Lea Andresen is a handball player from Germany, currently studying at the University of Kiel, who due to an unfortunate series of sporting injuries had to have five surgeries by 22 years old.
In this piece, Lea charts the long journey from her first surgery in 2018 through to today, detailing the mental impact that came alongside the physical challenges of these injuries, and the advice and conclusions she's drawn to support others in the recovery process.
The smell of wet grass, dirt and sweat off my soccer shoes. The horse hair all over my riding trousers. The sound of bouncing balls. The squeaking of trainers on the gym floor. My childhood and teenage years are best described by these lasting impressions. I’ve always been a sports person - more specifically a team sports person. Soccer, Volleyball, Handball – team sports of any kind – I loved them! I still do, but now I simply appreciate them much more.
I first heard of an ACL knee surgery when I was 16. A teammate of mine injured herself in a game and didn’t return until one year later, wearing a soft brace and very afraid of physical contact during practice. This is very inconvenient in a sport like handball, unless you are the goalkeeper like I am, whose role is to prohibit players to throw the ball into the goal. Standing in the 6m zone, that only I am allowed to enter, it is a pretty safe environment compared to what my teammates go through on the field.
One evening practice in late October 2018 I jumped, lifted my right leg to the side and spread my arms wide to make a save. When I landed on my left foot, right leg still up in the air, I felt like it was collapsing under my weight. It was a horrifying sensation - one I’ll never forget. It hurt so much that I screamed loudly enough that the whole gym stood still for a moment looking in my direction. I was helped to the side to elevate and ice it, but I still couldn’t walk to my grandpas car to go the emergency room. After further imaging over the following weeks I was given the diagnosis: That day I had torn my ACL and meniscus.
After finding the best surgeon in my state, I had surgery in December – seven days prior do my 18th birthday. Unfortunately, I didn’t react too well to the anaesthesia and it took me about two weeks to stop feeling extremely weak. To this day, I have very little recollection of this time. The bruising on the back of my leg was also horribly painful because of the hamstring graft I'd received. In hindsight the recovery was also a bit messy, which I didn’t fully appreciate at the time (I wasn't the self-proclaimed expert I am today!).
After more than five months post-op, I still had issues with extension - much longer than is expected after a hamstring graft. It turned out I had resulting scar tissue which needed to be removed in the Summer of 2019. After that my Range Of Motion (ROM) was fine, but I still had to work up my tolerance for walking, running and even sitting before flying to Australia for my gap year. It took a lot of work, but after about one year post ACL surgery I was feeling confident again and upon my return home I was fully cleared to return to playing handball! Despite the pandemic, I found a team, got back in shape, started university and lived my life. Everything was fine.
One year later, I got to try tackle football; a sport I've always enjoyed watching. Actually playing it was love at first sight - it's like I was born to be a wide receiver. I hadn’t enjoyed myself as much as I did on that field - running, cutting, catching - for a long time. A week after I bought all the necessary safety equipment, I caught a pass running to the left and shortly after felt a hit coming. I braced myself and tried to work against my opponent, but I wasn’t strong enough. We both went down, but my cleats held my lower left leg in the direction I was running, while my upper body got twisted due to the hit.
I can’t remember If I was screaming - all I know is that I was angry. Angry at everyone and no one - but mostly angry with myself. I felt a lot of self-pity, even though the emergency medics were super friendly and did everything they could to cheer me up. They told me that it didn't necessarily have to be another ACL injury, but I knew. The sensation - that feeling of bone-on-bone contact - once you’ve felt it, you know. I still get shivers thinking about it.
In the emergency room they couldn’t do much for me. They did an x-ray to rule out fractures, taped me up and referred me to their in-house orthopaedic surgeon. The surgeon, after looking at my MRI scans, told me I was fine - my knee was only bruised and most importantly my ACL was still intact! I took a couple of weeks off, went on a camping trip to Sweden and returned to practice. I felt lucky, I'd come out of this fight with just a black eye (or knee in my case). I wish it was that easy.
Back in practice I wore the brace I'd gotten after my ACL reconstruction, but my knee was giving out nevertheless. No matter how little force I put into cutting – it hurt every time. What I didn’t know back then was it was my bones slamming into each other. As it wouldn’t go away, I eventually contacted the radiologist that had done my MRI scan and requested the report, and even though I had no medical knowledge whatsoever I could make out the words: ‘partial rupture of the ACL-reconstruction’. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. How is this possible? And how did a trained professional not see or ignore this?!
21 days later, in August 2021, I had my third knee surgery. This time I did everything I could to make sure nothing like this would ever happen again (third times a charm, right?). When I tell you I was the perfect patient – I was. I did all the exercises, rested and consistently went to the gym to regain my strength. I even sold my tackle football pads and helmet, saying farewell to the sport I had just learned to love so dearly. I did everything right, until about six months in, when I executed just one jumping exercise wrong. My legs were tired and I slipped. While I didn’t think much of it, from then on, I started having symptoms again similar to when I had the scar tissue issue all the way back in 2019. My extension began to worsen and my ability to sit for long periods at a time vanished.
