: Sunday, November 15, 2020.
I was at home, working out.
It was my 123rd non-gym workout since the pandemic began.
I’ve always been a gym person, having consistently attended one or more health clubs since I started working out at age 16, thanks to the influence of my good friend Kevin Schugar, who introduced me to weightlifting all those years ago.
When the pandemic lockdown began in March of 2020, my biggest concern was not being able to go to my gym.
To my delight and surprise, I adapted to working out at home faster and easier than I expected.
I found new methods and techniques that I’d never tried before (how did we exist before YouTube?), and I was enjoying the impact this new approach was having on how I looked and felt.
Back to November 15, 2020.
It was leg day, and I was doing reverse lunges, my third exercise of the day.
On the second rep of the second set of those lunges, at 12:28 PM, I stepped back with my left leg and began to lower my left knee toward the ground.
As I extended my leg back, and as my knee neared the ground, I heard a POP – it was surprisingly loud – and I felt a sharp, stinging sensation in my left heel.
It felt like someone had snapped a large rubber band against my heel.
I immediately stopped moving.
At first, I though I’d broken the resistance band I had around my knees, and that the band had somehow snapped against my heel.
Having broken a number of resistance bands in the past, I was familiar with the sound they make when they break.
I looked down, and to my surprise, the band was still very much intact, right where I placed it, just above my knees.
I then started to stand and place more weight on my left leg, just to see what I might discover.
Where, two seconds prior, there had been a solid, cohesive foundation from hip to toe, there now was a glitch, and a break in the chain of the components of the leg.
I could tell something was amiss, so I immediately shifted all my weight back onto my right leg, and bent my left leg, raising my left foot off the floor.
I looked down, and flexed my left ankle to try to figure out what had happened.
To my horror, my left foot was dangling from my ankle like a brick at the end of a rope.
I tried to move my foot around to see how that might feel, but something was getting lost in translation.
My brain was sending signals to my ankle and foot that were not being interpreted as intended.
And that’s when it hit me.
In an instant, I knew exactly what it was.
I had torn my Achilles.
Because of my love of sports, I was quite familiar with that injury.
And the first thing that came to mind was the fact that, in most cases, it takes a year or more to recover.
That was the low point of the entire experience for me: that singular thought – in most cases, it takes a year or more to recover – flashing through my mind.
I’ve had my share of serious sports-related injuries in the past (a broken ankle while playing basketball, a third degree separation of the A/C joint in my shoulder that resulted from a skiing accident, and multiple broken bones and major head trauma from a motorcycle accident), and none of them had taken anywhere near a year to heal.
I immediately went to the ER at Providence Hospital in Novi, Michigan, but that was a mere formality.
I could have, and probably should have, skipped that entire process, because a torn Achilles is quite easy to diagnose.
After a short wait, I was taken into an observation room.
A little while later, a doctor came in and diagnosed my injury in about 30 seconds.
She said, “You’ve suffered a significant tear of your Achilles tendon. Would you like a referral to a surgeon who can help with that?”
I replied, “No, I’ll get a referral from a doctor I know.”
Long story short, one of my clients – Martin Jenter – is an amazing surgeon, who just happens to work at that same hospital.
Several years prior, he performed emergency surgery on my stepfather after my stepfather fell and broke his hip, and did an incredible job. My stepfather was up and walking the next day, and he was in his mid-80s at the time.
Dr. Jenter recommended another surgeon – Dr. Robert Mihalich – who specializes in Achilles repairs. I scheduled a consultation with Dr. Mihalich on November 17, two days after the injury, at his office in Brighton, Michigan.
At that consultation, Dr. Mihalich reiterated that complete recovery from the injury would likely take “at least a year.”
He also reviewed my options: let it heal on its own, or have immediate surgery. In the previous 24 hours, I had watched every video on YouTube I could find relating to a torn Achilles and the options for repair and rehabilitation, so I already knew what I wanted to do.
