INTERVIEW WITH ALEXIS SMITH: LEARNING HOW TO HEAL

66 alexis
Alexis cheering on NYC marathoners, November 2014

Runners don’t always run; sometimes they can’t. Meet Alexis Smith. She’s as much a runner at heart as any of us but she’s been sidelined by an injury for over a year. Here’s her story.

Alexis, thanks for talking to us. First off, why don’t you describe yourself as a runner? I took up running when I was 16, first as a way to stay in shape after quitting the soccer team and then gradually, as a way to center myself and shut out some of the noise associated with going to a high-pressure high school, and being a teenage girl in general. Gradually, running became an escape for me, a cure-all, and also just something fun to do with my time. For the next ten years, I ran consistently, sometimes up to 5 or 6 times a week for 6-8 miles at a time, and other times, 3 times a week at 3-4 miles a pop. Even when I tapered or took a few weeks or months off, running would welcome me back like an old friend. I’d say I was a loyal, adventurous runner, adventurous because I’ve attempted to run in many of the foreign countries I’ve visited, including Athens, Greece, where I ran around the ancient Olympic stadium in the center of the city, and loyal because I never lost faith in running’s power to restore me, in mind and body.

Amen, sister. So then what happened? I decided to try water skiing for the first time at 26. I assumed I’d have no problem doing it, since I’d been athletic my whole life. After falling a few times, I fell extremely hard and my leg and hip snapped back and hit the water. I felt a “pop,” and immediately knew something traumatic had happened to my body. After a few MRI’s and lots of pain, I was diagnosed as having a labral tear in my left hip. [According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, “A hip labral tear involves the ring of cartilage, called the labrum, that follows the outside rim of the socket of your hip joint. The labrum acts like a rubber seal or gasket to help hold the ball at the top of your thighbone securely within your hip socket.”] And because I had put off going to the doctor for several weeks (almost months), I began compensating, i.e. limping, which caused me to develop fluid in my knee, which made things even worse. Around this time, not only could I not run, but normal things like walking to the subway from my apartment, bending over to tie my shoes, and going out dancing with friends became painful and totally discouraging. I also experienced an annoying and uncomfortable clicking and snapping in my left hip whenever I walked. During this time, a few of my best friends were running marathons and half marathons, and it was hard for me to watch from the sidelines.

And now you’ve been on those sidelines for over a year. Oh man. How have you dealt with not being able to head out for a jog when you felt like it? Ha, do you want the honest answer? For the first few months, I was devastated. Being told by my doctor and my physical therapist that I shouldn’t be running was such a blow. I felt like something had been taken from me, and to some extent, it was. This was my cure-all, remember? It was extremely frustrating, and sometimes I’d deal with it by eating a box of Pop Tarts, which of course made me feel worse. But truly, one of the things that helped me accept my situation was living in NYC and seeing all of the injured people walking around (I didn’t really notice all of the canes and braces and casts until I got injured myself), because this moved me to feel tremendous compassion for myself and others. I felt compassion for myself because I had not only lost something I loved doing, however temporarily, but I was also in chronic pain, which I found is very tough to live with. Looking at myself and at the people around me, I realized in a way I had never before that we’re all vulnerable, that unfortunate things happen, but that we can get stronger and recover, and find new activities that bring us joy and satisfaction. Which brings me to physical therapy!

That was my next question. So what have your learned through that PT process? I did about 6 months of physical therapy, first with more a massage-type form of PT, and then later with a PT specializing in sports injuries. The latter honestly changed my life. Before my injury, running was my sole form of exercise, apart from a few crunches here and here. I always told myself I should do strength training, but nothing really pushed me to it. My injury changed everything; it made me shift my focus from logging as many miles as I could to getting stronger and more stable. In PT, I focused not just on strengthening my injured left hip, but also my right hip, my abdominal muscles, my quads, my glutes, etc.; basically by working everything around my injured labrum, I minimized pain to the point where I almost no longer felt it. I learned that injury prevention is necessary, and that nothing should ever be my sole form of exercise. I also learned that the elliptical machine is a god-send for people recovering from injuries; it gives you a good cardio workout with little to no impact, and it can be fun, too.

So PT has really turned your head around, not just your body? Physical therapy taught me that my body can heal itself. I was told by some people that my labral tear would never heal on its own, which to some extent, is true; the labrum is just cartilage, and cartilage can’t grow back. However, what I realized through physical therapy, and asking my doctors the right questions, is that physical therapy can strengthen EVERYTHING around your labrum, so that you don’t feel the pain anymore and so that you have enough stability to run a few miles here or there on the treadmill.

I have talked to a surgeon, and surgery is always an option if basic, everyday things become painful again, but right now, I’m just so grateful that with PT, hard work, dedication (doing those at-home exercises are a drag, but they really work), and a (relatively) positive attitude, I’m in virtually no pain.

Forget the cliche. No pain is a big gain. Hopefully the next step will be running, but for now, I’m finding lots of ways to get other good workouts, and also, finding other “cure-all’s.” I’m grateful for my recovery every day.

Alexis Smith is an associate editor for the Communication list at Macmillan Education in New York. She lives in Manhattan.