Grasping for Thoreau….

29 May

This blog has been one that I’ve wanted to write for a long time but have been too scared.  I was worried that making this information public would hurt my chances of getting sponsorships or with USA Triathlon and the ITU racing path.  I do mostly non-draft racing now, I have great sponsors who support me tremendously,  I have a triathlon coach who is also a dear friend and a great RMR coaching/teammate support; I feel free to write whatever I want now…

In 2007, I went into an operating room thinking that I had a simple meniscal tear in my right knee. This is a pretty standard operation, the recovery time is very short and it is a pretty shallow speed bump for any runner to overcome.  I woke up in post anesthesia psychosis with someone telling me not to put my leg down on the ground.  Although I was out of my mind, I knew something didn’t sound right. I had a simple arthroscopic surgery and I knew the post-operative course didn’t include avoiding weight on the leg. My confusion was more than just the drugs.  I managed to get in the car and into bed at home- all while obeying these strange instructions.  The next day I went to see my orthopedic surgeon.  She explained to me that I didn’t have a meniscus tear. I had a meniscal cyst- which required a lateral menisectomy (taking the lateral meniscus out).  Ok, I can deal with that.  Bummer, but I’ll be ok- I’ve got a medial meniscus and some good youthful articular cartilage on the other side of the joint. Then she explained that this was the good news…The bad news was that I had a full thickness articular cartilage lesion down to the bone on the other side of the joint.  The lesion was larger than they size of a quarter- about the entire size of the femoral condyle.  She explained that she had to perform a micro fracture surgery that wasn’t even indicated for this size of a lesion but she didn’t have any other option at the time because the lesion was an “intra-operative surprise” (never a good thing).  I really didn’t know what she was talking about at the time so she put it is simple terms: I had almost no native cartilage left on the femur side of my knee joint and no meniscus (a different type of cartilage-like material) left on the tibial side of the knee joint. These things never grow back.  They are like brain cells- once you lose them, they are gone permanently.  She explained that this injury ends the careers of many pro basketball and football players (including most recently Greg Oden of the trailblazers- his lesion was only the size of a pencil eraser though).  She clarified that what this meant for me was that I probably would never run again and if, for some reason, I could run- it would be a very bad idea to try.  In the short term, I would not be able to put my leg down on the ground for at least 3 months and I wouldn’t be able to walk long distances, ride a bike, elliptical or anything else of low impact for at least a year.

UMMM!?!!! This was a shock. I expected a 2 week recovery from a simple meniscal surgery and now I am looking at a recovery of years in duration.  Running for me was like air, I couldn’t live without it. To run pain free was the reason I elected for this surgery in the first place.  “Devastating” was an understatement.  Running was my life in college.  In fact, it is what got me into college and probably not insignificant to my acceptance into medical school.  Running had been one of the few things in life that I was both really good at and loved.

A few months later I moved to Charlottesville to start medical school (still on crutches) and I was resolved to being a student, trying not to get too fat and thinking about other passions I could pursue.  I got off my crutches and started to feel pretty sorry for myself. I was in a haze of self-pity most of the time. Then something happened that put me in my place pretty quickly: My mom was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer that she would pass away from 3 years later.  Suddenly my little knee didn’t seem like such a big thing anymore; my egocentric world suddenly seemed pretty small and insignificant.

In regards to how I handled my knee, my mom’s cancer helped me do two things that seem paradoxically opposed to each other.  The first was that I chilled out about the knee big time.   I didn’t try to come back too fast, in fact- I might have waited longer than a year to ride a bike.  I would swim occasionally with a pull buoy without touching the wall but, other than that, I did a whole lot of nothing.  It would have been nice to have the stress relief of going for a run during those times but the neurotic aspect of my running was gone. I was ok just to sit and heal.

During that year- I did go to two different well-renown orthopedic surgeons (one at UVA).   I asked for a second opinion about the running and they both told me not to do it even if I could. They told me I would have disabling pain within a year and a knee replacement would be imminent.    I also combed the internet trying to find runners who had recovered successfully from this surgery. Almost every blog or thread I read was not good news; Just pain, complications and failed attempts at running. I did find one guy who ran a marathon after micro fracture, but he described his lesion, again, as the size of a pencil eraser- not the size of a quarter like mine. After a while, I gave up hope on running and picked up cycling about a year and a half after my surgery.

I actually wasn’t too bad at cycling.  I ended up riding for the UVA team and got 2 first places and a second place (in a sprint) in the three races I went to. (for any cyclists- this was in B, I never did enough races to cat up to A). I did the womens cat 4 Virginia State Championship Road Race and won that on a hill top finish.  I think I was wearing a running singlet and got a few curious stares by all the seasoned cyclists there.  I also started swimming again. I swam as a kid but swimming had always taken a back seat to soccer growing up (how I wish I had done year round swimming as a kid now!!). Being in the pool with some friends was fun and I was actually starting to get into some type of unintended swimming shape.