I chose to have surgery as quickly as possible.
Two days later, on November 19, at 6:00 AM, I had that surgery.
I’m glad it happened
Fast forward to now, August 26, 2021.
I’m almost completely recovered from the injury.
With respect to the things I want to do physically, there’s literally nothing I can’t do.
To get to this point, I’ve spent hundreds of hours rehabbing.
In fact, I’ve done rehab almost every day since I started that process, which was exactly eight months ago, on December 26, 2021.
And even though it was a serious injury (Google “Achilles surgery” and check it out), and even though I’ve invested a massive amount of time in the rehab process – as crazy as this may sound, looking back on that incident – I’m actually glad it happened.
Why on earth would anyone be glad they suffered a major injury like a torn Achilles?
Because, in total, I believe I gained more than I lost from that experience.
Allow me to explain…
The body’s response to major trauma
First, I gained more – and surprisingly positive – experience and perspective on how the body deals with pain and trauma.
The human body is incredibly well designed.
There are so many things we still don’t fully understand in terms of how it does what it does, in a whole slew of contexts and situations.
As already noted, I’ve had a number of major physical trauma injuries, and I never cease to be amazed at how the body responds in those situations.
It goes into shock, and somehow insulates itself from experiencing the pain that often accompanies a major injury.
In most cases, however, the shock wears off and the adrenaline subsides, and that’s when the pain ultimately arrives.
And, depending on the nature of the accident, that pain can be brutal.
Thinking back to my motorcycle accident, I had no idea how much broken ribs could hurt.
I had no idea what pain was until I lived through that. OMG, I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.
In the case of my torn Achilles, I never felt any pain.
I mean, never.
Not at the time of the injury, not after my shock wore off, not after the surgery, and not during the rehab process.
How is that possible?
Honestly, I have no idea.
But I now know that that is possible, because I’ve experienced that complete absence of pain personally.
Just knowing that’s possible is a gift of sorts, in and of itself.
And I wouldn’t have that gift without the injury.
Ability to walk
Second, I gained a much greater appreciation for the simplest of things: walking.
For the first couple of months following surgery, I would have given almost anything just to be able to walk normally.
Because you don’t realize what a PITA it is to go up and down stairs (you crawl, on hands and knees), or to take a shower (you use a shower chair, and do your best not to break your neck hopping in and out of the tub), or to prepare a meal (you use a knee walker, and it takes two or three times the effort it normally takes), with one good leg.
Trust me, it’s not fun.
Immediately, I gained a whole new appreciation for simply being able to walk.
And now, months past the point at which I was able to resume walking, I still have a keen awareness and appreciation for the fact that I can again use my legs normally.
Prior to the injury, walking was just one of many things I took for granted.
I’ve always been able to walk, and I’ll always be able to walk, right?
I now realize, like never before, what an incredible gift it is to be able to simply move myself from point A to point B without assistance of any kind.
Without the injury, I wouldn’t have the perspective and the heightened sense of appreciation that I now have with respect to just being able to walk normally.
Body’s ability to heal itself
Third, I gained added appreciation for the body’s amazing ability to heal itself.
Yes, I did have surgery, and there’s no question that made a massive difference in my ultimate recovery, but the body still had to recover from both the injury and the surgery.
Which it did, it amazing fashion (see the next point).
That’s another thing I think we take for granted: that the body is able to heal itself.
My torn Achilles was the perfect opportunity for me to once again live through that miraculous healing process.
And, make no mistake, it IS miraculous.
We just don’t think of it as such because it is the norm, and it’s all we know.
Can you even imagine what life would be like if the body didn’t heal itself?
It’s another thing most of us take for granted.
But it truly is incredible.
Honestly, it’s magical.
Because it happens automatically, and because we’re so familiar with the concept of healing, many (most?) of us have lost sight of just how miraculous self-healing is.
And even though I’d already lived through that amazing process multiple times, tearing my Achilles gave me yet another opportunity to experience that process anew, and it was once again entirely magical.
