By Ambassador Kathryn Dove

Life is full of challenges.  Some are small and others are big.  The small ones keep things exciting, for example learning to mountain bike.  I pretty much tumbled down the entire mountain during one of my first rides at Mt Hood Ski Bowl.  Endo after endo.  Granted I was on a now nearly twenty year old XC bike, a far cry from the Kona Process 153 DL that I ride today, but it was still a challenge to dust myself off after each crash, get back on the bike and try again.  The big challenges in life, however, are the ones that force us to stop, reset, and start over.  Injuries are at the top of the list of obstacles that can bring life to a halt.  Flying downhill between giant trees and over sharp rocks on a mountain bike makes it easy to understand why this sport has the potential for disaster, and given that the only proven way to avoid mountain bike injuries is to not mountain bike, most riders are going to face the challenge of recovering from injury at some point in their life.  Staying motivated in the face of this obstacle is the key to success.

Tumbling down the mountain at Ski Bowl was minor in comparison to what happened a few years later resulting in one of the bigger challenges I have faced in my life.  I was at Stevens Pass Bike Park and managed to fracture my forearm so badly that one of the bones broke through the skin.  I have a clear memory of telling the bike patrol that this injury would not be fixable and that I would have to give up my career as a physical therapist before it even started.  Lucky for me the bike patrollers were right in assuring me that yes this could definitely be fixed.  Still a tough way to learn that pulling too much front brake while turning usually doesn’t end well.  But even breaking my arm and spending four days in the hospital to have two separate surgeries and delay my graduation from Physical Therapy (PT) school by three months (something I thought would never happen) didn’t stop me from getting back on the bike. Actually the exact opposite happened. 

Mountain biking initially came to a screeching halt.  I shifted my focus to recovering from the injury, figuring out how to still graduate from PT school, and working as much as I could with a broken arm since I had to take a break from school which at the time was putting me deep into debt.  I broke my arm in August and didn’t even get back on a mountain bike until about a year later.  But eventually after recovering from that injury and getting back to riding bikes I started getting into bike racing.  This initially consisted of me just working on making it down the course without getting off my bike.  Getting into bike racing slowly led to working on getting faster at riding my bike which eventually led to working on jumping my bike through the air so that I didn’t have to ride over every little rock and root on the race course.  Working on jumping led to the realization that flying through the air on my bike is really damn fun.  Which finally leads to now with me being way more obsessed with biking (and finally a little more skilled at) than I was when I broke my arm eight years ago.

Photo: Patrick Zuest

But wait…Is my brain wired wrong?  Why do I fall in love with things that beat me up? And why did a really bad injury spur me to double down on mountain biking? Strangely enough this isn’t the first time in my life that I have come to love the exact thing that put me through so much trauma.  When I was 19 years old I broke my hip snowboarding and spent five days in Harborview (the level one trauma center in the greater Seattle region aka the place you go when things are serious) before being cleared to go home and start the long recovery back to normal.  So while the compound fracture at Stevens Pass sounded bad it was actually nothing in comparison to this experience because I didn’t just break my hip the way that 80 year old women do while falling down the stairs.  I actually shattered the acetabulum which is the socket part of the hip joint.  When I first showed up to a local hospital with this injury they assumed that I had just dislocated my hip based on the description of the injury and my current state (right leg oriented in a weird inward angle) and upon trying to reduce the dislocation (in other words put my hip back into place) they found that it would just pop right back out. 

After five days at Harborview I spent the following few months at my parents house before I was able to move back to my college apartment.  I had to drop most of the classes I was taking that quarter.  It really felt like my whole world stopped turning.  I used crutches to move around for the next three months and had my first introduction to the world of physical therapy.  I remember feeling really depressed at times.  It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you are right at the entrance.  But little by little and day by day I got better and stronger and more mobile until by the end of that summer, about six months after the initial injury, I was back to running and starting to get excited for the upcoming snowboarding season.  And now you are really starting to question my sanity.  Seriously, I just went through the most horrible time in my entire life to that point and I really want to go snowboarding again?  What is wrong with me?

I’m sure you have all heard the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and maybe I’m being over dramatic in relating it to my life experiences, but I believe it’s true.  What I went through at age 19 ingrained in me a drive to keep going.   Throughout that injury the question of giving up snowboarding never crossed my mind although I remember plenty of people asking me if I was going to.  Coming out the other side only strengthened my choice.  I look back now and often think of all the good things that ultimately were a result of that injury.  I learned how much my family and close friends mean to me.  I learned about the world of physical therapy which ultimately became my career.  Maybe most importantly I learned that I can overcome challenges.  So when I fast forward from that point in my life to the compound fracture at Stevens Pass I suppose it comes as no surprise that this challenge would result in what seems to be a similar outcome.

As a physical therapist I am constantly in awe of the challenges that are faced by the patients that I get the opportunity to treat.  I remember working in a hospital with a high school senior who had fractured his femur, which is the thigh bone, in a quad ATV accident.  He didn’t have to tell me that he was in massive amounts of pain for me to know.  The femur is the largest bone in the body.  It’s hard to even imagine how much that would hurt.  And yet he would put in 100% of his effort to use the strength in his upper body and his uninjured side to transport himself up and down the stairs using crutches so that I could be confident in my decision to safely discharge him from the hospital to begin his injury recovery journey which I imagine led eventually back to playing in the woods on fun toys.  And I don’t think I’ll ever forget the older woman that I worked with in a skilled nursing facility who had fractured her humerus, which is the upper arm bone, after falling on her treadmill at home and waiting over three hours for her husband to notice because she could not get up and was unable to call for help.  She didn’t spend her time with me feeling sad that this terrible experience had happened.  Instead she used the time to work on improving her leg strength so that she could walk safely on her own in order to return home and get back to the life she loved with her husband.  And I know I won’t ever forget working with a young man who had undergone a lower leg amputation following a number of surgeries to treat a dirt bike injury.  I can’t remember all the details of the injury but I do remember this person’s drive to progress.  He was relentless with his program every time he came to the clinic and would push himself harder than most other patients I ever worked with.  His goal was to get back to not only walking but also skiing, hiking, running and maybe even dirt biking.  I wish I knew if he met all of these goals but with the endless motivation that he brought to the physical therapy sessions I can’t imagine that he hasn’t met those and long since moved onto bigger ones.  All of these patients’ lives abruptly came to a halt from their injuries yet they dug deep to find the motivation to refocus their energy on getting back to the lives they loved.

Yes, injuries are tough and sometimes they bring our lives to a halt, but giving up is not the answer.  I see this every day at work and it’s been drilled into my personality through my life experiences.  My job is to help people manage and recover from injuries that are impacting their lives in the same way that mine was impacted when I broke my hip snowboarding over fifteen years ago.  I see over and over again that the people who are motivated to get back to life are the ones that do.  So here’s to overcoming challenges, especially the ones that force us to stop, reset, and start over again.

Photo credit Jackson Dove