Coming Back After ACL Surgery

Sorry to bother you, but I just ran across your web site on a google search regarding skydiving after acl reconstruction. I just found out I apparently tore my ACL back in August with a parachute landing gone wrong. Totally my fault. Can’t even blame the winds, as there were none. Apparently forgot I was jumping at 3600 feet and tried flaring like I do back home at 800 feet. Got lazy and will soon be paying the price.

Am looking at all the options for scheduling surgery. Concerns include a non-refundable Hawaiian Vacation we have purchased in March. I’m concerned about being able to snorkel say three months post op and being able to skydive six months post op. Sounds like you were skydiving at 5 months?

The option I’m considering is postponing surgery until next August/September towards the end of next year’s skydiving season which should allow me to enjoy most of the 2013 season and still ensure my ability to be healed up for the 2014 season. I live in North Dakota, so our season is really mid May to October. Of course the downside is the risk of additional serious injury to the knee. I’ve probably made 60 jumps since the original injury with no problems. I tweak the knee more when I’m out hunting and walking a lot of uneven ground. If I’m vigilant and don’t get careless, it’s not a problem.

Was your doc concerned with you delaying the surgery and still skydiving? Do you regret having done that? Any insights appreciated. Thanks.

Hi Craig, I could write a book for you to answer your questions, and will try not to 😉

I also didn’t realize I’d torn my ACL at first–merely sliding on some snow with my base stash bag on my back, down a ridiculously short snow-coated rock slab and landing in a crouch-knee position, though I did hear the scary pop and couldn’t walk well afterward. To me, it just didn’t seem possible to get a major injury that way, and I believe looking back that it was partially torn and hanging by a thread. It took a few months to heal (I considered it “sprained”), and it wasn’t causing me too much trouble, though I had problems with steep sport climbing and trying to pull with my leg. I finished the tear with an unbelievably uneventful base landing, with a loud pop. I still thought it was a sprain (I was on this river in Egypt….) and still didn’t go to the doctor. But it was causing me real problems after that, especially with walking on uneven terrain and even more so when climbing. My brother finally tricked me into going to a surgeon, assuring me it could be a simple meniscus tear with a quick arthroscopic clean-up….after pulling on my leg once, the doctor told me it was obviously a fully torn ACL 🙁

My timing issues were: it was summer, and I wanted to keep climbing and base jumping. My dog Fletch was in her last stages of old age and arthritis and required serious full-time care. I wanted to go on a base jumping trip to Lauterbrunnen that season, depending on what happened with Fletch (the vet didn’t think she had more than a few months left at that point). Since it had been torn for so long already, I opted to get a Don-Joy knee brace that July and be even more careful with it when walking, landing and climbing, and I waited to schedule the surgery until after Fletch passed away in September, then decided to squeeze in the Europe trip for October, figuring winter is a good time to heal in Moab and I should have some fun first.

Interestingly, my doctor even proposed to me the option of not repairing it at all! Apparently many skiers (how, I can’t imagine), ski without ACLs, and people who have very strong leg muscles and who do “in-line activities” such as distance running on roads, often don’t get ACL surgery. I didn’t really fit either of those categories. I was already having major instability issues while hiking to climbs and jumps and while climbing steep rock, and I was extremely nervous about landing, especially as I’d finished the tear with a one-step, soft landing. So for me not repairing it at all was not a good option, but using the brace while I finished doing the things I needed to do worked. I will say that after I finally got it fixed and fully recovered (for me, especially psychologically, it was almost two years later that I would call it fully recovered), I couldn’t believe how long I’d let it go, and how much I’d been unconsciously compensating for major limitations. Oh, that river in Egypt…. I did know that damaging it again with a torn ACL can lead to destroying everything else. Which is also pretty scary if waiting for surgery.

Here’s how I went about choosing the type of graft and the surgeon:
My brother is an ER doctor and ski patrol doctor in Salt Lake City at the University. So I asked him which surgeon does the best ACL repairs, knowing tons of skiers and professional athletes get that surgery there. He asked his colleagues and all his skier friends, and recommended Dr. Aoki at the University Orthopedic Center as the very best surgeon. So I went to him. I researched a little and learned there are a few types of grafts you can get: cadaver, patella, hamstring, and double-bundle hamstring. I didn’t want the cadaver because I learned it’s the quickest, easiest recovery, but frequently does not last. I didn’t want to do all this again….ever. I learned that patella and hamstring heal slower, partly because they cut your own patella or hamstring out to use for the graft, but are more bomber in the end. I read that many people with patella grafts feel pain when kneeling in the future. Then I learned that double-bundle hamstring is the newest, most bomber method (what Tiger Woods got), but you really want your surgeon to be very good at it to do it right. Also, it’s the hardest recovery. I made my decision by asking Dr. Aoki what he specialized in–naturally it was the double-bundle. I figure you want your surgeon to do the graft he’s best at, and I’d been told he was the best surgeon. If he’d said cadaver graft, I probably wouldn’t have done that, but I would have gone with whichever option he did the most among the others. I wasn’t psyched about the “harder, longer” recovery associated with double-bundle hamstring graft, however I did like the idea of doing it once and doing it beyond right.