So I mentioned that my mom’s cancer did two things for me in regards to my knee. It slowed me down, helped me be patient in healing and took away the neuroticism that running develops in you to do stupid things like return from injury too soon. I don’t have any pain in my knee today, haven’t had any pain and don’t expect to have any pain anytime soon. I think this is because I took so many years to heal- my mom gave me this patience and calm during this time.  The other thing my mom’s cancer did was encourage me to give a big “F YOU” to my doctors. (Not really, my doctors were all great and I am going to be a doctor but there is something empowering to the little helpless patient in me about saying it like that).  About 2 years after my surgery, my knee was feeling great and I knew now that life was pretty short and  I wanted to investigate the possibility of running again.  I went to see Dr. Wilder at UVA and that was a good decision.  After looking at my surgery pictures, reading the reports and listening to me when I told him I was a NCAA national qualifier, multiple Division I all-NCAA region/all conference…blah blah blah crap…he responded with a shocker.  He said, “ok, your knee is pretty messed up- but that is what it is. How about we try running and see what happens.”  WHAT THE??!!  You got to be kidding me! There was something that Dr. Wilder knew about me that I hadn’t told him.  I am not interested in having a perfect knee when I am 80 or 50 or even 40 maybe.  My mom was 52 at the time of her cancer diagnosis. I was interested in living a full life right now. There are doctors that save lives and then there are doctors that make life worth living. I needed the latter.

After some physical therapy and another slow year of gradually introducing my knee back to running I decided to try a triathlon. The year of cycling 200+ miles a week paid off.  I won almost every triathlon I entered (2nd in one).  I then won the 2010 Collegiate National Championship as probably my 4th triathlon after my return to running. I got my pro card and the rest in history. The past two years, I have travelled around the country (and around the world some) living this surreal dream of being a professional athlete that can actually make a living doing a sport I love. I cannot even describe how amazing this experience has been. Never in a million years would I have thought I would be doing what I am doing today. I am getting ready to return to med school next week so I’ll be juggling racing, traveling and school now. But I am leading a full life, and one I think is extraordinary enough for me. It is almost painful because I know I will pine for the drama and excitement of these days in the future.  I have a frame a reference now.  Whether, years from now, I have knee issues again or not- it doesn’t matter. I have lived today.

Maybe I have struck gold once here. Maybe, for once, I have managed to muster up both some patience and some urgency in life in just the right dosages; the correct proportion of Sidhartha to Thoreau…Like all things for me- mostly credited to luck and the influence of my mom.

10 Responses to “Grasping for Thoreau….”

  1. Hud Hopkins May 29, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    Wow!! Nicole that was a great story and one I will remember when I am feeling down, sore or just tired….thnaks

    • nkelleher May 29, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

      Thanks so much for reading Hud! I hope you guys are doing great..and gearing up for NYC! see you soon!!

  2. Bob ODonnell May 29, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

    Great, we all thrive on accomplishing the imposible. You don’t know me but my son Sean met you at Rev 3 in Knoxville and Daughter Erin you trained with in C’ville. I had a total hip replacement 4 yrs ago and was told I was done running. I just couldn’t let it go so after a year rest I slowly came back. I had competed in Ironman in Hawaii 4 times previously and a couple dozen marathons and a couple 50 ultras. Decided to go longer and this weekend I will atempt my first 100 mile trail ultra up in Woodstock VA. MassN mts. My dad pasted away a few weeks ago and knowing he will keep an eye on me and I will remember your story as I make my way through this adventure.

    • nkelleher May 29, 2012 at 6:54 pm #


      I have heard all about you from Erin and Sean! What an inspiration! I cant imagine the task of a 100 mile trail run- and I am so happy to hear of someone lively life so fully despite the setbacks of a hip replacement- so awesome!! best of luck in the race- you dad will be helping you along the way, ill make sure to ask erin how it goes!!

      Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Dan Sattazahn May 30, 2012 at 1:38 am #

    “All endeavor calls for the ability to tramp the last mile, shape the last plan, endure the last hour’s toil. The fight to the finish spirit is the one… characteristic we must possess if we are to face the future as finishers.” – I’m guessing that you already know who said this! 🙂

    Great entry…from a truly inspiring person. May the story of your success continue to unfold in its most amazing way. Best of luck to you always! I’ll always be a big, big fan!

    • nkelleher May 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

      Thank you so much Dan- you are so generous! I am such a big big fan of your as well. So happy for you and Susana and your courage to spend a year travelling around the world- definatley an inspiration to live fully for everyone in your life I am sure of it!!
      Love to you both and very excited to see you both soon!! Be safe!

  4. Lem Howard June 2, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    I have a photo or two of you on crutches at the Med School Activities Fair- You’ve come a long way. I would definitely put you in the “miracle” category. Romans 8:28 is true: God does cause all things to work together for good. He heard your prayers and/or the prayers of others, and now, just look at you. You have been blessed exceeding abundantly beyond all you could ask or think. What you have been able to accomplish (in the midst of med school, by the way) is a credit to what God has worked into you, and what you have worked out. I’m grateful for that, and I trust that you are as well. You are a tiny example of the abundant life that Jesus came to provide for all of us. Keep letting your light shine!

    • nkelleher September 22, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

      Thanks so so much Lem! you are a true encouragement. I hope you and Linda and your sweet kids (and grandkids!) are doing great. I hope to see you out on the bike soon!!!!

  5. Michelle Bozarth June 11, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    Inspirational story. I’m recovering from the same surgery….and was feeling sorry for myself thinking it was the END of me. You’ve put things in perspective and have motivated me.
    Thanks for sharing… means more than you could know.

    • nkelleher June 19, 2012 at 1:43 am #

      aww…thanks for the awesome comment michelle!! I had the same experience after my surgery – I couldnt find any good stories about the injury and I felt really sorry for myself too. I hope that in some small way, writing about my experience can give others some hope in this situation. please keep me updated on your progress, I am cheering for you and thanks again!!!

Leave a Reply to nkelleher Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: