You heard a pop, got an MRI, your doctor told you surgery is a must, and now you’ll be off the mats for six months to one year. Raise your hand if you can relate! Sustaining an injury while training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can grow into what feels like an unsurmountable task. It can quickly effect your mood and your outlook on many aspects of life. It takes you away from your family and other pleasures that bring you joy. It consumes you and it eventually, it changes you.
Let’s rewind to October 2017. I had just returned home after spending one week in Siesta Key with Sophia Drysdale and her Lifestyle camp. I felt like I was in the best shape of my life. I was a shredded 116 pounds complete with abs, a booty, and traps. My cardio felt on point.
I was meal planning again. My kids and my husband were happy and healthy. Our academy was doing great. I had my mind on competing in the IBJJF NoGi World Championships, but first I knew I needed to get a procedure done. Outpatient my OB/GYN said. Two weeks before Thanksgiving I had a minor surgery done getting some girls parts removed. Once I got the okay from my OB, I began training for NoGi Worlds. Just a couple of days before Thanksgiving I was training with a group of ladies from local academies. We had just started to warm up. One of my teammates had my leg in a lock down position trying to sweep me, and I heard a pop in my right knee.
The next morning, I saw my doctor. From a simple examination, the doctor thought the PCL potentially popped. I left with my referral for an MRI and made an appointment. I spent the next three weeks in bed as my knee was very unstable. I had to use crutches to get around which made teaching…interesting. After the MRI results were in, my doctor called me to share the news. “Hey, Jen. Doesn’t look good.” My heart sank. “Just give it to me straight, Dr. T.” A fully ruptured ACL and damage to the patella. I would not be competing at Worlds. I had just pulled up to the academy. I was totally frozen with so many mixed emotions: anger- rage, actually. Sadness- but, more like a forlorn feeling. I felt like something had been ripped away from me. With no warning. No preparation. I sat in the car looking at the very academy where I had spent thousands of hours studying, practicing, teaching, crying, laughing, and connecting with others. My husband, Steve, was watching me through the window. Once I hung up the phone, Steve came out to the car and opened my door. He could see the tears beneath my sunglasses dripping down my face. In a consoling but investigative tone he asked, “Hey baby. Have you talked to Dr. T?” Uncontrollably sobbing, I muttered “fully ruptured ACL….I. don’t. think. I. can. Go. inside…. what the fu*k babe…why did this happen… why…. I. Can’t. Stop. Crying. Why did this happen…” I kept asking why like he would have the answer. Steve gave me a kiss on my cheek, told me to go home, and he closed the car door.
It is interesting how the mind works. Everything felt so very chaotic. My emotions. My mind. My heartbeat. My thoughts. I needed to calm down. I started to give myself what I refer to as the hype talk. I began listing all of reasons I was awesome. All of the reasons why and how I could get through whatever lied ahead. I think I even recall saying, ‘torn ACL? So, what. It happens all of the time to Jiu-Jitsu players. I’ll be better and stronger afterwards.’ What I didn’t know is how many complications that I in fact had laid out ahead of me: the malpractice suit I would eventually file; and, the many “minor” procedures and surgeries I would have within the next 5 months. It was nothing like what anyone said it was going to be.
I had full ACL reconstructive surgery in December 2017. Immediately after I woke up from surgery, I had an insane amount of swelling and the pain was unbearable. I took the prescribed pain medication a few days after surgery but they made me feel worse. I would often times hold myself and rock back and forth just marred in pain. My knee looked so mangled it was unrecognizable. This was my first indication that something was wrong.
I was in the ER two days post-op. I had lost feeling in the bottom part of my leg as well as my foot. The ER checked for blood clotting, but there was no indication of a clot per the ultrasound. They also ran a number of blood tests to check for infection. I had a fair amount of pain medication in my system was well as CBD. Still enduring a level 10 pain, the nurse gave me the maximum dose of morphine and I still was clinging to the bed screaming in pain. Pain: an intense feeling that so stealthily became a part of my waking life. Due to the extreme level of pain, I was unable to bend my bend, thus preventing any advancement of mobility- specifically, the flexion as I endured an ACL rupture. In fact, I couldn’t even get to the bathroom let alone use it on my own after the initial surgery. This prompted a grave delay on rehabilitating the knee and the leg giving ample time for scar tissue to lay down.
The following month, January 2018, I had a procedure called Manipulation Under Anesthesia (MUA). Basically, you get a dose of anesthesia (also known as ‘vein champagne’) and a nerve block. Once you’re asleep and can’t feel a pinch, the Orthopedic Surgeon (OS) shoves your heel to your butt in order to break through arthofibrotic adhesions (also known as scar tissue) resulting in a bent knee. I immediately had one hundred & twenty amazing degrees of flexion. Which I started to lose the very next day. My bend decreased all the way to the 20-30 degree range. This would happen two more times.
