With the Help of Others by Stephanie Gasper

This work was contributed by Stephanie Gasper for the Center of Literature and Medicine's use and with the assistance of Joyce Dyer and the Lyndsay-Crane Center for Writing and Literature.

"My knee!" I cried as I fell to the ground.

I expected to find my kneecap on the inside of my knee.  I slowly worked my swishy black pants up to my mid-thigh.  Mr. Marra, our powder-puff football coach, was at my side examining my leg.  He poked and prodded, but it didn't bother me.  Deep down, away from the pressure of his fingers was where I felt the pain.  My boyfriend Zak picked me up and carried me over to the golf cart where I sat for the rest of the practice with ice on my right knee.

It began to feel better over the next hour.  I felt confident that I merely bruised it, and I decided to try to walk.  When my mom arrived, I walked with only a little limp, and then I realized that I needed to see a doctor.  I saw a specialist the next day

"It looks like you tore your ACL (anterior cruciate ligament)," my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Stefko, said.

I sat in disbelief.  I was not sure exactly what that meant, but a torn ACL didn't sound too good to me.  I didn't want to deal with pain, surgery, recovery, and not being allowed to play sports.  The pain was already more than I wanted to deal with.  And as far as volleyball went, between the school and JO's in the off season, I had played for about the last four years straight.  I was just about to try out for my off season team. This couldn't be happening.

After a few moments, I murmured, "What does that mean?"

The doctor told me I would need surgery and about six months of physical therapy.  I glanced at my mom and saw tears welling up in her eyes.  Neither one of us said much.  Surgery.  On my precious knee.  Dr. Stefko said that it was a common injury and a fairly simple procedure.

I could see myself running with the ball, and then I tried to cut inside the defensive player.  One simple step and I was down.  I wish I had some amazing story about being tackled by three boys after running the length of the yard, but I didn't.  No one even touched me; my knee simply gave out on its own.  I wished I could take that play back.

I wasn't scared about the surgery until I arrived at Beghley Medical Center.  It was a small place and the nurses were friendly, but what if I didn't get enough oxygen during surgery?  What if the anesthetic didn't work and I ended up feeling everything?  I felt vulnerable.  I felt like I had very little control over my body and what would be happening to it during the next few hours.  I was at the mercy of the doctor and his staff. I had to take my contacts out, which meant that I couldn't tell man from woman when they walked up to me.  This just added to my feeling of vulnerability. A nurse and the two doctors were talking and going about their business and I couldn't make out any of their faces.  I felt completely overwhelmed.  Finally, they all left and a tear started to run down my cheek.  My mom came closer and held my hand while she told me everything would be just fine.  A nurse took me to surgery and got me situated on the table. I was clearly nervous.  I started crying a little, and then ended up in body shaking sobs.  The nurse at my head was very soothing as she ran her hand through my hair a few times.

"Take care of me," I quietly whimpered.

"I'll take care of you as if you were my own..."

Next thing I knew, I was trying to waking up three hours later.  I felt like I was fighting against my own body to wake up.  I felt pressure from the nurses to wake up; however, I felt like I was in a never ending spiral that sucked me toward the bottom, sucked me toward sleep.  I kept trying to open my eyes, but they were heavy. I would open them, but I couldn't focus on anything since I didn't have my contacts in, so it made perfectly logical sense in my doped up mind to just close them and go back to sleep.  This cycle of opening them, deciding it was too much effort and giving up happened a few more times.  If only I could put my contacts in, I could have a reason to keep them open.  The nurses, however, wouldn't allow me to put my contacts in until I was fully awake.  At last I was able to open them, put my contacts in, and get that uncomfortable oxygen tube out of my nose.

My knee was quite painful at times the following week.  I had to rely on other people for many things.  My friends, my grandma, and my boyfriend Zak took turns looking after me when my mom had to work.  For the first week, Zak woke up at five a.m. every morning just to drive his mom to work so that he could have the car to come out to my house.  He would then drive the half hour to my house and crash on the couch until I woke up. I required more assistance than I preferred when I returned to school ten days later.  It was very humbling for me to rely on my friends for so much, even asking them to go out of their way to drive me home when my mom was working. I am typically independent, but after the surgery I needed to depend on everyone.

