perspectives - AUGUST 2019
A’CLearer mind - the daughter of an orthopedic surgeon shares her story
Athlete: Kit McGinley
Kit McGinley is not your ordinary athlete. Her father is an orthopedic surgeon, her mother is the director of a prosthetics and orthotics company, and she is a recent graduate of the pre-medical program at the University of North Carolina.
Growing up, she was involved in an impressive spectrum of activities; from soccer, gymnastics, ballet, tap, jazz, musical theatre, horse-back riding, cross-country, track & field, skiing, water sports, weightlifting to yoga.
Life was going well for this 23-year old.. until a devastating ski accident caused her to tear her ACL, MCL, and LCL, leading to a gruelling recovery journey. This is her story.
“Mindset proves to be the most challenging hurdle when raised by a family of athletic doctors. These super-humans I call mom and dad are the reason why I am writing a recovery story a mere 3 months post ACL reconstruction.
As the daughter of medical professionals, I have always felt relatively invincible. Not only am I covered (with their knowledge and support) if I break a bone or lose a limb, but I consequently am quite familiar with medical terminology. Dinner conversation has been a lifelong medical school seminar; saturated with anecdotes of patients’ recoveries, fascinating surgical cases, and research breakthroughs. If ever injured while growing up, I’d receive a brief anatomy lesson, high five and learn to power through. The first time I wore a cast for recovery (and not for fun while visiting my dad’s office) was when I broke my thumb, and they only took me to get an x-ray after the third day of complaining. Needless to say, having parents in the medical field comes with its perks and pains.
Did I mention they are also athletes? My dad played every sport under the sun, even taking supplementary ballet classes in college to improve his game (with the ladies too, he sometimes admits), and my mother was New Jersey’s top gymnast in her prime as well as a runway model in NYC. Subsequently, as soon as I was upright, I was active. The result is an energy level like that of a golden retriever loose on a beach. Soccer, gymnastics, ballet, tap, jazz, musical theatre, horse-back riding, cross-country, track & field, skiing, water sports, lifting, yoga. You name it, I’ve played it. The only sport I truly am abysmal at is basketball… but even if I only shoot 3/100, I still shoot all 100 with a smile on my face. If I am inactive, I am miserable.
The pain of surgery is no picnic, but one of the greatest struggles and accomplishments post injury has been altering my mindset. Used to pushing myself without fear of consequence, learning to find the balance between growth and overexertion has been life changing. I listen to my body so much more than before, and that patience has only resulted in a healthier, stronger body and mind.
This year was meant to be my golden year. I had graduated pre-med from UNC, spent the summer on a farm painting and nurturing lambs and piglets, been working and skiing at the mountain I grew up on all winter, turned 23 on January 23rd, and had landed a dream job in Manhattan. On January 26th, I went out on a final celebratory ski-run before moving to the Big Apple. One fateful turn was made into the path of an out-of-control skier, and I was sent flying. When I landed, my ski was not what popped off, but instead my left knee. Thus, my golden year took a turn for, seemingly, the worse.
On account of my active lifestyle and new job, I took my literal next steps quickly because I was in medical-knowledge fuelled denial. Staring up at the sky, laying in the icy-snow, I knew something was wrong, but I convinced myself the pop I heard was anything but my ACL. I knew an MCL or LCL tear would heal without surgical intervention in the span of 5 or so weeks, so I decided that’s what it was and laughed as ski-patrol sled me down the mountain. In an immobilizer and crutches, I worked my final shift at the mountain that evening and began packing for NYC the next day.
All thanks to the heavy-duty brace my mother sent me, four days later I was not only walking, but averaging 10 miles a day running around Manhattan from 6am-10pm, 24/7. As an aside, taking a job as a personal assistant in the city should be recognized as a sport. I took the job knowing it would be strenuous, but I never once anticipated my athleticism would be an issue. In fact, during my interview I ran 4 miles to meet a deadline, and was rewarded with a water bottle to quench me as I tackled my next task. Used to skiing in the morning and then running a few miles in the snow before work at the mountain, this level of activity was absolutely ideal... for a healthy me. I was absolutely ignoring what my body was telling me. It was not only difficult, but impossible to accept that the most arduous part of my day now was to hold myself up in the shower without slipping. I further deluded myself as to thinking wearing heels was smart and even attempted several runs throughout central park. There is a limit to being headstrong, and I had to learn the hard way.
