What I learned from losing a leg

Three weeks ago I tore my Achilles tendon playing basketball. Just like a well worn rope that snaps from being pulled too hard one too many times, it tore completely during my regular basketball game at the gym.

Everyone asks “what happened?” assuming there must be a grand story, like I reverse dunked over three people but misjudged the landing, or hit a game winning shot from half court, but someone fouled me hard, causing the injury. There wasn’t. It was entirely boring. No one touched me. For those who saw it happen, they saw me push down on my right foot to cut to the basket and I simply fell over as if a ghost had swept my leg from behind. It looked funny and harmless, as if I had forgotten where the floor was and tripped over it, surprised it was there. NBA star Chauncey Billip’s tore his Achilles the same way during a game last year, as you can see in this video.

I’ve played competitive basketball my entire life and know my body well. Sitting there on the court in mild shock, holding my ankle, I knew something very bad had happened.  Since that day I haven’t been able use my right leg for anything, which has been surprisingly traumatic.

Of the many serious injuries a body can suffer, the repair for this one is simple, if slow. The loss of use of my leg is temporary: 4-8 weeks. They surgically reconnected the tendon last week (see photo), and with rehab and care I can likely play basketball again in 5-7 months. Despite the impermanent nature of my injury, it has had some permanent effects on how I look at things.

Here’s what I’ve learned. These may be obvious to you but these were new, or humbling reminders, to me:

  • Disability is isolation. I can’t drive. If I can’t drive, I can’t go to the gym each day. If I don’t go to the gym each day, I can’t stop for coffee or at the bookstore, or meet a friend for lunch, or a dozen other little daily habits that keep me sane. I don’t live in a convenient place designed for this kind of thing. I’m self employed and write from home. I’ve had to find new support systems to make my life work.
  • Everything demands minute planning. I generally cook for myself and love to do it, but now my kitchen is a logistics nightmare. When on crutches, you lose use of your hands. Without hands you can’t carry anything. Normally, to make a meal requires dozens of thoughtless trips from the refrigerator to the pantry to the stove and back. Each one of those trips is an exercise in logistics now. Going to the bathroom, taking a shower are all long sequences of thoughtful acts that must be planned.
  • I see everything in small terms. We all forget all the little things our bodies do when we run down the street, or throw a frisbee. When something breaks, those seemingly simple tasks become complex. Every action has to be planned, considered, tested and carefully executed. Rehab is relearning. It takes me forever to get around the house, or to get from a parking lot to a store. I’m attentive, for better and for worse, to the small. My ankle will have to relearn all the basic things we expect our ankles to do for us.
  • 100 years ago I’d be crippled.While the surgery is simple by today’s standards, 100 years ago I’d be walking with a cane the rest of my life, if I could walk at all. Grateful to the universe for being born at this time.
  • I’m connected to wheelchairs, handicapped parking spots and people who need help. I notice all these things because at the pace I’m able to travel, my companions are other people with issues the world isn’t designed for.
  • My mind follows my body. I’m a productive writer because I have a healthy body. I go to the gym nearly every day to clear my mind and let my subconscious work on problems for me. I haven’t been to the gym in almost a month. I’m still struggling to find a new way to balance stress and find physical relaxation.

I’m sad about the prospects of losing basketball from my life. It will be a long road to recovery and there are no guarantees at what level I’ll be able to play. Basketball is the  place I’ve learned most of what has made me successful. But sorting out what’s possible and dealing with my feelings about it are so far in the future, and I’m dealing with so much in the present, that I have no choice but to postpone worrying about it until I’m there.

I’m always grateful for people and things that get me to think and this experience definitely qualifies. I’ll be looking at the world from a different perspective for awhile. If nothing else, I’ve always been a fan of mythology – I now have a permanent scar connecting me with the legend of Achilles!

30 Responses to “What I learned from losing a leg”

  1. Kathy Sierra

    Oh man, so sorry Scott. I can totally relate. I experienced this exact scenario, except with my knee. I, too, just sort of fell down (to everyone else, that’s what they saw). I knew it was something awful, and I ended up with major reconstruction and two stretches of casts. It was my left foot, but I had a manual transmission, so driving was out.

    I was a sponsored athlete at the time, and that was the end of that. It was clear there was no going back, ever. But I was quite serious about rehab, and it ended up not really limiting anything physically in the future, but the pscyhological “protection” of that leg was something to deal with.

