Let it keep, the moment on a muggy late afternoon in late May 2012 as I inhaled deeply, glanced down at my left knee, and fought off any remaining doubts still residing in the innermost corners of my psyche. Rewind, see me in full stride, arms pumping vigorously, left leg driving me on as I bolt around the final stretch of a dilapidated athletic track in the blast-furnace heat of late April in Accra, Ghana. Keep going; see my tentative progression to the point of running as I laboured along a dirt road bordering a luscious mango plantation teeming with ripened mangoes as the sun rose over the green canvassed mountains. See me battling my way through gruelling strength routines at sunrise and sunset each day in early March as I rebuilt the structural integrity of my lower limbs. Keep rewinding, see me gingerly climb aboard the US Airways flight departing from the biting cold of late February in Toronto. Finally, rewind to December 2011, and to the peaceful serenity of Massey College on a crisp winter morning as I grimaced in pain at the mere thought of moving my immobilized left leg – still firmly clad in heavy duty bandages – off its stable position on the bed. I would repeat the same routine each morning, staring blankly at the washroom door in the far corner of the room, preparing myself for the drama that would ensue as I shuffled, staggered, hobbled, and limped my way across the soft carpeted floor. Such a petty undertaking represented more of a herculean challenge during the immediate post-surgery stage, where my days were filled with lessons on crutching technique, me drifting in and out of a drug induced slumber, and the unrelenting routine of applying ice to my ‘newly repaired’ left knee.
In looking back from afar, these really should have been the darkest days in my recovery. There was the throbbing pain emanating from the surgical incision points above and below my left patella, the immobilization of spending entire days amidst the puffed up pillows on my bed, and the sense of helplessness which had besieged my daily existence. But I didn’t want for anything. Despite being hundreds of miles from my family in Ireland, I was overwhelmed by abundant supplies of love, care and support. The unwavering generosity of the Fraser family is a testament to that truth as I began my rehabilitation in the midst of their loving family. There was rarely a dull moment in the Fraser household, where one’s chances of survival depend largely upon the possession of a sharp wit, a fondness for sarcasm and an appreciation of the sanctity of family life. Then there are my therapists, Jacqui and Marcel, whose compassion and emotional support ensured my spirits never lagged. Indeed, my daily visits to Marcel’s self-proclaimed ‘healing zone’ became a cherished source of amusement and bemusement in equal measure. As a duo, they are a force to be reckoned with! From Marcel’s vast experience, to Jacqui’s infectious enthusiasm and unyielding belief in me, I was literally in the best hands in the business. And then there was Saba, in whom I’d openly confided about the full extent of my fears, the depth of my heartbreak and the nagging doubts that threatened to shatter a self-belief which had rarely been tested to this point previously. From her eagerly anticipated daily visits, the lazy afternoons spent watching movies together, to all those lonely late night excursions to satisfy my latest ethnic food cravings, Saba never once faltered. It has often been posed to me that as human beings, we learn most about ourselves and those around us during moments of hardship, suffering, or personal anguish. I certainly emerged from those early weeks with a new understanding of how kindness and compassion for others makes us distinctly human. Thankfully, the unrelenting monotony which characterised the hours, days and weeks in my immediate post-surgery period would soon recede, allowing me to focus my energies on the challenges that lay ahead. The first step would be the quest to walk again. Underpinning everything, however, would be the need to trust again.
Trust. It makes the world go around. It defines us as human beings, enables us, inhibits us, and forms the bedrock of our relationships with others. It is the social glue which structures and governs human interaction and its deficiency or absence so often leads to the breakdown of those relationships, communities, societies and even nations. It is this same notion of trust that has presided over my recovery process with supreme authority, acting as an internal barometer of my physical and mental state, always in flux and finely attuned to the ebb and flow of my rehabilitation process. As I seek to walk the fine line between pushing my body to the limit in the name of rehabilitation and the potentially disastrous possibility of re-traumatising my left knee, it is this shifting sense of trust that guides my judgement at all times. So often, it has revealed itself as that subconscious voice confirming or dismissing the possibility of one more rep, one more lap, or indeed with me, the wisdom of a second or third daily trip to the gym! In the early days, there were countless moments when I became overwhelmed by the risk of performing a new exercise – an occasion which was usually met by a peculiar blend of sensitivity and muted laughter by the therapists as they watched me wrestling with the idea of progressively complex movements, increasing weights and the need to believe in myself; in my knee.
