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I Feel Your Pain, Troy: A Personal Reflection on Troy Woolfolk's Ankle Injury

I couldn't help but cringe. As the news of Troy Woolfolk's injury started spreading through the internet like wildfire, everyone wanted to know what happened and where he was injured. As I clicked on MGoBlog, I saw something that made me nauseous:

UPDATE II: Getting reports it is a dislocated ankle, which is in all likelihood season-ending.

Praying that the information was wrong, I started checking Twitter and saw on Angelique Chengelis' Twitter account the following:


It's hard to describe the feeling I got when I saw that. I had shivers throughout my body. Then that horrible feeling you get right before you throw up arose in the pit of my stomach. Fighting it back, I turned away and said a little prayer for Troy.

You see, the same thing happened to me in January of 2004.

While I'm no Division 1 athlete, I do consider myself to be a decent hockey player. I've played in just about every organized league a teenager and adult could play in, and played at every level short of retired pros competently. And it was on that same ice where I'd experienced so much enjoyment that I encountered the most physically painful experience of my life.

During the second week of 2004 things were going pretty well for me. I was dating the woman I would later marry, I had received excellent grades in my third semester of law school, and I was spending some time with my brother before he shipped out to Iraq with the 325th Battalion of the 82nd Airborne. With my brother in the stands, I was playing center with two buddies at left and right wing. We called ourselves the "Dirty Mick Line" as all of us were Irishmen with a penchant for doing the dirty work necessary to score goals. And we'd already potted two during that game. Life was good.

With the puck moving left to right in front of me, I saw the defenseman prepare to throw the puck into the zone of the boards to my right. Skating toward the boards I jumped up against then to try to trap the puck between my body and the glass, and start the breakout.

I never got that far.

As I came down the ice beneath me gave way, and my right ankle turned inward. Then, it collapsed under my weight. It was all instantaneous. The pain rifled through my entire body as I laid there in a heap of agony and equipment. I honestly can't describe to you how much it hurt. Some people tried to explain it to me as follows. Apparently there are an amazingly high number of nerve cells on the periosteum (bone "skin"). The periosteum is an extremely strong layer of the bone; all of your various muscles and tendons and ligaments attach to your bones on the periosteum. If you think about your ankle for a moment you can picture how many different attachments there are.

Now imagine every one of those attachments rips off you nerve laden bone, taking a chunk of the periosteum with it. It's a pain that truly defies explanation.

No one had touched me before it happened and no one really knew was going on. One person in the stands saw it clearly and described saying that my right ankle did a 180 degree turn. All I could say was that I thought I'd broken my ankle. I said that I "thought" I'd broken it, but I knew I was done. Somewhat delusionally, I tried to get up before my teammates got to me and immediately crumpled to the ground. With their help, I balanced on my good skate and received some assistance getting into the locker room where the EMTs seemed to appear moments later.

Wielding a pair of surgical scissors the ugliest of the group made a be-line for my $500 plus skates. I often think the part of being an EMT that people like the best is cutting through things that cost infinitely more than the $5 pair of scissor he was holding. Thankfully, I stopped him and managed to untie my skate and get it off with my brother's help. That's when I saw the damage.

My right foot was at a nasty 25 degree angle, pointing inward. Above my ankle knob there was a ghastly bulge sticking out of the outward side of my ankle. It looked like there was a whiffleball bat trying to make it's way out of my body any way it could find, and it decided my ankle was the best option. It was at that point that the pain started to set in.

When you first get hurt there's the initial shock of the injury that rocks you to your core. Then strangely, a sense of calm hits you as you try to make sense of what happened. You know something is wrong. Even so, you try to figure out how to immediately deal with it, and somehow you push the pain into the background. Then the adrenaline wears off and the pain comes rushing back without anything to abate it. Between the site of the injury and the hospital there's really nothing that the EMTs can do to stem the pain. All you can do is live with it.

God does it suck. You do anything you can to distract yourself from the pain. You look all over the ambulance to find something to fixate on. You talk constantly. You ask all kinds of fevered questions of the EMTs. You try you absolute hardest not to look at your ankle, but invariably you do and the whole thing come rushing back. Pain. Pain. Pain.

Finally, it hits you. You're in bad shape and it's not going to heal itself. You're not going to play again anytime soon. You're not going to be able to go skiing with your friends like you planned. You're not going to win your league. You're not going to be able to play your senior year. And that's when the tears start.

