My friend Joe crashed his mountain bike on a relatively mellow, sweeping right hand bend section of fast-rolling singletrack on July 7, dislocating both shoulders, which meant a summer and fall of walking around in an immobilizing sling. I watched the whole thing via Joe’s Instagram feed, and when I saw him, he had written “CHIN UP” on the exercise ball attached to the sling. Of course, he was down. He was worried that not only was his summer gone, but he wouldn’t be able to ski at all this season in the Wasatch.
He had surgery on July 13, closed reduction of bilateral posterior glenohumeral dislocation, which in non-complicated medical terms, is a big deal — according to one research paper: “Bilateral dislocation of the shoulder is a rare injury. The main causes are electrical shock, extreme trauma, and epilepsy.”
After five weeks of recovery, he asked his doctor, Hey, my other shoulder feels pretty jacked up, too. The doc told him, Hey, you have to have one good shoulder. Meaning he had to get one healed before they decided to deal with the other one. Joe had personally “reduced” it (put it back in place) after the injury.
The toughest thing, at least at first, is probably not the pain, the lasting effects of an injury. It’s not being able to move. Going from ripping down trails to walking around the block for exercise. Climbing easy routes, worrying about re-aggravating something. Getting thera-bands out and doing physical therapy, which everyone knows is about 1 percent as fun as skiing or climbing. Wondering if it’s really healed.
Your friends try to prop you up, which is great, but at the end of the day, you have to deal with it. Over dinner with Joe back in August, I was that guy, trying to be a ray of sunshine and be positive, because that’s what you do when your friends are down. But then I realized maybe that wasn’t what Joe needed and said You know what, it’s OK to be sad sometimes.
On August 18, after six weeks in a sling, Joe posted a photo of his right arm in the sling, and a short goodbye letter below it, beginning, “Dear Ultrasling III…” He got an MRI on the left shoulder on October 11, to see if he needed surgery on that one as well.
Before he got the results of the MRI back, he posted a photo of a trail banking through a stand of trees thick with pink and gold leaves: He went for an easy ride on his bike. His doctor told him his left shoulder had a few common side effects from self-reducing a dislocation, but if the bike ride felt good, go for it. On October 19th, Joe posted this collage of his injury and recovery, 14 weeks of rehab, MRIs, physical therapy, and keeping his chin up:
When I saw Joe’s collage, I laughed and pumped my fist in the air, happy for that guy who was so glum a couple months ago. He was one of a handful of my friends who broke something while doing what they loved: Syd’s reaggravated calf muscle tear during a race in Central Park, Chris’s wrist injury, Steve’s catastrophic ski accident that broke his tibia and fibia, and part of his knee. Fitz broke his foot and bruised his spleen in a climbing fall.
But no one I know sits around and uses their injury as an excuse to stop moving. Every one of them comes back: Sits out for almost as long as their doctors say, does the physical therapy exercises, walks, then bikes, then runs. Nobody gets fat and blames it on their “bad back” or “bum knee,” and talks about the stuff they used to do. They can’t seem to help themselves. Fitz recently made a film about Roger Strong, whose legs were nearly ripped in half in an avalanche, hanging on by one knee tendon each, and returned to ski the same line exactly 365 days after his accident.
I’ve been lucky myself. I have nothing but minor tweaks most of the time, two shoulders that like to develop pains here and there, a kneecap that doesn’t track like it should. For the most part, I feel younger than I feel old, but if something does happen, I’m thankful to have some role models to show me how to come back. We’re not superstar ball-sports athletes, whose careers can end with a single unlucky move on a basketball court or a field; we’re people who do what we do because we love it, and we can find a way back, maybe a little slower, a little more cautious, but with the same passion.
A couple weekends ago, I sent a text to my pal Lee, who’s in his 50s and has been having trouble with his knee and shoulders lately. And his back. But he’s still faster than me. I asked, Wanna climb some ice Monday, and he texted back,
Short approach like Silverplume? Having an MRI done on my knee today.
[photos by Joe Penacoli]
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