Spaghetti. That’s what my leg felt like when I tried to put pressure on it. Overcooked spaghetti. I knew my knee was fucked but I didn’t know yet that my whole life was about to change.
But let’s hit the rewind button. It was a beautiful spring day in Hondarribia, the picturesque town nestled in the Basque Country on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. My parents were leaving in the morning to go back home to Germany after staying with me for three weeks. I said “see you in a few days” as my basketball season in Spain was nearing its end. It had been a frustrating one with little success both as a team and individually and a coach who took the love out of the game that I loved so dearly. Our last home game was scheduled later on that day, a rare Wednesday evening game. Feeling low on energy and a bit out of it, I tried to take a nap, gave up on it, took a shower, put on my uniform, fixed my hair, and drove to the gym as I had done countless times before. Another day, another dollar.
The outcome of the game was irrelevant and we all just wanted to get it over with. Two more games and four more days until the much needed break. I started the game, didn’t play well but not terrible and got subbed out after a few minutes. The coach made a passive-aggressive comment and I threw one right back at him. We had that dysfunctional dynamic down to a tee. To say that we didn’t understand or like each other would be an understatement. I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t play for the rest of the first half and didn’t start the second half. At some point in the second half, he pointed down the bench and asked me if I was ready. “Sure, whatever.” Within less than two minutes of being back in the game, I found myself in the middle of a bunch of players, all of us fighting for the rebound close to the basket. Before I could get my hands on the ball, someone jumped into my left leg, causing it to hyper-extend. I felt something crack, went down and held my knee. I don’t remember if I cried or screamed but I remember that it took a few moments for someone to notice that I wasn’t getting up and needed help. Then the overcooked spaghetti sensation. When I sat down on the bench, the team doctor gave me some ibuprofen and an ice bag. That was it. Muchas fucking gracias.
I sat there quietly with tears dripping down my face as I watched my knee swell up to the size of a volleyball, the pain becoming more intense as the adrenaline faded. I wasn’t hysterical but the complete lack of color in my face must have shown my level of distress. My teammate’s jaw dropped when she saw my ghostly grimace and yelled at the doctor to give me something for the pain. He promptly rammed a shot into my arm, which felt warm and fuzzy for a second but I don’t think it brought any real relief. Due to a Spanish superstition that touching crutches will make you the next one to get hurt, it took a while to get me up on my one functioning leg after the game was over. On the way to the my teammate’s Ford Focus (the “ambulance”), I repeatedly heard “que no sea nada” – I hope it’s nothing serious. They all meant well but I knew better. I had tasted the spaghetti. No bueno.
My two closest friends on the team (the “paramedics”) tried to be positive but anticipated that it would be a long night so we did what any group of elite athletes would do and stopped at the McDonald’s drive-through on the way to the hospital. Upon arrival at the hospital, an x-ray brought a quick diagnosis: tibial plateau fracture, which is a fancy term for a broken knee. The head surgeon, who had successfully fixed up my teammate with a similar injury (but a much less severe version as it it turned out) was out of town for a few days so they put my whole leg in a cast. My teammates took me home to their place (best paramedics ever!), where I made a few phone calls and had a restless night. Have you ever tried sleeping with a broken knee?
The surgery was scheduled for early the next week and it was supposed to be as simple as mending the fracture with the help of a small plate and one or two screws, just like it had previously been done for my teammate, who made a full and fast recovery. Easy peasy. With the rest of the team getting ready for the last game of the season, I was mostly alone during the days leading up to the surgery. I survived on frozen pizzas, built myself a handicap friendly shower with a plastic patio chair, and spent a lot of time talking to friends and family. During one of those conversations, I joked with a good friend from New York that she should come hang out with me since she wasn’t tied down by anything at that time. That good friend was my former college coach Sue Wicks. I was full of gratitude when she asked me a few minutes later what airline to book with. Then I realized that I had to get a bed ready for her – on one leg. Turns out that crutches are multipurpose devices and excellent for pulling off sheets and dragging laundry baskets around the apartment.
I chose to be awake during the surgery. I’d had multiple surgeries before and preferred a spinal block over general anesthesia. (A spinal block means that you’re numb from the waist down. They also give you a light sedative so that you don’t get too freaked out by the noises [they’re not unlike those coming from a construction zone], the blood, and the generally unpleasant ambience in the operating room.) I enjoyed it in a weird way because it appealed to my scientific curiosity to be an observer instead of sleeping through it all. I enjoyed it until I felt the surgeon drill into my leg. He was on the fourth or fifth screw (yeah, I know, whatever happened to a couple of screws and a tiny plate?) when I felt a burning sensation as I watched the drill bore into my leg on a monitor. They must have knocked me out after I alerted them that I was in pain because the next thing I remember is opening my eyes in a wake up room. Hours later, after settling into my airy, private hospital room, the surgeon paid me a visit to let me know how it went. He nonchalantly told me that it all took a bit longer because they had to deal with my torn up meniscus and cartilage before even getting to the fracture. The x-ray in his hand showed eight screws. That’s four times more than planned but no one seemed to give a fuck about that minor detail. No one but me.
The scar was huge with 20 to 30 staples and my leg felt as if it weighed at least a thousand pounds. It sucked. Just when I was busy wallowing in self-pity, Sue walked into my room. For about a week, we laughed a lot, often so much that it would make my knee hurt more than it already did. One of my favorite memories is watching Vicky, Christina, Barcelona. It’s fascinating how much the way you experience a movie depends on who you watch it with. Let’s just say I had a significantly better time watching it with Sue than with my mom.
Despite her strong dislike for flying, my mom got on a plane a few days after Sue left. She couldn’t let her baby suffer alone. Days and weeks passed with home-cooked food, playing scrabble (I didn’t stand a chance), doctor’s appointments, and spending time with the few people from the team that stayed in Hondarribia. It was as good a time as it could have been. My mom put on a brave face through it all, never letting me see how much it upset her to see me hobble around like a bird with broken wings. The curtain fell on her bravery when, finally back in Germany seven weeks after my accident, doctors told me that the spanish repair job on my knee was no bueno and that I needed a do-over. The color on my mom’s face was not unlike mine when sitting on the bench with a freshly shattered bone.
It became clear that I didn’t only need a new set of hardware in my leg but also a new life. “If you want to get up and down stairs when you’re 40, you should hang up the sneakers.” I could tell that the doctors hated saying that to me. They live to get people back onto the court, not to crush their hoop dreams. As logical as the decision was to walk away from my sport, it took balls to do it – more balls than going trough a grueling rehab in a desperate attempt to play again. Rehab sucks but it’s easy at the same time – the grind, the pain, the long hours in the weight room, it’s what you know as an athlete. What you don’t know, what you have no clue about, is how to reinvent yourself in the real world, with real problems, and real bills to pay, always having to explain to people why you aren’t playing anymore, why you gave up on your dream. With the help of a fantastic support system I navigated the unknown waters and here I am, 6 years later. Katja, the basketball player, no longer exists but instead there’s Katja, the engineer, skier, dog mommy, wife, crossfitter, writer, woodworker, and forever a baller.
When life gives you spaghetti, whip up some meatballs.