I woke up crying in the recovery room. I was the last patient there and I looked around deliriously, searching for a clock. Spotting one on the opposite wall, I squinted at it, trying to focus my blurred vision. Even in my confusion I somehow still registered that something was wrong. When I’d been taken back for surgery that morning at 10:45, I’d been told the entire process would take about an hour. It was now just past 3:00.
As the nurses began administering more pain medication through my IV, I asked them why my surgery had taken so long. They evaded my question, telling me I would have to talk to my parents about that. They must have been very anxious to avoid answering my questions themselves, because my parents were sent back to see me shortly thereafter. The newly dispensed pain meds taking their effect, I was already drifting back into outer space when they arrived. I repeated my question.
My parents had been in the waiting area when they were called back to speak with my surgeon. It was 11:30, so they assumed my operation had just been completed. This was not the case. My doctor reported to my parents that I was still in the O.R. under sedation, my procedure temporarily at a standstill. He informed them that the original plan—removing a small section of my Achilles tendon to shorten its length—was no longer an option. After beginning my surgery, he discovered that the damage to my Achilles was much more extensive than he had anticipated. If he stitched me back up right then and there, I would never regain the strength I needed to return to dancing. My Achilles was basically dead. There was no viable tendon left for him to work with.
My doctor told my parents that he was going to perform an alternative operation. This procedure would be more difficult because it involved replacing my tendon with one taken from a cadaver, called an allograft Achilles. My parents were shocked. What had started out as a quick, easy surgery had turned into a complete tendon transplant. They questioned my doctor about the safety of the procedure, asking if there was any chance my body would reject the tendon. He relieved their concerns, telling them that the replacement was safe and that anti-rejection medication wasn’t necessary for tissue transfers. He told them that he had done this procedure before, though never on someone so young, and that he was certain I would have no limitations following my rehabilitation. In fact, he was even more sure I would make a full recovery than he had been before, so long as I didn’t develop an infection.
My parents had the difficult task of breaking the news to me there in the recovery room. Due to a bad combination of drugs and my own natural tendency to upset easily, my emotions were already running high. They told me in the kindest way possible, choosing their words carefully, if somewhat inaccurately. My dad told me the surgery had taken longer because they had “rebuilt” my tendon. When I pressed further, it came out that my old Achilles had been replaced with a new one. I remember asking if it was taken from a cadaver, and when I found out it was, I broke down completely.
I was very upset the first few days after my surgery. How could my Achilles tendon have been dead? I’d been able to walk and run just fine; my only complaint was that I couldn’t jump or do a heel raise. I had been blindsided. I’d woken up in the hospital expecting to be non weight-bearing for two weeks, only to be told that I would be on crutches for the rest of the year and, Oh, by the way, you have someone else’s tendon in your leg. I was horrified. I signed up to be an organ donor the day I got my learner’s permit, but I never expected to be on the receiving end. No one had asked me if I wanted this. My leg didn’t feel like it was mine anymore. I felt guilty. Whose tendon had I taken? Whose death was I benefitting from? I was thoroughly unprepared for the emotions that follow an organ or tissue transplant.
My parents talked me through all these worries. They told me to think of my donor as a very special person who gave me another chance to do what I love. They said I would do great things with my new Achilles, and suggested that maybe this is all part of some grand plan. I’d like to believe that.
Now that I’ve come to terms with my Achilles replacement, I am more certain than ever of my pledge to be an organ donor, should it ever become necessary. It’s a commitment that gives meaning to one’s death. Sometimes it saves a person’s life, and sometimes it saves a person’s passion. Scottish highland dancing has always been a huge part of my life, and I’m not ready to hang up my ghillies yet. Though I still have a long recovery ahead of me, I am already so thankful for the opportunity some wonderful person has given me. I can’t wait to dance again.
I’m going to be asking a lot of questions at my follow-up appointment next Monday. I want to know where my new tendon came from and find out more about my upcoming rehab. I also want to know how I still had 70% of my strength (as shown in isokinetic testing) if my old Achilles tendon was essentially dead. I’ll be writing about these topics, as well as some other things I’ve glanced over, in upcoming posts.
Finally, I want to thank everyone for continuing to read and support me through this process, especially my parents. From monitoring my medication to holding me when I cried, they have been there for me through it all, and I am so very grateful.