Tag Archives: roller derby leg injury

Adventures with Internal Fixators – there IS life after ORIF!

If you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably a roller derby athlete and/or a runner with a broken leg. At least, that’s my hope. Wait, allow me to rephrase that! I don’t wish broken limbs on anybody – but if you’re already broken, then you’re likely searching the web for tales of other skaters or runners who have been bolted back together. You want to know what your future with your newly bionic leg looks like. You want to know if you’ll skate or run or jump rope again. You’re probably even wondering whether to throw out all your high heels. You have questions! I may have answers.

I found myself in similar circumstances in June of 2007, when my left tibia/fibula shattered in 11 places. You can read about it here. Long story short: I have 2 plates, 17 screws & a stabilizing rod in my left ankle/calf. Due to the severity of the damage to both bones, none of that jazz can ever come out. I know some folks who have had plates or screws removed later in life, but this is what I’m working with for the long haul.




My surgeon said that I’d probably always walk with a bit of a limp, that running was out of the question & that I certainly wouldn’t be able to play derby anymore. Looking back on it now, I think he was intentionally challenging me to prove him wrong.  It worked. I played derby for 5 more years and have run two half-marathons and countless shorter races since. I’ll never be a pogo stick champion and I’ll always be able to tell you when the weather’s about to get cold, but overall, I’m a better athlete now than I was before I was injured.

It’s been nearly 7 years since my surgery, so I feel like I have a pretty decent grasp by now on what works and what doesn’t for recovery and beyond.  Your mileage will vary, obviously, depending on your pain threshold and willingness to work beyond it.  My observations:

While you’re still in your wheelchair or on crutches:

  • Take your pain pills on schedule, but only as long as you have to.  Try alternative therapy if you can. There are plenty of natural pain relievers that won’t damage your body the way that NSAIDs and opioids can.
  • Sleep as much as humanly possible, then sleep some more – your body needs so much more sleep when it’s trying to heal.  Your body also heals much more quickly if it’s not full of alcohol or crappy food, so don’t crawl into a bottle of whiskey like I did or eat your bodyweight in french fries.
  • Stay active so your general fitness level doesn’t slide completely off the rails. Unless you also have an upper body injury, you can lift weights while seated or lying down.  Here’s the series I did during the three months where I was allowed to put zero weight on my left leg:

Seated: front and lateral arm raises, alternating hammer curls, single-arm concentration curls, overhead press, overhead tricep extension, bent over rows and bent over flyes

Lying on back on a yoga mat or bench: chest press, flyes, alternating rows, pullovers, isometric straight-arm holds

  • Start a journal or blog if you’re not keeping one already.  Write about your entire experience while it’s fresh in your mind. You’ll someday be a completely different person than you are at this stage in your injury, and your story will motivate and inspire others if you choose to share it.
  • Stay involved with your league if you intend to return to derby. Volunteer as an NSO, brainstorm sponsorship opportunities, take notes for coaches on the sidelines.  Even when it’s hard emotionally to watch others get to skate when you cannot, please know that you are setting a good example as a productive member of your league.  You’re still making a difference.  If you were an “I just want to skate” type before, maybe it’s time to rethink that mindset.
  • Now’s a good time to finish that book (and start a new series) or to learn how to crochet. Treat this less active time as a way to exercise your brain. You won’t get quite the same endorphin rush as a tempo run or a scrimmage, but your synapses will fire a lot harder if you’re doing something productive with them.

When you’re back on your feet (and you WILL be):

  • If you have the time/money/insurance to devote to physical therapy, I highly recommend it.  If you are more of a DIY kind of athlete, then schedule your rehab exercises into your calendar and treat them  like they’re PT appointments that cannot be missed. Yes, it’s boring and unpleasant, but rebuilding your balance and strength is crucial to preventing compensatory muscle imbalances (that can jack with your kinetic chain for years to come).
  • Single leg barefoot balance exercises are great for restoring your balance on foot, which will get you back on skates faster.  (As soon as I can get somebody to take some pictures for me, I’ll post a balance workout that can be used to improve anybody’s single-leg strength and stability)
  • Strengthen your core.  Not just your abs, but your hips too – your hips are part of your lumbo-pelvic hip complex (LPHC), the group of  29 muscles that make up your true core – where your center of gravity is located and where all movement originates (and in derby, it’s your wrecking ball). Weak hips will increase your risk for knee and (more) ankle injuries, and your kinetic chain is already working at a disadvantage now that your muscles/tendons/ligaments have to reform around foreign matter.  I recommend bridges, planks, hip abduction (I lay on my side and do Jane Fonda-style leg lifts) and hip extension (supermans and scorpions factor heavily into my core workouts).

Returning to skating:

Since my injury, I’ve seen many skaters come back faster than I did, and I am always impressed at those who can flip that switch in their brain again so quickly.  You know – the one that takes us from mortal to human wrecking ball. If you’ve been broken, you know that switch doesn’t flip as easily anymore.  That is completely okay.  Let me repeat that.  IT IS OKAY TO BE SCARED TO PLAY DERBY AGAIN. It is wise to have a certain degree of fear/caution, because it helps you protect yourself as you heal.