Fourth, I was able to experience one of the greatest accomplishments of my life: coming all the way back from such a serious injury in a fraction of the time I was told it would take to recover.
Not that long ago, a torn Achilles was almost certain sudden death for the career of any professional athlete who suffered that fate. Make no mistake: it a serious injury.
From the moment I suffered the injury, I established a singular goal: to recover fast enough to be able to ride my bike sometime before the end of the bike riding season in Michigan in 2021.
As context, over the course of the last five or six years, I developed a habit that I really enjoy: when weather permits, I ride my bike two or three times a week for between 15 and 20 miles, give or take.
I’ve never been an endurance athlete, and bike riding is the only form of exercise I’ve found that I can do fairly consistently that allows me to perform as if I (sort of) am.
It’s phenomenal cardio, and – unlike running, which I loathe – it’s very easy on the body in terms of wear and tear. I burn between 500 and 1,000 calories on most rides, and the legs and lungs feel amazing after each session.
So, a primary concern I had when I suffered the injury was wondering how long it would take to get back to being able to ride again.
Remember, I had been told complete recovery would take “at least a year.”
In my preliminary thinking, I was hoping to be back in position to ride sometime before Labor Day, say mid-to-late August.
That would be nine months after surgery (ironically, that would be today, the day I’m writing this blog), and three months before the anniversary date of the surgery. And significantly ahead of the original implied timetable for my recovery.
I thought that might be aggressive, but that was my original goal.
As a first step toward that goal, and while I was still unable to put any weight on my injured leg, I watched countless YouTube videos on rehabbing from Achilles surgery, and I put together a “greatest hits” package of the best exercises I could find. Below is an excerpt from my rehab journal that shows one phase of that rehab program, and what I did in a typical week.
I was not supposed to do anything in terms of rehab until meeting with Dr. Mihalich again, to obtain his approval to start that process.
But I just couldn’t wait that long, and I began rehabbing on December 26, about six weeks before my next appointment with Dr. Mihalich, which was scheduled for the first week of February.
When I met with him in February and told him I’d already been rehabbing for a month and a half, he looked shocked.
He told me to be careful not to overdo it, and to listen to my body and back off if I felt any pain or discomfort.
Once again, as I got deeper into the process, there was no pain or discomfort, ever, so I just kept pushing myself as hard as I could, and I rehabbed with metronomic consistency.
Day after day, and week after week.
I was bound and determined to recover as quickly as possible.
As the weeks passed, I felt like I was making solid progress.
I had long discarded the walking boot, and was back to walking somewhat normally.
Again, I was experiencing no pain.
I was anxious for a chance to put the results of my rehab to the test.
That opportunity arrived earlier than anticipated.
The date was March 21, 2021.
It was an unseasonably warm day.
It was a perfect day to ride a bike.
At that point, I had completed 79 rehab sessions.
I thought, “To hell with it. Today is as good as day as any. I’m going to give it a go. If I feel anything weird, I’ll stop immediately.”
Exactly four months and two days after I had surgery, I put my repaired Achilles to the test.
I rode my bike 13.43 miles.
There was absolutely zero discomfort in my Achilles.
I could not tell it had been injured, at all.
As I was riding, I kept thinking, “My legs feel identical; I cannot tell which one was injured. How is that possible?”
I didn’t stop riding because of my surgically repaired heel; I stopped because I was tired, due to the limitations of my conditioning.
Afterwards, I had no pain, and no swelling.
Since that first pain-free ride, I’ve ridden my bike 41 more times.
That’s 41 rides before my original target date for getting back on my bike.
Not once I have I felt anything unusual in my repaired Achilles.
And here I am, still almost three months shy of the anniversary date of the injury.
So, not only did I recover from that injury, but I did so incredibly quickly.
After being told it would take “a year or more” to recover, I accomplished that in four months. That’s eight months ahead of schedule, and one-third of the time I originally anticipated.
