Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Broken - Part 1

 I wrote this article a while ago and forgot to post it.

 This saga began on a Friday. It had been a fruitful day for my research. I had had an optimistic meeting with my advisors and a great lunch with colleagues. I went back home in the evening mightily satisfied with my life. After taking a nap and browsing through thirty restaurant pages on Github, I told myself that I had to kickstart my productivity by taking a walk to this really nice place that sells homemade ice-creams. 

Halfway through the walk, I thought to myself that my biggest fault seemed to be the fact that I keep squandering my potential by giving into impulses. After all, I had spent all summer intensely working out. I was swimming more than a 1000 yards every other day and weight training on other days. Late night ice creams did not fit into the plan, for you see, I had a plan.

Instead, I decided to walk towards the gym. It was about 9:00 PM and I thought I could take the late night shuttle back home that would drop me at my doorstep. With new pink shoes, new pink shirt and teal shorts, I felt empowered. I was walking towards the university and I told myself that how my life worked itself out and how nice it was to be where I was. I told myself that I should never drive myself crazy and think about how happy I felt at that moment on what was a beautiful Friday night in Pittsburgh. I am not making this up to build this into a story. I was truly happy and in a weird way, what happened after this makes me worried about feeling happy about anything, ever again. I am forever going to be haunted about how I jinxed myself.

Ten minutes later, at the gym, I had 10 pounds in each hand and was doing lunges. After three lunges, a voice popped in my head and told me that I ought to be doing reverse lunges because the forward ones were too easy. I happily stuck my leg back and as I bent my knee, I realized I was losing balance for my other leg was tripping over what was a free weight on the floor. I had just broken what I now know as the golden rule for lunges - never stick your leg in an unknown direction assuming that no one would leave a free weight lying around. Along with these rules, I had also broken a whole bunch of things in my knee.

Since my knee was in a bent position, when I lost balance and fell down, my knee cap (patella) was slingshot out of its groove as the ligament that holds it in place tore. My patella also managed to tear a piece of cartilage and break a chunk of bone on its path of destruction. For more details and an animated explanation see here

It took a couple of days to understand that this was more serious than it initially appeared to be. It was a week before I saw an orthopedic doctor, two more days to get an MRI and get a diagnosis.

Two weeks later, the surgeon patiently explained my options to me - I had to get the torn cartilage re-attached to the bone and get my medial patellofemoral ligament reconstructed. I could also get the torn cartilage taken out and get my knee closed up without doing anything about reattaching it. He told me that this would leave my bone unprotected and I would almost certainly get arthritis in ten years and strongly discouraged this. He told me that I was going to get a surgery one way or another.

In short, I was in for a long ordeal. Sometimes it is so difficult to acknowledge accidents. I had a carefully prepared plan for what was going to be crucial two months and all my plans smoldered when I was gasping on the gym floor holding my knee. I keep trying to understand what made me change my mind from getting that ice-cream - I could have been safe. Why did I have to go to gym on a Friday night when the rest of the world was taking a break. And even if I did go to the gym, wasn't it a good thing? Wasn't I honoring my body with my commitment? 

When I come to the "Why me" question I keep remembering this quote that was once a tie-breaker question in a quiz that I lost. Arthur Ashe contracted HIV due to infected blood that he received during a heart surgery in the early 80s. Apparently, he received tons of letters from his plans asking "Why you". Arthur Ashe was supposed to have said "The world over-- 50,000,000 children start playing tennis, 5, 000, 000 learn to play tennis, 500, 000 learn professional tennis, 50,000 come to the circuit, 5000 reach the grand slam, 50 reach the Wimbledon, 4 to semi-finals, 2 to finals. When I was the one holding the cup, I never asked God "Why me?". And today in pain I should not be asking God ‘Why me?’ "

Of course, I haven't achieved anything close to what Arthur Ashe did and it would be extremely presumptuous of me to overstate my sense of purpose, but it feels like a great way to think about adversity. I have always been that person for whom statistically improbable things happen - I get business class upgrades, I win raffles, my name comes up in a random draw, I get picked up for TV game shows and win them. I have accepted all this unquestioningly and the only way to accept this suffering is to do the same. Not that I have a choice. 

The other day, I mused glumly to a friend that if I had been a horse or a dog, I would have been put down at this point. He pointed to me that I was neither a horse nor a dog and that for a person who tries to build counterfactuals for a living, I was terrible at coming up with a positive one. Accordingly, I have told myself that if I had gone to eat ice-cream something worse would have happened anyway and I should be very glad for the kind of friends who help me keep my sanity.

 What happened after this is best left to another post.

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