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When I came down with the rebound and heard my right knee explode and pop, I knew something was horribly wrong… I looked up at the faces of my basketball teammates looking down at me lying on the court writhing in agonizing pain. I somehow managed to verbalize what was going through my mind…
“That’s it, amputate my leg… just cut the fucker off.”
Turns out my injury wasn’t bad enough to turn me into an amputee, but it was bad. Torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Partially torn medical meniscus. Partially torn medial collateral ligament (MCL). If you’re not familiar with this medical terminology, in layman’s terms… I blew out my whole fucking knee.
Before I was given the official medical report by my doctor, I had four days to figure out what the hell I had done to myself. Why? Well, in America, with health care as bad as it is, getting in to see an Orthopedic surgeon for an official diagnosis takes time… Like, a lot of time. Which means, after Googling “knee injuries” over 3000 times, I had to make my own medical diagnosis on myself until a doctor appointment could be set up.
Based on my online research, I had concluded that one of three things had happened to me:
1. I tore my ACL.
2. I tore some other knee ligament.
3. My bones were deteriorating from early onset kidney disease and I would be dead by August.
My father and sister are both doctors, so their advice to use the RICE method, (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate), helped a lot. They recommended getting crutches to get around, so, I quickly called my friend Scott, another basketball friend who had suffered numerous leg injuries over the years. Sure he had a pair… he said. But they were for people 5’10” and under.
After searching for cheap crutches online, I called the Hollywood Goodwill and was told by an employee that they had a set that they would hold for me. As I limped through the parking lot of the store, praying that they would fit my 6’2” frame, I went over certain decisions in my life that had lead me to this point… Why had I turned down the professional path to pursue this artist life? If I hadn’t, would I be staggering through a Goodwill parking lot in Hollywood on a Thursday afternoon in my pajamas trying to save $15 on crutches if I only had I taken that job at FOX SPORTS all those years ago? What had I done to my life? The last couple months had been tough… Air BNB disavowed my house from renting it out, so my income had been roughly slashed in half. My latest voiceover residual check I had received in the mail was for .08 cents… My only solace of late had been in playing basketball… and now that dream, like my right knee, was CRUSHED.
I felt like I was on the verge of being homeless.
Of course the girl at Goodwill had made a mistake. They had a WALKER, not crutches. It also happened to have a blood stain on it, which is why it was SLASHED to $2.00. I passed.
I went to Walgreens next, where the crutches were at the back of the store. I hobbled all the way in only to find that they were “on sale” for $59.99. Excuse me? 60 bucks? FUCK OFF. I was about to go fasten myself a crutch out of an old tree branch and a bicycle seat when I looked on my phone and noticed that Home Depot sold them… I called, but got no answer. When I showed up, I was told that their crutches were not available in-store. They were online deals only.
“Go to Urgent Care,” my friend Alex told me. “They’ll be able to tell in five seconds if you tore something… and they’ll give you crutches for free.”
Urgent Care it was. I found one with a five star rating on Yelp and went down. I paid my $25 co-pay and was treated by a 20-something female who claimed to be a doctor, although I noticed that her name tag did not say “M.D.” It had a bunch of other letters that I’m sure were placed there to confuse naive patients… Hers said A.P.R.N. C.N.M.
I texted my sister – a doctor down in Newport Beach – to see if this lady was, in fact, a doctor.
ZACH: Hey – What do these abbreviations mean and is she a legit doctor? A.P.R.N. C.N.M.
She wrote back immediately.
AMANDA: NO! That stands for Advanced Practice Registered Nurse – Certified Nursing Midwife – What are you, fucking pregnant? get the hell out of there and see a real doctor!!!
Since I had already paid the $25.00, I stayed. The young “doctor” felt my knee. She moved it around. She stretched it. It actually felt pretty good… And then, she gave me her official diagnosis:
“You did NOT tear anything,” she said. “This is a bad sprain at worst.”
“Really!” I exclaimed. “A bad sprain? Thank you sooo much! If I ever need a midwife, I’m calling YOU!”
She took some X-Rays of my knee, (which I later learned were completely unnecessary for a ligament injury and cost me $125) and I asked them to provide my free crutches. When they explained that they did have crutches – but that they cost $39.99, I bit the bullet and bought them. Finally, upon checkout, the manager told me that I could earn a $5.00 gift card to a Starbucks if I simply gave them a 5-Star Review on YELP.
“Hell yeah!” I said. “You guys made my day.”
I put in the 5-Star review, snagged my gift card and Uber-ed home to elevate my “bad sprain.” Wow, no tear, no surgery, no problem. I was elated and texted everybody I knew that I’d be back on the basketball court within weeks.
And then I got an appointment with a real doctor.
Dr. Weiss was recommended to me by my primary care physician. I had my leg up on his exam table the very next day, confident that he would walk in, slip me an ACE Bandage and wish me happy holidays… Instead, within 30 seconds of looking at my knee, he casually offered the following.
“Wow, you tore the shit out of your ACL… Hopefully you didn’t do too much damage to the other ligamants,” he said.
“Wait, what?!” I reacted. “Tore my ACL? But the Urgent Care said it was a bad sprain…?”
“Well, if by ‘bad sprain’ they mean a ’completely annihilated anterior cruciate ligament,’ then… yes.”
Dr. Weiss scheduled an MRI for that afternoon and told me I had wasted my money on X-rays and my entire Urgent Care appointment.
“Lemme guess,” he said. “They offered you a Starbucks gift card?”
Following the MRI, which is when you go inside one of those huge claustrophobic X-Ray machines to examine all of your inner workings, I was back in Dr. Weiss’ office for my evaluation two days later.
He broke down my injury and began planning out my recovery. Since I was set to travel with my family for the holidays, I was concerned I’d be missing out on my trip… He assured me that since my swelling was so immense, I would have to wait at least four weeks for surgery. He then explained how it would work.
“Based on the fact that you’re 44-years-old, I’m gonna replace your ACL with a cadaver ligament.”
“I’m sorry, what? A CADAVER LIGAMENT?”
Doctor Weiss smiled. He went on to explain that younger “athletes” can replace their torn ACL’s with their own ligaments, but for older guys like me, the best option is to take an anterior cruciate ligament from a DEAD BODY and put it into my destroyed knee.
“Can you make the ligament from like some Kenyan distance runner or something?” I joked.
“Haha,” He said. “It’ll most likely be from a car crash victim.”
Dr. Weiss also told me that 20 years ago, patients my age wouldn’t even be ELIGIBLE for ACL replacement. As if men over 40 were considered beyond repair or something… Luckily, the outlook on knees had changed since the late 90’s.
Eager to get to my rehabilitation, I bought a $300 knee brace from the doctor (Of course, not covered by insurance) and got instructions on how to put it on. After it was affixed, I had the look of a hydraulic half-man/half-Cyborg. I felt like Darth Vader.
“Will I be ever able to play basketball at the level I was playing again?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he said. “But you might want to join an elderly league.”
Limping out of Dr. Weiss’ office on my crutches, the first glimpse of my mortality had hit me. Knees crumble, ankles snap… ligaments are torn. Age is forever out there hunting us down. Luckily, with this type of injury, full recoveries are entirely expected and at worst, I would lose 4-6 months of my life to inactivity.
On the way home, I stopped at Starbucks to spend my $5.00 gift card on a cup of coffee. When I presented it to the cashier, he told me news that at this point, I was not surprised to hear.
“Sorry, sir,” she said. “This card only works at certain Starbucks… Not this one.”
I logged onto Yelp and changed my review…
*Ed Note: Zach is set for ACL replacement surgery in Mid January. Stay tuned!