When I had my first and second knee reconstructions, I didn’t know where to go or who to talk to. I was making life changing decisions for myself while I was in a state of fear, anger, and self judgement. At the time, I was in the Navy in San Diego, CA sleeping on a friends couch. I was half a continent away from my family, and my best friend was going through BUD/S training to become a Navy Seal. I felt alone and isolated. I didn’t have a team and I did not know how to ask for help. I needed a recovery support team.
We all experience those times in our lives where we need the help of others. Healing from pain and injury is one of those times. It makes a huge difference to have family, friends, coaches, therapists, doctors, etc focused specifically on helping you recover. The stronger and more supportive the team, the faster and fuller the recovery. When I look back on those days 17 years ago, I wish I had someone in my corner like Heidi Armstrong of The Injured Athletes Toolbox.
Heidi is an amazing person. She is incredibly gifted and passionate about helping people heal and recover from the devastating effects of pain and injury. Her gifts lies in her huge beautiful heart, but more importantly in the fact that she has been there. She has experienced it, lived it, and is living it today. I love her story. She is inspiring. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her work. This is her story. It should be shared with any friend or family member experiencing pain and injury.
Thank you Heidi for sharing.
~Jesse James Retherford
Tell me a little about yourself and your story? What was your path to becoming an Injury Recovery Coach and what inspired you to create Injured Athlete’s Toolbox?
Jesse, you’re incredibly gifted at connecting with people, and you’re the first person I’ve met who shares a similar philosophy about the mental aspects of injury. I appreciate you offering this space to talk about my work as an Injury Recovery Coach.
Fifteen years ago while racing my mountain bike, I had a spectacular crash resulting in a complicated knee injury. In an instant, my identity changed–from an athlete to injured and broken.
At the time I was living with my best friend, Christine. Cassette tapes changed my life–in the year 2000. Why I had a righteous cassette tape collection in 2000 is another story. I was supposed to be elevating a very swollen post-operative knee. Instead, I did what any agitated and irritated injured athlete would do–I grabbed a bottle of Windex and sat on the floor cleaning my cassette tapes, with all the passion of my Italian ancestry. Christine walked in from work and looked at me with a combination of shock and disgust. “What the heck are you doing?” she said. “I’m cleaning the cassette tapes!” I declared. “Um. Aren’t you supposed to be laying down with your leg elevated?” she said. “Well. If I don’t clean these cassette tapes, who will?” I said, undeniably winning the debate.
I was overdue for an intervention–that or Christine was going to toss me off the balcony. “I’m going to my bedroom for 10 minutes, and when I come out we’re going to talk.” Christine said. She emerged, sat in front of me and said, “You know I love you, right?” “Yes.” I said. “This (she pointed to my mess of Windex, paper towels, and cassette tapes) isn’t going to work anymore. You need to find another way.”
I was in a deep, dark hole, unable to see daylight through pervasive anger, impatience, bitterness, and frustration. I was largely incapacitated, barely able to do daily living activities. For a while, I even talked a firefighter friend into carrying me downstairs just so I could be outside.
Christine’s intervention forced me to make radical changes. Over subsequent months, I inefficiently but inexorably established a team of people to help–a new orthopedic surgeon, a new physical therapist, and a psychotherapist among others. With their guidance I climbed out of the hole armed with a positive attitude and life tools that still serve me daily. I immersed myself into creative endeavors like photography and writing. I began volunteering. I wasn’t able to ride my bike, but I could practice yoga and walk a bit. I dealt with issues from my past that haunted me. I focused more on can than can’t, and I created a daily mental training program to replace my cycling regimen. Had I ignored Christine, my lengthy recovery would likely never have been successful and surely destroyed me mentally.
After witnessing my dramatic improvement in attitude, the same healthcare providers who helped me began calling–“Heidi, I have an injured athlete-patient. He needs someone to help him out of the hole. Can I give him your number?” Over the past 13 years, I’ve appreciated helping injured athletes refocus their focus from training and racing to recovery.
In short, injury recovery coaching chose me.
For several years, I enjoyed a complete recovery and then, as [bad] luck would have it, I suffered a severe and obscure fracture to the same knee while Nordic skiing in 2010. The fracture led to arthrofibrosis–a rare and chronic scarring condition. Very few doctors know how to treat arthrofibrosis. It’s a tough road for surgeons, let alone the patients. After two surgeries in Austin that distressingly just made my condition worse, I traveled to see the best–Dr. Richard Steadman in Vail, Colorado. At my first visit he gave me a 20% chance of being normal. It’s 3.5 years later and I’m still working hard to finish in that 20%. I’ve had six surgeries in Vail, and have learned to walk again multiple times. I’ve spent more than two years on crutches, and more than a year sleeping in a CPM (a device that slowly bends and straightens my leg). Every nook and cranny of my life has been upended.
The tools I used to emerge from my first injury journey mentally sound and stronger are the same tools I use to navigate my current journey. I learned how to manage injury the right way only by doing it catastrophically wrong the first time. Injury is a most unforgiving and rewarding teacher, much like the nuns who taught me to read and write.
In 2012, while spending months at The Steadman Clinic with other patients of all stripes, I had a realization: irrespective of age, sport, level of proficiency, and gender, injured athletes suffer in similar ways and achieve success through similar tools. I had a brainstorm–what if I could uncover the common behaviors and paths to success and turn my passion for helping other injured athletes into a career?