At my 6 month post-op visit my surgeon told me I'd re-torn my meniscus. I was at a loss and the mental toll that ACL rehab had on me was nothing compared to what was to come. After overcoming one of the biggest adversities in an athlete’s life, twice - after enlisting for an official 10km run in September to celebrate what I’d accomplished - I got this diagnosis, and undergoing the necessary surgery in March 2022, meant losing all the progress I'd made to date. It meant having to walk on crutches again. It meant not knowing whether rehab is going to work out for me this time – again. It even meant maybe losing a major part of my meniscus; lowering the age I’ll potentially get arthritis at significantly (keeping in mind I’m only 21 at this point).
The day of the surgery, I didn’t know whether they could save my meniscus or not, and after waking up from the anaesthetic and hearing the nurses say that they were organising a brace for me, I was very worried. However, when it turned out they were able to save most of my meniscus, I started crying tears of joy! This was a great result both for the short and long run. The immediate consequence was I had to walk on crutches for three weeks and wear a brace for six, therefore loosing every gram of muscle mass I had so desperately fought for in the past six months. This time, however, I regained my strength much faster, and started oncemore into the "perfect" rehab.
Only that it wasn’t perfect; in fact, I was feeling terrible. There was no joy in mastering the rehab exercises with what felt like ease. At this time, I developed a high functional depression. I could do my exercises, go to physiotherapy, maybe even study for a few hours a week, but it was unbelievably tiresome. I couldn’t get excited for myself and all the awesome accomplishments I was having during rehab and outside of it. I couldn’t see myself playing handball ever again, and even officially left my team, which was very painful, as it was the last bit of identity I was hanging on to.
I was deeply hurt and it took a fair amount of work with a professional sport psychologist to get back on track. Back then I deeply planted a new mantra into my mind: "Focus on what you CAN control. Ask yourself: Can you change it and can you do so without harming yourself more than you benefit from it? If the answer is “no” – why bother?"
I was still determent to run the 10km, but had not taken a single step faster than a brisk walk with only six weeks till the event. No one believed I'd make it - not my physiotherapist, not my surgeon, not my family - but I did it. Within six weeks I went from running for the first time to completing a 10km in 62 minutes in September. An accomplishment that was all mine and the result of the tremendous amount of work I’d put into my rehab. I’m still so proud of myself - I defeated all the odds - I did that.
But as time went on I started to do something else - I began ignoring new symptoms that emerged. My knee was fine during all exercises, but being stationary, especially with a bent knee was my worst enemy. No matter how much activity I had the days prior, standing up after a lecture was torture. I couldn’t straighten my leg - I had to physically force it straight. Pushing it until I heard the satisfying and simultaneously very painful "pop'. At my next doctor's visit I saw the most worrying look I'd seen on a medical professional’s face: cluelessness. He didn't know what was going on. The MRI didn’t show anything. Maybe it was scar tissue? Maybe the meniscus re-fixation had failed? The only way to know more was to do an arthroscopy of the knee to look inside, which I had in November 2022.
This time I had even less of a clue what was going to happen during the surgery. It turns out this time it was only scar tissue once again, which was a relief as I would be allowed to walk out of the hospital without crutches, and only resting for a few weeks to give my knee time to recover after surgery (great news after rehabbing consistently for 16 months straight!). But as with everything to date - nothing was easy, and instead of the simple recovery expected, my knee couldn’t handle the stress of surgery and swelled up badly (so much so that I began referring to it as "my little beluga whale"!). I couldn’t properly walk for 11 days, staying in bed most of this time, and this caused me to miss lectures once again, but what felt even worse then this, to lose all the strength that I had so desperately fought to get back. These 11 days were mental hell. It took two appointments to get 130ml of fluid drained, another two weeks to get into a semi-healthy headspace, and three months in total to regain my strength once again and eventually pass the return to sport test.
My Conclusions Today
And this is where I’m at today, February 2023, but my story isn’t over! I have yet to return to handball, but one thing is for sure: I’ll come back stronger than I’ve ever been. This challenge is not one I’ve ever wished for and if I could, I'd choose not having the 1st ACL rupture - but I can’t. So, I’m trying to appreciate how much I’ve grown as a person and as an athlete, despite the adversity. I've found great friendships due to these injuries. I've learned how to deal with adversity and how to use it to become an even better version of myself.
For you that you are reading this, whether you've just gotten an injury diagnosis or you've already gone through something similar, there are a few things I need to tell you:
Do not get discouraged. This is my story. Every rehab is different. Listen to your health care providers and your gut. Educate yourself and if necessary, advocate for yourself.
A support system is very precious. Having someone to talk to, whether that’s a family member, a team mate or a stranger on the internet is very freeing. Even better when they can at least grasp what you are going through. Whether at an early stage or almost back on the field – this rehab will have a mental effect on you. Talk to somebody!
Giving up is an option. This is a sentence I never even thought of, but I could’ve given up, accepted my fate, doing the basics of rehab or no surgery at all, and living an inactive life from now on - but I didn’t. Simply by keeping going I won. No matter how often you fall, if you get up every time – you are still standing. No matter how small the steps – you are still going.
Thank you Lea for sharing this honest piece on your difficult journey with surgeries and rehabilitation, and well done for the powerful resilience you've shown through to today! We wish you the best of luck in the next stage of your journey and hopefully your return to handball! If you'd like to contact Lea or see more from of her recovery journey you can follow her here.
If you're recovering from an injury and would like to access a supportive community during the process, alongside your exercise tracking and management, you can download the free Brace app from our home page to take control of the recovery journey in an empowering and connected way!