My bi-weekly progress assessments usually unfolded with a similar pattern. I would demonstrate my total mastery of the previous exercises, before a standoff would ensue as I dramatically refused to perform the ‘crazy’ progressions outlined by Marcel. Sat nearby, Jacqui was always on hand to offer gentle encouragement, no doubt while fighting back an outburst at laughter at the sheer hilarity of my objections. As absurd as it sounds, I revelled in the drama of those moments, which provided me with a sense of belonging, of being with ‘my team’ – Jacqui and Marcel – who were ‘in this’ with me as we plotted the next chapter in my journey. Such a feeling of companionship, however short-lived it may have been, nevertheless afforded me a fleeting escape from the isolation and seclusion of long hours spent alone in the gym, on the stationary bike or in the ‘wee hours’ of darkness as I lay awake following the latest onset of night terrors – the most common of which involved my left knee crumbling into a pile of ash as I performed a one-legged squat! Before long, however, I would begin to notice seedlings of progress. The swelling receded around the incision points. I detected a hint of muscularity in my left quadriceps as it flickered on and off like a faulty lightbulb, and soon my crutches became redundant as the severity of my limp regressed to a point where I no longer had to experience the demoralising sight of pensioners float by me as I shuffled along the sidewalk. A few weeks passed by, I was walking, albeit with a gait which failed to conceal the fragility of my confidence, or the presence of a slight micro-bend in my knee – a safeguard against the lateral knee pain I had been experiencing on full extension. Gradually, I began to blend in again, opting to leave my crutches at home in the hope that no one would inquire about the condition of my knee, about whether or not I would be returning to play, or how sorry they were that I wasn’t on hand to lead the Varsity Blues at the National Championships. I craved the normality of old, to be free from all the sympathy, the commiseration etched on the faces of well-wishers as they saw me crutching my way through the campus, and the luxury of relaxing amongst friends minus the whispering winds about ACL tears and typical recovery rates.
Despite such niggling issues, my recovery was progressing at quite a rate – a fact that can be largely attributed to a Christmas season in which a compulsory serving of ‘rehab’ was on the daily menu! My mum has always been incredibly supportive of my footballing exploits and while I may have harboured romanticised thoughts of a luxurious festive season spent enjoying home cooking, the idea was soon shattered. ‘Darragh, its 9am son!’ she announced bearing an unmistakeable message as I smothered my body in the blankets and hoped my silence would buy a few extra minutes in the warmth. A brief silence would ensue. I would occasionally be lured into a false sense of hope before the clunking sound of footsteps on the mahogany stairway meant that we had reached the next stage. ‘Darragh, son… Aren’t you going to the gym this morning?’. Knowing the silent treatment was not an option a second time, it was time to unwrap myself, shake off the drowsiness and get myself downstairs. Day after day, a similar interaction played out, at one point even leading to a breakdown in maternal diplomacy! Alongside my sister, Ambre – who conveniently has an honours degree in Physiotherapy – I had a ‘new team’ for the Christmas period and this one certainly didn’t tip toe around the issues at stake. ‘Well it’s up to you, son. If you don’t want to be back in time for next season, it won’t bother me’ mum declared as she probably winked to my sister. Either way, I had heard enough. I was dressed, in the car and over the hills by the time these words had left my mother’s tongue! Over the course of my three weeks in the hills of Donegal, a day didn’t pass in which I failed to complete something resembling a rehabilitative session. By the time the festive period had passed and a prosperous New Year begun, I sensed myself gaining momentum. And so, I said my goodbye’s, departed home shores and returned to Toronto a man who had fully accepted his mission. Indeed, as bizarre as it sounds, I might even admit to enjoying the challenge, had it not been for the persistent niggling doubts about the bigger picture, the quest to play again and of course, my imminent departure for research fieldwork in West Africa.