Hopefully, your orthopedic specialist understands enough about your sport to have given you a realistic timeframe on when you can return to derby. (I give bout tickets to all of my doctors/trainers/PTs so they can see exactly what we do). My surgeon prescribed a month of non-contact skating before letting me jump back into contact.  I had been so impatient to get back to blocking, but I found that I needed another four months for my scars to heal before I could stomach getting kicked in them.  I reffed until I found myself craving a solid hip check. My league was very cool about letting me jump back into drills at practice when I was ready.

Talk to your trainers (and your doc and PT) when you’re ready so everyone understands where you are physically and mentally. Honest communication keeps expectations reasonable on both sides of that equation.

Returning to contact:

  • Getting kicked in the plates HURTS. I wore a neoprene brace for about a year – not because I felt it was protecting me from further damage (that metal isn’t going anywhere), but for the cushioning it provided in my skate boot and the extra layer of protection against contact to my scars and hardware.
  • Your metal ankle needs to warm up before you start skating.  Do an active off-skates warm-up that includes some ankle circles, pointing and flexing, etc.  Repeat these with your skates on, rolling on your good foot while you roll your bionic ankle around to let it get used to the weight of your skate.
  • Inflammation is normal – for over a year, my metal ankle became a cankle every time I worked out. All of those soft tissues are still trying to settle around the new hardware. Ice, anti-inflamatories and elevation are absolutely the best ways to hand this  Going to the bar with your teammates after practice will not help. Go home and take care of yourself. Sleep.
  • If you have nerve damage, some of that stuff is going to eventually reroute and wake up in unpleasant ways.  Buzzing, tingling, burning and throbbing are all normal. About 4 years after my surgery, I developed a neuroma near the bottom of the inner plate.  It was basically just an angry little ball of hate that would bring me to my knees if you whispered near it. I experimented with a topical prescription numbing cream, got a few unspeakably unpleasant cortisone shots and eventually had a cobbler cut the side of my Reidell 395 low enough so that it didn’t rub Hateball.
The inner ankle of the left skate is cut low enough to fit below the implanted metal.

The inner ankle of the left skate is cut low enough to fit below the implanted metal

Speaking of skates:

Your boot may not feel right anymore, and styles you coveted before may be wrong for you now.  I thought Antiks would help support my ankle, but the high collar was excruciating. I had limited success with a Reidell 195, but the super-low ankles combined with my narrow heels made me curl my toes too much to try to grip, especially on crossovers (I jammed myself right out of my left skate once – so weird to adjust mid-crossover to having one sock foot). What eventually worked for me: Bonts. Oh, how I adore my Bonts. They’re like running shoes with wheels attached.


Speaking of shoes:

I had to rethink footwear after my surgery.  Range of motion is limited in my ankle and every degree of angle change equates to more strain on my metal.

  • Stilettos and narrow, tall heels are out for me now, as they’re not stable enough.  However, I have had excellent luck with Pink and Pepper heels – they have a wide base and stable ankle straps. Wedges are a better choice, but honestly, flats are probably going to feel better from now on. Whichever heel height you’re comfortable with, a cushioned insert can help absorb some of the impact you’ll feel  on the metal.
  • Running shoes were also a trial and error experience for me – it’s hard to find shoe salespeople who are familiar with the special needs of the bionic runner. (I really should look into product testing for shoe companies – I think I’d be a good candidate and I could write reviews that might help other athletes)  I used to be a minimalist runner, but my old Adida Adizeros and Nike Free didn’t have enough padding to absorb impact.  Nike Lunarglide was a better choice, but my favorite shoe so far has been the Hoka Bondi. I plan to write a review on these shoes later this month.  The extra cushioning absorbs impact, which means I can run farther and faster without pain. I am actually able to sprint in these, and I never thought I’d sprint again!
Hoka Bondi B is like running on fluffy clouds

Hoka Bondi B is like running on fluffy clouds

Returning to running:

As with skating, returning to running was a slow process for me. Single-leg balance exercises helped strengthen my atrophied muscles, but it took awhile to get used to the sensation of impact.  For the first half mile, I can tell you exactly where every screw is, particularly on cold mornings.  An active warm-up routine (instead of static stretching) before you run helps tremendously.  Build mileage slowly and ice after you run.

Other adventures – what works for me:

  • Yoga has been one of the best things to ever happen to post-surgery me.  Yoga helped me restore my physical balance, gave me an emotional outlet for my frustration and made me more aware of what my body was capable of doing if I focused my energy.
  • An elliptical is a fantastic low-impact way to get your cardio in as long as you’re not on autopilot. Sprint intervals are more comfortable on an elliptical than a track when you have internal fixators.  I like setting the ramp on mine to the highest incline so that it becomes a stair-stepper.  (I miss climbing stairs with my travel teammates, but my knees can’t take the impact these days)
  • Swimming and water running: I spent a lot of my recovery time in my mom’s pool, walking through the water or running while wearing a floatation belt. (okay, it was my kid’s alligator floatie. Don’t judge.)

What’s not as fun for me now:

  • Crossfit (I KNOW) and anything with heavy plyometrics. I can jump rope, but it hurts. I can still do squat jumps and box jumps, but I land harder on my right foot to offset impact.
  • Tennis (side-to-side, quick movements aren’t friendly to rigid ankles)
  • Bottom line: You have to decide how much you’re comfortable hurting.  If you’ve made it this far in your recovery, you’re probably pretty good at handling pain by now. Challenge your limits, but don’t beat yourself up if you move more slowly than you used to or can’t lift as much as before. You’re moving, and that’s pretty damn awesome.


Many thanks to you if you’ve made it through this ramble!  Please feel free to ask me any questions about recovery/rehabilitation and whatnot. I’ll answer them in Life After ORIF Part II: Mom of Steel. I’ll also address some specific derby concerns, like re-learning to snowplow with limited range of motion.  I’ll also talk about getting tattoos on top of scars/hardware, since that’s an adventure in itself.



Gather ‘round, kids, and I shall tell you the tale of the PyroBot. Don’t worry, this book has pictures and the sentences are short. (Well, shorter, anyway. By the fifth revision, I remembered that verbosity is part of my charm – which is code for “F it, I am what I am.”)

Once upon a time (6 years ago on this day, to be precise), there was a skater named Pyro. In 10 blissful months with ACRD she’d skated off 60 pounds, become co-captain of her hometeam and was finally starting to feel like a productive member of her travel team. She still had a long way to go, but basically, everything was coming up Milhouse.

I'm either calling the jam or doing the Funky Chicken.  Hard to say.

I’m either calling off the jam or doing the Funky Chicken. Hard to say.

Our hapless (but never helpless) heroine was jamming at practice when a low block shattered her left tibia/fibula in 11 places. She kept a brave face as they waited for the EMTs, reassuring teammates that she was doing just dandy (“I’m not in shock, I’m just pissed off!”) and cracking dirty jokes until the ambulance doors closed. Then the tears started. In that moment she realized she was going to miss more than just next week’s bout, and the reality of that hurt even more than the floppy leg.

That sound the cans make?  My leg kind of sounded like that!

Crash! There goes reality and PBR all over the floor.

Five looooong (seriously LONG) days later, Pyro became PyroBot. Dr. Clinton Bell did an impressive job of reassembling her, installing 2 plates, 17 screws and a stabilizing rod. He also did a great job of being cute as a button.


Metal detectors and MRI tubes are my sworn enemies.

Pyro spent the first month in a wheelchair. There wasn’t much to do in her wheelchair besides drink. So Pyro drank a lot.

It's hard to tell if you've had too much to drink if you don't have to walk a straight line.

It’s hard to tell if you’ve had too much to drink if you don’t have to walk a straight line.

Pyro’s entire life kind of imploded at this point, but she was lucky to have the support and love of good friends who were there for her through some rough patches.

Eileen Left's other arm is in a sling, but she still pushed me around all night.

Eileen Left’s other arm is in a sling, but she still pushed me around all night.

After another three months on crutches and a final month in a walking boot, Pyro was finally cleared for physical therapy. She was told she’d probably always walk with a limp and that she would never skate the same way she used to.

Then Pyro found yoga.

Outfit not recommended for bikram yoga.

Outfit not recommended for bikram yoga.

Yoga restored her balance in every sense of the word. Her flexibility and strength returned. She became braver, calmer, and happier. She drank less. She smiled more. She laced up her skates when she was cleared, but pain and fear kept her from contact for 4 months. She didn’t want to quit, though. She became PyRef.


And she track managed for awesome teams.




Oops, I'm trying to ref instead of coaching.

Oops, I’m trying to ref instead of coaching.

Then a funny thing happened – the fear faded and the pain became easier to tune out. Pyro started bumping skaters at practice instead of blowing her whistle. She skated for travel team again, soon becoming co-captain and eventually captain. She joined a hometeam – an amazing group who challenged her to work harder and become a better skater than she ever was before the injury. She even played co-ed derby, which she LOVED.




Pyro soon began to run again, and the last of that limp disappeared – along with the last of her drinking days. She entered as many 5Ks as she could, then set her sights higher. Pyro never ran farther than 8 miles at once before her injury, but after becoming Pyrobot she ran 2 half-marathons and a 15K within 4 months. Once she was able to use her legs again the way they were meant to be used, she never wanted to stop.



Spending so much time with physical therapists inspired Pyro to hire a personal trainer – then eventually become a trainer herself. She focused on corrective and rehabilitative exercise so she could help her friends heal from their injuries, too. She discovered that muscle not only provided a protective layer to help prevent injuries – it looked damn good too.


And that, my darlings, is how a girl who thought her world was ending turned it around into something far better than she could’ve ever imagined. It took time and hard work and it hurt a lot. But she came out on the other side stronger, wiser and with the understanding that every challenge is just an opportunity to prove her mettle. Now her mission is to help others see that no matter what they are going through, this too shall pass and life will be amazing again. It won’t happen overnight and you’ll have to work to make it happen, but it will happen.