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Physical therapy helped me recover from injury

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Walking down the stairs is an easy task and something people do every day. Most people avoid causing themselves great injury as they navigate stairways at home, work or thousands of other locations.

On July 12, 2017, at my home in Fairfield, California, the simple task of walking down the stairs met an extremely painful end. I was carrying a 32-inch TV and thought I was at the last step. Unfortunately, I wasn’t, and when I went to step on what I thought was the floor, all I caught was air.

I fell for a few seconds in what seemed like slow motion. All I thought about while I was falling was, “This isn’t going to be good, and make sure you save the TV.”

I fell to the bottom of the stairway landing with all my weight, more than 200 pounds, on my right foot causing me to roll my ankle in an inverted fashion.

“Ahhhhhh!” I screamed. The TV fell to the floor.

My 9-year-old daughter ran down the stairs to see if I was OK. As I sat there rubbing my injured foot, she hugged me and got me an ice pack. I told her I was going to be fine and everything was going to be all right.

A few moments later, I tried to walk to the couch and realized something was wrong. I could barely put any weight on my right foot and could only move around by hopping on my left leg.

Hours later, I was in the emergency room at David Grant USAF Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base, California. Doctors told me I suffered an ankle sprain after initial reviews of my X-rays didn’t show any breaks. I was fitted for a walking boot and released. 

A week later, I met with Dr. (Capt.) Chelsey Villanueva, 60th Medical Group Family Health Clinic physician. At that appointment, I learned my injury was worse than originally thought, as further review of my X-rays showed I suffered a cuboid avulsion fracture.

The cuboid bone is one of the seven tarsal bones located on the lateral side of the foot. It’s cube- shaped and connects the foot and the ankle. An avulsion fracture occurs when a bony attachment of a muscle cracks the bone such that the end of the tendon is dangling with a piece of the bone.

Basically, one of the tendons in my right foot pulled away from the cuboid bone with so much force, it tore a piece of the bone off.

“Way to go,” I thought to myself.

In January, I set a goal of running another marathon. However, work and life seemed to always find a way to hinder my training.

“How long will it be until I’m back to 100 percent?” I asked.

“It’ll likely be awhile,” answered Villanueva. “You suffered a serious injury, and it’s going to take some time to heal.”

So long marathon.

I was fitted with a cast, issued crutches and advised to stay off my right foot for up to six weeks.  Getting around on crutches was difficult. Performing simple tasks like going from my car to the office with my morning coffee was quite a challenge. I learned how to carry my coffee in my left hand, secure my crutches under my arms and hop on my left foot to move forward. Thankfully, some of my co-workers often saw me struggling and offered to carry my coffee to my desk.

Over the next five weeks, I crutched myself into work, to my kid’s gymnastics and martial arts classes, up and down the stairs in my house and everywhere else. It didn’t take long for me to loathe having to use crutches. I missed the freedom I had before. I missed having the ability to walk wherever I wanted or run if I chose to do so. I couldn’t wait to get my cast off.

On Aug. 25, my cast was removed and doctors conducted an evaluation of my right foot. The evaluation brought good and bad news. The good was my cuboid bone had healed and I could stand and walk. The bad was since my right foot was in a cast for so long, it lost much of the strength, mobility and stability it had before.

In November, I reported to the Physical Therapy Clinic at DGMC to get my foot back to full strength. During my first training session, I spent more than an hour working with Master Sgt. James Mallard Jr., 60th Medical Operations Squadron Physical and Occupational Therapy Clinic flight chief.

Mallard had me warm-up by walking on a treadmill, followed by some ladder drills, jump rope and then he had me run for 15-minutes on an Anti-Gravity Treadmill. It felt so good to run, even if it was only for a little while. I kept increasing the speed and at one point, I was running at 8 mph.

The Anti-Gravity Treadmill takes on a portion of an individual’s weight making it easier for patients recovering from knee, ankle and foot injuries to build up the strength necessary for running. On that first day, the machine was carrying 25 percent of my body weight.