    Best of luck. If anyone can just power through this in the most efficient and healthiest way, it will be you.

  2. Oltmans

    I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you get well soon!

  3. Chris K

    Maybe this will turn out to be a source of inspiration for some writing (as in this post)? Maybe this will force you to sit inside and get some writing done, even if it requires unplugging the TV? =)

    — Chris

  4. Sobia

    you know something like that happened to me. i am a gymnastic person so i was doing the spits on my gym floor and it was all fine but when i did it the second time i went down fast and pulled a muscle and now i cant do gymnastics anymore. i was so depressed but i found out i can live without it. there’s much more to life than gymnastics and it’s m=not like i am going to go to the Olympics. lol hope u feel better!

  5. Greg Linster

    We’re all an achilles tear away from viewing and experiencing life in a radically different way, yet most of us rarely reflect on the thought. Anyway, athletics play a similar in my life as well and I fear the day that I can no longer use my body in the ways I desire because of the effect I suspect it will have on mind.

    Nice post — I hope you recover quickly, Scott!

  6. Simon

    Sounds quite familiar, happened to me too … on my 3rd day in Bosnia, new country, new city, new people (or at that moment actually yet not too many of them). Think I learned similar things to yours.

    What kept me motivated was that if nothing else, at least I will value the well-functioning of my body even more afterwards … which I totally do!

  7. Francois

    Sorry to hear of you misfortunes Scott. I tore my Achilles a couple of years ago and with proper rehabilitation was back to playing competitive sport in about six months. As a matter of fact I was playing better than before. Maybe your time needed for healing is a time to focus on some other important stuff. Good luck!

  8. Jodi Murphy

    Suffering a major injury is hard, especially when it puts your love for sports on hold. It’s sad to let go of something you have done your whole life, even if it just for a few months and an absolute necessity. I think about all the high school athletes who have built their entire identity about being a sports kid–one major injury and their whole persona is thrown into question. Being in pain is no fun!

  9. Lizabeth Barclay

    This is very interesting. Much of my recent research is focused on how persons with disabilities are treated within the workplace. While there are laws, PWD are still significantly underemployed. Accommodation practices often isolate an individual, employees with disabilities may have to plan ahead,etc. One thing my co-author and I are thinking about is the concept of universal design where accommodation actually benefits all workers.

  10. Jörg

    Dear Scott, I hope you’ll get well soon. Your words sent me back to memory lane – got a broken shoulder in 2011 and didn’t know then, how long it had to take to get both arms back. Totally understand your findings! But behold: I learned some good lessons because of this. Life doesn’t always go on like before, we should be grateful much more often. Get well soon – and maybe write some lines about the joy of simply walk barefoot next spring in fresh, green grass.


    1. Scott Berkun

      Jörg: What a nice mental image – I’ll be thinking about walking in the cool grass someday :) Thanks.

  11. Ted Boren

    Good luck Scott — looking forward to your next post on Accessibility :-)

  12. Paul Sherman

    Best of luck, Scott.

    I tore out my knee in the military in 1976. A commanding officer more interested in his career than his underlings’ health had it witheld from my military record. It took another two years and several re-injuries to get it fixed – temporarily. 5 surgeries and a new knee later…

    So, no tennis, basketball, skiiing, etc. since I was 18.

    Everything does change. But we’re VERY adapatable. we find ways to still do many things and learn to do different things. You”ll find a way.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks Paul. I do realize how fortunate I am that this particular situation can change, unlike many other injuries. I’ve learned a from this.

  13. sridhar

    Wish you a speedy recovery! I am sure you will more than anyone let your injury heal well, and fully. I say this not because I dont know you, but can tell from your writing that you are so very aware of everything around you and yourself. I have read your writing from your Microsoft days and you write well. Get well soon! The basketball courts will wait for you.

  14. Michel

    Hey Scott,

    you have all my sympathy and moral support. I tore my Achilles skiing last February, right at the tendon-muscle junction.
    Surgery went well, but I also experienced isolation (my wife had to travel and leave me alone in the house for about 3 weeks right after surgery) and frustration at all the little things in life we take for granted but that become major hurdles when you can’t walk. The surgeon told me not to put *any* weight on my foot for 2 months. My left calf is still 1 in smaller than my right one…

    Things that helped me:
    – better crutches; I bought a pair of Mobilegs Ultra, which were a hundred times more comfortable than the arm crutches I got right after my accident.
    – a good cast cover, for when you just want to get on that chair in the shower and get clean instead of using a washcloth because the nurses don’t want any water on your cast/stitches/scar.
    – when you get out of the cast get a good variable angle Achilles boot; I got a Vacocast, which was a godsend, as I could remove it for periods when I was sitting on the couch reading or watching TV.
    – for getting around the floor, I used an office chair and pushed with my good foot: made preparing meals and getting them to the table a *lot* easier with 2 free hands.
    – I tied a rope and carabiner at the top of the stairs and raised/lowered one crutch that way, leaving me a free hand to solidly grab on the railing.