It took an MRI to snap me out of my daze. Not only had I torn both my MCL and LCL, but my ACL as well. I burst into tears. I swallowed my pride, resigned from my Manhattan job, and consulted with my parents on whom to go to for surgery. The reality of surgery was upsetting. I had never been inactive so long, and knew the recovery time for an ACL was 6 months to a year. I also was upset at myself. The way my parents raised me made me tough, but I certainly was not following the advice I knew they’d give to patients in my position. I needed to make some major mental adjustments, and that harsh truth hit like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t going to be able to ignore the pain and power through this. A high five wasn’t going to fix my leg or prevent me from running myself down this extremely again.
Never in a million years did I think I’d be back with my family in NC after college, but there I was in my old bedroom staring at my old athletic trophies and medals. The golden ballerinas poised on their left legs atop pedestals were particularly poignant. Even more depressing was that our family trip to Breckenridge was coming up, and it would be the first time in my life stuck at the base lodge. Even as a toddler I was skiing sunrise to sundown, albeit with my father’s help. It took a bit of serendipity to turn my spirits around. Seated next to me on the plane ride to Colorado was an anesthesiologist, an internal medicine MD and father of one of my best friends, and the orthopedic surgeon in town my mom had spoken highly of. You can’t make this stuff up. Upon landing, Dr. Collins gave me his word I’d be skiing next season, a huge hug, and the confidence I needed to face the road to recovery.
When XCLevation reached out to me about this article, I was surprised. I didn’t play college ball or get my black belt in Krav Maga, like seemingly most of the other athletes featured. That being said, the first day of PT I did demand to be treated like an athlete, and they obliged without hesitation. My hope, with this article, is to reach out to a demographic of pseudo-athletes like myself. I may not wear a jersey anymore, but I still live a lifestyle where precarious, mountain yoga poses on my Instagram are commonplace. I placed seventh in my age group for The Colorado 10k I’d only signed up for a day before. I quite literally dance through life, and would likely be dancing on-stage still had I not pursued medicine in college myself.
April 18th was my surgery. I decided to replace my ACL with an autograft hamstring, as opposed to autograft patellar tendon which is what athletes normally undergo. A patellar tendon has bone graft on both sides of the specimen which allows for quicker healing. Despite that benefit, I had read too many stories of lingering pain years later and decided to splice my own hamstring. I will not downplay the pain. I am so thankful my father insisted on having a polar-care running 24/7 for 2 weeks, but even with that I did not sleep for the first 24 hours post-op, and when I finally did fall asleep it was only for an hour. My mother kept me on a strict and light regimen of pain medicine, familiar with the current opioid epidemic firsthand at work. Teaching people how to walk again for a living, I was immediately coached and encouraged to get up and get a move on. Thus, the minute the anesthesia-fuelled nausea subsided, my PT began.
The first month is truly the hardest part of recovery. I was tasked with the inherently contradictory goal to begin flexion, while maintaining full extension. In layman’s terms, I needed to start teaching my knee to bend again with the new ligament, while also ensuring it was still capable of laying straight. This mission, simple in concept, was hell in execution. Every three hours, I would force myself to get up for PT. In a month-long blur, my life was either sleep and PT or watch rerun episodes of Friends and PT. It is absolutely true that the more diligent the PT, the easier it gets. This is true for two reasons. Mentally, you are foreign to your own body at this stage and the distraction in even monotonous activity will keep you from going insane. Physically, the more you stretch that new ACL, even if progress seems slow to nonexistent, by the end of that month you’ll be leagues from where you began.
I could go into a play-by-play of my recovery timeline, but honestly, the best advice after that first month is to listen to your body (and your doctor of course). Balancing a tough mindset and my body’s limitations was the hardest part for me. Eager to start activity again, I would not have been able to achieve that first go-around on the stationary bike without patience, much less go on my first run in NYC exactly 3 months post-op.
This injury has helped me to develop a conscience of sorts when it comes to living life. Before impulsively pushing my body to its limits thinking “I can do that,” I now question whether I should and consider the proper form for how. I thought living slowly for a few months was going to be the death of me, but I stand here now not only wiser, but physically stronger than I was before. I have a ways to go before I am as flexible as I was before, but I have no doubts about achieving normalcy and more by the end of the year. The tough love and knowledge received and internalized by my parents got me through, and I hope my story reaches at least one person it can benefit. You can do this!”
Thank you Kit for sharing your experiences to inspire athletes across the globe!
SPECIAL THANKS TO KEY PLAYERS IN KIT’S RECOVERY TEAM:
dr. andy collins - greensboro orthopedics
dr. scott mcginley - fleming island, Florida
mary mcginley - biotech, winston salem / greensboro, north carolina