I was so incredibly frustrated with how my recovery was going and having to endure such a high level of pain on a day-to-day basis. In fact, it had felt like I hadn’t even began the rehabilitative part of the journey. Nothing made sense. My OS did not seem plugged into the issues at hand nor did he seem motivated to find answers. During one appointment, he sat back with his arms crossed and shrugged his shoulders when I asked, “what is the problem here, Doc. This doesn’t seem normal.” (And let me tell you, surgeons LOVE normal. It’s what majority of them know.) Why was it so hard for me to bend my knee and maintain the achieved degree of flexion?! And to boot, I was only sleeping 2.5-3 hours per night due to the pain. It was like having a new born baby all over again… but, dare I say, so much worse.
Fed up, I decided to look around for another surgeon. The next surgeon I met with ordered an X-Ray and did some sensory testing on my leg. He concluded that I was a chronic pain patient and I could either go to a chronic pain clinic where they would try to pump me full of drugs, or I could do a few other things at home. Firstly, he recommended that I name my knee, talk to it, and simultaneously rub a towel up and down the leg so as to wake the nerves up. Interestingly enough, I had done all 3 of these things. The name of my knee is ‘soul sucker’ because my favorite submission in Jiu-Jitsu is the Triangle. I talked to my knee on a daily basis as the injured very important appendage as it was. My leg had begun to experience nerve damage so I would use different textures to stimulate the nerves so they would start to fire again. I’m not saying all of what OS #2 suggestion was horse crap, but I had a sneaking suspicion whatever was going on with my knee was beyond talk and massage. The third- and my current surgeon- I spoke to seemed like a promising guy. He wanted to start slow and attempt to fully evaluate the whole situation. He ran an extensive blood test panel looking for an underlying infection and for auto-immune disease. Something to explain why my body was making such a large amount of it at such a rapid pace. He also ordered an MRI. Finally! We’re getting somewhere. The second surgery was done March 2018. Arthroscopy and a MUA was performed with OS #3. He cleaned out a large amount of scar tissue, checked on the cadaver ACL graft, and performed the manipulation. I had ninety degrees and actually kept that flexion range for a few days. By day 4, 5, 6 and so on, I started losing my range of motion (ROM) and was stuck, again, in the 20-30 degree range.
At this point, 4 months post-injury and 3 months ACL post-op, I had lost hope that I would return to training, or even competing during 2018. I had been laid up for so long. However, I still remained hopeful and eager to focus on my recovery. I knew I could grind. I knew I could put the work in. I knew I had what it takes to do what was required to get my knee better. As my hopes continued to get shot down time and time again, the emotional part of the injury became such a tumultuous roller coaster ride. I just wanted it to end. I was so tired of being bed-ridden. It was quite painful to be so physically impaired, I couldn’t tend to my kids or my husband. Injury also greatly effects your autonomy. I remember telling my husband that the last time I wanted to operate a vehicle so badly was when I was 16 and getting my license. I wanted to take my kids to school. I wanted to run errands and stop at the Starbucks drive-thru. I wanted to teach my BJJ classes. I wanted to roll. I wanted to be out and about with my husband and to see my friends. I started to go through the stages of grief. I started mourning something, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. Little did I know, the injury was about to take a bad turn.During the third manipulation, my patella tendon fully ruptured from the tibia bone.
What was supposed to be a 10 minute procedure, revealed that when the original injury happened, (Full ACL tear, and patella fracture), there was also a tear on my patellar tendon that was overlooked. A WHOLE other injury in my knee that was overlooked. I woke up in a world of pain and unable to move my right leg. In a panic I shoved my hands under the hospital blankets yelling for my husband. As the nurse walked in I could feel that I had a brace on my leg. I started crying hysterically. The nurse tried to console me as I kept demanding to see my husband. My OS was in the waiting room with Steve explaining to him what happened in the operating room. When the surgeon finally came in, I could see the somber look in his face and in his posture. I know he felt terrible about the rupture. I couldn’t help but become so enraged. No wonder my knee wasn’t healing?!! No wonder there was a scar tissue problem?! No wonder as to why the knee was not bending?! It’s still injured! I went for an MRI the next morning and had the rupture confirmed 2 hours later by the OS. We scheduled yet another surgery for the next week to repair the patellar tendon and to clean out scar tissue. Due to the patella tendon partial tear and the scar tissue problem, I developed a condition called patella baja. (Over a short period of time the knee cap began shifting downward and the patellar tendon consequently, began to shrink.)
About two weeks post-op I had a pathetic 5 degree bend. I could not lift my leg and I could feel the feeling of concrete stiffening my knee: scar tissue. I was so faithful to physical therapy and my post-op visits. I was doing everything I was told to do: resting, massage, icing, and weekly physical therapy. With a referral, I switched physical therapy clinic’s to a practice that offered a multitude of physical therapy disciplines such as anti-gravity machine, dry needling, and cupping.
Currently, I am 10 weeks post-op and have 35 degree bend. The circulation in my leg is getting better day-by-day. The nerves in my leg are starting to wake up, and the epidermis is not as sensitive. My OS is recommending an additional procedure to extend the patella tendon and to address the patella baja condition. In my endless research on the knee and arthrofibrosis, I found a world renowned doctor 2 hours outside of Denver whom I will be visiting mid-June for a second opinion. My appointment cannot come soon enough.