Sports doctors & mom’s mental health

I was treated like an athlete, like what I do matters, even if I’m not winning, like my lifestyle of choice was taken seriously.

author Jacqueline Palfy at physical therapy

I sat on the side of the bike path, clutching my wrist.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” my daughter, who is 7, said next to me, standing over her purple bike. We had been winding our way up to the bridge that takes you to Riverdale Park, on our way to a picnic for a local bike shop here in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“It’s OK,” I told her. “I’m fine, and it was an accident. Don’t worry about it.”

She didn’t look convinced, and neither was I, as I frantically clawed off my watch and the random ponytail holders I always have with me as a mom with long hair with a daughter with long hair. Everything touching my right wrist hurt, and I felt sick to my stomach for a moment.

I had fallen off my bike, landing hard on an outstretched right arm. It was the classic slow-motion fall –- as I encouraged her to pump her pedals and get to the top of the hill, so proud of herself for learning how to pedal standing up, I slowed down. Then, when she got scared, she laid her bike toward me and walked out the other side. In my focus on her, I came to a complete and total stop, right until I realized uh-oh, and slowly, carefully and painfully fell.

My son and our friend had been a bit ahead of us, and they came back to help, picking my bike up off the path.

We began to walk over the bridge, and then I climbed back on my bike and rode one-handed to the park, where I sat myself in the shade of a tree and watched my wrist begin to swell. In typical mom fashion, I thought it would be OK if I just rested a bit. After an hour, though, we realized it wouldn’t be –- or I realized it, I think everyone else already knew and was just waiting for me to get there. They went to get the car. We drove home.

“I think it’s broken,” my boyfriend said.

“It’s fine,” I snapped back, cranky with pain and denial.

I slept on it, cradled it, did everything gingerly and then sat in a work meeting on Monday morning and watched it slowly double in size. My coworkers here at Sanford Health, where I work in media relations, encouraged me to go to the orthopedic walk-in clinic on the main medical center campus.

I don’t know why I was hesitating. I can just be stubborn sometimes, and I didn’t want to admit it might be broken. Already I had been struggling -– after stepping into a pile of snow in April, something in my calf had popped, and I wasn’t able to run. This came on the heels of missing a 50-mile race in Minnesota due to a blizzard, a huge disappointment.

Biking was keeping me active and outside and doing all the things for my mental health that exercise always does, which is to tame the demons, every day, mile by mile.

Eric Bannwarth was the physician’s assistant who saw me first at the walk-in clinic. I know Eric. He’s a long-distance runner, too, and we’ve seen each other at many trail races, group runs and on social media. I confess that I was happy to see someone I knew and who is an athlete –- he would understand the frustration I felt not being able to do the things I love. We’ve all had the experience of seeing a doctor who doesn’t get it -– I know I’m not a college athlete or even generally winning the master’s division of races (though sometimes!), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important to me to maintain my weekly mileage, train for races, and be able to bike around town with my family.

“Eric, I need to talk to you as a patient and not a coworker,” I told him, near tears. And then I proceeded to complain mightily about how frustrated I was.

“Fifty percent of my limbs aren’t working,” I told him. “I can’t run right now. And if this is broken, then what?”

He was kind, as he always is, and put a temporary splint on it until the swelling went down and set me up with an appointment with a hand surgeon the next week -– after diagnosing a broken wrist, or distal radius fracture. My version is a fairly run-of-the-mill iteration of this, one of the most commonly broken bones.

A week later, I returned to the Van Demark building for an appointment with Hillary Becker, M.D., a hand surgeon. But first I saw Vanessa Smith, a physician’s assistant I have accompanied on various media interviews where she talked about her work in clinical trials involving non-opioid treatments for pain management after carpal-tunnel surgeries.

Again, it just felt good to see a familiar face, and Vanessa listened to all my complaints with a truly empathetic expression. She explained how to manage the pain, which wasn’t severe and didn’t compare to the growing sense of despondency I felt about not being able to do anything.

I know a broken right wrist is not that big of a deal –- really, more of an inconvenience -– but still frustrating. How many of us just aren’t used to having to slow down? And the kids try their best, but they’re still kids and only help out so much. Then there’s work -– trying to type felt insurmountable.

I think Vanessa took one look at my face and knew it was more than my wrist.

She came back in a bit later and had a slip of paper for me -– she had made me an appointment with a sports medicine doctor later that day to take a look at my calf.

“We have to get you running again,” she said. In that moment, I swear I loved her. It would be easy to tell someone, “Hey, take this time to relax and read or catch up on TV shows or meditate or have coffee with girlfriends.” All that is good, and I’ve done it -– but what I really needed was to feel like myself, and that means exercise.

The doctor diagnosed a strain in my calf and set me up for physical therapy at Sanford POWER. I connected with Josie Oakland out there, who has been working with runners. She did all the normal things -– massage and cupping and some stretches and strength exercises. She assured me I wouldn’t cause additional damage if I tried to run on it, but I might have to walk home if it started to hurt. And she cautioned me to carefully choose my terrain so I didn’t fall on my wrist.

We talked about my training, about upcoming races (Black Hills 50 in June, which I’ll have to pull out of), about the simple joys of being a runner.

When I left there, I felt like something in me had lifted. I was inspired again. I was treated like an athlete, like what I do matters, even if I’m not winning, like my lifestyle of choice was taken seriously. It’s not always that way for runners. We’re a strange breed, I know that. This broken wrist is my seventh broken bone, and yet somehow we all keep going.

Even when I was pregnant, I specifically sought out an OB-GYN who understood runners and could help me run throughout my pregnancies.

After the visit with Josie, my boyfriend and I borrowed a tandem from a friend, so I could sit on the back, pedal away and hold on with one hand. It got me moving, got us outside together, took us downtown for gelato and cocktails, to a group ride with 50 other people around town on a Saturday, on a 30-mile trip around the city to run errands one weekend day.

I was able to run and walk for about six mile at Newton Hills State Park over the following weekend, and when I became overly confident and hopped over the trail and landed painfully on my left leg, I knew that even though I would limp a bit back to the car, that it would heal and everything would be OK.

But I wouldn’t have even tried those things the week or two before. I was too crabby about the injuries, too overwhelmed by all of it and feeling unable to crawl my way back up.

I’m doing my calf raises at work, foam-rolling in my office area, and asked a yoga teacher the other day if she could help me modify during a class so I wouldn’t use my wrist. With every step toward healing, I feel my mood lift. With every bit of time spent outside or exercising –- even just a walk after dinner or before work –- I feel human again.

And a huge part of that is because these doctors and surgeons and physician’s assistants and physical therapists saw me as a whole person, not just my broken wrist or strained calf. They talked to me like an athlete, like an active mom with two kids who wants to set a good example.

I met with friends this week to plan a five-day backpacking trip to the Grand Canyon this fall, and I knew that I would be healed and back in shape and ready for it.

I feel better today than I have in weeks –- my son carried all the laundry baskets up for me this week and has learned to mow the lawn, kind of, with help from my boyfriend. My daughter is folding things and clearing the dishes, putting items in the grocery cart.

We’re all sitting on the deck, music on, flowers planted, sun setting.

Mood, lifted.

Posted In Behavioral Health, Health Information, Orthopedics, Running, Sports Medicine

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