    This summer was the best we had in years for cycling… and all I could do was short rides on flat terrain, because I couldn’t push hard enough to get up on the bars and push up hills.

    But then a friend lent me a paddleboard every weekend starting in June – I had just started walking in 2 regular shoes and going back to the office – and that helped more than all the other exercises I had been doing that far. It’s great for balance, builds strength, and if you fall it’s a soft landing and you just go for a swim, no harm done :)

    At some points you may get discouraged, thinking about things you want to do *now* but just can’t yet, and frustrated that taking a shower takes 45 minutes, but all I can tell you is that:
    – it will get better (and yes it’s frustrating to hear people tell you that when things aren’t going as fast as you want).
    – a properly repaired Achilles tendon leaves no long-term complications (my father was an orthopedic surgeon and told me that of all lower limb injuries, this is the one with the least complications long-term).
    – take it slow and listen to your body, even if people push you to do otherwise; my wife was telling me that a client of hers had tore her Achilles at about the same time as I did and was already walking while I was still half on crutches; she told me I wasn’t pushing hard enough. 2 weeks later, her client turned too quickly in the kitchen and re-tore the Achilles. I may have been too conservative, but I never want to go through that again :)

    It’s rough, it’s discouraging, but along the way you may discover new interests, new virtues (patience, self-control – when someone steals that handicapped parking right in front of you to go play tennis), and a renewed determination to do all the things you did before, but even better (I bought my season pass at the ski hill for next winter last June!)

    Hang in there!!!

    1. Scott Berkun

      Michel: thanks for the very thoughtful reply. I’m doing better already and started physical therapy which is helping. Appreciate your thoughts and encouragement.

  15. Chris Keppler

    At age 24, I was a college dropout with enough credit hours to have earned two degrees, working as an over-the-road Teamster (hauling steel to six states) and planning to write the great American novel. Then I lost my right hand in an accident. Three days later I was shaving left-handed. After two weeks, I had learned to tie my shoes with one hand. By six months, I was back in college taking notes which only I could decipher, and practicing trick shots with a pool cue for beer money. A degree in labor relations was mine a year later, and I celebrated the day with my new wife and baby girl. Now I’m 60, set to retire, and ready perhaps to finally start on that novel.

    Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Use what you got, play to your strengths. Good writing is in the re-writing — Your essays, posts and books are always enjoyed !

  16. Aaron

    The exact same thing to the letter happened to me. I’m in week 8 and just graduated to a cane. I’ve been doing a lot of waling lately with one crutch and the cane. Make sure to massage around the swollen areas with cream like voltarin or other anti inflammatory creams. Be well!

    1. Aaron

      And 8 months before that I had the achromial clavicular joint removed in my right shoulder so crutching around was an experience : ) trying to stay positive always

  17. Susan Wilhite

    Sorry to hear about this, Scott. I second the points about isolation and total recalibration of one’s life practices. Running out of food and unable to arrange grocery delivery, I resorted to posting on Facebook that I would pay $50 to the first person showing up with a pot of broth. To this day my friends don’t get how debilitating a shattered & dislocated ankle was. Happening a hour after putting a beloved pet to sleep. Several years later I still have metal in my ankle and unresolved feelings. Consider sending yourself flowers every few days.



  1. […] 7 months ago I tore my achilles tendon, but yesterday, after months of physical therapy, I was able to play basketball again for the first time. It’s a miracle of modern medicine I can walk without a cane, but to play is magical. And it’s magic purely for me. No one on the court knew my story. Kids half my age just saw me smiling and had no idea why. And I find myself seeking others who have similar smiles, a smile they don’t need to explain, a smile unhinged from the weather, or a job, or other trivia, a smile from somewhere deep inside that reflects their appreciation for the amazingness of ordinary things. Being alive, compared to the alternative, makes everything extraordinary. […]

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