I really enjoyed working with Mallard too. He explained how every maneuver was supposed to be performed, answered any question I had and made me feel comfortable. I felt like he cared about my recovery as much as I did and I feel the same way about everyone who works in the PT clinic.

More than 20 professionals work in the clinic including physical therapists, occupational therapists and nearly a dozen physical medicine technicians. They’re a team of amazing people who’ve encountered more than 13,000 patients in 2017. If those numbers sound impressive, it’s because they are.

 According to Mallard, the clinic’s average daily inpatient workload is approximately 55 percent greater than any other Air Force military treatment facility. The clinic overall is the second busiest PT facility in the Air Force.

 At my second therapy session, I met Senior Airman Qubilah Lambert, 60th MDOS physical medicine technician. Our session started out similar to my first with a quick warm-up, stretching, running on the Anti-Gravity Treadmill and concluded with jumping rope.

 Eventually our training session had to end, which was news I didn’t want to hear. I wanted to keep training and I told Lambert that.

“We have to stop Sir,” she said. “My next patient is here.”

“No,” I replied. “Let’s keep going. We can’t be done yet.”

 I enjoyed working with Lambert because she was challenging me. She had me jump rope for 30 seconds multiple times and I felt my foot getting stronger. I was dripping sweat, but stopping was not on my to-do list.

“I’m sorry, Sir,” said Lambert with a smile.

 Reluctantly, I walked over to my water bottle, took a sip and scanned the room. I saw several people working on some form of physical rehabilitation. Some were recovering from knee injuries, others were dealing with back problems and one man was rehabbing his right shoulder. I realized all of them needed the same attention and care as I did, and despite how much I wanted to be selfish and work with Lambert exclusively, others needed her help.

Later, I learned Lambert loves her job, the impact she has and even the time she spent working with me.

“I like helping people get better,” she said. “It’s very rewarding. I get to see my work and how I affect people. Someone may come in and can barely walk. By the time they’re done, they’re back to walking, jumping and running again. I enjoy being a part of that.”

 Lambert said before PT technicians work with patients, a careful review is conducted of each patient’s treatment plan.

“I review my notes the day before I work with each patient,” she said. “Physical therapy has four stages. With the first stage, we want to get rid of pain. Second is to restore range of motion. Third is to gain strength and fourth is to restore functionality, which is what we’re working on with you.

“When I told you I had to go, you were like, ‘What? We’re just getting started.’ I felt bad because I knew you were motivated and wanted to work. I wanted to keep working with you, but I wasn’t able to.”

At my next session, I met Staff Sgt. Christian Taylor, 60th MDOS physical medicine technician and a certified personal trainer.

Taylor took me through a series of exercises and even heard me singing military cadence while I was running on the treadmill. I often sing to myself as a way to stay motivated.

“You were very motivated and fun to work with,” said Taylor. “From singing to reminiscing on your football days with the ladder drills. One moment that stuck out for me was when you asked to increase the body weight while running on the (Anti-Gravity) treadmill. That stood out to me because it showed you’re improving and looking forward to getting better.”

Helping people is something Taylor said he enjoys.

“Helping patients progress through their journey of therapy is the greatest aspect of my job,” he said. “Seeing people get back to doing things they were unable to do prior to therapy due to an injury is very rewarding.”

Taylor has provided care for nearly 1,800 patients in 2017.

“I’ve worked with a wide variety of patients,” he said. “I had one patient who was in a motorcycle accident. He broke both arms and a leg and also injured his spine causing neurological damage. I’m very proud to see how far (he has come) and how far all my patients have come.

“I’m proud because they can return to doing what makes them happy. A few patients I worked with have been depressed because they were unable to play sports or even run. Knowing I had an impact and did my best to get them to reach their goals is everything to me and why I love this job.”

The PT clinic provides a range of services including orthopedic post-op care, joint and soft tissue mobilization, therapeutic exercise, neuromuscular re-education and gait training. Services are available to active-duty service members, reservists, national guardsmen, retired service members, veterans and military family members on a space-available basis.

I’m so thankful to the entire PT team. Thanks to them, I’m now able to run pain-free. Marathon number seven, here I come.