When Life Screams: Stop Travelling

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The moment my cruciate ligament ruptured in my knee has left a visceral imprint in my mind. It wasn’t so much the popping sound, although I can conjure up the exact noise at a moment’s notice. Nor was it the pain, which wasn’t as bad as you might imagine because, apparently, the more severe the knee injury, the less pain you feel. It was the feeling of free movement I remember the most – the sensation of my knee no longer being held in place the way it had been before, and the deep queasy urge to vomit that came with that realisation.

When the ligament ruptured, I fell to the floor, as one would. But within seconds I was back on my feet. Years of gymnastics as a teenager taught me about sprains and although my teenage preference had been for busting my ankles not my knees, I was more than familiar with the buckling, the swelling, the aches and, yes, my impatient need to test things out, even if it is with a limp.

British Virgin Islands sunset at sea
If you’re going to injure yourself, at least do it when you have the beautiful views of the British Virgin Islands to distract you from the pain.

So, with a brave face and a fake smile I pulled myself up, brushed the doughnut dusting of sand off my right side and took a few tentative steps. And then I took a few more and a few more still until I was convinced I could walk. Yes, my knee felt tender and I knew I’d done something to is, but how badly could you injure yourself taking a sudden sharp turn on sand?

Very badly, apparently.

Rupturing my ACL in the Caribbean

After half an hour of RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation – the system all good first-aiders will tell you about), my bladder called and I hobbled to the loos. Being on a small island in the British Virgin Islands, the toilet block was pretty basic – a jazzed-up portacabin at the top of some steps. Impressed with myself I made it to the top just fine. The way back down was a different matter.

My knee collapsed at the very top and I tumbled to bottom, leaving behind a six-inch swatch of my shin on every concrete step I met along the way.

When I fell the first time, when the ligament ruptured and the connections came loose, I still had hope. It could just be a sprain. I’d recover in no time.

It was the second fall that told me the truth: your knee doesn’t just collapse underneath you for no good reason. It doesn’t have the humour to go rag doll and laugh at the consequences. It’s formed of ligament and cartilage and muscle and more. And suddenly those parts were no longer playing together.

That was when I knew I’d screwed something up. Big time.

Travel tip: Buy good travel insurance.

Of course, these things rarely happen with convenience and I was several days’ sail from the nearest hospital at the time.

British Virgin Islands Crew and passengers on boat
The best crew I could have asked for.

I spent the remainder of my trip in the British Virgin Islands staring at the sky, my leg elevated, ice pack on and a stack of ibuprofen doing good work to keep the pain at bay.

It might sound like a terrible way to spend an amazing trip, but really it was probably the best circumstances to be in – the catamaran was small enough that I could hop from place to place. The scenery changed every few minute and fate had placed me on a boat with the kindest, most generous and helpful people to be found – had I been tasked to scour the planet for shipmates to assist me with my knee troubles, I doubt I’d have picked a better crew.

And then the trip ended and it was time to face reality.

Travel tip: You can see the British Virgin Islands trip I booked here – I’m definitely contemplating a do-over when my knee is better, but without hurting myself next time.

What exactly have I done to my knee?

More doctor, physio, x-ray, MRI and surgeon appointments than I care to recount have confirmed my long-held belief that when I do something, I do it to the fullest extent possible. Good or bad. In this case, bad.

So, what exactly have I done?

As well as rupturing my anterior cruciate ligament (one of the two cross ligaments in your knee), I have a Grade II tear to my medial collateral ligament (the one on the inside of your knee), which is basically hanging on by a thread. To complete the trifecta, I also have a two-centimetre tear in my meniscus (cartilage).  Add swelling, inability to straighten my knee, bone bruising (yep, apparently that’s a thing) and a few other minor matters that don’t deserve a mention in the context, and it’s safe to say I’ve screwed my knee up properly.

What now – ACL Surgery and Recovery

Puerto Rico colourful buildings in San Juan
Little did I know when I took this picture in San Juan that I was days away from screwing up my knee for a year.

I injured my knee on 10 December. With the help of an amazing friend, I managed to get the most out of the rest of my time in the British Virgin Islands and a few more days in the Caribbean (cobbles, a knee brace and an unsteady knee are not ideal travel companions, FYI).

Since then I’ve been in ‘back to health’ mode. For an impatient person like me, that process has been excruciatingly slow, particularly as the doctors aren’t happy to repair the damage until my knee is strong and mobile again.

On the plus side, after weeks of pushing my knee on bikes at the gym, tentatively incorporating weights, visiting physiotherapists and finally managing to add my favourite bendy activity (yoga) back into my life, my knee is the strongest it’s been since I bust it and I’m finally fit for surgery.

On the downside, that’s unlikely to happen for 14 to 16 weeks (I love the NHS for all it does, but it means non-life threatening injuries like mine, quite rightly, don’t come top of the pile).

After my surgery, sometime in the summer, I then face months of additional physio and although my knee will improve week on week after the operation, it’s going to be 4 to 6 months before I can really get back to any activity that might waft its way past the word ‘adventure’.

In short, I’ll be able to walk, but I won’t be ready to run and it’s likely to be one year from rupture to full repair.

As you might imagine, my inner traveller couldn’t be more frustrated. This year I have a significant birthday (yes, I turn 40 and hell knows how that happened) and I had grand plans – a return to Hawaii or Mexico or both, or why not just go all out and book another around the world trip?

Plans I’ve had to shelve with significant disappointment. So, by way of apology to my lifestyle, I’ve adopted another muse instead. I’m going to buy a place to live. In the UK.  Or so my current thinking goes.

Having a knee injury and not being able to live my nomad life is one thing but having no permanent address to call my own while I deal with hospital appointments and physio is quite another. Yes, my friends and family have been amazing, but a whole year of relying on others’ hospitality feels like too much. Plus, the thought has been on my mind anyway; putting down some roots, perhaps spending a few months each year in the UK and travelling from there. It would afford me the time and space to write, something I miss so much when I’m distracted by the sights of new countries. I could cook, another thing my heart (and stomach) long for when I face weeks of dining out three times a day. It would also be nice not to have to face bed bugs for a while.

View of Madrid from balcony
I was slow and it hurt but I have managed to squeeze one trip in since my injury.

Catching up with friends, offering fellow travellers the opportunity to couch surf in Liverpool (the city I’m looking at) and maybe, just maybe, squeezing in the occasional low-key, minimal walking euro-trip like I did last weekend in Madrid – this seems like a good way to spent the time that I’m currently unable to spend on the road.

It also gives me time to plan my next epic adventure – as the new year dawns on 2017, I’m off. Asia once again calls. So, for now, I’m going to enjoy my down time with as few sulks as possible. I’m going to focus on my health, get my knee strong, write all those travel articles I’ve ever promised (do remind me if I’ve promised you one) and take life’s advice to stop travelling.

At least for a little while.

What’s the worst travel setback you’ve had to deal with? Any tips for satisfying your wanderlust when you can’t actually wander? Let me know in the comments below. 

By the way, that’s not my knee x-ray above. I feel just that bit less queasy knowing the picture is of someone else!

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Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.