Things got better over Christmas break because I was allowed to lose the crutches and begin driving again.  However, the hard part wasn't over yet.  I went through two-and-a-half to three-hour physical therapy sessions twice a week.  I dreaded going.  It wasn't that the therapy hurt my knee, it was just physically draining.  Even though it seemed terrible that I hurt my knee, had to have surgery and then stay out of activities for six months, the results seemed worth it.  I returned to volleyball for the first open gym of the summer.  It was the sweet reward I knew I worked for the whole winter.

*          *         *

My sweet reward was short-lived.  My knee only lasted through three more open gyms.  We were hitting the ball when I jumped and my knee did not stop me as I came down.  I didn't fall, but my body didn't stop until it hit the back of my heels.  I heard the famous "pop."  I got up and walked over to the stage in our gym to sit down.  Once again I thought it was just something minor.  One of my teammates got ice for me.  After a while, I decided the pain was gaining intensity, and I did not feel like dealing with it.  I knew I had Tylenol in my purse, and I slowly got up to get some.

I knew as soon as I took the first step.  It was the same pain.  My heart sunk.  I knew what would come next, what the next few months would be.  I sat through the rest of practice, mostly in a daze.  I got to my car, sunk into my seat, and I called Zak.  The tears started flowing.  I wasn't crying from the pain. I was crying because of the rush of emotions.  I didn't want to do it all over again!  I couldn't take it.  It was July, and I had been rehabbing my knee since last November, but those nine months didn't matter because I would be starting over from scratch. I just cried and cried.  I don't even remember what Zak said to me.  I remember driving to his house and lying on his couch.  Finally, I felt I had enough composure to call my mom.  She tried to give me hope; she suggested the possibility that I just irritated it or moved the wrong way. I wanted to think she was right, but my gut told me otherwise.  I didn't want to deal with it.

A few doctors' appointments later, Dr. Stefko walked into the room and gave us the news.  My ACL was just fine; however, I had torn my meniscus.  The meniscus is a figure-eight shaped piece of cartilage that acts as a cushion between your thigh bone and shin bones.  I had a bucket handle tear on my medial meniscus, or a large, "c" shaped tear that flipped over the symmetric points at the end of a tear (like a bucket handle), on the part of the figure eight on the inside of my knee (between by femur and tibia).

I would need another surgery.  I felt numb as I left the doctor's office.  I didn't want to do it all over again.  I felt heavy.  Two weeks later I was back at Beeghley Medical Center.  I was still nervous going into surgery, but not as bad as the time before.  When I talked with the anesthesiologist beforehand, I told him to knock me out as soon as possible.  I don't think he realized how serious I was being.  I knew I was on the verge of tears, and the surgery team finally gave up on their quest to get me to count back from ten and knocked me out.

Coming out of the anesthesia was much different the second time around.  I didn't realize how wonderful post-operative nurses could be until I had two phenomenal ones after my second surgery.  I faintly remember shivering ferociously as I was wheeled on the gurney to the recovery room.  I remember waking up, very relaxed, under a heap of blankets.  The nurses let me wake up on my own this time. I remembered them bringing me more and more heated blankets, although I wasn't fully conscious.  My mom was able to come in right away and said I looked like I was in a cocoon.  The nurses were truly sweethearts.  They seemed to know what I would need even before I knew I wanted it.  They tried to keep me as comfortable as possible.  As soon as I was fully aware of my surroundings again, I was comparing my experience with my first surgery.  I remember the nurses rushing me to wake up, how heavy my eyes felt, and how my whole body was just uncomfortable.  The first post-op nurses encouraged my mom to help me get dressed within about a half hour of waking up, and I was being wheeled to the car close to a half hour after that.  I soon realized that I was the last surgery of the day and the nurses left just about as my mom and I left.  The second time was much different.  The nurses were caring and loving.  They spoiled me.  They took care of every need that I had, and didn't even act like it was hard or time consuming.  I can't even explain what a night and day difference the two experiences were.  I was appreciative of the nurses.  I understood how much empathy and caring mean.  It was obvious that the second set of nurses were well seasoned.  I felt like I was the nurses' only concern, but I'm willing to bet that everyone else they were taking care of probably felt the same way.

