How My Hamstring Injury Has Perfectly Mirrored (and Predicted) the Arc of This Pandemic
Once upon a time in August 2019 I made the regrettable decision that many of us have made: taking an unnecessary photo #ForTheGram. Unlike many who come away relatively unscathed from such an activity, I did not.
Though at first I did not realize it.
My ill-advised set up involved the swing set in my childhood backyard and two swings, one for each foot. The goal was to recreate a pose I could do as a child: a split between two swings. So, remote camera at the ready, I saddled up each foot, but as I held the reins of my front foot’s swing tightly and began a controlled sink into the split, my back foot had other plans: i.e. it slipped. My left foot shot away behind me and suddenly all my very-much-no-longer-twelve-year-old weight was in the hands of my right hamstring tendon.
I felt the snap.
Later I would describe it to my physical therapist, the nurse at the doctor’s office, the orthopedic doctor, and it was hearing about that sensation that gave them the most pause.
That day in the backyard, it didn’t give me much pause at all.
I hopped down from the swing, in pain, and tried a walking hamstring stretch, thinking maybe I’d pulled a muscle. A stretch is not what a torn tendon needs, and my cat watched reproachfully from the deck as if she knew while I paced back and forth trying to decide if I was okay.
As much as it hurt, the spot was very localized, and all the muscles around it seemed unaffected. That August I was probably the most fit I’d been in my life. My legs were bulky and capable from strength training, dance, and ice hockey — all of which I continued to do with my new little injury.
Sure, I iced it that night, but it didn’t stop me riding my bike across the valley for a swim that day, nor from getting a lesson how to drive stick on a small, cantankerous dump truck (Vermont living at its finest). Back in Boston from visiting my parents, my life was not much different. I went back to working out with the personal trainer I’d been training with, only a little careful of my hamstring. I taught dance classes with hip flexion and jumping, two things I would learn later are not great at all for ham injuries. I even played a three-day hockey tournament in my usual position as goalie, our team making it all the way to the end and winning.
Looking back, I cringe at all those saves. All those unpredictable movements and sudden leg extensions that could have made my injury much, much worse.
It was four weeks in when I thought maybe this isn’t going away. Thus commenced about a six month-long period of Waiting and Seeing. First I rested, and it wasn’t enough. Then I went to physical therapy, went through dry needling with the frightfully long needles, and that wasn’t enough. A few months isn’t all that long in the long run, but my heart was hurting as much as my leg, missing the activities that brought me joy and a peace of mind that I could only get on the strength training floor of a gym, the wood floor of a dance studio, the skate-safe black rubber mats and chipped up ice of a rink. Finally, with no signs of improvement, I was referred to an orthopedic doctor, and with the soft whir of her ultrasound machine and a dab of cold jelly we finally looked at it.
In all the time previously, the injury had felt very invisible, not really affecting my walk or being painful enough that it showed. But in the blue fuzz of the ultrasound screen, we saw my tendon. It didn’t look like much to me at first, but then my doctor pointed out the scar tissue that we could now see had tried to form around a partial tear. That snap I had felt in my parents’ backyard on the swings that day.
So now let’s bring covid into this. I had a minor operation in the last days before the pandemic was truly acknowledged or felt in the US in the middle of February. We did an operation — the Tenex procedure, designed for tendon troubles like tennis elbow — after two months of delay because my insurance company didn’t think additional imaging of my injury was necessary, imaging my doctor needed to better understand how to approach the operation. My insurance company put up such a fight with appeals and denials that we did the operation without the MRI (thanks for nothing UnitedHealth).
I cried on the operation table, prone before the procedure, and my incredibly kind nurse told me it wouldn’t hurt so bad. She didn’t know that I was crying from relief — to be finally getting somewhere, active in healing my leg better. It was a moment of relief in the months that would come of crutches, then back to physical therapy, then back to the doctor as I stalled in getting better, because — like this pandemic — this hamstring injury is very hard to be done with.
Maybe it could have been shortened if I’d had the right response from the moment of injury, but like the general public of the U.S., having no idea what I was in for, I continued as normal. But normal for me didn’t work, in fact it had only made it worse. I limped along through dance and hockey and functional training the way the U.S. limped through the spring and the summer, setting myself up for prolonged struggles just as the U.S. did going into the winter, and never getting fully better because part way commitment to healing an injury or to eradicating a virus won’t cut it. I was hobbled in my treatment path by our healthcare system that did not support me (or more notably, my doctor’s recommendations) and then charged me the amount of my stimulus check for my surgery, just as the healthcare system at large in the U.S. has been too slow, too unhelpful, too expensive when the public needed it to be most accessible and responsive.
My leg was on a good trend through the summer in 2020 — a year after the original injury — but one weekend I did a little too much sitting and a slightly too optimistic workout and the site got irritated again. Just like how the government loosens restrictions before the virus is under control, people are given the responsibility of weighing risk and benefit for themselves and we head into fall with a slow but steady climb of covid in our wastewater.
It’s been eighteen months now for me and this injury, and that irritation from summer 2020 has not gone down since. I went back to my ortho doctor earlier this year to look at the tendon again because my little care team of my physical therapist, my orthopedic doctor, and I are baffled why this isn’t going away. Why, when we looked again in the ultrasound this January, there are still those fingers of irritation gripping my tendon but now they’ve just moved lower than where they used to be.
So — I get it.
To our government officials tired of grappling with this health crisis, with the logistical mayhem of testing, vaccines, and restrictions varying across states; to the people sick of the masks, just wanting to ‘live their lives’ — I really get it. I’m staring down another four weeks seeing if a cortisone shot worked to bring the inflammation in my leg down and potentially another three to six months if we try a plasma injection. I am ready to dance pain free again. I’m ready to play hockey again without worrying about hurting myself with every butterfly save. Someday when I’m injury free it will have been years since that day on the swings in 2019. I am mentally and emotionally burnt out from feeling like I’m trying my hardest with resting, doing my physical therapy homework, and avoiding unnecessary hip flexion — and getting nowhere. I would give just about anything to fade into the back row of a Zumba class and not worry about my leg.
I am tired of this.
But I know I’m not done. I know I’ve still got months to get better, and what’s going to get me through it are small goals and good support. To our government officials that have failed in so many ways to protect the American people — it’s my job to stick with my treatment plan and take care of this body through this injury, just as it’s your job to take care of all of our bodies, our collective body, and see that this country heals through covid (and that other countries heal too — our vaccination plan must be urgently global) with competent support and communication.
Just like this pandemic, my hamstring injury doesn’t have a clear end date or a victorious finish line.
There won’t be a day when my leg is suddenly better.
What I’ve learned and what we all should take away from my very stubborn hamstring is that it won’t get better unless we’re consistently and simultaneously doing everything right: the right restrictions on activity, the right amount of rest staying at home, the right health care (and the right mental health care), and the acknowledgement that this is going to continue to be a long haul. To the U.S. government officials that have metaphorically and in some cases literally abandoned their constituents — is it a fun time right now, keeping our heads in the game to actually get covid under control?
But if you follow my patient, determined lead, I have a feeling in the future there will be a lot more dancing for all of us.