Not only that, but I didn’t miss a single bike ride of 2020 (my last ride of 2020 was on November 8, exactly one week before the injury, which is quite late in the year for Michigan), or of 2021 (because of the weather, there was no real opportunity to ride prior to March 21, 2021).
Ergo, I suffered a torn Achilles, and that had absolutely no impact on my normal bike riding routine.
Which is yet another thing related to all of this for which I’m eternally grateful.
Not only that, but I used the momentum of the rehab process to renew and rekindle my approach to working out in general.
Not only am I all the way back from the injury, but I’m now in the best shape I’ve been in in probably 25 years.
And remember, I’ve been working out consistently my entire adult life, so that is more significant than it may appear at first blush.
As odd as this may sound, rehabbing and recovering in this fashion altered my view of myself.
It’s made me respect myself more.
It’s made me appreciate myself more.
Right or wrong, it has fundamentally changed the entire manner in which I think of myself.
Benefit of prior similar experiences
Fifth, tearing my Achilles has served to further evolve the way I look at adversity in general.
Rather than repeat what’s already been said about this, check out On Being Up During the Down, where I talk about how dealing with current challenges makes dealing with future challenges that much easier.
Living through the process of recovering from this injury significantly amplified my awareness of this truth, and I’m so glad to have gained the perspective that I now have about the benefits that prior adversities have on dealing with future setbacks.
For me, that’s invaluable life wisdom.
And the only way I gained that wisdom was from dealing with issues like the one we’re discussing here.
Power of faith and prayer
As an extension of the prior point, the final reason I’m actually glad I tore my Achilles is because the totality of the experience – yet again – affirmed and confirmed the power of faith and prayer in my life.
From the moment I suffered the injury, I did what countless prior experiences have taught me to do:
– I prayed.
– I focused on the size and characteristics of my God (infinite, omnipotent and omniscient) rather than the size and characteristics of my problem (in the grand scheme, small, insignificant and temporary).
– I believed.
– I trusted God to do what He always does in such situations: remain faithful and true to His promises. As His Word says at Romans 8:28:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
As I’ve attempted to explain here, yes, even in a context like this – involving a serious physical injury, where common sense and logic would suggest that nothing good could possibly come of such a situation – I truly believe God DID work out all things for my good.
Can I prove that prayer and faith had anything to do with this?
Can I prove that God had anything to do with this?
That said, all I can tell you is that I’ve been in many challenging situations in my life, and He has delivered me from them all, exactly in accordance with Romans 8:28.
And specific to this situation, consider this: I’m not young, and I came back from one of the most serious injuries you can suffer in 1/3 the time I was told it would take.
Am I that lucky?
I don’t think so.
Are my genetics superhuman?
Absolutely not. In fact, I think they are probably below average, at best.
Ergo, my experience defies logic, reason and common sense.
Continuing that last thought, I’m keenly aware that being glad I suffered a serious physical injury is illogical.
But yet, as I sit here today, that’s exactly how I feel.
I learned that I can suffer a major physical trauma and experience literally no pain whatsoever.
I gained heightened appreciation for the simplest of things: the ability to walk.
I once again experienced the magic of the body somehow having the ability to heal itself.
I made a miraculous recovery from a serious injury in a fraction of the time I was told it would take, and I leveraged the momentum of that process to help get me in the best shape I’ve been in in many years.
I gained additional experience in dealing with adversity that I know will help the next time I encounter something similar.
And not to repeat what I said in the prior section, but the biggest takeaway for me from the totality of the experience of tearing my Achilles is that God can and will deliver me from every hardship, challenge and struggle. And – somehow – bring me out better than I was before.
Every life – mine, yours, everyone’s – is full of adversity.
That’s one of life’s few guarantees.
Knowing that God can turn even the seemingly worst of situations into something I now look back on as a good thing – and experiencing that sort of thing time and time and time again – is perhaps the greatest piece of wisdom I’ve discerned in this life.
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