I was probably recovering from knee surgeries for about one and a half years if you add the two together, and my mom was wonderful through everything. She took care of all my needs, and even had a good attitude.  I remember one night soon after the first surgery. I was in bed with my mom so that she could take care of me.  I was extremely uncomfortable and pain was shooting up and down my leg.  I'm not kidding when I say that I whined probably every five minutes.

"Could you add another pillow please, Mom?" "Momma, it still hurts. Could you try taking that pillow away?  Maybe put it back but try folding it."

Try as I may, I couldn't fall asleep.  Even the medicine wasn't knocking me out.  My mom was exhausted, but for an hour and a half she kept trying new things to make me more comfortable.  She never snapped or said just deal with it, something I think I may have done if I were in her position.  I remember her trying to talk me to sleep.  She suggested that I focus on every muscle and picture everyone relaxing – picture each part of my body resting into the bed.

My mom came home from her work as a hair dresser one day and told me one of her regular customers was asking about me.  The customer asked if my mom was going to let me go back to sports.  My mom was taken back, because she would never tell me I couldn't play sports again.  She said she would support me no matter what.  I know that she would. I have all the gratitude and love in the world for my mom.  It was sure inconvenient for me, so I know how much more inconvenience it had to be for her, but she kept a positive attitude the whole time.  She never made me feel like I was a burden or that she would rather be doing something "more productive" with her time.  I think it would be out of character for my mom to prohibit me from playing sports again.  I think that my mom would be there – just as caring, loving, and mothering – if I decided to go back and, by chance, sustained a third injury. I personally think she would handle it better than I would.  I knew that I couldn't emotionally handle one more injury, which is why I didn't return to sports for my senior year.  I would rather not go through that ever again.

So far, I have not returned to any organized sports.  Actually, I don't think I've gone full go on my knee since the second set of physical therapy.  I haven't been able to just play ball in the yard, or let Zak wrestle with me without my mind racing, thinking of what to do to protect my knee.  Even today, during anything more strenuous than, say, a jog, my knee is the foremost thing on my mind.

Thinking of the possibility of one more injury made me wonder how I had survived the first two.  I realized that I could not have made it alone.  My mom and my boyfriend Zak were probably the backbone of my recovery.  They supported me physically, but more important emotionally.  They were always ready to pick me up and help me.  They were with me from the wee hours of the morning until late in the night, literally. There were other people who played less of a role, but were still an important addition.  My friends cheered me up and helped me around school.   Even the nurses, both the nurse who told me she would take care of me as if I were her daughter and two nurses after the second surgery, made me feel as if they truly cared.  I realized that it was these people who helped me survive two knee surgeries.  I always feel some empathy when I see someone hurting; however, I almost completely empathize with people who have sustained knee injuries.  I can guarantee this characteristic comes from the compassion I was shown while I was in the same position.

As I think about my future in the medical field, I think of the flood of emotions that come from the experiences with my knee.  I hope that I can be as sincere as those three nurses, making each patient feel as though they are the most important patient of my day.  I hope that empathy will come through in my voice.  I hope that when someone is scared, I will have the words to make them feel safe.  I hope that I will never be "the doctor." I want to stay level headed, down to earth, and in tune with the people around me who may be suffering.  I hope that, like my mom, I never show it if I am annoyed or inconvenienced.  Like Zak, I want to be selfless for those that are around me.  I want to make those uncomfortable and untimely medical experiences as manageable as possible for every patient that I will come into contact with during my career.

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