It took me a very long time to resume my activities correctly, though I did resume them. Due to my career, I was fortunate to have the time to spend 2-3 hours a day in a weight room, working on rehab, and I was extremely careful with everything–for example, I wouldn’t ride my town bike around because I knew someone who’d done that and put his leg down and retorn the graft…. After 3.5 to 4 months, I started bouldering on my backyard wall. I didn’t start leading until after 5 months, and also started skydiving after 5 months. I used my lightweight base canopy, a 220, and would only jump in light winds. I was terrified landing, and slid it in almost every time. After 6 months, I started base jumping. Again, I was terrified landing (I really had psychological scars due to my final tear experience with a simple, non-impactful landing), and stayed that way for months. It wasn’t until about 2 years later that I really felt confident and comfortable landing, and I still almost never run out a landing. This is tricky when base jumping no wind landings at 4500 feet, and skydiving at that altitude also, but I have the fear of god in me 😉 I’ve developed a technique of flaring at the exact precise moment to let me do a two-legged hop to the ground at the end of the flare, and occasionally will make a few steps, but very rarely. I feel vulnerable impacting one leg without the other. I think I was more paranoid of re-tearing my ACL than most. I am a professional athlete, and being down for that long was okay once, but wouldn’t be ideal a second time. And I’d been told story after story of people re-tearing their grafts up to 6 months during the initial recovery, and then tearing the other side or the same one even a year later. So I had the fear of god in me even MORE during my recovery. I wore the Don-Joy for skydiving and base jumping for months after it seemed fully healed. Like I said, now I feel okay with it, but it took me a very very long time to trust it, I think longer than most.

Also, it was a mind-blowing experience to see just how much I’d been favoring, compensating and protecting that leg for so long, and how much easier it was to do everything better once I finally got it fixed. I had a bone density scan before the surgery, and my left side was “normal”. The right side (non-injured side, which had been taking all impact for a year or two) was significantly denser than the left side! Yikes. Also, once I finally did get it diagnosed, a big part of me felt like a sword was hanging over my head as I postponed the surgery. I didn’t have any control over when Fletch would pass away, so it wasn’t as hard to wait during that time. But when she did die, and I went on the Lauterbrunnen trip, knowing I’d have surgery when I got home, a big part of me had a hard time enjoying the trip–I kind of just wanted to get home and get it over with, and get the recovery started.

None of your decisions will be easy, but I am here to tell you that you will be thrilled when you get repaired and recovered in the end 🙂

8 responses to “Coming Back After ACL Surgery”

  1. Claire says:

    I am going through an ACL recovery myself and it’s a long process. It’s always nice to hear other people’s stories. I’m at 4 1/2 months and still don’t have full extension on my knee, which may potentially mean a 2nd surgery to clear the scar tissue. Patience I guess is the only answer!! Oh yeah, and hard work!


  2. craig says:

    Thanks for all the great feedback. I am having the surgery, hamstring graft, on December 13. They tell me there’s a chance I’ll be cleared to do some snorkeling on our Hawaii trip in March and it’s anticipated that I’ll be skydiving in six months. I’m sure I’ll be doing a lot of butt surf landings for all of next year’s season, but hey back in the air is back in the air. I’ve never been in it for the landings anyway.
    Thanks again.

  3. steph davis says:

    I’m glad you’re getting it done: I think that’s a good move. Good luck with recovery!

  4. Noel Celeste says:

    hi i am 3 weeks recovery i done the patella graft i had full extention from day 1 after the opp but just yest was walking and it slightly gave way and i fell straight to the ground do you thing i have done my acl again would like to know what you think thx noel

  5. steph davis says:

    Hi Noel, I’m really sorry to hear that. After I had ACL surgery, I had various moments of anxiety thinking I’d retorn the graft. I went to my physical therapist, because it is a very easy test for them to check the graft, and usually they don’t make an appointment or even charge for that. So see if you can check with a physio first, rather than having to go to your surgeon. Hope it’s okay!

  6. Rebekah Velasco says:

    My name is Rebekah and I tore my acl about three months ago during a stupid fall from the top of my gyms bouldering wall. Super non cool as I had been enjoying some high ball falls in joshua tree the entire spring until the injury. I stalled a little on the operation as I had some trouble finding the right trust level with my doc before he cut me open. However, now three days post op, Im beginning to feel progress and stoked on beginning the recovery process. I had read this post several times before the surgery and I am commenting now to thank you for posting it. It has inspired me through the process with hope of getting back to climbing before I know it.
    Many Thanks


  7. Noel Celeste says:

    sorry for the late reply it was ok but still in alot of pain after 6 months after a work out and even walking long distance it then turns into a limp dont know why even my physio is lost for words


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