“You’re probably not going to be happy about this, but we’ve pretty much done all we can,” said the physical therapist, who I’ll call T, as I sat on the vinyl treatment table facing her. “We think you should be done.”

My heart started racing and my face felt hot. I didn’t want to be done with physical therapy. I still walked with a limp and my left leg burned with every step. 

Eleven months earlier, I had slipped at the top of a stairway in my house and hit the landing in a standing position on one leg. This caused my femur to push down, dislocate my knee, tear ligaments and crush the bone below in what’s known as a tibial plateau fracture. 

In my obsessive Googling of this injury, I found references to auto, motorcycle and skiing accidents. Carpeted stairways were not noted. 

It was a freak occurrence; I wasn’t dizzy or drunk.  

Over the last 11 months, I had endured two surgeries, excruciating pain, six months of crutches, the unexpected terror of learning to walk again and a broken wrist caused by a fall on a wet pool deck. (I should have listened to that voice inside of me that said it wasn’t a good idea to swim when I needed two crutches for support.)

I came home from that final appointment with T and cried. I didn’t understand why she was letting me go. It couldn’t be about money. Insurance was still covering my rehabilitation.

Was it something about me? But I was trying so hard! I never missed an appointment, and I approached the exercises she gave me with religious fervor.  

But I also thought about the time, a few months earlier, when I had complained about how much it hurt, even when I was just sitting. “Maybe you should take a break from thinking about your leg,” she said.

I longed to take a break. I didn’t want to think about the pain or the exercises. I was exhausted by the hyper-alertness needed for steep stairs, dark restaurants, curbs, steps without railings, buildings without elevators and icy sidewalks. 

I wanted to be normal, like the people I watched with envy from my front windows. They walked by on sunlit summer mornings tethered to their dogs or in fast-moving, chatty pairs, their legs propelling them with well-oiled ease. 

My orthopedic surgeon had told me that recovery would take about a year. But here I was, approaching that benchmark with a spindly, sore leg and an uneven gait. Now, without T, how would I ever get better?

Then I remembered I had the name of another physical therapist who had been recommended by a 70-something friend shortly after I fell. I hadn’t followed up because T was near my surgeon’s office. At the time, it felt less complicated to see her. 

But now I was desperate. Besides, my friend had called this person a “miracle worker.” I doubted anyone could work miracles, but I made an appointment.

The new therapist, who I’ll call M, spent our first meeting examining me and listening. Then she said, “I don’t see any reason why you can’t get better.” 

I began seeing M every week. She started each session by asking how I felt. As I spoke, she nodded and took notes. Then she physically manipulated my leg – and other affected body parts – with delicate precision.

She sent me home with exercises to strengthen both of my legs and improve my balance. She also taught me how to sit, stand and bend without hurting my back. (Shortly after I began seeing M, I injured my back because my legs were weak.)

When I worried aloud about my future, she reminded me that I was gradually improving.

More than anything, M provided hope. She was like a good coach, the kind who believes in you to such a degree that you begin to believe in yourself.

Eighteen months after my first appointment with M, I danced in (sensible) heels at my niece’s wedding. It felt like a turning point.

Today, five years after my fall, pain and fear don’t hover over me. I can walk for miles and I don’t limp. I can also swim and ride my bike. 

It’s counterintuitive, but the gravity of my injury and the intensity of this experience have left me feeling lucky. I’m lucky I crushed my leg and not my spine or skull. I’m lucky I live in an area densely populated with high-quality medical care. I’m lucky to have good health insurance. And I’m lucky to have generous friends, helpful neighbors, and a big, supportive family.

I still don’t understand why my first physical therapist ended it with me, but it doesn’t matter because I was lucky enough to find M. I often tell people she saved my life. If that’s an overstatement, let’s just say she worked a miracle.

Nancy E. Anderson

Nancy E. Anderson is a writer, communications consultant and swim coach. She has lived in Evanston since 1992.

2 replies on “Nancy E. Anderson: What am I thankful for? My physical therapist.”

  1. I had a similar situation. A doctor recommended P as P had helped her when other pts had not. P did dry needling on my back which helped my hip muscle which had been torn during hip replacement surgery. I walk with less of a limp but don’t have to use a cane all the time any more. The right therapist makes all the difference.

  2. So glad you are doing well, Nancy. Your story is a potent reminder of the gratitude we should all have (and express!) to our healthcare providers. I had a similar experience with a shattered knee and wonderful surgeon and Physical Therapist. Good physical therapy is a game changer. An injury of the magnitude of yours also requires a dogged dedication from the patient to work through pain in order to progress. Kudos to you as well as M!

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