I tested my idea by interviewing a diverse group of healthcare practitioners who work with injured athletes. It didn’t take long to identify a gap in our health care system. Many providers and coaches had neither the time nor the experience to mentally and emotionally support a frustrated and impatient injured athlete. Most had no idea what to say when a patient broke down during an appointment.
In my second chapter of research I tested a hypothesis of “similar suffering” through interviews with injured athletes of all ages (14-74) and levels with the goal of discovering recipes for success and common struggles. Every injury journey is different, but common threads connect those who recover faster and stronger, and the struggles are almost universal.
What do you do as an injury recovery coach and how can you help injured athletes? Talk to me about how you work with clients. And what can a client expect when working with you?
About half way through my research, I re-defined what makes an athlete. To me, an athlete is anyone who uses movement to connect with themselves or their life. No movement leads to disconnection, and that’s where things come unglued.
Athletes face different and unique emotional challenges following injury. What I hear most often includes: I feel worthless and without purpose; my social network is gone; what if I can’t compete again; I’m jealous of my friends; I’m angry; I don’t want to ask for help or be a burden; I have to move to feel balanced and relieve stress.
Through Injured Athlete’s Toolbox as an Injury Recovery Coach, I work with injured athletes from around the world to: empower them to overcome the emotional fallout of injury; recommend a proper care team of skilled providers who understand athletes; identify activities that are injury-friendly and physical therapist-approved; prepare for doctor’s appointments; navigate our [nightmare of an] insurance system; provide swimming and cycling instruction.
We’ll work together to identify your physical and mental barriers and your goals. Are you pervasively frustrated? Does your family find you insufferable? Feeling impatient? I know how to find your patience, even if you, like me, were never particularly patient to begin with.
We’ll talk about the gritty part of injury–the emotional roller coaster–that only another injured athlete can understand. Together we’ll create a plan to make concrete progress toward your goals. We’ll work together, making you more resilient.
We’ll work together to find the best physician, physical therapist, and additional practitioners based on your injury. I can teach you how to interview healthcare providers, ensuring you get the best support for your injury.
Identify activities that are injury-friendly
Despite injury, you still want to move. We’ll identify activities that are friendly to your injury but liberating to your soul.
Prepare for medical appointments
We’ll create a plan for healthcare appointments, enabling you to communicate the salient facts of your injury. I can also attend, take notes, and review with you afterward. Did you know studies show we remember only 30% of what happens in a doctor’s appointment? It’s likely you won’t get to visit with your doctor as much as you’d like, so it’s important to make the most out of each appointment.
Navigate our insurance system
What do you do when you get an $85,000 hospital bill in the mail that was rejected by insurance? I’m not making that up. It happened to me. Together we’ll determine a strategy for engagement with your insurance. No doesn’t always mean no. Together we’ll get more yeses.
Provide swimming and cycling instruction
I have 20 years of experience in both swimming and cycling, including swimming at a university and cycling for a national level mountain bike team. I can help you learn these activities that are often injury-friendly.
I work with each client one on one, in person if they are in Austin and via Skype if they’re not. Together we’ll brainstorm the challenges at hand and your goals. We’ll create a focused and structured plan including: proven therapeutic activities that will keep your mind occupied and help you work toward your goals; mental exercises to regain and maintain an optimistic outlook; physical exercises that are enjoyable and PT-approved. Throughout your journey, you’ll have a guide when you’re feeling lost and someone to talk to who gets it.
Injured athletes who meet my coaching with time and diligence can expect to feel empowered, more patient, hopeful, mentally and physically connected, less frustrated, and more resilient.
Who can you help?
When I initially meet clients, they often feel impatient, frustrated, without the self-confidence their sport reinforced, and lost. They feel broken down and unmotivated. They want to talk to someone who gets it–someone who will help them move forward. If I hadn’t experienced the dark side of injury, I’d be unable to truly connect with and coach other injured athletes. I’m comfortable jumping in the hole with clients I coach because I know the way out. A typical case involves working together over the course of 8 weeks.
If: the preceding paragraph describes you; you’re making poor choices that dishonor your injury; you aren’t improving physically and need a new care team; you need to find ways to move that are injury-friendly; you require help preparing for medical appointments; you’re feeling lost dealing with insurance…I can help you.
With 20/20 hindsight and specific to your path of injury, healing, and recovery what is it that you are most grateful for?
In an interview for an article in the Austin American-Statesman, Pam LeBlanc asked me something similar. She said, in just a sentence, can you tell me what you learned from your own injuries? What have they taught you about yourself? What good came of them?
My answer to Pam is the same answer to your questions: Through my injuries, I discovered talents and interests that expanded my world and enabled me to become more mentally balanced and graceful.
I tell clients: You may feel somewhat hopeless right now. You do have hope; hope is a conscious choice. Perhaps it’s squirreled away in some dark corner of your soul covered in cobwebs and dust. Dust it off and breathe new life into it by practicing a new mental approach to injury. The only way out is through, and I’ll be with you every step of the way.
Jesse, thank you again for allowing me to share my journey and my work here. Most of all, thank you for being you.