The reality is overwhelming. You all of a sudden realize you're not just precluded from doing the things you love to do, you're precluded from being able to walk. You realize that you're going to be in surgery shortly and that there are no guarantees. You realize that there is a good possibility you may never be able to do the things you love to do again. That, coupled with the constant pain, is the worst feeling of your life. You are helpless. And as you sit there in your smelly hockey equipment or in your practice field attire, it absolutely devastates you.

You cry. You try to come to some sort of "deal", not with anyone or any deity in particular, but you try to find some logical way out of the situation you find yourself in. You call you parents. And the worst thing is, as you sit there, is that at some point you are alone. Alone and scared out of your mind. And all you desperately want is for someone to tell you it will be fine. That you'll be alright. At some point you'll reach the point that more than anything on Earth you want a hug from your mother.

I think the reason the ankle injury messes with you head so much is that without your ankle you're basically precluded from every playing any kind of sport again. It's amazing how much we take such a basic joint for granted, but it makes walking, running, dancing, and all simple upright movements possible. Without it you're handicapped. When it comes to upper body injuries, you can still move even if an arm is mangled. But when your basic movement is threatened you get really, really scared.

Eventually, the pain killers they give you take hold and you're able to drift off into an exhausted, emotionally drained, narcotic sleep. You eventually awaken, praying it was a dream, only to look down and see your ankle the size of a cantaloupe. Maybe they casted you, maybe they didn't. But you're going in for surgery and you know it.

By this point you're okay with the surgery. It has to be better than the present, right? Maybe they'll fix it and you'll be fine. Maybe they won't, but at least you'll know what your outcome will be. Eventually, you're told to count down from 10 by a man in a surgical mask. You never make it to 4 before you fade off into sleep.

The surgery itself is generally uneventful. You remember nothing and wake up 10 to 12 hours after it started. When you wake up you also look down to see you ankle even larger than before you went in. If Woolfolk's injury is anything like mine, not only did the tendons and ligaments separate from the bone, they also pulled the fibula to the point that it broke clean free in a 70 degree angle from it's lower half. Then the doctor comes in, he explains that the X-rays show your new ankle has a six inch plate and five nasty looking screws stabilizing your ankle and its bones. he tells you that you're going to be doing physical therapy for approximately four months. And then he's gone.

But there's still a lot of pain. And they give you all kinds of drugs for the pain. None of them work. Maybe it's my metabolism, but vicodin does nothing for me. Maybe it's just me but between pain and Oxycontin, I'll take pain. But regardless of what you take, if you wish to remain coherent, the pain is a constant companion for the first week/week and a half after surgery.

Maybe a week, maybe two weeks, you start physical therapy. You're basically teaching your broken, mangled ankle how to walk again. And it doesn't want to. The progress is maddeningly slow. No matter how diligent, driven or hot your PT is, your body will not allow you to do the things you used to do without a fight. But eventually you battle through it. You go from wincing in pain simply putting pressure on your ankle to being able to squat on it. It does heal. It just takes time.

The reality is that the hardest part of recovery isn't the therapy, it's the down time. The time you spent by yourself, laid up in a bed or couch, with you ankle raised above your head to allow it to drain. You think about the stuff you can't do at that time. You think about the plans you had. You think about all kinds of things you have no control over any more. What's even harder is dealing with the things you love, but can't do.

For me, after breaking my ankle the hardest thing on earth was sitting though the movie "Miracle" in a wheelchair. I went to see it with some friends in the hope that it would cheer me up, but instead I spent the move with tears streaming down my eyes because I couldn't go play. The seeming unfairness of it all is just as painful as going through therapy.

And then there are the after affects of the surgery. It takes about a year for the anaesthesia to clear your body. That sounds strange, but it does. You're a little slower than you'd like to be mentally. It takes a little longer to think things through. You miss simple things that normally you'd pick up instinctively. It's incredibly frustrating. But thankfully, it gets better and your do return to your normal cognitive capacity.

So, Troy, I'm with you. I know how much this sucks and how helpless you feel. But I'm living proof it gets better. Six years removed from ankle surgery my right ankle is actually stronger than my left. I'm back on the ice, playing and having fun with my friends. I'm back.

You will be too. Godspeed Troy. We'll keep you in our prayers. Just remember, it gets better, even when it hurts the most. Can't wait to see you back in action next season.  

A personal thanks to Adam Jacobi for encouraging me to share this. In many ways this was very cathartic for me, even six years later.